MODERATOR: 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
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
MODERATOR: 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
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.
MODERATOR: 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
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
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: 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.
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
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: You want the honest answer?
DABO: 3:00 in the morning on a bus ride
home from Charlotte, a moment of insanity, complete
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
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: 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
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
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
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
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
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
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: 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
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
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: 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
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 fourteam
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
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: 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
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
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
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
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
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: 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.