TAMPA, Fla. -- Lane Kiffin is not here, but the circus hasn't gone away.
It's moved on to Steve Sarkisian, who was unexpectedly named the new Alabama offensive coordinator ahead of schedule and is taking over play-calling duties for Monday's national championship game against Clemson. The ex-USC head coach met the media for the first time in his new role on Saturday, the first time since losing his job in Los Angeles in October 2015. The pack of media that ordinarily would have swarmed Kiffin now made Sarkisian the most popular man in the room. For once, a new story about Alabama had emerged.
On the surface, it appears to be an unprecedented massive change in the middle of the College Football Playoff. Alabama, however, isn't showing any signs of doubt.
"I'm embracing this more than anything," Sarkisian said. "I would be remiss if I didn't exhaust myself in the preparation standpoint -- to put our players in the best position to go do the best job they can do Monday night, because they've earned this. They've worked extremely hard. I just want them to be in position to go be the best player that they can be Monday night."
Sarkisian hasn't been an assistant coach since 2008 at USC, and now he'll be charged with keeping the Alabama offense on track as it faces an enormous test against a Clemson defense that just shut out Ohio State in the Peach Bowl. Alabama is trying to become the first team to win a national championship with a true freshman quarterback since 1985, its fourth starting quarterback in four years. It is doing it without Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
It's doing it despite switching play-callers before the game of the year, raising questions about how organized it will be and what it will look like entering the biggest challenge of its season.
"Sark has done this for a long time, and he's called plays for a long time," head coach Nick Saban said. "He's got a lot of experience; he's got a lot of knowledge. I think he's very well organized in his approach, and I'd tell him what I tell any coach: We've prepared to do certain things in certain situations. Let's stick with the plan. Until we have to adjust the plan, that's what the players know, that's what we've practiced, that's what we need to go out and try to do, and that's going to give us the best chance to be able to execute and be successful. I think he'll do that."
This is Alabama, where the unlimited supply of reserve talent seems to apply to the coaching staff as well as the players. There's always another five-star recruit to fill in, and apparently there's always another veteran coach to step in, too.
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Alabama's season began with Kiffin calling plays for quarterback Blake Barnett and running back Damien Harris. On Monday, the story will be Sarkisian calling plays for Jalen Hurts and Bo Scarbrough.
Kiffin is off to Florida Atlantic a game early, and Barnett left the program to transfer in the middle of the season after Hurts grabbed hold of the starting quarterback job in the opener. Harris rushed for 138 yards against USC and was Alabama's lead runner much of the year, but he ceded ground to Scarbrough's 180-yard breakout in the Peach Bowl.
The offense has spread the field more and the defense is faster, but despite the personnel changes, it's still the same old Alabama: detail-oriented, physical, athletic and more talented than everybody else, leading to a 14-0 record.
Hurts was the first piece of the new puzzle to fall into place. He usurped Barnett during that USC game and never looked back, earning SEC offensive player of the year honors with 2,649 passing yards, 891 rushing yards and 34 total touchdowns. While inconsistent as a passer, Hurts has acquitted himself well. Any true freshman quarterback faces a difficult challenge as starter, even if surrounded by the talent that Alabama has amassed, but Hurts has piloted an undefeated team and mostly been an asset rather than any sort of liability.
"I think it's his leadership," Harris said. "What quarterback can't be the leader of his offense? I think he's done a great job of that, and he's so poised throughout the year. He's had ups and downs; it's his freshman year. He's 18 years old, so we expected him to have those ups and downs. But the way he responds to those ups and downs is what really keeps him in the position that he's in. Whether it's success or a bad play, a turnover, no matter what the circumstances in the game, I think he always responds in a positive manner and puts us in the best position to win."
For most of the season, Hurts did put Alabama in the best position to win. The offense changed to be built around him, incorporating much more quarterback running -- a rarity for a Saban team -- while pushing the tempo and going no-huddle. It's not the Saban we used to know, but he's again proved to be adaptable, doing what needs to be done to put Hurts in position to succeed individually.
