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December 31, 2017
THE MODERATOR: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. We're joined here with the head coaches from both the Oklahoma Sooners and the Georgia Bulldogs, Coach Lincoln Riley and Coach Kirby Smart.
Before we start, I'd like to remind everyone to please silence your cell phones. I'd like to ask both coaches to give a quick remark about their week here at the Rose Bowl Game. We'll start with Coach Riley.
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, it's been a great week. You'd always heard so much about the Rose Bowl, both growing up just as a kid, as a fan of college football, and then certainly getting into this business, and the great reputation that this game has.
Now getting to experience the week, you can see why. The venue is incredible. Every detail by the Rose Bowl Committee has been taken care of to a T. Our players have had a great time, some great experiences that they'll remember for the rest of their lives. So we really appreciate the hospitality and the opportunity to be here.
Like every team, especially in a game of this magnitude, you try to balance all the activities -- having fun, not shortchanging our guys on that side of it, but also having great prep work and getting ready to play obviously a great team in Georgia.
So I feel like we've had a great week of practice. We're anxious and ready for the game to be here. It's been a long time coming, lot of build up. I feel like our guys are excited, prepared, ready to play very well.
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, on behalf of the SEC and the University of Georgia, I'd like to thank the Tournament of Roses. They've been a wonderful host. Like Lincoln said, first-class bowl game. One of the best I've ever been involved in. My previous experience out here was a little different because we didn't stay really with the Tournament of Roses. It was a little different experience.
It's been tremendous. I think our players have really enjoyed it. They've done a good job of keeping them busy and giving them something to do, but also not to the point of being a major distraction from what is a really important game to our program.
We have great respect for Oklahoma, the university, Coach Stoops, Coach Riley. They've got a tremendous program. I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for what they've done. It's been a place that has set a standard not only in their conference but in the country. So we're excited to get an opportunity to play a really good program in them.
A lot of players last year, a lot of players this year have helped set a standard for what we want to play to at the University of Georgia, and we try each game to go out and achieve that standard.
This senior group has been very special to me. A lot of them I knew through recruiting, but this is the second year with them, and I've seen a little bit of a metamorphosis of leadership, of taking ownership and doing the right things. There is a good group of them. I think a lot of the investment that last year's seniors made has helped with this group as well.
So we're really excited for opportunity to play in the College Football Playoff. I think it's an awesome honor. It's a great experience. There's been a lot of build-up for this game, like Lincoln said, and it's time to go play the game.
One of the hardest things to do as a coach is manage that emotion and anxiety building into such a great game like this.
We're excited and ready to go play.
Q. With experience in the College Football Playoff before, what are these next 24 hours-plus like leading up to the game?
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, I think it's a chance to finally get back on your normal routine, get the guys in a routine where they feel comfortable, and for yourself as a coach. There is a lot of build-up, lot of attention around this game, so I think it's just refocusing in 100%, getting on that routine, kind of settling down, getting away from all the noise, all the attention and getting ready to play your very best game.
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, very similar. I mean, we get back into a much more normal routine of a game week, at least for the next 24 hours, because everything has been built in. There's been an event or there's been some kind of activity, where now the activity is the game.
So the next 24 hours are much more normal for our guys. The most abnormal thing is they haven't had it in however many days it's been, 28 or 30 days. So it's good to get back to some normalcy for them.
Q. You each in different ways stepped into situations that were not rebuilds. You had good players in the pipeline at each place. I'm wondering what the challenges are for each of you, with the different circumstances, of taking over that job when you have good players and kids who are not necessarily a rebuild, but you still want to put your stamp on the program?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I think in my case, different from Lincoln's, there's two kinds of philosophies there. There's where you come in and scratch, overhaul, throw everything out because you have conviction that what was done before wasn't working. Then there's you've got to win the players over because they may not see it as there was a problem. They may see it as they were completely happy with winning nine, ten games a year, and that's what I call complacency. You've got to be able to make some changes and make them in the right direction to turn the program around. Whether it's new ideas, new energy, whatever it is. There's different ways to do things, and I think we all realize that.
In our case, that was probably the greatest challenge was not accepting what had been done before as the norm and convincing the players that are currently on the team that we can do better. We can do better things, and we can improve. How do we do that? Well, we do it this way. Well, that may not be the right way in their mind. You've got to convince them it is. Sometimes that takes more work than just coming in where a team's hungry, and more aggressive and listen to what you have to say.
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, obviously my situation was a little unique. Probably the biggest challenge was starting in early June. That honestly was probably the biggest challenge. Whatever changes that we did want to make you felt like you had to get them done pretty quickly. I think there will be some more changes that we make that we feel like because of the timing it wasn't appropriate to try to change maybe something bigger in June. That's maybe something that happens down the line after the season.
So, yeah, obviously my situation was different in having our staff in place. A lot of those guys that I had worked with, been a part of, we've had a lot of success together. So I think for us it's continuing to build on it, trying to find a few ways to get a little bit better, and maintaining the high expectations there's always been at Oklahoma.
Q. For both coaches, you mentioned emotions. How important is it going to be to set the tempo you want in the first ten minutes of the game?
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, that's always important, especially when you haven't played in a while. But is that going to sit there and decide the game? Who knows. There's going to be ups and downs in this game, just like all games, especially when you play against great competition.
So certainly you want to start fast, but you're going to have to be able to hang in there in this game. Both teams are good enough. I would suspect both teams are going to have some strong points in the game, some runs, and how you answer that, to me, is going to be a big key in this game.
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I always think it comes back to the response. Because there's moments they've had this year, we've had this year and past years, big games. It's a momentum game. The college game is such a momentum game. There is so much emotion involved. A lot of the outcomes are dictated by how you handle what happens. Not necessarily what happens, but how you handle what happens.
I think that's really important. Both teams have handled that well throughout the year, because both have had some tough situations.
Q. In talking about the quarterbacks, and yours in particular, you've got -- in this game the difference is vast in terms of experience. What about leading into it with your young guy? Do you talk to him much about the big stage, or do you just assume he'll continue what he's done this season?
KIRBY SMART: Well, good thing for him is he's not playing against Baker. They're not on the field at the same time unless we put him out there at defensive back or something, which that would really concern me. So he doesn't have to do that.
The good news is he has done a good job of using the people around him to help him. He's also played in some really big games this year for us, so he's got some experience. Traveling to Notre Dame the first time I was a lot more worried about how he was going to respond to adversity, to mistakes and things like that. Having seen him play throughout the year, play in our conference, play in the SEC Championship game, I think he'll have the confidence to respond the right way.
Doesn't mean he won't have jitters. Baker played in this game two years ago, I think, and he was maybe a sophomore or junior. I'm not sure what year he was then. But you have to grow through that. You have to use the people around you. But we make sure he understands he's not in a statistical warfare with Baker Mayfield. We know Baker is a very good player.
Q. Kirby, you called it a really important game for the program. At this stage of the season, are you comfortable with the guys being able to handle that and the magnitude of what's out there?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I think every game is important to the program. I really do. I think every game you play is really important. Obviously this is on a much bigger stage. When you start talking about the magnitude of games, I think it's truly important the way your structure is built, the way your infrastructure is, the way your culture is.
Big games are what your program was built for. You've built toward this all year, all off-season. And each game only gets bigger. They've been in a must-win situation for I don't know how many weeks now. We've been in a must-win situation for a lot of weeks.
There's been a lot of games played. There is another opportunity to go out and play with physicality, play with good composure, and go for the best you can play.
Q. Lincoln, Baker showed up at the press conference yesterday and sounded good. He thought his voice would be fine. I'm curious, in today's game, Lincoln, all the things that go on with signs and signals and things like that, if he got hoarse during the game, would it cause you to have to do anything else, or are the hand signals already there and it wouldn't impact the game at all?
LINCOLN RILEY: I don't want to tell this guy too much about that. We're confident in where Baker's at and being ready to play well for us tomorrow.
Q. Lincoln, if you could pick a turning point this season in which you felt most comfortable in your first season as head coach, what comes to mind?
LINCOLN RILEY: Oh, man, I don't know that you ever feel comfortable in this job, honestly. I think the second you do, you're probably in trouble.
That's been good. It's allowed me and our staff and our team to kind of keep our focus on one game a week. We knew the expectations not necessarily from the outside but just within our walls. We expected to be here from second one. Even after this coaching change, even after the Iowa State loss, we still fully expected to be here.
So, yeah, I don't know that any of us have ever felt comfortable. It's been a must-win attitude for a long time. I still feel an immense pressure to do my job the very best I can for our team, just like I did the day I got the job. So I don't know if that will ever go away.
Q. You guys played at a time before the playoff when the goal of the sport was to get to the best bowl game possible. Do you find with today's players and especially programs like yours that anything less than the playoff is considered a disappointment?
KIRBY SMART: I don't think you ever want to get to that point because you're going to have a large contingency in college football that's disappointed, and I don't think that's fair. I think having played in a system where I got to go to some really exciting bowl games, some of my greatest memories of college football are the three bowl games I got to play in.
I think that's a reward for a successful season. To say that some of the bowls may not have gotten watered down, I can't argue that point, but I can tell you this: If you win eight, nine, ten games and you get an opportunity to go to a great bowl game, I think that's a great reward for the players.
It may or may not have been the most successful season you could have put out there for these two programs, which are great programs and great institutions, but I'll be honest with you. It would be very unfair to say that we don't need an opportunity for bowl games, because so many of these student-athletes get an opportunity to go out and play one last game, to enjoy an experience, to go places that a lot of our kids have never gone and see places they've never seen.
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, I totally agree. I think the best example I could come up with was we were one of those teams that were right on the outside looking in last year. But we won, I think, our last ten games in a row. Won a Big 12 Championship. Played a really good Auburn team in the Sugar Bowl. It was a big-time, heavy-hitting game last year, and we were fortunate enough to win that game. That was a memory created for that team and those players that they'll never forget.
So people on the outside certainly put a lot more focus on this playoff. And maybe it does take away from some of the other bowls from the outside perspective. But I can promise you this: Every one of our players and coaches laid it on the line last year in the Sugar Bowl and could care less about the playoff at that point.
It's certainly always a goal and a place you want to be. But realistically there are 100-something teams out there and only four of them get in. You're not going to get in every single year. It's just not going to happen. There is still a lot left to play for and a lot of great things for these players that they put a lot of hard work in to be able to experience.
Q. You play in conferences with distinct offensive cultures. Now you're in a game, opposite of that offensive culture. How tough is that for your defenses that are built to stop the majority of offenses that play a certain way? Now you've got to stop an offense that plays a different way?
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, I think there's challenges. There are certainly challenges when you play people out of conference that you're not used to playing every single year.
I think the good thing for us defensively is at least from our offense they see a little bit of both. Not that it's not exactly like Georgia. It's not. But it's not like we're just sitting and dropping back and throwing it 60 times a game from four wides and that's all they see.
I think that's helped us defensively, giving us a good head start on it. Used to seeing some of the run game, the physicality, and we're hoping that that carries over.
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I wouldn't argue that the two conferences are as far apart as maybe you make them to be. I think when you watch both conferences, the SEC has slowly morphed closer in more spread elements. When you look at what Missouri does, what Kentucky does and you start watching all these other teams, I think Auburn's -- what is spread? We always have that debate. What is a team that can run the ball physically? Oklahoma runs the ball, they run the ball and they're physical at running the ball. So do a lot of teams in our conference. They throw the ball really well. They spread you out and make you defend all areas of the field.
I think all offenses are trying to do that now. I just don't see the old traditional I-formation, which I think you may be making that synonymous with the SEC, which I don't think the SEC is that way. I think it's slowly grown to be more of a spread-out conference. Probably not the same offensive numbers, obviously, as the Big 12 is. But it's not as big a disparity as you think.
Q. Staying with defense for a second. Can you characterize the growth of Kenneth Murray this season and maybe speak to his importance, especially against Georgia's run game on Monday?
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, it's been pretty impressive what the kid has been able to do as a true freshman, throwing him in there, and he came in early, but didn't even play inside backer for the entire spring. With some depth issues and some other occurrences, we had to make that change. For him to be able to flip over there and handle it mentally, to stay healthy throughout the season, and to also really become one of our leaders, even though he's just a true freshman, has been really impressive.
