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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF MEDIA CONFERENCE
December 7, 2017
GINA LEHE: Good evening. My name is Gina Lehe, senior director of communications and brand management for the College Football Playoff. On behalf of everyone at the CFP, I'd like to welcome you to tonight's news conference.
We will ask each head coach to make an opening comment, then we'll open it up for questions.
We'll begin with the Rose Bowl game coaches. Welcome, Kirby Smart.
KIRBY SMART: First off, thank you. Thank you guys for coming out. It's an honor to be here.
Our team is really excited to get to travel to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 75 years. A lot of our players are really excited, as well. A lot of our kids haven't even been to the West Coast, so they're going to get an opportunity to go out and play a wonderful team in Oklahoma.
A very storied program. I've followed Lincoln for a long time. I know he and his staff do a tremendous job. Been very fortunate to visit with their defensive staff before. They do a great job. We obviously know about the quarterback they have, who is a tremendous player.
We'll manage these next 25 days best we can and prepare for a trip out and great opportunity for our seniors. We're excited to be in the College Football Playoff.
GINA LEHE: Thank you.
Next, please welcome Lincoln Riley.
LINCOLN RILEY: Like Kirby said, we're thrilled to be in the College Football Playoff. It's been a great run for this team. From the start of spring ball, then certainly Bob making the decision to step down in June, been very, very proud of how our entire team, our staff, just really our entire organization, how they handled that transition.
It's been a great year. Been a really, really fun team to coach. I feel like we've really improved throughout the season. Couldn't be happier getting the chance to go to the Rose Bowl, obviously one of the most historic games that there is.
What a great opportunity for us to play a great Georgia team, one of the best teams in the country. Tremendous all three sides of the ball. Going to be a great game, like the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff should be.
We're thrilled to be back in the Playoff here for the second time in three years. Very much looking forward to the game.
GINA LEHE: We'll now turn it over to the coaches competing in the Sugar Bowl.
Coach Nick Saban.
NICK SABAN: First of all, I'd like to congratulate all the other coaches here that had great seasons with their teams and did a great job with their teams, too, and certainly deserve the right to be in the College Football Playoff.
This is a real privilege and honor for the University of Alabama, our team, our coaches, and the people in our organization to be involved in the Playoff, to be able to go to the Sugar Bowl. I think it's a great, competitive venue.
We feel very fortunate. This is our fourth straight time of being involved in this game. Obviously some great competition and some great football games.
Clemson, deservedly the No. 1 team in the nation. Very explosive offense. Dabo does a great job. They have a very good defense. Their front seven is probably second to none in college football.
This is our third year in a row of getting to play in this. We're excited about having the opportunity.
DABO SWINNEY: Thank you for being here. Same thing, congratulations to all these coaches. What an awesome accomplishment for each team. It's a long season. There's a lot of things that have to come together to have the opportunity to be one of these four. Just a tremendous year from all these teams.
We're excited. I mean, I haven't been to the Sugar Bowl in 25 years. Clemson hasn't been in 59 years. What a great opportunity for our team.
Obviously, I can't seem to get away from these guys, as hard as I try (smiling). Man, it's not an easy task to play Alabama. I don't care where you put them, they've had the best team for a long time.
We know it's been two great games. I don't have any doubt this one will be another great matchup. But got a lot of respect for what they do there, obviously Coach Saban, the consistency they've had.
But we look forward to it. It's going to be a great opportunity to prepare. Should be a great game.
GINA LEHE: Thank you.
At this time we will take questions.
Q. Jeremy has taken the Tennessee job today. Will he stay along with you through the Playoff?
NICK SABAN: Yes, Jeremy is going to finish the season with us. He's going to go do some things to get his program started at Tennessee. When we're ready to practice, he'll be back with us, be a part of the Playoff.
I really appreciate the fact that Kirby did a great job of doing that a couple years ago when he had an opportunity. I think it shows a lot of respect for the players on our team who worked hard to help us all have success this season.
Q. Dabo, you voted Ohio State No. 4 in your final poll. Did you feel they were worthy over Alabama?
DABO SWINNEY: You want the honest answer?
DABO SWINNEY: 3:00 in the morning on a bus ride home from Charlotte, a moment of insanity, complete insanity (smiling).
No, just coming home. Literally it was 3:00 in the morning. Man, I got to do this poll. Looking at it, you know, they won 11 games. Alabama won 11 games. They won the Big Ten championship. Obviously the committee has a lot of things to look at, a lot of data. They're going to pick the four best teams however they see it.
