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It’s up to Steve Sarkisian to finish Lane Kiffin’s best coaching job in Bama-Clemson

Half of the National Championship depends in part on a coach who started the season planning to be a TV analyst.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Lane Kiffin's final season as USC's offensive coordinator wasn't bad, as far as transition years go. Following the departure of quarterback Matt Leinart and running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White, the Trojans saw their scoring average drop from a transcendent 49 points per game to a mortal 31; their yards per play fell from 7.5 to 5.9.

This was still a good offense, but USC became a more conservative, defense-based team. And if not for a single, late-season dud — a 13-9 loss at UCLA — USC would’ve ended up back in the BCS title game regardless of the turnover.

Kiffin left to take over as the Oakland Raiders' head coach. It was the last semi-orderly departure of his career to date.

Steve Sarkisian had an entire offseason to take over for Kiffin that time. Injuries wrecked the Trojans' title hopes in 2007; quarterback John David Booty missed a few games, including the close loss to Oregon that effectively ended the season. Combined with the loss of star receivers Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, the Trojans had to lean far more on the run. They improved from 43rd to 10th in Rushing S&P+ but sank from eighth to 32nd in Passing S&P+.

This time, the transition has higher stakes and a far shorter timeline. Sarkisian takes over for Kiffin after the new FAU head coach left (or was asked to leave) a week earlier than intended. (In between then and now, he also once replaced Kiffin as USC’s head coach.) In barely four months, Sarkisian has gone from likely FS1 analyst to title game play-caller.

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

We can try to read tea leaves and scour for evidence of potential changes. I could point out that in 2007, USC improved to ninth in Standard Downs S&P+ and fell to 50th in Passing Downs S&P+, and I could conclude Alabama will come out a little more run-heavy on standard downs and even more conservative on passing downs.

But really, not much will change. There's not nearly enough time for overthinking.

Instead, we'll probably see what we've seen all season from Alabama: a relatively balanced attack on standard downs and an emphasis on keeping freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts out of trouble on passing downs.

Offensive Footprint
Team Rk Nat'l Average
Std. Downs Run Rate 61.8% 57 60.2%
Pass Downs Run Rate 42.9% 16 34.6%
Adj. Pace +0.2 61 +0.0
% of Solo Tackles 75.7% 47 74.2%

As important as third downs will be when Clemson has the ball on Monday, you could make an easy case that Alabama's first downs will be equally important.

Clemson's defense has a significant advantage when the pass is involved, and especially when passing downs are involved. The Tigers rank only 27th in Standard Downs S&P+ and have suffered big-play breakdowns, but they're third in Passing Downs S&P+ and fourth in Passing S&P+.

The combination of a diverse pass rush (nine players have at least 2.5 sacks, but only one has more than 6.5) and a nasty secondary have been too much for most opponents.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It stands to reason that whatever damage Alabama is able to do will come on standard downs.

That's been the case for the teams that actually did damage to coordinator Brent Venables' defense.

Clemson has allowed more than 17 points in a game just five times all year — to Troy (24), Louisville (36), Florida State (34), Pitt (43), and Virginia Tech (35) — and in all five cases, opponents had a standard-downs success rate of at least 48 percent (FSU's 55 percent was the highest) and a passing-downs success rate no higher than 30 percent (the lowest: Troy’s 5 percent).

Most of this early down damage was done with the run game. Florida State’s Dalvin Cook rushed 19 times for 169 yards (8.9 per carry), Pitt’s James Conner had 20 carries for 132 (6.6), and Louisville’s Brandon Radcliff and Jeremy Smith combined for 21 for 120 (5.7). Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, one of the few QBs who’s better with his legs than Hurts, rushed 26 times for 184 yards.

If Alabama’s offense succeeds, it will likely come from the ground game. The trio of underclassmen Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Joshua Jacobs has combined for 24 carries and 163 yards per game; after Scarbrough's star turn against Washington, all three are averaging at least 6.6 yards per carry. Filtering out sacks, Hurts is averaging 6.2.

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Hurts has faced four defenses ranked in the Passing S&P+ top 15 this year: LSU (third), Florida (sixth), Washington (12th), and USC (13th). Removing garbage time, he completed just 34 of 64 passes for 400 yards against these teams. He threw one interception and took 10 sacks, dropping his per-attempt average to just 4.7 yards.

What's interesting is that Hurts' biggest struggles came on standard downs, when Bama must thrive against Clemson.

  • Hurts on standard downs vs. top-15 pass defenses: 15-of-29 for 136 yards, one interception, and five sacks for a loss of 35 yards (3.0 yards per pass attempt).
  • Hurts on passing downs vs. top-15 pass defenses: 19-of-35 for 264 yards, no interceptions, and five sacks for a loss of 18 yards (6.2 yards per pass attempt).

Opponents risked big plays in order to keep bodies near the line of scrimmage and swallow up Kiffin’s horizontal passing game. They have attempted to defend Alabama a lot like Clemson defended Ohio State last week, with shallow safeties and an effort to force plays from outside to inside.

In theory, that results in a lot of short passes and QB keepers on option plays, and it worked beautifully against the Buckeyes, who ranked second in Rushing S&P+ at the time. Clemson held Ohio State's J.T. Barrett to eight non-sack carries for 21 yards and 2.1 yards per standard-downs pass attempt. (You can find the Ohio State-Clemson advanced box score here.)

Now Alabama's second in updated Rushing S&P+. Will the Tide’s run game function more like Louisville’s or like Ohio State’s? And if Clemson is willing to risk a big play or two, which will it be? One big play or two? Zero big plays? Five?

It is a shame Kiffin won't be around to finish off his most impressive offensive coaching performance to date.

I felt he got a little too much credit in 2015. Alabama entered with an uncertain quarterback situation and peaked at the right time, but the Tide ranked 24th in Off. S&P+ with top-five talent.

In 2016 Kiffin pulled off something incredible. Even with Hurts' occasional passing issues, the Tide rank ninth in Off. S&P+ and have matched standard-downs efficiency with passing-downs explosiveness.

And they have done so without a bell cow. Whereas previous Kiffin offenses have leaned on their stars to an almost unhealthy degree, no Bama running back has racked up more than 142 carries this year, and no Bama receiver has more than 67 catches.

Kiffin has always been able to lean on superior talent, and he's usually had experienced quarterbacks. But with a freshman quarterback and a rotating cast (that, yeah, still usually has superior talent), Bama has averaged nearly 40 points per game.

And now Alabama has to hope Sarkisian finishes the job.