So his ceiling is really high. He's only going to get better and better. He's really, really taken some big steps this year. You're not going to find many young inside backers that have the kind of ability that he does. It's been fun to see that ability really start to show up more and more especially in these big games.
Q. For both coaches, you've mentioned all the extracurricular things that go along with a game like this. How have you been able to strike that balance this week between fun and work? How have your experiences as assistants in college playoff scenarios helped you in planning things out this week?
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, how do you strike the balance? I think a lot of it comes back to the plan that you set as coaches. I think making sure they understand the priorities when they come and being able to separate the two. Being able to focus in when it is anything that has to do with football, but also being able to relax a little bit and enjoy all these great events that we've had here at the Rose Bowl.
I think a lot of it goes back to your leadership. I think they set the tone for the team, and I think if your leadership believes that and kind of sets the standard that way, that the rest of these guys follow suit.
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, we just try to keep the main thing the main thing.
Q. The two years that you've been with Nick and Sony, what have they meant to you? Is it hard to believe we're in the final stage of their career at Georgia?
KIRBY SMART: No, it's not hard to believe we're in the final stage. It seems like they've been there for 20 years. They've been playing for so long, and they've been such a special tandem and they have such a special relationship. I'm really excited to see those two guys. They've been really focused this week. They're two of the most driven guys on our team. The ones that don't get distracted, the ones that are in every meeting. They sit in every special teams meeting, even though they're not on it. They're in the front of the room, they're making sure guys are attentive.
I mean, they're what you want to be the face of your organization and leadership in your organization. I give each of them tremendous kudos to the way they've managed coming back, being bought in, not being selfish, being patient, and doing a great job of leading our program. They'll be forever remembered as probably the best duo to play at Georgia.
Q. It's been a little bit surprising to most fans when they find out that these two programs have never met. I wonder what your thoughts were when you found out that given the proud history of both programs and all the great coaches at both that you're making history here tomorrow?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I thought it was pretty unique. The first thing I thought about was how the hell are we going to stop them. But I wasn't thinking that they had not actually played. When I found that out, I mean, for the storied history and great traditions of both places, it's pretty amazing. To be part of that in such a wonderful setting, such an awesome place to play a game, such a rare place for both programs to get to play, and then to play each other for the first time, this is really special.
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, I would echo that. I was surprised, honestly, again, with the history of both teams, how good both teams have been over a long period of time that there had never been a meeting.
How much does that mean right now? Honestly, not much. It will mean something down the line. But with we knew we were getting ready to play a very well-coached team, great opponent, and, like Kirby said, one of the best venues not just in college sports, but in sports period.
Q. Lincoln, your backup quarterback got a lot of attention yesterday because of Baker's situation. How has Kyler embraced, adjusted to the role of being a backup after coming in with such celebrated status as a recruit?
LINCOLN RILEY: Yeah, it's been great for him. I don't think we could have dreamed up a better scenario for him. He probably had more attention coming on him than just about any high school player that's ever played in the state of Texas, which is saying something. Goes to A&M, plays quite a bit for them. I think it was good for him to get here and be able to catch his breath, kind of get under the radar a little bit. Having a chance to learn from Baker, to really get settled in within the system.
He's done a great job. He's been one of the best backups this year that I've ever had as far as maintaining focus, being ready to play each week, continuing to improve. Especially for a guy that's had some starting experience, that's been pretty impressive.
He's been ready when we've called upon him. He's played well in the games and obviously played well when we started him against West Virginia.
So, yeah, I've been proud of his development. He's a guy that I sleep well at night knowing if something happened and it was time for him to play, I don't think we'd miss a beat.
Q. Lincoln, we know all about Baker's competitiveness. Is it fair to say him coming here yesterday was part of that? He told a story of seeing you answering questions and decided to come over.
LINCOLN RILEY: Probably. I think more than that it's just he's that kind of teammate. He doesn't want guys to have to answer for him. He, I think, just kind of wanted to let everybody move past it, see that he was alive and was able to walk and move and all that good stuff.
Yeah, I think it was his way of saying, hey, here, let's go do it. Let's get past it and get ready to play the game.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports