Steve Sarkisian said he had been in this situation before — that of a new offensive coordinator stepping into lofty expectations. He referenced joining the Atlanta Falcons after they appeared in the Super Bowl and joining USC on the heels of Matt Leinart’s Heisman Trophy season.
It’s possible his job at the University of Alabama came with just as lofty expectations, if not more. While the team as a whole did not meet its championship expectations, there is an argument to be made the offense did its part.
The 2019 Alabama offense finished among the elite class nationally in almost all statistical categories of note, including points per play (1st), points per game (2nd, 47.2), yards per play (3rd, 7.89) and third-down offense (3rd, 52.29 percent conversion rate).
“We put things on them at a very high level, and they’ve responded,” Sarkisian said before the Citrus Bowl. “They are highly, highly competitive young men. There’s always going to be that kind of sour taste in your mouth in some capacity because we felt like we missed a couple opportunities in games that we really feel like we should have and could have won. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that done.”
In UA’s two losses, to LSU and Auburn, Sarkisian’s offense may have missed opportunities, but not nearly enough to prove fatal. Alabama bested LSU on the ground (4.4 yards per carry to LSU’s 4.2) and in the air (10.4 yards per attempt to 10.1), and beat Auburn on a yards per play basis by over a yard, 6.7 to 5.4.
Those two losses did happen to be UA’s worst third-down games offensively — the 40 percent conversion rate against LSU and 42.86 against Auburn were the only times it was below 50 percent in the regular season — but 40 percent is far from disastrous. It’s more or less the national median.
If anything, the Alabama offense did not miss opportunities to turn losses into wins. It created opportunities to put away opponents in the first half.
Alabama has a rightful claim to the nation’s best passing attack: it ranks third in the nation in yards per pass attempt (11.0) behind only Air Force and Navy, which get a certain advantage from passing as infrequently as they do as triple-option offenses. As a result of that passing prowess, UA had one of the nation’s most explosive offenses: fourth in plays of 20 yards or more (96), tied for eighth in both plays of 30 yards or more (43) and 40 yards or more (23), second in passes of 20 yards or more (79) and tied for second in passes of 70 yards or more (five).
For context: as recently as 2016, Alabama finished with 96 plays of 20 yards or more with the benefit of 15 games. This year’s UA team did so in just 13.
Creating explosive plays at that clip allowed the Alabama offense to bury opponents with scoring flurries. It scored three times in a six-minute stretch against Arkansas, then tacked on two more scores in the ensuing six minutes. Two touchdowns in the first five minutes silenced Mississippi State immediately.
“It is spread principles, it is shotgun. But if you dig down deep into it, there’s a little of pro-style offense still involved in what we do,” Sarkisian said. “I think that’s the fine line. That’s the balance because you want to be successful.”
Alabama did it all through a less than perfect timeline.
It had to wait four games to use Deonte Brown, who ultimately became the team’s starting right guard beginning Oct. 12 against Texas A&M. It also did not let offensive line depth go to waste by using Kendall Randolph and Chris Owens as tight ends in special packages. It lost its starting quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa) twice, once for six quarters against SEC competition and again for the final three and a half games, and lost its starting tight end (Miller Forristall) for the final month of the regular season.
Through those brief moments of adversity, the offense still found a way to be among the nation’s best. Even its weaker links are well above national averages: 22nd in yards per carry (5.03) and 27th in red zone offense (touchdowns on 69.35 percent of its red zone trips). And it goes down as the highest-scoring offense in school history at 47.2 points per game.