How Steve Sarkisian might coach Alabama's football team differently than Nick Saban

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Nick Saban still vigilantly monitors Alabama football's practices and watches them again for more observations. He makes the same reports and runs the same meetings, albeit virtually.

As far as the daily operations of the program are concerned, everything about this week will be normal, despite Saban working from home during his COVID-19 quarantine.

That is, until the first big decision of the Georgia game comes. Then, instead of Saban making the call, it will be offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

Sarkisian was Saban’s pick to run operations in the building while he is absent and presumably will act as the head coach if Saban is not on the sideline Saturday against Georgia. A look at Sarkisian’s 18-game tenure as the head coach at USC showed one aspect that differentiates him from Saban: a more aggressive mentality on fourth down.

In 2014, Sarkisian’s lone full season as the Trojans’ coach, USC went for it on fourth down 24 times. Saban has only done so that many times once in his UA tenure, in 2015. In most seasons, the Crimson Tide falls short of 20 fourth-down attempts.

Sarkisian almost never passed up a fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2 at USC and had moments of being even more aggressive, even with the benefit of a talented kicker.

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The second game of his USC tenure, against Stanford, provides a perfect example. On a fourth-and-5 early in the fourth quarter, tied at 10, Sarkisian elected to go for it on the Stanford 35, an attempt that failed. Given the same scenario with three minutes left — a fourth-and-5 on the 35 in a tie game — Sarkisian took a field goal and the lead. When time was less of a concern, he showed his aggressive tendencies.

Sarkisian also showed a tendency to use a fourth-down attempt to put a team away. In the third quarter against Oregon State in 2014, the Trojans were up 21-10 when met with a fourth-and-1 midway through the third quarter. Sarkisian, likely motivated by a chance at a touchdown to put the Beavers away, converted on the fourth-down attempt.

Sarkisian remained aggressive on fourth downs in what could be deemed field goal range, despite having Andre Heidari, who made a 52-yard field goal in 2014 against Boston College and was 9-of-11 that season.

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That aggression carried over to his second season on the job. 

Up 21-3 on Idaho early in the second quarter, USC faced a fourth-and-2 from the 10. Instead of trying a 27-yard field goal with kicker Alex Wood — who made 13 of his 17 attempts that season — Sarkisian let the offense go for it and convert, establishing even more early dominance in a 59-9 win.

However, Sarkisian was not uniform in his aggression. On the first possession of the Oregon State game in 2014, Sarkisian punted from the Oregon State 43. Against Arizona State the next week, Sarkisian pooch punted with quarterback Cody Kessler four times, all of them on the Arizona State side of the 50. Kessler also punted once in the UCLA game that season from the UCLA 45; USC would struggle to mount offense in that game, averaging 4.1 yards per play in a 38-20 loss.

Alabama has not needed much on fourth down to get the best of Georgia lately, attempting three times and converting just once in the last three meetings. If Sarkisian is calling the shots, and if a shot of energy is needed, Sarkisian may not hesitate to make the call.

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson