Nick Saban has called an audible ahead of Alabama's national championship game matchup with Clemson, and Lane Kiffin has called his last play for the Crimson Tide.
Saban announced on Monday that Kiffin would shift his focus to his new job as Florida Atlantic head coach and Steve Sarkisian will assume Kiffin's duties as offensive coordinator in advance of the Jan. 9 title game.
Saban and Kiffin described the decision as mutual on Monday, two days after Alabama defeated Washington, 24-7, in the Peach Bowl to advance to the national championship game. Kiffin had been preparing to coach Alabama vs. Clemson over the past two days.
"We appreciate all that Lane has done for our football program over the last three years," Saban stated in a school release. "We sat down following the Washington game and talked about the time demands of managing both jobs, and we recognized that it is best for our players, and for Lane, that we allow him to turn his full attention to his new head-coaching rule at FAU.
"This wasn't an easy decision and we appreciate the way Lane handled this in terms of doing what is best for our team. At the end of the day, both of us wanted to put our players in the best position to be successful. Obviously, we are in a unique situation here where we have our next offensive coordinator already on staff. We have full confidence that Sark will step in right away and make this a smooth transition."
Initially, that transition was planned for after the season. Sarkisian has served as an analyst for Alabama this season after being fired by USC at midseason in 2015.
Kiffin, Alabama's offensive coordinator for the past three seasons, is a head coach again for the first time since he was fired by USC at midseason in 2013. Alabama scored 24 points vs. UW in the Peach Bowl, but one of their scores was a defensive touchdown, and QB Jalen Hurts completed just 7-of-14 passes for 57 yards against a stout Huskies defense.
Kiffin acknowledged that juggling his responsibilities at Alabama with preparing for his new job at FAU proved too difficult.
"I think I thought it would be easier than it was. As I looked at it, I re-watched the game a couple times (Sunday) night and I was thinking 'I don't feel like we played great,'" Kiffin told the Paul Finebaum Radio Show. "Those games happen. We still did some good things. We ran the ball really well, we didn't turn the ball over. I called the game very conservative because the defense was playing so good. It wasn't anything about the game, I was just wondering, 'Was I always there?' because you are balancing two jobs, interviewing coaches at night, calling recruits at night."
The timing of the decision certainly is surprising with a week to go before the title game, and suddenly puts Sarkisian in a spotlight he wasn't expected to face. He's a veteran coach, though. In fact, he was USC's QBs coach under Kiffin, then the Trojans' offensive coordinator, in 2005 when USC lost to Texas in one of the epic title games of all-time. No matter how unsatisfied Saban was with Kiffin's performance leading up to the Peach Bowl, there's no way the methodical coach who craves stability would make a move like this unless he was fully confident that Sarkisian was up to the task.
It won't take long for the second-guessing to begin, of course, if Alabama's offense struggles out of the gate vs. a Clemson team that shut out Ohio State on Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl.