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Will Steve Sarkisian be an upgrade over Tom Herman? What Texas is getting in Alabama’s offensive coordinator

The offseason coaching carousel went from 0-100 on Saturday morning when Texas announced it has fired coach Tom Herman after four seasons with the Longhorns. Shortly thereafter, Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was pegged as Herman’s replacement with CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd and 247Sports’ Chip Brown reporting he would take over the program. Sarkisian is expected to be announced as the Texas coach on Saturday afternoon.

That begs the question: Is Sarkisian the guy who can finally, after more than a decade, bring Texas “back”? The 2020 Broyles Award winner for nation’s best assistant coach has rebuilt his reputation in two seasons calling the plays in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and he certainly has the offensive acumen needed to succeed at the highest level.

Will that be enough considering Sark has a 46-35 record (.568) in two prior stops as a head coach? Let’s break down what Texas is getting from its soon-to-be-hired coach.

Quarterback development

The inability for Texas to develop a top-tier quarterback despite residing in one of the most talent-rich states in the country has been baffling. Simply put, the days of Vince Young and Colt McCoy are long gone. Quarterback development is Sarkisian’s wheelhouse. 

Sure, he had Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama for the first three quarters of the 2019 season, but Mac Jones came in for an injured Tagovailoa last season and the offense didn’t miss a beat. Why? Because Sarkisian had total confidence in Jones prior to him even stepping on the field as a starter. Many thought that he was a game-manger. Nope.

All Sark did was tweak his offense to fit Jones’ ability to get the ball out on time and on the money to a point that Jones will go to virtual New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist this season. On that note, Sark’s Alabama offense had three Heisman contenders and two finalists with wide receiver DeVonta Smith the favorite entering Tuesday’s ceremony.

Sark’s time at USC came to an inauspicious end due to off-the-field issues, but Cody Kessler threw for 3,826 yards and 39 touchdowns in his first year as the Trojans’ coach in 2014 and followed it up with 3,536 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2015 — 15 of which came in Sarkisian’s five games at the helm before being fired. Run it back even further and you’ll see Keith Price, Jake Locker, Mark Sanchez, John David Booty and Matt Leinart as just a few of the names that he has helped succeed either as a head coach or quarterbacks coach. 

Offensive creativity

The goal of any offensive system is creating mismatches, and nobody does it better than Sarkisian. The entire college football world has been focused on Smith all season, and he consistently used motions and creating crossing patterns to spring his superstar wideout in space either deep or in open spots so that he can run after the catch. That’s something that he has learned throughout his coaching career at USC, Washington the Atlanta Falcons and Alabama. 

Alabama is loaded with talent. There’s no doubt about that. But how many times did you see Smith, Najee Harris, Jahleel Billinglsey or any other one of the Crimson Tide superstars one-on-one with an overmatched defender? Almost every single drive. 

Texas doesn’t have the roster that Alabama possesses. No team in college football does. But the state of Texas has plenty of athletes from which to choose, and the Crimson Tide has done a great job recruiting the Lone Star State. If Sark gets this thing going, he’ll make Austin a destination location for offensive weapons around the country. 

Can Sark fix the defense?

Herman’s defenses has been hit-or-miss in Austin, and that’s something that hasn’t plagued Sarkisian during his career. The Trojans finished in the top five in the Pac-12 in total defense, defensive yards per play and scoring defense in the two seasons he spent in Los Angeles. Perhaps more important is what his USC defenses did when it mattered most. The Trojans led the Pac-12 in third down defense in each of his two seasons at the helm.

I know, I know … it’s the Pac-12 and defense is optional. But dealing with those wide-open offenses will go a long way toward slowing down the Big 12 offenses that thrive with speed in space. 

Defense doesn’t win championships anymore. “Just enough” defense does. Alabama’s success over the last decade exemplifies that more than any other program in the country. How does it do it? Strong work in key areas like third down and red zone. That’s all Sarkisian will have to do in Austin, and he has the experience to make that happen.

But is he an upgrade?

Herman was the hot shot up-and-comer when he got the job at Texas. He had a good run as Houston’s coach for two seasons and helped Ohio State win the national title in 2014 despite losing his top two quarterbacks — Braxton Miller and JT Barrett — and being forced to go with Cardale Jones. That’s not the route Texas is going here. 

Sarkisian is a proven coach who has excelled at an extremely high level as an assistant and team leader. The primary reason he fell out of favor with athletic directors across the country was his personal conduct issues that caused USC to bail on him after 1.5 seasons. By all accounts, Sark is rehabbed both in health and reputation as he continues on a steady path that is leading him to one of the top jobs in college football

But let’s break down how Herman and Sarkisian stack up against one another.

Tom Herman

54-22

Five (5-0)

3

1

1

Sam Ehlinger, Shane Buechele, Greg Ward, Jr. Cardale Jones, JT Barrett

Steve Sarkisian

46-35

Four (2-2)

2

0

0

Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Cody Kessler, Keith Price, Jake Locker, Mark Sanchez, John David Booty, Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer

These resumes are certainly similar. 

The main difference is that Sarkisian has gone through the Nick Saban coaching rehabilitation program. That might not seem like it’s important, but learning from the greatest coach in the sport’s history should not be minimalized. Saban helped mold Jimbo Fisher into a coach who eventually won a national championship, Kirby Smart into a three-time SEC East champion and 2017 SEC title winner at Georgia, Mark Dantonio into a Michigan State legend, Lane Kiffin into a responsible adult now leading Ole Miss, and several others into opportunities to succeed.

Sure, not all of Saban’s pupils have succeeded. But many have, and that’s a strong pedigree. It’s certainly a stronger vote of confidence than the one Herman received from Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte. 

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