Nick Saban and Kirby Smart Discuss CFP National Championship Game

Kirby Smart (L) and Nick Saban (R).

The Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs will meet tonight in CFP National Championship in Indianapolis, Ind. On Sunday, January 9, 2022 head coach Nick Saban of Alabama and Kirby Smart of Georgia discussed the upcoming game.

THE MODERATOR: Welcome to today’s college football national championship coaches news conference. We’ll begin with opening remarks from both coaches and then we will take questions. We’ll begin with an opening statement from the University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

COACH SABAN: First of all, we’re very honored to be here. Very proud of what our team has been able to accomplish this year. And would like to thank the College Football Playoff committee and all the folks who worked so hard to make this happen, for giving us an opportunity to do it.

I’d also like to congratulate Kirby and his team at Georgia for having an outstanding team and earning their way into the national championship game as well. They’ve been one of the most consistent, well-coached teams all year long. And it’s certainly going to be a great challenge for us to have the opportunity to play them.

Our players have done a pretty good job of trying to stay focused on what they need to stay focused on, but I think that’s really one of the keys in these kinds of games is can you stay focused on what you need to do to try to execute and play well against a very, very good team. So that will be the challenge for us as well.

THE MODERATOR: We will now hear from the University of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.

COACH SMART: I’d like to thank the host city of Indianapolis. Since our arrival they’ve been tremendous. I know the people staying over with us over at the Westin Hotel have been incredible. They’ve done a great job of accommodating and making sure that the players have something to do when there’s a little down time. And they’ve done just a wonderful job. What a great venue.

I’d like to thank and tell our team and our staff and really our entire university what a tremendous job they’ve done supporting our players. And our players have done a tremendous job buying in. It makes for a long season when you play the extra championship game, semifinal game. And everybody’s got to buy into that. And everybody’s got to understand the importance of you’ve got to play your best at the end. And that’s what we’ve been climbing, trying to do.

Also I’d like to congratulate Coach Saban and their team. They’ve done a tremendous job. We’ve gotten to see them once already and know how good they are. They really do not have weaknesses across the board. They’re playing really, really good football right now. And it should be a tremendous challenge for our team tomorrow night.

THE MODERATOR:

Q. Kirby, when you came to Georgia, did you have in your mind, in any way: I have seen what they have built at Alabama and I believe we can build something equal to it here at Georgia?

COACH SMART: My biggest goal was to be successful when I came to Georgia. When you take on your first head coaching job, I was very fortunate to work under some really good head coaches, the likes of Coach Saban, Coach Bowden, Coach Richt and my father. And a lot of those people impacted me.

But as far as the way we organize and run the program, most of that came from my time spent with Coach Saban. There was a year at LSU, a year at Dolphins. You take a lot of things from the places you come from in your history. That’s certainly helped shape me as a coach.

The goal was to have a successful program. And the state of Georgia and the high school coaches and the support you get in the state of Georgia for football makes it a very fertile area. And you’re always going to have a good recruiting base. And we’ve been able to have that.

If you recruit well, have good coaches, have good development, good strength program you’re going to have a chance at success. And that was certainly the goal from the outset.

Q. Wondered what both coaches thought of the transfer portal, the future of it and how it’s being used.

COACH SABAN: To be honest with you, not very focused on the transfer portal right now. But I think the number of players that are in the transfer portal, I think everybody could make their own assessment of whether they think this is a good thing or a bad thing.

I personally think that having resiliency, learning how to overcome adversity, doing the kind of things you need to create value for yourself and your future is sometimes difficult, sometimes hard, sometimes it doesn’t work exactly like you want it to work.

But I do think there’s benefits to people to having to try to work through that. And so I think now we have sort of — I don’t know if you want to call it a fad or whatever — but anybody that’s a little discontented with the program that they’re in, just get in the transfer portal and see what my opportunities would be someplace else.

I don’t know that that was the intention originally. I hope it doesn’t continue to be that way. But we’re going to continue to try to create value for our players personally, academically and athletically so they have a better chance to be more successful in life. And hopefully our players can buy into that so they won’t want to go someplace else. But a lot of this is based on playing time. And when you have 85 guys on scholarship, everybody can’t start.

COACH SMART: Much the same. I think it’s a hard time to be thinking about it when you’re getting ready to play for a national championship. It’s certainly the furthest thing from your mind.

But it does make you think hard about the kind of kids you recruit and what their beliefs are and what their goals are and how they get there.

I think a lot of what you look at when you recruit now is what is the history of the student-athlete, and you’re trying to put a likelihood of when things get tough, because they will get tough, they will get tough in college athletics. Your time demands, practice demands, competitive demands will get tough. How will they respond?

We try to spend a lot of time looking at that because some of the portal is out of our control in terms of the decisions that players make. We try to be fair and honest with our players, and if they’re not ready to play then we communicate that to them.

But each and every player is different and each situation is different. And it’s certainly tough to navigate during this day and age of an early signing period on top of that.

Q. Coach Saban, you mentioned the focus of your team, and Bryce talked about that yesterday. I know the rematch and underdog angle has been talked about a lot. So, how has your team used or blocked those angles out ahead of another championship game?

COACH SABAN: Well, when you say “those angles have been used a lot,” used by whom? I think a lot of external people talk about things like that. I think internally, you know, we talk a lot about what do you have to do technically in the game to be able to have success in terms of your ability to execute probably against the best player you played against all year.

So that’s how you have to prepare and that’s how you have to focus, and that’s what you need to be concerned about, because I think once the game starts, five minutes into the game I don’t know that anybody’s thinking about all this stuff that you all talk about. So they’re trying to win their box. They’re trying to do what they can to do to help their team, both sides of the ball. So we expect that, and that’s what our players need to be focused on.

Q. Kirby, how do you think you’ve changed as a coach running your program from 2017 when you played Alabama for the national title to now in your 60s and you have another shot tomorrow night?

COACH SMART: I don’t know. I don’t know how much I’ve changed it’s hard to take a snapshot. I don’t remember much about 2017 anymore. It’s amazing how fast these years go by and time goes by.

I think I’ve got a staff of great coaches and I’ve got an organization that’s full of good leaders. And trust in those people maybe more now than in 2017 when I felt like I needed to micromanage and be over the top of everything. Probably now a little more comfortable delegating things out and trusting people to do their jobs and maybe imparting a little bit of their personality into their parts of the organization.

And letting them grow within that organization because a lot of the people in the organization aspire to go and do things. And I want them to be successful because they stopped at Georgia. That’s probably the biggest difference. But the core beliefs and the way we do things, they haven’t changed much.

Q. Coach Saban, I asked your players yesterday as well, what’s your definition of a successful season?

COACH SABAN: I think my definition of a successful season would be that every player in the organization, every player on the team would actually maximize his full potential based on his competitive character, discipline, work ethic, ability to overcome adversity, resiliency to persevere and do things that are going to create value for him and his future.

I would say that if every player in the organization could get to that point, that would be a successful season. Now, I know that I’ve always philosophically thought that’s what college football was all about, helping players be more successful.

We all get judged as coaches on how many games we win and lose. But I think if maybe everybody on your team has the right competitive character, attitude, discipline, whatever you want to talk about, that that will give you the best chance to maximize the team’s chances to be successful.

So, if the team reaches its full potential because every individual who make the team what it is did, then I think that’s probably a successful year. And I don’t know how that equates into wins and losses.

Q. Given the history between you guys, although to be on opposite sides of the field on Monday, how special is it to be sharing this Monday against one another?

COACH SMART: It’s a great honor to be across from Coach Saban and the tremendous job he’s done, but it’s probably nothing unusual for him to be in this game because he’s been in this game an awful lot. And I know he doesn’t take that for granted because I know the work and effort he puts into it to get his team here.

I’ve been able to see that. I’ve been a part of that. I also know the work and effort we’ve put in to get to this point. It is no easy job to get to this point in the season through the SEC gauntlet, through the championship game, through the semifinals. It’s a tough rigorous season.

So to be in this position is certainly an honor. To be across from Coach, it’s a tremendous honor for our team and our organization. But, like we’ve always said, it’s not about he and I; it’s about the players and their opportunities to go out and be successful and make a lasting memory.

COACH SABAN: I think the University of Georgia, Kirby’s program is probably one of the elite programs in the country. He’s done an outstanding job there making that program what it is. And obviously the players and people that are in the organization have made that program what it is.

And we certainly feel like this is the best team in the country that we have an opportunity to play, the most consistent team all season long, in terms of how they played.

And it’s a tremendous challenge for us, and really kind of an honor to have the opportunity to play against what we feel is one of the most elite programs in the country. And probably, just looking at the future, probably will be for some time in the future as well.

Q. Kirby, what’s the biggest area of growth that maybe we don’t see that you feel your team has made the most improvement in?

COACH SMART: I don’t know. I’ve certainly been really proud of the way our team has responded, especially early in the season, to success. As a coach, you’re always worried about that. I was really worried about the consistency in performance because that’s usually what gets us. At least in the past we’ve had a game that we didn’t play real well.

