Q. What effect does LSU being at the top of college football have on the sport?
CHRIS FOWLER (CF): Well, I think it’s fresh blood. The playoff has frankly needed different teams. Clemson has been the kingpin, and in a short time they’ve gone from the underdog team that’s trying to chase down Bama to sitting at the top, and then LSU comes in as although the favorite in this game, they’re still the challenger for the title.
But I think LSU has obviously a rich history. I was there all three times, played for the championship in the Superdome before, and it’s cyclical. LSU is always going to be a championship contender.
I think this particular group with the dynamic offense is what sets it apart. I’m not sure either Kirk or I have seen an offense this explosive in all our years of covering college football, and I think that’s a dimension that LSU teams haven’t had in the past. But yeah, I think you need to have fresh blood in the playoff, different contending teams, and this year for the first time it’s LSU.
Q. Chris, you referenced about how strange it is to — for this wait. What do you think about this, the 16 days between the semis and the finals, and is this good for the College Football Playoff to wait that long?
If you ask Clemson’s players, they’re probably glad to have it. I think if the teams had had to play the week after those two semifinals, especially the one we saw in Arizona, that was a bloodbath, super physical game. Kirk and I both commented the number of players on both sides that went out of the game, came back in the game, were being treated, digging deep. If they had to come back on seven days, it would have been I think really tough. You throw in cross-country travel into that to get back home after the game, I think it’s nice to have a recovery period.
Ideally for momentum and fan interest, you wouldn’t want it to be 16 days, like I’ve said before. We will be prepared because that’s a lot of time to get ready for two teams we already know. But ideally it would be a little closer than that, I think, to settle things. I think it is most years.
Q. I know it’s almost an impossible question to answer, but which quarterback would you give the advantage to heading into this game? I know one hasn’t lost and the other is maybe having one of the greatest seasons of all time.
And I don’t know if in my years of playing the game and covering the game, probably over 30 years, I have ever seen a quarterback executing at the level of Joe Burrow in a system like this. I love both these guys.
I think it’s great to think the potential of first pick this year in the draft. I feel bad for Joe going to the Bengals (said jokingly), and then next year the first pick probably Trevor Lawrence. So you’ve got potentially the first two picks overall in the next two drafts going head-to-head. I don’t know if we’ve ever had two quarterbacks in a championship game that you could say that about.
They’re both outstanding, but just because of the way Joe has executed with his teammates and this new offense, I think you’ve got to give him a slight edge going in.
CF: That’s also interesting. Burrow in every category you think about, how is he when he’s pressured? He’s the best. How is he against ranked teams? He’s the best. In the red zone, in the fourth quarter, against the blitz. I mean, Lawrence is brilliant in all those categories, too. Burrow, it’s hard to imagine a guy having a season like this.
I said last week in Arizona, I don’t know if there’s anybody you’d trust or not want to bet against than Lawrence, never having lost a game since high school, just the toughness that he showed against Ohio State when he got pissed off after getting hit in the head and really played much better after that, the 94-yard drive, the 67-yard run. He made plays in that game that are going to live in the history of the sport. It showed me a lot. I know Kirk feels the same way.
It’s really, really splitting hairs when you try to say, okay, who’s performed better versus who’s going to shine when the light comes on. Trevor has a lot of championship experience, and I think that counts for something, not that Joe won’t deliver, but others — there’s tremendous pressure on both of them to key their offense. I can’t wait to see it unfold, though. It’s really — it’s tough to choose, though. That’s why you asked the question, I know.
Q. Question for both of you because I cover this from a business perspective, and if I can ask you to zoom out, it’s year six of the CFP format, and obviously you still have critics out there who say they should make it an eight-game playoff? What do you say to that? What do you say to those people who say the format still hasn’t gotten it right?
I think if you expanded to eight, Dabo said this before, imagine Clemson or Alabama not being in every year. You’re going to have a lot of the same teams, and I think if you play the quarterfinal round at campus sites, the higher seed is going to be solid favorite most years. You can’t just have 16 games in my opinion. You’ve got to eliminate something, either a regular-season game or the conference championship games if you’re going to add an additional round to the playoffs.
I do think it’ll probably happen. I think that the four has worked pretty well, though. I really do.
