The College Football Playoff National Championship title game will be once again be called by Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. The duo participated in a media conference call today to discuss the matchup between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson, which will take place Mon, Jan. 9, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Transcript of the conference call is available below.
Q. Could both of you comment. Alabama is obviously extending their run to nearly a decade. We’ve seen dynasties come and go. How much is too much of one team dominating the conversation? Do you feel like people are getting bored with Alabama being here every year? Or does it make for more drama that someone has to try to knock them off?
CHRIS FOWLER: Maybe the answer is both. I think anytime any team rules the top of a sport, or any individual for that matter, a certain percentage are going to get fatigued. On the other hand you get an opportunity to frame something that is among the most incredible stories in the history of the sport.
You’re not supposed to be able to dominate at the top any more the way Alabama has done. They’ve defied conventional wisdom by doing that.
On the one hand you’re describing an incredible reign, sustained achievement. On the other hand, there are many people, even within the SEC, that would like to see a fresh story, new people at the top.
That’s what makes it so difficult to do what they’ve done. You huge a wear target and you wear it year after year and you manage that and you overcome that.
So in one respect you turn up to a game like this, one of the major plot lines is marvelling at what Alabama is continuing to do. Not that there has always been this many games, but nobody has ever gone 15-0 at the highest level of this sport. They have a chance to do it, as Clemson did last year. Five in eight years, that’s not supposed to happen.
On the other hand, you have this dynasty. Plenty of people I’m sure would love to see them toppled and love to see someone else take over. That happens throughout sports, throughout history.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Speaking for myself, I enjoy it in sports, just being a fan of sports, whether it’s college basketball, even Chris following tennis with some of the individuals that get on like a Roger Federer type of run, a Tiger Woods in golf, what we used to see with maybe a team like Bobby Bowden and Florida State, now with what we’re seeing with Nick Saban, some of the Nebraska teams in the ’90s.
I can just speak for myself. I love it. I love when we have a program that raises the bar and that everybody is aiming for. We kind of mock it and tease it, Hey, we want ‘Bama kind of thing. Yet when I think you talk to the coaches and players in this sport, whether it’s in the SEC or around the country, they see that coach and they see that brand. That’s who they’re trying to bring down.
Whether the viewers at home get tired of Alabama, I guess it’s up to each individual. For me personally, I really enjoy it.
Q. With all the supposed drama over the OC, seems like at Clemson, a couple of names that people didn’t know, like Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott have done a remarkable job these couple of seasons following Chad Morris, which Dabo could have gone out and gotten anybody to take that position. What do you think of the job they’ve done? And Dexter Lawrence, what has he brought to the line as such a young guy on Clemson’s side of the ball?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I would just say I’m glad you brought that up because you’re right. Seems like the next few days, a lot of talk about Lane and Sark. Unless you’re really a diehard Clemson fan, what has gone on notice was initially Dabo Swinney looking around and bringing in Chad Morris.
If you looked at how their offense was evolving, they were okay, but they weren’t as consistent. I think that game against West Virginia was maybe a wake-up call for them in that bowl game.
When they brought in Chad Morris and that offensive style, they brought it to a whole different level. When it looked like they got things going, you’re right, he had an opportunity to become a head coach. A lot of us wondered what direction he might go.
The proof is in the pudding. What Tony and Jeff have been able to do, that offensive staff, they’ve been blessed to have Deshaun Watson to help them. They are cutting edge. They’re innovative. I thought the game they had against Ohio State is a classic example of what they’ve been able to do in attacking a team’s weaknesses, being innovative and creative, having a quarterback that understands it. They’re doing it at a very fast pace.
I think that’s the exciting matchup for me personally in this game, not just Deshaun Watson, but it’s going to be Tony Elliott, Jeff Scott and Deshaun in that offense.
After what they did to this defense a year ago, matched up now against Nick Saban, you’re already hearing the Alabama players come out saying, We were embarrassed, this time it’s going to be different, they’re going to get the real Alabama.
I think we all want to see the real Alabama defense against Deshaun Watson. Those coordinators have done a hell of a job.
CHRIS FOWLER: What’s interesting, too, they’re both ex-Clemson walk-ons. When they sit in a room together, they finish each other’s sentences. Very interesting dynamic. Sometimes the co-offensive coordinator thing, which has become a little bit en vogue, it’s difficult, problematic. But those guys’ personalities blend very well.
Obviously their styles during the week and on the day of the game blend very well. I’d echo what Kirk said about the creativity. When you have a month to prepare, Urban Meyer and his staff – rightfully so – have gotten a ton of credit. A lot of brainpower in that Ohio State defensive side of the ball, with Schiano helping out, Bill Davis as a consultant, Fickell, of course.
It was a mismatch in terms of creativity, innovation and preparation for that game on Clemson’s side. It was a masterful game plan, play calling. Of course the execution, but Watson really helps. I’m glad you brought it up as well. Those guys have gotten not nearly enough credit.
For Lawrence, I thought Dexter had a quiet game. You always expect to call his number a lot. We have done Clemson a bunch this year and marvelled at this guy. You can’t look at him and think this is actually a true freshman. What was he like in high school a year ago? How fearsome would it have been to carry the ball against that guy? He’s broken in.
I think the productivity, to use the scout’s phrase, which means just a whole bunch of tackles. You’re not supposed to have that many tackles at that position. You’re not supposed to have that many tackles as a true freshman.
You put those two together, it’s one of the most startling defensive seasons that I’ve ever seen because of the nature of the position and his youth and how well he’s played it.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Fourth on the team in tackles, which again, you don’t see that for a defensive lineman. His personality for a young guy in this world of five-star recruits, high profile, kind of what’s in it for me, me, me, he just kind of has fit into that group seamlessly with Watkins up there, Wilkins, who is a high-profile guy a year ago. Ferrell is another freshman that’s playing well for them. Austin Bryant. They have a big-time, high-level group there they just keep rotating big bodies in there. You’d think he’s been there for three years the way his personality has been in there.
CHRIS FOWLER: They have a way to chart efficiency. The number of impact plays per snap. He’s number one on the team for that. That says a lot. They refer to tackles or pressured or batted balls. In that metric, he’s number one on the defense, which says a whole lot, given the quality of players they have over there.
Q. This game with Clemson’s offense versus this Alabama’s defense is almost the irresistible force paradox. Can Clemson move the ball on this Alabama team, and what are they going to have to do to be able to do that? Alabama, it’s so hard to score on them. Then we’ve seen so many teams kind of ascend to this height, but is Clemson one of the teams that is built for sustainability? Has Dabo built the kind of program where they might not win five of eight, but can they make multiple trips into the College Football Playoff?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Number one, there’s so many things there. Clemson’s offense has an ability, because of the system and the quarterback, to score on anybody that they play, providing that Deshaun is kind of on. Last year he was, what, 30 of 47, for 405 yards and four touchdowns against them. They had ample amount of time to prepare for them.
When I watch ‘Bama, the one thing they’ve kind of been spoiled with, is they have an ability to stop the run, and keep two safeties deep to prevent any kind of deep passes downfield. That’s kind of an oxymoron in today’s college football, when you have an ability to keep two safeties back, and also at the same time stop the run. They did it against Washington. Did not have a quarterback run game.
If they do that against Clemson, you’ll see Deshaun Watson run it 20 to 25 times until they get out of that look, then they can start to throw the football.
That will be a little bit of a game within the game, is how Alabama is going to try to play with their safeties, and whether or not they can stop the run and take away the deep ball at the same time.
If they’re effective in doing that, Clemson will punt, like Washington did, almost every series. You got to make them pay for that would be the big thing.
Then just getting Deshaun Watson into his flow, which means to me running and throwing. I expect him to carry it at least 20 times in this game. I think the matchup on the perimeter against Humphrey and Averett, the other corner, will go a long way in determining how this game goes as well.
The ball is going to have to get out fast because of that pass-rush. That means the receivers have to work their tails off to get open and get separation.
CHRIS FOWLER: I don’t see why they wouldn’t move the ball and score points. Alabama came off a shutout in last year’s semifinal. Clemson lit them up. They didn’t have Mike Williams or Deon Cain in that game. When you look at Monday night, the two most dangerous receiving weapons potentially, Cain isn’t as productive or consistent as Leggett, but he certainly has the ability, those guys weren’t even out there last year, especially Williams, who is a complete difference maker.
Deshaun, as Kirk said, has to be sharp, pre-snap, post-snap, process things as quickly as he did against Ohio State, which is a serious challenge. At times they made it look really easy, but it isn’t easy to do what he did. His mind works very quickly. The execution is amazing, as good as we’ve seen in this sport.
He throws picks, that’s what he has to be worried about. You cannot get baited into interceptions. You cannot give Alabama a defensive touchdown. Every opponent goes into the game saying the same thing, yet they fall prey to it. Washington makes a bad decision, throws a ball out there in the flat. Anderson takes it back to the house. It’s a different game right before halftime. That’s the kind of mistake that teams make again and again with them.
Deshaun has made them pretty frequently. They overcame a couple of interceptions. That’s not a good formula to try to do against Alabama.
I think that there’s probably some sleepless nights and some anxious moments on the Alabama side as they get ready for this offense, knowing what happened last year.
Clemson’s program, you watch how Clemson is recruiting. You watch how they recruit in the region. Even to get into recruits somewhat nationally. They have a fertile recruiting area around there.
What they have to sell is a little bit different. They sell it in a different way than some programs. It really is this people first, family, loving environment. Yes, you can win a championship. Yes, you can get to the NFL. But you’re not going to come here and be a cog in the wheel. You’re not going to be a piece in the process. You’re going to be an individual that we look after and take care of and nurture.
I think that’s a message that seems to resonate really well to parents and players. Clemson has a whole lot to sell. I think he and his staff are recruiting as well as just about anybody. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be sustainable.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think they’ve reached that status of an elite program. It’s been five or six years now that they’ve been able to recruit consistently. They have a brand-new, multi-million dollar facility which they’re moving over to which will be great to kind of continue. You know how it is with facilities, kind of showing the commitment to the program.
The big thing will be just continuing to get quarterbacks, which they’ve done. They have some guys that already signed, a guy who is a junior, a verbal.
Dabo has a way about him. It’s very, very real. I think parents feel that when they talk to him. I think he has a pretty good track record of recruiting at a very high level, graduating kids, taking care of them.
For him, if you bust your tail, aren’t a five-star recruit, you’re a walk-on, you do everything right on and off the field, he’s going to play you. He does it. That word gets out. So it’s not just about the Deshaun Watsons. It’s about the entire roster. It’s hard to keep an entire roster happy and win at the same time.
I think because of his personality and appreciation for top to bottom on the roster, being a former walk-on, he has a really unique ability to relate to every single guy on the team. That to me, with the resources that they have, the facilities that they now have, there’s no reason that Clemson is going to go away anytime soon.
CHRIS FOWLER: That’s a great example. Look at this year’s team. I’ll give you a couple quick examples. Gallman, not highly recruited. Jordan Leggett, not highly recruited. Boulware, barely recruited. Renfrow, walk-on. Mike Williams wasn’t a six-star guy either. His talent is obvious. Deshaun, obviously everybody wanted.
The team is built around guys with different kind of backgrounds. Yeah, they have plenty of the five-star guys, they’ll continue to get them. They’ll also continue to get guys that maybe aren’t as heralded and just really developing. I think those guys will always have a place in Clemson’s program.
Then you look at what happened with Watson graduating in three years, Williams graduating, Leggett graduating all in December, all as juniors. You just throw that out there to parents and players and say, This isn’t spin, this is reality. It’s a very strong selling point.
Q. Nick sort of downplayed the change in offensive coordinator based on Alabama’s ability to game plan and script certain situations. How legitimate is that excuse or defense? As an offense, how do you expect Sarkisian and Jalen to respond when things don’t go necessarily as planned?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think the thing that at least I’ve heard him talk about is, he feels like it’s being blown out of proportion because it’s kind of business as usual as far as the workweek. The preparation for any college offense, I think sometimes we tend to lock in on who the coordinator is. When you get behind closed doors, you realize there’s five or six guys kind of watching film together, formulating a plan together, all that. Sark has been obviously around. That’s why I think he’s saying it’s business as usual.
I think the major difference that even Nick Saban can’t predict is going to be the four hours on Monday night. Steve Sarkisian hasn’t been the quarterback coach or the runningback coach or kind of normal involvement as an assistant coach. He’s been an offensive analyst. I don’t even know what that means. But I know there are some limitations on Saturdays in the fall what he can and can’t do.
Now you go from that role to you’re standing on the sideline calling the plays in an up-tempo offense with a true freshman quarterback. To see that won’t be potentially a factor one way or the other is not right. Of course it is.
