How Steve Sarkisian managed an Iron Bowl victory

Things turned out just fine Saturday night. Here’s why.

Thanks to the offensive prowess of interim head coach Steve Sarkisian, Alabama continued its perfect season in a 42-13 win against the Auburn Tigers Saturday night. The Crimson Tide’s offense scored five touchdowns from 20 yards or further and showed Sarkisian’s offensive genius on display.

Last week’s role change came after coach Nick Saban tested positive for the coronavirus for a second time this season. Under isolation, Saban said he was confident that Sarkisian, the team’s offensive coordinator, could bring Alabama to an Iron Bowl victory.

“Sark’s been a head coach for many years and very successful at it,” Saban said at a press conference last week. “He’ll still continue to call the plays, and we won’t really change anything other than the fact that some of the administrative, game-day decisions, he’ll have to be involved in. So, we really will discuss that more. We have discussed it when I went through this three-day hiatus before the Georgia game. We discussed exactly how we’ll do that.”

Sarkisian has spent most of his coaching career at the University of Southern California but has bounced back and forth between Alabama and the Atlanta Falcons the past few years. Saban said Sarkisian’s experience in Atlanta was what got him where he is today.

Sark did a nice job of managing things. I felt a little helpless, but it felt good to get the win. I’m sure there’s a lot we can learn from this game. Each game you play there is more on the line so it is important that you do what you need to do.

— Nick Saban

“We’re excited to get him back,” Saban said. “Based on the body of work, in terms of what our offense has been able to accomplish last year and this year, no one could argue that he’s done a fantastic job.”

Sarkisian’s best work at Alabama is his work with quarterbacks. The run-pass option offense (RPO) gives quarterbacks the ability to spread the field with their playmaking ability. Junior Mac Jones and former quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa have thrived under his system. All three quarterbacks were Heisman contenders during their time at the University. 

Jones, who finished with 302 yards and a career-high five touchdown passes, made sure to compliment Sarkisian after the win tonight. 

“Not having Saban is difficult,” Jones said.” [Saban] did a good job of preparing us for this situation. Talking with him on the sideline [always helps] to calm me down. I think Sark did a good job with what he had. For the most part, things seemed decently normal.”

Saban complimented Sarkisian’s work with quarterbacks and offensive players in general earlier in the week. 

“In terms of developing players, having them well-prepared for the game, inspiring them to play with a lot of effort, toughness discipline – some of the intangible things that it takes – we all probably contribute to that,” Saban said. “I mean everybody on the team tries to contribute to that, every coach on the team. But he does a fantastic job, and I think the body of work really speaks for itself.”

Earlier in the month Jones also said that Sarkisian has been one of the keys to his success. He said that the talent around him and Sarkisian’s play calling makes his job as quarterback easy to do.

After starting the game conservatively, Sarkisian opened the playbook in the second drive, which led to a 66-yard touchdown throw from Mac Jones to DeVonta Smith. A steady combination of alternating run and pass plays ultimately led to Alabama’s domination on the offensive side of the ball. But the most important key for Alabama’s success was Sarkisian’s outside scheme. 

The offense capitalized on the speed from receivers like DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III to make room for a late-game push up the middle from running backs Brian Robinson Jr. and Najee Harris. Harris had his seventh game of over 100 scrimmage yards and Smith had his fifth game with over 140 yards receiving. 

There wasn’t a noticeable difference in the game plan without coach Nick Saban on the field Saturday night. Sarkisian followed the typical offensive and defensive scheme, and Saban said as much in a post-game press conference from his lake house in Tuscaloosa. 

“I think our coaching staff did a marvelous job today,” Saban said. “Sark did a nice job of managing things. I felt a little helpless, but it felt good to get the win. I’m sure there’s a lot we can learn from this game. Each game you play there is more on the line so it is important that you do what you need to do.”

Saban also mentioned that he was glad that there wasn’t a lot of in-game pressure that Sarkisian had to deal with. Since the game was pretty much out of hand in the first half, there weren’t a lot of tough decisions to make for most of the game.

Saban said at the end of his press conference that he feels great. He had complete confidence in his players and coaches because of the values that he instilled in them during their time at the University. Saban could be eligible to return for next week’s game against LSU, but that has yet to be determined. For now, Sarkisian will remain the in-game head coach.

Sophomore linebacker Christian Harris said the team was fired up to play in the Iron Bowl and that the coaching staff did a good job of getting them motivated. 

“Before the game, we were excited, and it sucked to not have Saban there,” Harris said. “But we had to go out there and execute for ourselves and coach Saban.”