At that moment, that's the way I voted. They're all great teams, man.
NICK SABAN: He was just respecting his alma mater, that's all (smiling).
DABO SWINNEY: I'm trying to get rid of him, but I can't shake him (laughter).
Q. Kirby, a couple of your assistants have been rumored for other positions. After the season ends, do you obviously have to anticipate this? Do you address this with them, about how maybe you're going to handle it? Is it just take it as it goes?
KIRBY SMART: You know, I think it's an honor any time your assistants get an opportunity to advance themselves. I learned that from none other than Nick. When you get an opportunity for somebody to go on and increase their role, they get a promotion, I think that's a great honor. I think it's an honor to your staff, to the success you've had at your program. I hope that all our guys get that opportunity.
I think that the timing with the early signing period, it's a very unique set of circumstances. You guys have asked a thousand times about the early signing period, how it's going to affect this and that.
I think it's really unique that now we're coming across things that we weren't quite aware of. Like we've got official visits next weekend, but we've got to practice also for bowl games where we never had to do that. We've got coaches that are jockeying to go to different places, different staffs. Because of the early signing period, they're wanting to move earlier and get in position, where a lot of times you didn't worry about coaching movement till after the bowl games.
It's brought up a unique circumstance, especially for a team in the College Football Playoff.
Q. Nick, what have you learned from the last two years with Kirby and Lane going through the same kind of situation as Jeremy? Does the early signing period change anything at all for you guys this year?
NICK SABAN: I think each individual handles a circumstance like this relative to how they can stay focused on two things. I remember when I went to Michigan State as an assistant coach way back in 1994, I think, I was at the Cleveland Browns, we were in the playoff hunt, and Bill made it as accommodating as he could for me, to have someone who helped as a secretary to do all the things, handle all the things, so I could focus on doing what we need to do for our players.
Most of the really good coaches that have great competitive character are always going to do what's best for the players. I mentioned earlier, Kirby certainly did a good job of that. I'm sure Jeremy will do a good job of that this year.
Q. Kirby, thinking back to 2015 when you had to juggle two jobs, what was the most difficult part of that? How did you handle that whole situation?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I thought that coach did a great job of helping with that. He offered up as many services as he could. At the time I was always concerned, Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the right thing for Georgia? Am I doing the right thing for Alabama? It was very concerning to me because I wanted to do what was best for both. What was best for both was to finish up what you were doing, but move on to the new things you had to do in recruiting.
With the early signing period, it creates an even new dynamic because you're trying to sign a signing class while you're practicing. The things that Jeremy is going to have to go through is probably going to be even more challenging in regards to that.
I'm glad, now looking back, that I did what I did, because it was the right thing to do. Certainly helped that we won the game. But it was a very challenging 30-day period, for sure.
Q. For all coaches. From your years of coaching, what phase of the game - offense, defense or special teams - has the advantage with one month to prepare?
KIRBY SMART: I don't know that any phase of the game has any advantage over the other with one month to prepare. I certainly think that how you manage those three phases is very critical to the outcomes of the game.
We talk to our team, as recently as yesterday, about perspective. What is each team's perspective on making the Playoffs. Do you have one team hungrier than the other, that's upset they didn't win a championship. Are they going to work harder than you. Are you going to be complacent because you're the first team in how many years to win an SEC Championship.
The perspective you go into it with is very critical. The Playoffs I've been a part of, it's the team that manages those 25 days to get better, to improve your kicking game, your offense, your defense. But I don't think one has an advantage over the other.
LINCOLN RILEY: I would agree with Kirby. I don't think it matters really what side of the ball you're talking about. There's no other time during the year where you have a month break between games. We're the only sport in the world that I can think of that does that, especially for championship-type games like this.
I think how you handle those games, how your staff handles them, your players, makes the biggest difference.
NICK SABAN: I don't really think that it's a lot about the offense, defense or special teams. I do think that skill players, wide receivers, fast guys, they sort of bounce back from the break a lot more quickly than the bigger guys. I also think that because you don't play for a long time, one of the most difficult skills is the fundamental of just blocking and tackling. That's why it's more challenging to the bigger guys. It just seems like it's a little bit harder to get everybody back to the level and the standard that you like.
But the skill guys, they'll go out there for two days, catch passes, they're ready to go: the quarterback, the receivers. They're fast guys, they're always fast guys. I think those guys have a little bit of an advantage in games with a big break like this.