It might be better, by the way. We don’t know if it’s going to be better or worse. It’s without question going to be different. He hasn’t even called plays in a scrimmage. Now he’s calling plays in a national championship. I’m talking about this offense. Obviously he’s done it at Washington and USC. By the way, he’s more than capable of doing it.
In these circumstances with this offense, we’ve never seen it. So it’s definitely a big storyline during the game itself.
I think Mike Locksley’s role and what he’s allowed and not allowed to do, he’s been an integral part behind closed doors and dealing with a true freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts. With this system, where Alabama used to be more power football. Now it’s more up-tempo, quarterback run game, which is right where Mike Locksley has been most of his coaching career.
Both of them are going to be involved in a very unique way in this preparation without Lane Kiffin being there.
CHRIS FOWLER: Interesting, too, you mention the true freshman quarterback. It’s his 15th game, but it’s a championship game. Anybody that played them will say the feeling is different. Even though you’re poised and mature for your age, it’s a championship game against a very complicated defense, a defense that is known for throwing a whole bunch of stuff at people. They’ve confused far more experienced quarterbacks than Jalen Hurts in the past with what Venables does.
I think you can expect another aggressive, grab-bag approach that doesn’t make it easy on the quarterback. I think if they can’t line up and smash you, Scarbrough can’t make 120 yards after contact like he did the other day, it certainly makes the play-caller’s chore a little more difficult.
I think it’s fascinating. I really do. If Sarkisian hadn’t been on a big stage in a pressure situation you’d be more concerned. What Kirk said is right. There is rush when you call plays. There is unfamiliarity with the system when you jump into a system and do it for the first time and it’s in the ultimate game. I don’t care who you are. But at least he has been there in a big moment.
What’s interesting is we’ve seen plenty of circumstances where it’s almost play calling in the name of vanity. I don’t think Saban wants that. I think there was not much tolerance for that when a play-caller goes in there and tries to get ‘too cute,’ or call plays to show how smart you are. I don’t think that’s what Sark is going to be charged with doing, even though it’s his very first time doing it on a massive stage.
You have to call plays around what’s going to work best with the personnel you have on offense against that defense. That does require some discipline, it really does, because Clemson doesn’t make it easy on you.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Your point about how do you call the game to the best of your ability. If you watched their game against Washington, as much as they struggled with continuity, self-destructing with penalties, they did a good job with the special teams of pinning Washington inside the 10 yard line a number of times.
As a play-caller in a game like this, as good as Clemson’s defense is, sometimes a punt is okay. Sometimes playing field position and relying on that Alabama defense to try to get a short field with a turnover, especially with Deshaun Watson sometimes turning the ball over through the air, that’s sometimes okay.
That will be a big message I would think to Jalen Hurts this week, is throwing it away, not taking sacks, not turning the ball over, punting the ball and playing field position. Worst case is not necessarily a bad thing for ‘Bama with the defense and special teams that they have.
CHRIS FOWLER: What’s so fascinating is we just don’t know how well they’re going to stop Clemson’s offense. The chore becomes different. If it doesn’t become a field position kind of game, you have to open it up. Then it becomes more interesting what they’re calling on offense.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: He’ll call the play, like any coordinator will, based on the flow of the game, how well their defense is holding up, field position, things like that.
Q. I’ve been banging this job for a couple years now. I’d like to ask you guys, why has there not been more public pressure for reform when it comes to the timing of the Heisman vote? A lot of people out there think that Deshaun Watson should have been back-to-back Heisman winner, let alone the winner this year with the way Lamar Jackson finished. It’s not just Watson. You have 2005 Reggie Bush against Vince Young. A lot of people thought that Vince Young might come out on top if the vote came out after that game. Baker Mayfield, the way he played against Auburn. Most coveted award in all of sports. Why can’t we have the vote after the most important game has been played?
CHRIS FOWLER: I mean, they’ve done it 82 years, and they’ve done it this way. It’s tradition. Obviously when the award was conceived, post-season play wasn’t what it is. I don’t think that they see any need to shift it.
Your argument is passionate. You definitely have a horse in the race in your mind. I think if you looked at year’s past, sure the winner might have been different had it been different after the bowls or the playoffs. That would have happened quite a lot over the years.
