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Steve Sarkisian set to face off against former mentor Nick Saban

Saban is 25-2 against his former assistants, but both losses have come in the last year.

CFP National Championship Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Steve Sarkisian has been here before as the Texas Longhorns prepare to face the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide and his old boss Nick Saban on Saturday morning at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

In 2009, the Washington Huskies hosted the No. 3-ranked USC Trojans in Seattle as Sarkisian faced off against his former mentor Pete Carroll in Sarkisian’s first season trying to rebuild a Washington program that went winless the year before.

A 68-yard drive led by Huskies quarterback Jake Locker produced a 33-yard field goal with three seconds remaining as Washington upset USC, 16-13.

“Again, I think it was buying into the idea of what the game plan was, where we needed to be from a psyche standpoint,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “I thought one thing about that game that I remember vividly is we weathered a real storm early in that game. They might have had their first two drives, I think they might have rushed for about 130 yards. I mean, we didn’t stop the run for anything the first two drives of the game, but our guys just kind of hung in there and they fought and they scratched and they clawed and next thing, it’s a tie game in the fourth quarter and you’ve got a chance.”

What happened to the Trojans, the team with superior athletes? Eight penalties. Zero third-down conversions in 10 attempts. And three turnovers in Washington territory. Starting quarterback Matt Barkley also missed the game and his replacement, Aaron Corp, averaged five yards per attempt and threw an interception.

Still, Sarkisian does see some similarities between his second Texas team and his first team at Washington.

“I think inevitably, that team at that time was very similar to this team at this time buying into the idea that the work you put in throughout the week ultimately will carry over to game day,” Sarkisian said. “A guy once told me, culture a lot of times can have the opportunity to beat talent when the culture is really strong, when the chemistry is really strong, and so we’ve got to make sure our chemistry is right Saturday as well as that we’re playing as a team and not just talented individuals.”

With former Nick Saban assistants Jimbo Fisher and Kirby Smart both defeating their old boss last year, the legendary Alabama head coach is now a mediocre... 25-2 against his former assistants. So, are there cracks in the foundation of the Alabama dynasty?

Not exactly.

The Crimson Tide are still ranked No. 1 in the country this season, boast the nation’s highest blue-chip ratio at 89 percent, are favored by 20 points by DraftKings*, and have an 81.8 win expectancy against the Longhorns in ESPN’s matchup predictor.

And not only is starting quarterback Bryce Young healthy, unlike Matt Barkley against Washington, he’s also the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. In last weekend’s defeat of Utah State, Alabama converted 6-of-10 third-down attempts, turned the ball over once, and only committed six penalties for 40 yards in the 55-0 drubbing.

So putting together the outlines of an upset will require Texas to force Alabama into many more mistakes than the Crimson Tide made in the season opener.

One of the first steps for the Longhorns, according to Sarkisian, is not to lose the game before stepping onto Campbell-Williams Field.

“I think teams can sometimes be enamored with the opponent, whoever they are,” Sarkisian said. “I remember our days at USC in the 2000s we felt that a lot of I’m sure we felt it here at Texas in the 2000s any time Vince walked on the field, they probably felt that way. And you know I think what Alabama has been able to do, it can get that way. I think the the best approach is to focus on what you need to do.”

Avoiding outside noise will be key, too — it’s only the third time that the No. 1-ranked team has visited Austin. College GameDay will be there. So will Big Noon Saturday. And NBC’s Today Show. And then there’s the challenge of avoiding the temptation to be the hero.

“We don’t need superhuman efforts,” Sarkisian said. “What we need is people playing to what they’re capable of playing at — that takes mental focus and mental intensity and not getting caught up in the distractions.”

For a coaching staff that features three former Alabama assistants in addition to Sarkisian, the task is to avoid overthinking in the face of familiarity.

“I think one thing that we have to be careful not doing is overanalyzing and overthinking it too much,” Sarkisian said. “It’s kind of like being a pitcher, man. Sometimes you’ve got to throw your best pitch and not throw your fourth or fifth pitch just because you think the guy’s gonna hit your best pitch. So we’ve got to be mindful of that, that we don’t try to overthink it and outsmart ourselves — we’ve got to throw our best pitches and see if it’s good enough.”

While Sarkisian said on Saturday that he hasn’t talked about the Alabama game with his players, the coaching staff did spend the offseason working on a game plan for the Crimson Tide and completed it three months ago.

Now the Texas head coach will find out if his former mentor can hit his best pitch.

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