We played really well throughout the year, played consistent. We didn’t have a lot of let-downs. And we played the best team we’ve played this year in the SEC Championship. And it was a great matchup that they won most of those matchups, you look across the board.

We’ve been trying to improve in areas since that game so that we can be at our best when our best is needed. A lot of people talk about this and that, about the SEC Championship game, but at the end of the day we played a really good football team and they won more matchups than we did.

So we’ve harped on improving in a lot of areas. Certainly got to do a much better job in third down, red zone, in forcing turnovers. But throughout the season, I think we’ve gotten a lot better across the board.

Probably the biggest area of jump would be offensively in the skill players because we had so many guys out throughout the season. It was good to have those guys back in the last month.

Q. Coach Saban, how has Emil Ekiyor progressed this week? And how important will it be for that group to play well against Georgia?

COACH SABAN: I think the biggest challenge in playing Georgia, they have, one, a tremendous front seven. They have great size, great players, physical, very instinctive, great speed. The linebackers are — Nakobe Dean and the group — fast, react quickly, very instinctive.

So if you want to have any success in this game offensively, you have to be able to at least control those guys up front and their front seven to some degree.

They have very good defense in total, but it starts with that. They create a lot of negative plays. They’ve got some really good pass rushers that can be disruptive to the quarterback.

So I think it probably starts up front, in a game like this, and it’s going to be critical for us to be able to play well up front in the offensive line to have any chance of being successful on offense.

Q. Kirby, Alabama obviously kind of threw the ball over you guys in the first game, and then in the playoff semifinals turned on a dime and ran the ball for over 300 yards. How difficult is it and what’s the challenge in preparing for a team that can turn on a dime like that can do really anything on offense?

COACH SMART: That’s the ultimate challenge. When you look across the board at the efficiency with which Bryce Young has played with, and he’s got good weapons around him, he’s got a really good team around him, but make no mistake about it, he is elite at what he does. To have the number of touchdown passes, the interception ratio, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen really anything like it.

And we talk about him as Houdini, because he can people miss. He gets rid of the ball. People don’t even account the number of times this guy has avoided sacks and thrown the ball with no intention of anybody catching it. But he knows where to throw the ball to not take a sack. When you can do that you’re really elite.

They’ve got really good skilled players on the outside. They know how to use those skill players. They put them in different positions, change things up.

Brian Robinson, seems like he’s been there for 100 years because when I was there before I remember him being in high school. And he is a physical — runs with purpose, intent, a traditional Alabama back, really physical, down hill runner.

And they do a good job, especially against Cincinnati of committing to the run. It’s a double-edged sword. You do too much of this, they can hurt you. They’re certainly physical up front. They always have been. All Coach Saban’s teams have been that way.

But make no mistake about it, they can be really explosive on the outside. That’s the advantage they’ve probably had the last three to four years is the number of wideouts that are just explosive, great playmakers. And it’s changed mostly the game of football, not just Alabama. But you can actually win the line of scrimmage and you could possibly loose the game because of and explosive plays. And that’s what you’ve got to be careful of.

Q. Kirby, it’s been so long since Georgia has been able to cross this finish line, have been in this race a bunch, but haven’t been able to cross this finish line, 41 years. I was wondering, you personally, obviously being a Georgia guy, how much of that do you feel, do you hear? I know it doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re doing preparing day to day, but do you feel that from the donors and the people who just want it so bad for the program?

COACH SMART: No, I do not. What I feel is how do we stop Bryce Young and how do we control their front and how do we run the ball, how do we throw the ball with efficiency, how do we convert third downs and stop them in the red area. That’s the furthest from my concern because I don’t all in all control that.

What I control is who we recruit, how we develop players, how we keep people in our program, and then how we do scheme-wise and things. Because if you do that right, the other will take care of itself. But my focus and energy and entire mind is on what can we do to help our players play better.

Q. How do you view the opponent’s special teams, your assessment, please?

COACH SABAN: I think Georgia has outstanding special teams. They have really good team speed, which usually lends itself to good special teams. They’re very well-coached. They’ve got really good specialists, which always helps control vertical field position. But their kickoff coverage is one of the tops in the country. They’ve got explosive returners in the return game.

If you don’t do a really good job, they blocked some kicks this year. All around this is a really, really good operation, relative to all phases of special teams.

COACH SMART: Very similar. They recruited our kicker. We recruited their kicker. They’re both really good kickers when it comes to that. I should say punter in Camarda. And we recruited their kids.

