Go figure that Steve Sarkisian already looks like one of Nick Saban's smartest hires at Alabama
I recently saw a headline that would have made the 2018 version of myself spit out my coffee.
“Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian lands raise, now tied for highest-paid coordinator in nation.”
In 2018, I was of the impression that Sarkisian was a bit washed up as an offensive mind. I mean, you can only watch Julio Jones not get targeted in the red zone so many times before you start to ask yourself if the offensive coordinator has a clue what he’s doing. And surely, there were more than a few Alabama fans who questioned Nick Saban’s decision to hire the fired Atlanta Falcons coordinator who also stepped in for the early-dismissed Lane Kiffin and called plays during the Crimson Tide’s national championship loss to Clemson at the end of the 2016 season.
Then 2019 happened.
The season ended in atypical Saban fashion with a non-New Year’s 6/Playoff bowl berth, but lost in the shuffle was the fact that Alabama’s offense actually improved by 1.6 points per game, and it had the best offense in school history. Alabama was the only FBS team that scored at least 35 points in every single game. In 10 of 13 contests, the Crimson Tide hit 40 points.
Some might chalk that up to having Tua Tagovailoa, AKA the best quarterback in program history, throwing to what was easily the most talented group of Alabama receivers ever. That would ignore the fact that Tagovailoa essentially played 2/3 of the season because of multiple injuries, and unlike in 2018, he didn’t have a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year as his backup.
But Alabama had Sarkisian. And that’s why his pay raise to become the highest-paid offensive coordinator in the nation was another sign that he was one of Saban’s smartest hires at Alabama.
Just so we’re clear, a couple of things are worth noting about Sarkisian’s raise. One is that it was reportedly agreed upon before the pandemic took over sports as we know it. The other is that it came on the heels of him withdrawing from consideration for Power 5 head coaching jobs at Colorado and Mississippi State.
That’s what led to paying the Alabama offensive coordinator $2.5 million annually, which tied him with Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele for the top-earning assistants in college football heading into 2020. There’s irony in that. While Alabama lost the Iron Bowl, Sarkisian’s brilliance that day was largely overlooked in part because of the 2 pick-6s that ultimately proved to be the difference.
About that … can we let Sarkisian off the hook for those? Rewatch those plays and tell me that Mac Jones didn’t have open receivers he missed for different reasons. The first was as simple as a missed throw to an open Jerry Jeudy, which Jones took full responsibility for:
— Collin Wilson (@_Collin1) November 30, 2019
And the other interception was the product of Alabama goal-line blocker Ale Kaho, who normally plays linebacker and special teams, completely whiffing on Big Kat Bryant and allowing him to rush Jones’ throw to an open Najee Harris:
AUBURN 100 YARD PICK 6!
Alabama QB Mac Jones tried to force a pass at the goal line to Najee Harris and bounced right in the hands of Zakoby McClain!#ALAvsAUB #IronBowl #WarEagle pic.twitter.com/OVNPssxRDC
— Cold Blooded Sports Pod (@ColdBloodedChat) November 30, 2019
Steele’s unit earned the victory that day, but Sarkisian’s offense gained 515 yards and scored 45 points with a backup quarterback on the road against a top-25 defense. There was a legitimate late-November argument that Auburn had its best defense in 15 years, and for the vast majority of that day on The Plains, Sarkisian’s offense carved it up.
TOUCHDOWN ALABAMA! 🐘
— Sideline CFB (@SidelineCFB) November 30, 2019
Here’s the thing: Who really slowed down Alabama’s offense last year, you ask? LSU? You mean the best team in college football history … which still allowed 41 points and 541 yards of offense to the Crimson Tide? What about the sub-40 point efforts vs. Tennessee and MSU, you ask? Oh, you mean the games when Tagovailoa suffered mid-game injuries that sidelined him for the rest of the day and Alabama still hit the 35-point mark? Sure.
Alabama’s offense was more than a quick slant to Henry Ruggs that went for a 75-yard score, and if you think Jaylen Waddle catching a 15-yard hook and squeezing through the secondary for a 60-yard touchdown was simply the product of raw talent, well, you weren’t paying attention to why Sarkisian elevated the offense in 2019.
Not enough was made about how Sarkisian took Tagovailoa’s weakness — he always wanted to make the home-run play — and simplified the offense. On a team with a bevy of good route-runners, Sarkisian’s ability to get Alabama’s wideouts such favorable looks in the 10-20-yard range was what made the offense more consistent than it was before he got there in 2018. That year, it was noticeably less effective when it faced top-25 defenses. Why? Tagovailoa didn’t make full progression reads.
Sarkisian came into Alabama with a plan on how to fix that, and by season’s end, these words proved to be prophetic:
Steve Sarkisian on working with Tagovailoa to improve full progression reads:
“We’re trying to add to an offense that was very prolific a year ago, & how can we be even more prolific & stay ahead of defenses & what they’re trying to stop.”
— Alabama Crimson Tide | BamaInsider.com (@bamainsider) August 3, 2019
Let’s take 1 more second to process the fact that after Alabama’s offense was historically good, Sarkisian vowed to come in and make it even better … and then did exactly that.
For my money, Sarkisian is already up there with Kiffin for the best offensive hire that Saban has ever made at Alabama. Kiffin’s offenses never put up those numbers, but the guy took 3 different quarterbacks and won 3 SEC titles as the Alabama offensive coordinator. He revolutionized Alabama’s offensive philosophy in a way that extended the decade of dominance. For now, that’ll still put Kiffin slightly above Sarkisian.
The other 2 obvious names for “best hires of the Saban era” are Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt. There’s a reason both are head coaches at prestigious SEC programs right now.
Of course, it’s difficult to imagine a top Saban assistant like Sarkisian ever matching Smart’s 9 years in Tuscaloosa. Smart was there for 4 national titles, and he led some of the best defenses in college football history. It would take a decade of dominance in the 2020s for Sarkisian to get on that level. Pruitt is tricky because 5 years as an on-field assistant was highlighted by on- and off-the-field accomplishments. Besides his on-field role as a defensive assistant for 4 Alabama national titles, his recruiting accolades would give him a leg up on Sarkisian until further notice.
In a way, it seems like how we’ll talk about Sarkisian as a recruiter will largely be defined by the success of Bryce Young. It’s no secret that his relationship with the 5-star true freshman quarterback played a huge part in getting him to come to Tuscaloosa. If a Heisman Trophy and a national title are in store, that’ll forever be a feather in Sarkisian’s cap.
When Sarkisian turned down Power 5 interest to return to Alabama in 2020, I couldn’t help but wonder if Young had something to do with it. Sarkisian is an elite offensive mind, yet because of his atypical path in the latter half of the 2010s, he hasn’t really gotten to develop a quarterback and see it through since Keith Price at Washington in 2013.
I’m not saying that Sarkisian is absolutely going to stay in Tuscaloosa for the entirety of Young’s college career, but his new deal was certainly interesting. In addition to getting a 52% raise and becoming the highest-paid assistant in Alabama history, Sarkisian’s new contract runs through February 2023. If Young were to spend 3 years at Alabama before leaving for the NFL, his deadline to declare early would be January 2023. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
It’s definitely not a coincidence that Alabama wrote such a fat check to Sarkisian after what he did in his return to Tuscaloosa. Saban wasn’t concerned about the inevitable blowback when he hired Sarkisian following his 2 rough years with the Atlanta Falcons. Even though that move didn’t result in winning a national title, Saban was absolutely rewarded for making what was an unpopular move at the time.
Let Sarkisian’s hiring and subsequent raise serve as a reminder — Saban is still the smartest guy in the room until further notice.