Steve Sarkisian has climbed the coaching mountain -- again. It was five years ago that Sark was fired at USC after not showing up for practice. Several Trojans players told the Los Angeles Daily News they smelled alcohol on his breath. That started a series of events that impacts college football today.
Clay Helton became the interim coach that season and was given the permanent gig after going 5-4. In four full seasons at USC, Helton has won a Pac-12 title and led the Trojans to two New Year's Six Bowls.
Meanwhile, Sark slipped from the spotlight. He went for a stay in rehab and remade both his personal and professional lives. There was doubt he would ever be a head coach again. But less than a year after being fired, he was hired in September 2016 to be an Alabama analyst. That began a comeback that now has as the expected designated on-field head coach Saturday in the Iron Bowl.
For the second time this season, Sarkisian has been named to lead the team after Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19. Sark's first chance was scuttled before the Georgia game when Saban was able to return because it turned out his test was a false positive. This time it's for real after Saban experienced COVID-19 symptoms before a PCR test showed a positive result.
The Iron Bowl is almost more about Sarkisian's big second chance than Saban's absence. The feeling is that the No. 1 Crimson Tide are in good hands against No. 22 Auburn. Sark will call his offense as normal. He'll just have a couple additional decisions to make. Perhaps, by the time the final whistle sounds, his remade career will look strong enough for leading a team to again be a possibility.
"Based on the body of work in terms of what our offense has been able to accomplish last year and this year, no one could argue he's done a fantastic job," Saban said. "The body of work really speaks for itself."
In case you missed it, the 46-year-old Sarkisian has been behind the latest historical transformation of this Alabama offense. In 2016, he took over as offensive coordinator on short notice after Lane Kiffin's hasty departure for FAU. Alabama lost that College Football Playoff National Championship in the final seconds to Clemson, but Sark called a fantastic game that night.
In the lead up to that game, I asked Sarkisian if rehab worked. He was emphatic in its effectiveness.
Since then, Sarkisian returned to the NFL as Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator (2017-18) before coming back to Alabama in 2019. He oversaw not only the last season of Tua Tagovailoa but the transition to Mac Jones.
"He was a good coach before, has only gotten better and grown with the experience he got from being with the Falcons for two years and being with Nick," said NFL agent Devin Bonik. "Steve earned respect from Matt Ryan early on, and that's not always easy to do as a college coach coming in."
Predictably, Sarkisian's name has begun popping up for job openings, specifically last year at Colorado. If Arizona makes a move with Kevin Sumlin, a West Coast guy like Sark would likely be a top candidate. He comes remade and repackaged as a head coach, having gone 46-35 at Washington and USC.
At the beginning of this century Sarkisian was one of the young guns at USC serving a combined seven years under Pete Carroll and being a part of the 2003 national championship at age 29.
Under the new Sark, the Bama offense has never been better. There is an ongoing FBS record of 20 straight games the team has scored at least 35 points. If the current 49.4 points per game average holds, it would third straight season Alabama has set the school scoring record.
Even with the loss of receiver Jaylen Waddle, Jones continues to be a Heisman Trophy candidate as the SEC's highest-rated passer. Najee Harris leads the conference in average yards rushing and touchdowns (16).
All that after Sarkisian underwent a heart procedure in the last offseason. Not bad for a guy whose career looked wrecked five years ago.
Shootout ahead on Black Friday?
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea might get his biggest challenge of the season Friday at No. 19 North Carolina. The Tar Heels have the ACC's best offense (60 yards per game better than Clemson at 563.4 yards!). More than that, Mack Brown's unit is more balanced than Clemson with the 1-2 punch at tailback -- Javante Williams and Michael Carter.
The magic number for the winner seems to 30-35 points. North Carolina should be able to reach that easily. No. 2 Notre Dame on the road this year has averaged 40.3 points, the highest in at least 11 years. Lea's top 10 defense has given up more than 26 points once, in the 47-40 double overtime win over Clemson.
By the way, expect Lea's name to come up at Vanderbilt if Derek Mason isn't retained.
Everything else in Week 13
Historic Cyclone(s): No. 13 Iowa State (6-2) can't quite clinch a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game with a win over No. 17 Texas on Friday. There is still a scenario in which a three-way tie for second would leave the Cyclones out. Iowa State has not won an outright conference championship since 1912.
Remember Clemson? Trevor Lawrence returns to the field for the first time in five weeks when Pittsburgh visits the No. 3 Tigers. First order of business: getting the running game going. Since Lawrence went down with COVID-19, Clemson has averaged 2.18 yards per rush. Over a full season, that would currently rank second-worst in the country.
Duck! Oregon State is no longer a walk over for No. 15 Oregon in what used to be known as the Civil War. The Beavers had the Pac-12's offensive player of the week Jermar Jefferson -- a highly underrated back who ran for 196 yards against The Beavers have the intangible that may work. They have blocked two of the opponents' 12 punts this season. By the way, the teams have dropped the "Civil War" label over its link to slavery.
Egg Bowl flashback: A year has passed since Elijah Moore caused one of the biggest butterfly effects in college football history. It was Moore, the Ole Miss wide receiver, whose dog-at-a-fire-hydrant imitation led to a personal foul penalty that pushed the game-tying extra point back late in last year's Mississippi State game. Predictably, the kick was missed. That caused a cascading string of events that led to Matt Luke's firing, Lane Kiffin's hiring and a corresponding move by Mississippi State. It got rid of Joe Moorhead and replaced him with Mike Leach. How's this for a comeback? Moore leads the country in catches (74) and yards (1,054).
Northwestern cakewalk: It's not too early to suggest No. 8 Northwestern (5-0) should be able to skate to the Big Ten West title. The Wildcats already own wins over the three teams directly beneath them in the standings (Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin). They finish the season against Michigan State (Saturday), Illinois and Minnesota, whose combined record is 5-9.
Tulsa pity: Philip Montgomery's program deserves some sort of award for diligence and patience at the end of the season. When its game against Houston was postponed this week, the No. 25 Golden Hurricane lost their seventh game to postponement or cancellation. If it doesn't impact the AAC Championship Game, the game will be made up Dec. 19. At 5-0, Tulsa remains a half-game out of first in the AAC and on track to play Cincinnati twice, once in the regular season and again in the conference title game.