DABO SWINNEY: From an offense, defense, kicking game, I don't really think anybody has an advantage because we all got the same amount of time. I think the advantage comes for how you use that time. I think everybody uses that time differently.
For us, I mean, we work a lot on ourselves. It's a lot of Clemson work. Obviously it's a lot of prep work for the team we're getting ready to play. It's also a lot of work on our future team.
We've got a formula that we believe in. I think everybody is unique and different in how they use that time. I think that is maybe an advantage or not an advantage, depending on what your philosophy is there.
As far as schematically, I think everybody has the same amount of time to study, prepare, all that. I don't really see a big advantage there.
Q. Kirby, you obviously have been here as an assistant coach before. Now that you're on stage, College Football Playoff behind you, three other head coaches here, does it feel much different as a head coach in terms of the magnitude of what you're going into? In the times you've been on campus, just around Athens, have you sort of felt the hunger in terms of what Georgia football hasn't been until now basically?
KIRBY SMART: I wouldn't say it feels any different. I would say the pressure I put on myself as a defensive coordinator and trying to win championships, when with Alabama, is very similar or the same. I want to be as prepared as we can. I want to prepare our staff, our organization the right way.
That doesn't change just when you go to the C. Certainly the responsibility changes and focus changes. It's not on how we're going to play defense, what we're going to call. It's a lot more on practice organization, recruiting, other things.
To be honest with you, around campus in Athens, I haven't been there much. I've been out in the plane, in the schools, using this time for recruiting. It's kind of what we've all been doing. It's an important time because of the early signing period.
Q. Lincoln and Kirby, both you guys are young guys, new head coaches. How is the fact that both of you have had experience on teams that have been to this College Football Playoff?
LINCOLN RILEY: I think it helps. I definitely think it helps. I learned a lot I think that first year going through it, going against Coach Swinney and those guys at the Orange Bowl a few years ago, again, how you prepare the team for a game with this kind of magnitude.
Also it certainly helps me having been there with a guy in Bob Stoops that was in a lot of games like this for many, many years. Certainly a lot of things that I picked up from him and will continue to lean on him for. I've got kind of a great background there that I'll certainly draw on as we charge forward here.
KIRBY SMART: It's a big benefit having been through it because you know the scheduling aspects, you know the travel aspects, you know the dynamic of talking to the team. It's not your typical bowl game. We're not going to ride (indiscernible) and do that kind of thing. That's not the purpose of this trip. I don't think you get that perspective if you haven't been through it.
Q. For all four coaches. You mentioned this long break. A way to eliminate that would be to expand the Playoff to eight teams. I'd like each coach's opinion on that. Might eliminate some of the controversy if we get every conference champion in, perhaps some wild card teams.
DABO SWINNEY: Oh, man, I like the system that we have, to be honest with you. I think we've been in a Playoff mode every week, literally, for about four, five weeks now. Every week has been a Playoff mentality for us. You lose, you're probably out. It's been all you got every single week. Every game is the biggest game of the year.
I think the season is long. It's very long. Yes, we could shorten this time. There is recruiting. We have early signing dates now. There's finals. Our guys, they actually go to class. They got tests all next week. It's going to be a real dancing act next week to try to practice and recruit and finals. There's a big challenge there.
I think you'd probably have to do away with championship games or something like that. I mean, I'm not opposed to it. I like what we got. I think we pretty much have gotten it right. I think it gives opportunity to a lot of teams to be able to go and play in a bowl game, end their season with a win. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. To be able to go, take your team, prepare them, get better, finish your season with a win.
Most of these other sports, there's only one team that finishes with a win. I think that's unique to our sport. But I do understand the other side of it, as well. I think they'd probably have to look at some type of bye concept or something for a couple teams, obviously shorten the time, do away with the championship games. I don't know what the exact formula is. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it.
I kind of like what we have.
NICK SABAN: I think somebody besides us, who is in a better position to make a decision of what do you want to accomplish in college football. I think a few years ago, going to a bowl game was a unique thing in college football because it rewarded a lot of players who participated, had good seasons, had an opportunity to go to a bowl game. Their fans could enjoy a bowl game.
We sort of started the two-team deal. Now it's a four-team deal. Now all the focus and emphasis is on the Playoffs. Teams that go to bowl games, the bowl games don't coexist very well with the Playoffs relative to importance, how much attention they get, but yet they are important to positive self-gratification for a lot of players, a lot of coaches, a lot of fans who have a good season. It's a very positive reinforcer.