Hurts was frequently brilliant during the regular season, but he struggled against Washington in the Peach Bowl and ended up completing just 7 of 14 passes for 57 yards while running 19 times for 50 yards.
Hurts' rough semifinal was made up for by Scarbrough's breakout.
Scarbrough, who hadn't been 100 percent earlier in the year, gradually saw his workload increase late in the season. Against Washington, he took over the offense, overpowering the Huskies for touchdowns of 18 and 68 yards, the Crimson Tide's two offensive touchdowns of the game.
"What's crazy is a lot of those plays we didn't necessarily block them well," said All-America tackle Cam Robinson. "He just made that happen. That's just the God-given ability that he has."
Harris is a dynamic five-star recruit himself, but Scarbrough gives Alabama's backfield another Henry-like tailback who seems impossibly big for someone so athletic. And yet, needing a spark to win a playoff game, Alabama turned to the sophomore, who had been fourth on the team in rushing in the regular season but looked like an All-American on the big stage in the playoff.
"We've always had high expectations for Bo," Saban said. "We've always had high aspirations for what he can contribute to the program, and I think it's been a little bit more- -- his history as a player relative to whether it's injury or some circumstance that has sort of created a little bit of an up and down for him to get to where he is right now, but certainly he's performed well enough to be a starter, and we certainly consider him a starter, and we think he's playing as well at his position as anybody on our team right now."
Will Scarbrough be the focal point again against Clemson? Kiffin fed him the ball in the Peach Bowl, but now Sarkisian will be calling the shots after spending the season in a behind-the-scenes offensive analyst role in which he was essentially an in-house consultant, not involved in day-to-day coaching of the players.
Many questions on Saturday were geared toward the change in voice on the sideline. Hurts has gotten play calls from Kiffin for 14 games; now, it will be Sarkisian, who is familiar with the system and has been involved with Alabama all year but will still bring a different personality to the coaching and a different rhythm to the play-calling.
Sarkisian is not worried.
"I've been fortunate in my career to be around really good coaches and been mentored by really good coaches," Sarkisian said. "Being part of the program for the last four months, seeing Lane work, being around the office, game planning, working with the coaches, it's not just so foreign where I'm just coming in from the outside and trying to pick up from where they've left off. They've been around this thing. When you start calling plays, you start calling plays. You don't get caught up in everything going outside, you focus on what's going on in between the lines. That's the mindset I'll have."
A national championship depends on it.
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Nick Saban is here, and what seems like a circus is surely under control.
If anybody can win a national championship with a true freshman quarterback, a new star running back and a new offensive coordinator in the middle of the playoff, it's Saban. After all, that true freshman quarterback was a blue-chip recruit who participated in spring practice and has played well most of the season. That new star running back was seen as the next big thing for years. And that new offensive coordinator has been the head coach at USC and Washington and has spent the season helping the Alabama staff. On top of all that, Alabama still has the nation's best defense.
Saban wouldn't make such a drastic move as parting ways with Kiffin before the national title game if he didn't think his staff would be prepared. Saban prepares for everything, and in this case he had an experienced coach like Sarkisian waiting to get the call from the bullpen to try to help win a fifth national championship in eight seasons.
"They're incredibly well prepared every week," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "They do a great job of creating advantageous situations every single week. They take what they do, they apply it to the opponent and they just create mismatches, they create edges. They're very, very smart, very well-coached. I mean, it's a very seamless transition for them. It's not like they're going to run a different offense. You know, maybe he calls a couple more screens than the other guy would have called. I have no idea. But it's all going to be within what they've done for 14 games."
The cast has changed, but the identity hasn't. The Crimson Tide may look different than they did in last year's Clemson game and at the start of this season, but Alabama is still Alabama. There's no reason to expect anything less.