KH: Yeah, we lived in that world of two for a long time, and everybody talked about the potential of a playoff and what that would mean for the sport, and we got the four. I think the one drawback that I’ve recognized is how when we had the BCS I didn’t really feel that if you didn’t make it in the BCS, there wasn’t this feeling of dejection. Like the fans get frustrated, the media that covers the team. It’s almost a disappointing year if your goal was to make it to the playoff and you don’t make it and you still have a 10-win season. It’s almost, I think, created — like for me, I’m a big college basketball fan, and you watch March Madness and then there’s also the NIT tournament, and the NIT tournament is kind of an afterthought for a lot of fans, and I almost feel like this four has gotten to the point where it’s like the four teams made it to the tournament and everybody else, they’re in the NIT tournament. That’s kind of — I think we’re raising a generation of fans that feel that way.
To me I don’t know what the answer to fix that. I don’t know if going to eight is going to change that. It might make it even worse.
That’s my only concern for the sport, for the well-being of the sport, because think about that, you have over 100 teams that are playing college football, and you have four teams that get into the playoff, and everybody else is looked at as a failure, and that’s not really realistic or right.
I think it’s inevitable we’ll eventually get to eight. I think how you handle the conference championships is the tricky part. Do you eliminate them? Do you keep them? Do you back down to 11 regular-season games, keep the conference championship games? Do you do home games for the first round? How do you incorporate the bowl games? What’s the Rose Bowl going to do? Other than just saying we need to go to eight, there’s a lot of hurdles you have to overcome in order to be able to do that.
CF: Yeah, I think if you value the bowl system, expansion would help kill it. I just think it’s very much against the bowl system unless you involve the bowls as quarterfinals and really manipulate the schedule, which backs you up into NFL playoff territory and causes all kinds of problems.
Like Kirk said, the bowls, which I think are a precious part of the history of the sport, would be extremely devalued if you expanded it and had a quarterfinals say for playoff games that were not part of the bowl system.
Q. If you look back at the history of the College Football Playoff, however brief it is, southern teams have been dominant, both in the number of teams earning playoff spots as well as winning national titles. Is that simply attributable to regional differences or the popularity of college football in the South? What are the other factors at play here?
KH: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s like a subjective analysis. It’s not just recruiting. I think if you go back over the last three years, five years, eight years, ten years and you look at what the NFL — maybe they have an SEC bias, too, I don’t know, but if you look at the people that are drafted, it’s pretty clear with the exception of Ohio State Chris just talked about, schools like potentially Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, you’re looking at teams from the South who are churning out NFL players at a pretty high rate. Even the ACC, if you go back five, seven years, I know they’re perceived to be down right now with teams like Florida State and Miami and Virginia Tech down, but I think they still have some great individual talent that’s been pretty proven if you watch NFL football on Sunday or look at the rosters.
So again, I don’t think it’s really subjective. I think it’s proven based on the way these teams recruit, the way they play, and then the way they end up sending players to the NFL.
Q. I have a TV question for you. What impact do you think that the Megacast has in bringing in new viewers for this event? And do you think the Megacast format has the potential for other ESPN properties such as Monday Night Football?
I think obviously smart people who make the decisions feel like it’s worth doing, and maybe expanding it to other events, the CFP championship game is pretty well suited for that kind of thing because there’s so much talk about so many different angles to take. I wish I knew more about it. We just have kind of a job to do, and it’s to keep our eye on the ball with the traditional broadcast that we do.
Q. I was just curious from sort of film study and game prep and maybe just your gut from watching these teams throughout the season, both are averaging more than 45 a game. Are you expecting something that could be more of an LSU-Alabama type score into the 40s or more what we saw from Clemson and Ohio State?
But if you watch these teams offensively, there’s great — a great scheme, great quarterback play, great skill around the quarterbacks. There’s a lot to like about the potential of seeing points for both teams.
CF: To me the difference in a high-scoring game and a medium-scoring game is a few plays. Is AJ Terrell going to get his hand on a pass and break up a touchdown? Is Burrow or Lawrence going to find a tight end open at the back of the end zone or be a little bit off on the throw, because they’re going to move the ball. I don’t see any way that the ball is not moved around the field. It’s just you have situations like Ohio State, they have 500 yards of offense but kicked three red zone field goals.
Both have the ability, and Clemson in particular, if you look at their playoff history, they score way outside the red zone a lot. If they can do that, it makes the job simple. I think it’s really difficult to try to find a way to fit the ball into tight spaces down there in the red zone against Clemson.
To me it’s like you’re going to see the ball moved. Whether it’s a bunch of points or a medium-scoring game just depends on whether it’s seven, three or zero in the red zone. To me that’s the whole thing.
Q. Chris and Herb, Dabo is a master at creating a chip, a creating motivation even sometimes when he doesn’t have to or when something isn’t there, but now Clemson is a definite underdog, this is a de facto LSU home game, and there seem to be a lot of factors. Do you think he will be able to use all of that, and just some of your thoughts on how Dabo uses these kinds of motivations to inspire his team.
But I think in Dabo’s case, I know it’s gotten tiresome for some people, but I think if you put yourself in his shoes, here he is the defending champ, they have a close call — they didn’t lose, but a close call against North Carolina. After that they beat everybody by an average of like 42 points, and everybody is kind of trying to poke holes at their team.
I think his whole thing was look, it’s not just this year, we’re like 18-2 against ranked teams over the last five years; we’re doing okay.
And so I think if you look at it from his perspective you can see why he was tweaked a bit, and at the end of the day, as long as you can get a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old kids to feel like nobody likes you, everybody is disrespecting you — I watched the Minnesota Vikings the other day knock off the Saints, and as soon as the game was over Kyle Rudolph catches the pass and he’s like, What do you say now? What do you have to say about Kirk Cousins now?
So these tactics are used in team sports, and it’s not just in college and it’s not just Dabo. Anytime you can try to collectively create a chip on the shoulder of a team, they’re going to feel backed into a corner and they’re going to come out swinging to prove everybody wrong. They’ve been doing it for years and years and years, and Dabo to his credit has found a way to try to push those buttons this year.
CF: Yeah, how do you make the most accomplished team also the hungriest team. It’s hard. It’s hard in any sport. It’s what haunts Saban. How do you counter human nature? And one way is to create a chip. 29 in a row, but you’re the underdogs. So it’s easy for them this week.
The lack of Clemson individual player awards is a big motivating thing, too. I mean, a team that good has had only really Isaiah Simmons win a major award and very few nominees, whereas LSU, which is an incredibly decorated team, everybody was a clean sweep. It’s not just they don’t respect you, it’s they don’t respect you specifically individually, and that’s a powerful motivating force, too, and I think he’ll use that.
Does it decide games? I don’t know. Dabo is as good as anybody at the moment in any sport at pushing the right buttons and getting his team to prepare and play well. I wouldn’t knock what he’s doing. I get amused sometimes because I don’t think anybody really disrespects Clemson’s program at all. Far from it. But you use what you’ve got, and he’s been very good at it.
Q. Kirk, I was curious, how do you envision Brent Venables planning against this offense in terms of number of DBs on the field and then trying to create pressure on Burrow?
KH: Yeah, I think that’s the whole — I can’t wait to see LSU’s offense trot out there for the first time because we’ll have our meetings the closer we get to kick with both teams, and typically the coordinators are pretty forthcoming because we know we’re not really going to talk about anything until the game starts. But if I were Brent Venables, this year he’s incorporated that three-down line look where he keeps two linebackers, Chad Smith and Skalski, and then he brings Nolan Turner in, and if you include Isaiah Simmons as a defensive back, it’s almost like having six defensive backs in the game.
I think going back to your point to what we had talked earlier about Kevin Steele at Auburn… they played with seven defensive backs, and I think anything you can do to get more speed on the field, to get more guys to be able to defend this passing game, a lot of the quick slants, a lot of the shots downfield, you kind of need all hands on deck as far as your back end, and that happens to be Clemson’s strength, and they’ve been very clear about that all year that they lost all those great defensive linemen to the NFL, so they’ve had to rely on the back end to get things done for them, and how fitting that this is a final test for Clemson’s defense is against a guy having a historic year in Joe Burrow.
So yeah, I think we’ll see Nolan Turner in there quite a bit, along with the rest of the DBs, and I do think they’re going to have to come up with a lot of opportunities to disguise, look at a lot of different things to try to create any kind of doubt or any kind of hesitation that they can create for Joe Burrow.
CF: It’s a great chess match because the challenge is so significant when you’ve got basically five playmakers on the field involved in a route a lot of the time. He gets out so fast that he can negate pressure.
Brent is the ultimate guy – what has he coached now, eight championship games? Against this offense, I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.
Q. I wanted to ask both of you if you were surprised about Matt Rhule from Baylor being such a hot commodity and hired by the Panthers, despite not winning at a bigger level in college, and do you think that’s a growing trend to hire college coaches in the NFL and maybe see Dabo in the NFL someday?
I think Matt Rhule, because in the coaching fraternity, college and pro, there’s just a great amount of respect for him and the way he does his job, the way he carries himself and his style of coaching.
