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How to prepare for Steve Sarkisian’s offense: Advice for Clemson from 2 Bama opponents

Two SEC West coordinators on the offense that was built by Lane Kiffin and that’ll be operated by Sark in the Championship. One of these coaches has faced Sarkisian before, too.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What’s a defensive coordinator to do when the nation’s best team switches play callers the week of the national championship?

Clemson has to answer that question for Monday night’s National Championship. Seven days before kickoff, Alabama announced a surprise fast-track of its transition from FAU head coach Lane Kiffin to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the former USC coach who’d been on staff for much of the season as an analyst.

SB Nation asked two defensive coaches of recent Alabama opponents — LSU’s Dave Aranda and Ole Miss’ just-retired Dave Wommack, whose defense twice beat the Kiffin Alabama offense — how to address the transition.

Kiffin’s offense was built on your mistakes, not Alabama’s strengths.

“What makes [game-planning] hard this week is that Kiffin was such a huge influence on that offense, with all due respect to Coach Saban and everyone else,” Aranda said. “And it was a lot of offense. We have a formation chart for each week’s opponent. When we put up Bama’s, we couldn’t fit all the formations on our board.”

Thanks to years of the best recruiting in college football, Alabama is talented everywhere. Scouting particular players is usually an early step in game-planning against an offense. But this depth, according to Aranda and Wommack, allowed Kiffin an unusual amount of freedom.

Rather than build a game plan around formations and plays Alabama excelled at or around particularly good Alabama players, Kiffin’s offense would scout every play your defense struggles against and install that, even if it’d never run it before.

“Auburn had a fly sweep with a wheel route off of it. We struggled with it when we played them, and it eventually led to our defeat. I knew we’d see that against Alabama, and we did,” Aranda said.

“We were playing Southern Miss, and they’re in a two-two set [two receivers, two tight ends] with the back offset. The receivers are snugged, and the back runs a wheel unmolested into the boundary. [Southern Miss] hit us on that one, and then that was in Alabama’s offense against LSU. That specific play was there.

“So you can’t just put them in a box. Because when another staff is [preparing for Alabama by] watching the Alabama-LSU game, and they see that wheel route, they might start repping wheel routes. Except [Alabama] didn’t run one before our game, and you’ll end up not seeing it at all in your game vs. Alabama.

“They’ll run something that hurts you specifically. We knew they were going to, because we got hurt with it.”

To beat Alabama’s offense, fight fire with fire and show new looks.

Ole Miss’ second victory over Alabama in 2015 is known best for the Tide’s five turnovers and a permanent quarterback change from Cooper Bateman to Jacob Coker. But the Rebels built a 20-point lead in the third quarter with confusion, by rotating new looks on defense from play to play.

“We gave them as many looks as we could give them. That week, we were ultra multiple,” Wommack said. “When you have an experienced defense, that’s something you can afford to do. We made it a goal to be the cat and not the mouse.”

The most notable 2016 adjustment Wommack saw in Bama was the addition of option plays to offset Jalen Hurts’ inexperience as a passer. Coker couldn’t pull off those option plays.

“Even with only three games [of film] on Hurts, we were really surprised at how well he could run it,” Wommack said.

Don’t scout Sarkisian. Scout Saban and the run game.

If you believe Bama’s change in coordinators was due in part to Saban taking issue with Bama’s performance vs. Washington, that’d mean Saban wants a particular kind of attack. Fifteen games into a title run, it’s not really about what the new guy likes.

“Saban wants to run the ball, he wants to feature the tight end, he wants to lean on defense, and he wants to make things easy on the quarterback. I’d start there,” Aranda said.

Aranda has coached against a Sarkisian offense before, when the latter was head coach at USC and Aranda was defensive coordinator at Utah State.

“What I remember from Sark was that he was a little more connected in terms of run and play-action passes,” Aranda said. “I can see Alabama using a lot of play-action passing and the run game, trying to instill that dominance in the middle and trying to hit shots off of it. With Sark, the play-action looks are going to look like runs, the same run play five times and then they go over the top with it.

“That didn’t happen as much with Kiffin. He just had so many plays. He had ‘gotcha’ shots downfield, where they didn’t worry about making it look like a run play you’d already seen.”

Changing coordinators is not a negative for Alabama. If it was, Saban wouldn’t do it.

“Whoever it is calling plays, right now, everyone’s talking about the coordinators, and Alabama is just going to use that as a positive,” Wommack said.

Wommack is right. The oxygen around this national title rematch has been sucked up by the Kiffin/Sark saga, a saga created by — and most likely for — Alabama. There’s little talk of Deshaun Watson as the best QB Bama will face this year or the fact that Hurts is a true freshman starting a national championship.

“Saban has this way of getting his team ready,” Wommack said. “They have a level of focus among those players where Saban knows he can use this to his advantage. And I expect that in their locker room they believe they can execute no matter who is calling plays.”

“The big thing is they've been successful on offense, really, the entire season. So just keep doing what they've done before,” said Gus Malzahn, the only head coach to face both Bama and Clemson this season. “The coach taking over has been with them and understands what they've been doing. I don't expect that to be too big a challenge.”