Expanding the Playoffs would minimize that to a larger degree in terms of the importance of bowl games and the importance of players playing in bowl games. Last year you saw for the first time two players, two good players, from two good programs, chose not to play in their bowl game because of their future.
I think there's some issues that go along with the current system. If we go to eight teams, I'm sure it won't be long after that that you all want to be talking about 16.
I don't care if we have 68 teams in it, we'll still have a two-hour show on who shouldn't have got in it just like they do in basketball.
DABO SWINNEY: To me, that's what we have in all these other sports. We have the NBA, the NFL. That's one of the things that makes college football so unique, 130 teams, whatever, in Division I. It's a very unique setup in sport.
There's a lot of issues. Now all of a sudden if you know you're in the Playoffs, certain games become very irrelevant. Now all of a sudden you don't play certain players because know you're in, you don't want to get a guy hurt. There's a lot of unintended consequences that creep in, just like you see in all the other sports.
I love the NBA, but I don't ever watch it till the playoffs. Just doesn't matter. In our sport, it still matters. I mean, it matters. It matters what you do in September. It matters what you do in October. It matters what you do in November.
You know what, there's nothing wrong with going 9-3, 8-4. Maybe that's the best you were that year. Now you have a chance to go play a good bowl game somewhere, grow your team, get better, develop some guys for the spring. That's kind of what I grew up in. I'm kind of traditional in that.
LINCOLN RILEY: I would agree. There's never going to be a magic number. If we have eight, nine and 10 are going to be upset. If we have 16, 17 and 18 are going to be upset.
Before we want to just change things, we got a hell of a product here. We coach the greatest sport that there is on earth. The attention around this game is unlike any game or any sport that there is across the world.
I think we got a great product. I think the final four has been great. I think the biggest thing to me is people need to have realistic expectations. You're not going to go to the Playoff every single year. Only four teams can do it.
Like Coach Swinney just said, you still have a great team without going to the Playoffs. I think people's expectations need to be realistic. I think we need to appreciate all that's good, not worry about the few parts that maybe this person or that person don't agree with or don't think is right.
KIRBY SMART: Speaking as a former student-athlete, some of my greatest memories, like Dabo talked about, were those bowl games that mattered to a 10-win season. You do devalue that as you increase the number of teams in the Playoff. You do value the end of the season. You think about the last probably three weeks of the season, last two weeks of the season, the amount of attention and the amount of big games, probably got it more right this year than ever with a lot of the championship games as de facto play-in games. I think that's the right way to go about it.
Q. Nick, this is the third straight year you've lost a coordinator. Beyond that, some of them have taken assistant coaching jobs, staffers, behind-the-scene guys. Is there a cumulative effect on the organization when that happens?
NICK SABAN: I think immediately there is some effect and impact when you have change, but it also creates an opportunity to bring in new enthusiasm, new ideas, new people. You just have to keep constantly trying to make sure that the people that you're hiring are quality people who are going to add something in a positive way to the organization.
I think it's just like players. You don't really replace players, you just find somebody else who is really capable of doing a good job at that particular position. Even though they're not like the last guy, they do a good job and contribute to the organization.
I always look at it as an opportunity. I think it's wonderful, and I try to help and promote our coaches so they have an opportunity to go and become head coaches. I think that's what they work hard for. That's why they do a good job, why they contribute.
No different than the player who works hard to try to play in the NFL someday. We like to see guys get promoted. It's an opportunity to find the next good guy to come along. Hopefully he'll improve the organization in a different way.
Q. Kirby, you're a relatively young head coach. What is it like to be the senior statesman in this Rose Bowl with the guy next to you? Can you imagine being in this game at his age?
KIRBY SMART: No, I couldn't imagine that. I've followed his career. He's done a tremendous job. A lot of the time that I was a defensive coordinator, when you have opportunities to get a head coaching job, everybody's million dollar question is, Who is your offensive coordinator? He was a guy on the radar for a long time, then he got his own. He's done a tremendous job. Got a lot of respect for what he does.
I thought it was pretty cool this morning when I walked in a local high school, first guy I saw was him. He was going solo. I was going solo. Got to sit there and talk. Got a lot of respect for him, what he does, how fast he's been able to do it.
Q. Coach Riley, as the youngest head coach at the top level of college football, how have you used your age to an advantage to reach this College Football Playoff in your first year?
