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On college football: Alabama’s pregame preparation is not well coordinated

Lane Kiffin, Jalen Hurts
Lane Kiffin talks turnover to Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) during the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31, 2016.
(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)

Somewhere around the fourth or fifth question, Nick Saban grew tired of answering.

His top-ranked Alabama team had abruptly switched offensive coordinators a week before the national championship game, so people were naturally curious.

Will the Crimson Tide struggle with continuity after the sudden departure of Lane Kiffin? With Steve Sarkisian stepping in at the last moment, will there be changes in the game plan for No. 2 Clemson?

“I don’t have anything else to say about this,” the coach replied. “You know, we’re moving forward.”

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His players weren’t much more help. Bo Scarbrough was asked about his previous interactions with Sarkisian, who served as an offensive analyst for the team this fall.

The star running back said Sarkisian advised him to keep his helmet on while on the sideline and to stay ready “because you never know when your number is called.” 

Fascinating.

This season’s College Football Playoff championship features the nation’s two best teams in a rematch of last January’s entertaining final, which Alabama won, 45-40.

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The Crimson Tide will bring their trademark fearsome defense, which may rank among the best in school history. Clemson will rely on dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson, who, despite finishing second in the recent Heisman Trophy vote, might well be the best player in college football.

The matchup is intriguing, yet much of  the pregame buzz has been hijacked by “Sarkiffian” chatter.

For those who don’t know, Kiffin was recently named as the next coach at Florida Atlantic but vowed to remain at Alabama through the playoffs, which sounded fine to Saban at the time.

Sarkisian was named as offensive coordinator but was not expected to begin work until after the season.

Then Kiffin showed up late for team meetings and made negative comments about Alabama in a Sports Illustrated article. Then his offense under-performed in a 24-7 semifinal victory over No. 4 Washington.

On Monday, Alabama announced he would step down immediately. Kiffin and Saban cited the distraction of  juggling responsibilities.

“It’s difficult sometimes when you’re in a situation when you have a new opportunity and a new job,” Saban reiterated Tuesday.

The transition made sense in one regard — Kiffin and Sarkisian were assistants under Pete Carroll at USC and both had coached the Trojans in recent years. As Kiffin put it: “We speak the same language.”

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Sarkisian is certainly fluent in the uptempo, spread-style offense that his buddy has helped establish at Alabama.

At Clemson, Coach Dabo Swinney was skeptical about the switch resulting in any major adjustments.

“It’s not like they’re going to come out and run the triple-option,” he said. “They’ve won 26 in a row. I don’t think they’re going to do much different.”

But Alabama faces lingering concerns about the performance against Washington, which Kiffin has acknowledged was sub-par.

Though Scarbrough was a bright spot, rushing for 180 yards, the offense managed only two touchdowns and freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts played lukewarm at best, completing seven of 14 passes for 57 yards.

The challenges of trying to win a title with a young passer are undeniable, Swinney said.

“I don’t care how good a player you are as a freshman, you’re going to be better as a junior,” he said. “You just get better over time.”

The Tigers will try to make Hurts as uncomfortable as possible with the eighth-ranked defense in the nation, a squad that averages 3.50 sacks and has intercepted 20 passes this season.

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 Which swings the conversation back to the situation at offensive coordinator.

On Tuesday morning, Kiffin appeared on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” show,  suggesting he might advise Sarkisian from the press box during Monday night’s game at Tampa, Fla. Saban quickly nixed that idea.

“No,” the coach said, “it’s really not even possible from a legal standpoint.”

In his previous analyst’s position — as an adjunct to the staff — Sarkisian was not allowed to participate in practices and games. His contributions were made primarily in coaches meetings.

So how much would he really be able to tinker with the offense? Again, Swinney was skeptical.

“They’re going to play within the scheme of their system,”  the Clemson coach said. “And then I’m sure that the way the game goes dictates maybe how things could get called.”

It is hardly the optimal circumstance heading into a big game, not with Alabama players saying they will wait to see what the offense looks like in practice this week.

For his part, Saban wasn’t offering any clues.

“I don’t know why you all keep asking me what changes we’re going to make,” he told reporters. “Dabo is a good friend of mine — maybe I’ll just call him up and tell him what we’re going to do.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

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