I think the Jets offered him a job last year and he turned it down, and you knew that there were going to be more opportunities this year, and if he turned them down this year they would have been there next year. He just happens to be one of those guys that the NFL respects.
So I’m not surprised at all that he had those opportunities despite not winning National Championships and kind of making that next step. I just think it was more about his style and the way he carried himself as a coach.
CF: Yeah, happy for him. Disappointed for Baylor. Wish he were still in college football from a selfish perspective. But as Kirk said, the offers were going to keep coming in, defensive mindset, a real gift as a coach. I think Baylor would have been on very solid ground for a long time if Matt had stayed. But not to be. So now I’ll be watching on Sundays and hoping the Panthers succeed with him.
Q. Chris, I was hoping this was an Australian Open call and I wanted to ask you some tennis questions, but for Chris and Kirk, obviously I cover Michigan football and it’s now five years for Jim Harbaugh in the books. I kind of thought they’d be in the position you guys are in right now, preparing to go cover a National Championship game. In both your perspectives, how far do you think Michigan is from being there?
KH: Do we think they’re far from being there, kind of getting to that next step? Is that what you’re saying?
Q. Yeah, I mean, the narrative around here, maybe you saw it after that Michigan-Ohio State game, is oh, the gap is enormous between Michigan and Ohio State, and I’m not sure it is, but I was just curious your impressions, and are you a little stunned that Harbaugh hasn’t been able to get Michigan to that level yet?
It hasn’t turned out that way. Obviously Urban is gone; Ohio State hasn’t lost yet. And not only that, I think if we’re all being honest with each other, we can talk schemes all we want, but I think the real part that I’m sure Coach Harbaugh and his staff are looking at is they just have to continue to recruit. I mean, if Ohio State is the bar in the Big Ten and you’re matching up with them, and there have been games where they’ve been competitive and there have been games where they’ve not been, and where is Michigan falling short.
I think that’s a question that when they watch film they have to be able to look at. People can say quarterback. Well, I think it’s overall just across the board the athletic ability of Ohio State right now in the Big Ten, it’s just at a different level.
When you watch Ohio State play Clemson, Ohio State, they’re stride for stride right there playing as good if not better, and Clemson has been winning a lot of championships lately.
That’s the bar right now for Michigan. And for me right now it’s not necessarily about scheme, it’s more about continuing to go out and try to get great players that can run because I feel like that’s the area that when they play Ohio State they don’t seem quite to be at the same level right now.
CF: Yeah, and for me, dealing from afar, they have an Ohio State problem between the ears, too, that translates more than just a gap in personnel, which as Kirk said is real, especially in the speed department. But the scores reflect more than that to me.
And I do think that despite all the equity that Jim has in Michigan, people do have higher expectations. You look ahead to next year and you open at Washington, got two easy games, then their next game is the Big Ten, Wisconsin, Penn State, at Michigan State, at Minnesota. That’s before October. That’s a helluva gauntlet. It’s not even going to be just about Ohio State next year, it’s going to be about winning a tough road game and then competing with those four Big Ten teams, two home, two away, to even be relevant by the time late October rolls around. And then obviously the huge problem with going to the Horseshoe at the end of the year.
It sets up as a very interesting year. I think with every year where you fall short like this, it’s not just Ohio State, it’s the bowl game where they hang with Alabama but not enough to stick in there, pulled away from easily in the second half. That doesn’t lie. That happened. I think it creates some urgency, again, for next year. There should be some external national pressure off. Nobody will pick them for the playoff, I promise you, unlike this year, so we’ll see where they go.
Q. If Clemson finishes with 30 straight wins, back-to-back national titles, five straight playoff appearances, what does this run mean from a national perspective and from a historic perspective what they’ve been able to accomplish?
To me that’s what they’re playing for. 15-0 is astounding. You go back-to-back and the teams they’ve had to beat to keep that streak alive, for me it’s just crazy. I don’t know how many times it’ll be duplicated in the history of the sport. And they’ve got Trevor another year, by the way, so they can still build on that.
KH: Yeah, I mean, I think I’m with Chris. You know, if you envision this game on Monday night, LSU could win and wrap up just an incredible season that we’ll be talking about for decades, or on the other hand Clemson could win and we’ll be talking about not just an incredible run this year but we’ll be talking about three out of four and Chris just went through the gauntlet of teams they beat.