LINCOLN RILEY: I haven't. I haven't. I get asked about it all the time. That's the only time I ever think about it.
I think you can either relate to players or you can't. You can either lead people or you can't. Some of the people, they're going to say, He's young, he can relate to players, closer to his age. Some of the best coaches I've ever seen that relate to players are 55, 60 years old because they're gifted at it.
I don't think our team, our staff thinks a whole lot about it. I certainly don't. I said it when this happened and I got this job: if we do well, it's not going to be because I was young. If we don't do well, it's not going to be because I was young. We either get it done or we don't.
Q. For all four coaches. Physically gifted, talented teams, but was there a game or week when you thought emotionally, mentally, your guys could actually get to this point, be capable of doing what it is they've done to get to these two games?
KIRBY SMART: I don't know if there was one moment that stuck out. I certainly thought that we had great leadership, a lot of really good, high-character kids. We went on the road to Notre Dame with a true freshman quarterback. They rose to the occasion.
There were a lot of opportunities in that game for us to. Bad things happened. They just kept responding, kept responding, kept giving him an opportunity with some mistakes he made in that game.
I thought from that point forward, Look, we've got a good football team. If he continues to grow as a quarterback, we get better defensively, keep improving on special teams, we'll have a shot to win the games we play.
Ultimately you try to get to Atlanta in our conference so you have an opportunity to get up here on this stage. We were very fortunate to do that. That was kind of the moment.
LINCOLN RILEY: Part of me wants to say going and beating Ohio State in Columbus week two, that was a big game there in a great venue against a really, really good football team. I didn't know until about two minutes left in the TCU game, when we were up, whatever we were, running the clock out.
Like Coach Swinney said, you get to a point where it's every single game. You lose one, you're probably out. You know it. Your kids know it. That's all that's talked about, ESPN, everywhere else.
I felt like at that point we had a chance, but there was certainly a lot of work to be done and a lot of work that it took to get to this point.
NICK SABAN: Well, our team was a little bit different this year in that I thought early on we really played well. As the season went on, we continued to accumulate a lot of adversity, mostly through injuries and physical problems that we had, that really affected our team's ability to grow.
I really liked the way the players sort of persevered and overcame the adversity and kept playing. It created a lot of opportunity for a lot of other young players to go out there and play.
I think the togetherness that our team showed throughout the year to have the consistency in performance that we wanted to try to get, the adversity that they overcame, showed the true competitive character of what could lead into a team that could have a chance to compete for a championship.
I was a little disappointed in the way we finished the season. Great lesson to be learned in all that. When you have a chance to control your own destiny and you don't, you put your fate in the hands of somebody else. We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the Sugar Bowl to play Clemson.
DABO SWINNEY: For us, I felt like obviously we lost a lot of guys offensively especially. I felt like in camp we had a chance, but I just hadn't seen our quarterback, you know, really play in any meaningful, stressful game situation. How is he going to respond? You try to create all that stuff in practice as best you.
The Auburn game, you know, knowing that we're playing a really good team, a great defense especially, watching how he handled the moment. Then the very next week going on the road to Louisville, Game Day, all that stuff. Same thing, watching our quarterback.
I really felt like we had other pieces to have a chance to win, you know, week in and week out. After really those two games, I felt like, you know what, this kid has a chance to really lead us.
I think he needed that early success to kind of establish himself as the leader because the guys all respected him. In that position, you got to play well. He played two great games. I think that was the confidence early that this team needed. Then we just kept kind of growing throughout the year, have gotten a little bit better along the way.
Q. Kirby, as a Georgia native, I've watched the Dawgs football club change constantly each season. In the past three years, especially now that they are on a high pedestal, what do you think it will take to keep up this momentum?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I think a lot of hard work. A lot of people in the organization buying into the things that we want to do. I think any time you try to build something special, you do it from the ground up. We've tried to do it with a really good foundation of people in our organization that really want to help.
I think this state, all these guys will tell you, they come over here to recruit because there's really good football players here. This state is a great place to be home to because of the high school football programs that are here, the tremendous jobs they do. There's about to be state championships played over there for the next two days, some of the best players in the country that will be playing at all these programs.
I think doing a good job of evaluating those, getting the right young men that want to come to Georgia and get an education and also be good football players, will be a part of us staying successful.
GINA LEHE: We'd like to thank all the coaches for their time and wish you the best in the Playoff semifinals.
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