So, there’s a lot of talent out there when you talk about specialists. I know the way Coach runs his program and we run our special teams, when you look across the board and you turn it on, you see starters, you see Zamir White on punt block and Jameson Williams on punt coverage. You know what the commitment is to putting best players out there.

And their kickoff return unit has been one of the most elite in the country. Do a tremendous job. And that’s the hidden yardage. When you go back and look over time where can you make a play in special teams becomes really important.

Q. Kirby, I know you have high expectations for all your young men. I’m curious who you think is the one individual who developed the most, the biggest growth from the Clemson game to today?

COACH SMART: It’s a hard question to answer because so many kids have grown up. It might not even be a guy in the limelight because a lot of these young kids that come in, they grow up a lot over the course of a season.

So I really can’t just pick one guy to say this guy has grown the most, but I’m certainly proud of all the guys on our team. I’m really proud of the support they give each other because of all the teams I’ve had, this one is probably the most connected in terms of an appreciation for what each other does, across-the-board complementary football, they really embrace each other, offense, defense, special teams units.

Q. I guess it was two years ago, Coach Saban kind of told us with some of the rule changes that free agency was coming. Now we see the portal and unrestricted transfers, NIL money. How has that changed how you manage the football team? And is there still growth for both of these programs in that area as the ground shifts?

COACH SABAN: Well, Name, Image and Likeness is a positive thing for players. They have an opportunity to earn money, which they’ve always had the opportunity to do. This gives them an opportunity to do it by using their Name, Image and Likeness, which I don’t think is a bad thing.

I think what is a little concerning is how is that used to get players to decide where they go to school, because I don’t think that was the intention. I don’t think that would be the NCAA’s intention. I think we probably need some kind of national legislation to sort of control that to some degree, because I think there will be an imbalance relative to who can dominate college football if that’s not regulated in some form or fashion.

And the more we get to players making money and players actually having the opportunity to make money, which I’m not opposed to, maybe there’s some circumstance where there has to be some kind of an agreement between both the school and the player as to what their commitment is to what they choose to do because that is something, making commitments and fulfilling them, that is probably important to having a chance to be successful.

COACH SMART: A lot of similarities. It’s tough to navigate in a time like right now. We’re getting ready to play for a national championship, and a lot of the market, the free agency market out there that’s going on, is being done while we’re trying to prepare for a national championship game.

There’s so many things that go into this that maybe the media and the common people don’t know: When does your school start? How does that affect things? It affects things in a dynamic manner. Are you a quarter or semester? There’s a lot of competitive advantages into getting into the portal.

Then you move to NIL, and I agree with coach, you’re going to have the haves and have-nots and the separations that’s already there is going to grow larger.

And the schools that have the capacity and the ability and are more competitive in the NIL market are going to be schools that step ahead on top of other schools. So I don’t want decisions to be based on that, but ultimately a lot of young men want to make their decision based on that.

Q. Coach Saban you and your players talked about — following up how your team has handled this trip and what the evaluation of this trip has been so far for players?

COACH SABAN: Everything I’ve seen from our team, they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do. This has been a very hospitable place here in Indianapolis to actually come and visit.

I think this is a great sports town, having been here for the combine for many years and knowing the hospitality, the friendliness of the people here.

But our players have done everything that we’ve asked them to do. You never know exactly what’s going on in the back of their mind, even though they show up for practice and do what they’re supposed to do, they’re paying attention in meetings, but they have a significant amount of time where they’re doing other things. So how they can sort of refocus when you need to refocus is probably the most important thing.

And that’s something that I’ve seen our players do a pretty good job of. I think it takes maturity, especially on the young player’s part, to be able to do that. But it’s been good to this point.

Q. Coach Saban, you and your players talk a lot about trusting the process. From a highly touted recruit in high school to stepping on campus and being the backup quarterback to now getting a start on college’s biggest stage, how do you see Bryce trust the process over this past year, especially?

COACH SABAN: Well, Bryce does about as good a job as anybody we’ve ever had in our program in terms of how he prepares for a game, how he studies the other team, how he sort of knows the ins and outs of what we want to try to execute and what we want to try to do on offense.

He’s well-liked by his teammates. He’s a leader, and he’s got sort of an emotional stability about him that he doesn’t really get frustrated or upset in any kind of way even when things don’t go well.

He can stay focused and keep doing what he thinks he needs to do to be able to have success and make adjustments, adapt to what he needs to do. He’s a very, very mature guy, way beyond his years in terms of how he views what he needs to do to be successful. And he’s pretty committed to it and has pretty single-minded purpose in trying to get it done. And I think it does impact and affect other players on the offensive side of the ball.

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