I think the winning streak continues, goes into the 2020 season. Trevor is coming back. You look at the last five years, they have the highest winning percentage already in the entire country. I think they are the — whoever the standard is, if it’s been Nick Saban and Alabama, if they win, you can make an argument they’re already there. They’re already right next to Alabama. And if they win this game, I think they are the team right now. They are the team that everybody wants to look at, and that’s why I think some of the reasons why — I think he was so frustrated so much, Dabo was so frustrated is, is anybody watching my team play? Has anybody watched us these last five years? Just because of all the amazing things they’ve accomplished.
The great thing is it’s not objective. They have a chance to get the last laugh and they’re 60 minutes away from doing some things that we just haven’t seen ever.
Q. For a while, especially in the South, it seemed like everybody was trying to hire a Saban guy and copy the Saban blueprint. I’m wondering if the success is more the CEO guys with Orgeron and Dabo? Do you think the blueprint is going to be changing in college football?
In fact, I think most head coaches today, they can’t get that assistant coach out of them, that coordinator out of them.
Now, most of them, the successful ones find a balance between — I don’t have time to be what I used to be, what got me this job, but at the same time, I don’t think we’re heading — personally I don’t think we’re heading in a direction because there’s a certain couple examples of guys that are kind of being labeled as CEO versus being hands-on.
CF: I would second that. I’m glad Kirk mentioned that. Dabo is not a CEO. He handles every facet of the job in a very hands-on way, but he’s involved — he would whistle at that label for sure. He’s very involved on the headsets offensively and special teams and other things, too.
And you might be surprised; Coach O is right down there, works with the offensive linemen. He’s not obviously the offensive play caller, and he’s got extremely skilled coordinators, but you can’t get all the assistant coach out of these guys. Coach O is at heart an old line coach and is still involved in that aspect.
KH: Dabo would come off the top belt on CEO.
CF: Oh, he would hate that.
Q. So much talk about all the playmakers on both of these teams. What is going to happen in the trenches in this game? How important — will it come down to the big guys up front? What are you seeing on both sides of the ball for these two squads?
I think that Tyler Davis will have a big role in the middle, the true freshman in the middle of the Clemson defense. It’ll be interesting to see because Joe Burrow, part of his success is five receivers out every route. They get the ball out fast. There’s just not a lot of time to get to him. So one of the ways you try to counter that is guys got to get their arms up and try to knock the ball down. But they’d better be able to hold up — as much as you worry about Burrow in the passing game, how do they old up against the run. Clyde Edwards-Helaire should be healthy and ready to roll. He’s been such a big part of that offense because they are very balanced in their ability to run the ball.
And then I can’t wait to see Dave Aranda’s defense. They’ve been really coming in with a lot of confidence with the way they’ve been playing. I think they’re healthy now, and I think that defensive line, even though they don’t have a ton of playmakers, they typically eat up a lot of those offensive linemen, and that can free up their backers and safeties to get penetration, and that will be a big part, I think, of what they try to do to try to get to Trevor Lawrence and try to slow down Etienne. As you said, any time you get into a championship game, it’s typically won or lost up front.
CF: Yeah, I’m looking forward to watching — we talk a lot about Clemson. The LSU interior, between Tyler Shelton who’s just a monster, hard guy to move, at nose tackle, him and Lawrence and Logan, the guys up front I do think are important for LSU. Chaisson is the one guy that’s sort of a transcendent Sunday-ready pass rush guy, but you make a good point that the guys in the middle and the depth — we saw a lot of guys rolling in there and making plays for Clemson against Ohio State who are not starters late in that game, and it shows you that they might lack the first-rounders up front, but they go deep, and that’s important in a game like this. Certainly part of the strategy is going to be to wear out LSU’s big people. Clemson will make no secret about that. So we’ll see if they can do it.
Q. You mentioned Kevin Steele coming out with that funky look, I guess the I-formation defense for lack of a better term. But can you recall a previous instance over the years where an offense has caused so many really seasoned defensive minds to try so many different things to try to slow them down?
But yeah, I can’t recall every week — think of some of the defensive minds that they went through and made look silly week after week after week. One last test for them, and it’s Clemson, the defending champs, and Brent Venables.
CF: Kirk said it well. We talk to opponents; every coordinator goes in hoping to have a plan. A lot of them know very early on know the plan ain’t gonna work because Burrow is so good and the scheme is so good and the playmakers are so good and the whole package is there. You know, you go in with a plan and you hope they’re good enough players, but they tend to shatter most plans.