The voting is done at the end of the season. In some ways there’s a fairness to it in that you do have a chance to be involved in the award, even if your team isn’t in a major bowl or in the playoff.
Listen, I think you can have whatever opinion you want. I don’t reveal my vote. Obviously enough people felt that Lamar Jackson had done enough throughout the totality of the season to survive some turnovers and some losses down the stretch. Clemson fans obviously wouldn’t agree.
Having said that, as brilliantly as Deshaun plays, stats become a big part of evaluating a player. You could argue too much. But he threw a lot of interceptions, a lot of interceptions for someone who would have won the Heisman, regardless of how productive he is.
A few of the picks early in the season might have gotten in the way of people voting for him. Who knows what went into their decisions.
To your point, I don’t think that’s going to change. I think they’re going to continue to award the trophy at the end of the regular season.
Q. I would like to know what are some of the key matchups that you all believe can determine the outcome of Monday’s game? Also, do you think there are any experiences that Clemson can draw on so that they can possibly pull out an upset from last year?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think the biggest matchup is going to be Deshaun Watson against the defense in general, the coverage, the multiple coverages. Obviously the offensive line is going to have to help out, the receiver’s going to have to win. I think in general Nick Saban’s mind and angst after last year’s performance, how he decides to defend Deshaun Watson is going to be a great matchup.
I think if you’re looking for just one-on-one type of stuff, we talked about Mike Williams, Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow who had a huge game last year against these guys. They match up favorably.
If you’re going to attack Alabama in any way, you’re going to do it through the air. These guys have the quarterback and receiver to give them a chance to be effective with some downfield passers. The receivers against the secondary. Deshaun against Nick Saban I think is going to be a great matchup. Then with all the talk about Sark coming in to take over, it’s not just going up against any defense, he’s going up against a defense right now of Brent Venables that’s coming out against a shutout against Ohio State and is probably playing with as much confidence if not more confidence than any defense in the country, including Alabama.
Specifically on that side of the ball, I would say, to me, the Alabama offensive line, which is not your traditional dominant offensive line, especially on the inside, how do they hold up against a really, really good defensive front from Clemson I think is another matchup that could go a long way in determining how the game goes.
CHRIS FOWLER: I like that matchup, too. I think you look at Alabama’s offensive line, it’s very left-handed. Robinson over there. Pierschbacher is a good guard. But Clemson’s guys, the rotation we talked about earlier, which is basically four sophomores, a couple freshman, one junior and one senior who keep each other fresh, all of them can make impact plays. All of them cannot just eat up blocks, but invade the backfield when they need to. It’s hard to do that against ‘Bama.
I think if you looked at this offensive line, the very high standards they have at that program would not rank as one of the great ones they had. Opponents would tell you that.
I think it’s a terrific matchup. If you can clog the middle, let the linebackers run, do what they do behind you, it forces Alabama into some uncomfortable situations.
I like that matchup, too.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think as far as experience, last year’s experience is the best experience that gives them confidence. I mean, in their minds they blew the on-side kick, they let a kickoff return get out from Kenyan Drake. But I think in their minds they probably gained more confidence in standing in the middle of the rain going toe-to-toe with Alabama for four quarters than anything else that they can look at on film.
They’ve been there, they’ve done that. They competed. They didn’t secure things in special teams. They ended up losing the game. But it wasn’t as if they got blown off the field and had to regroup and think, Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do this time. They were right there stride per stride, had a quarterback play out of his mind in that game. I think a lot of us left that stadium thinking Deshaun Watson is a bad man, including Nick Saban.
Alabama won the trophy, but Deshaun Watson won a lot of people’s hearts that night, for sure. If I’m a Clemson player, I’m looking at that film knowing that I can play with Alabama.
Q. With Deshaun’s propensity to throw interceptions, Alabama’s ball hawking defense, say Deshaun throws two or three interceptions, Alabama takes one back to the house, how much of an impact do you think that will have on the outcome of the game?
CHRIS FOWLER: I don’t know. Study the impact of pick-sixes in most games. It’s extremely favorable for the defense that can create one.
I don’t know. I’d defer to Kirk in how able Watson is able to change what has become a pretty frequent pattern. He trusts his guys to make plays to an extreme degree.
A lot of his picks aren’t necessarily awful decisions. They’re 50/50 balls that he has so much belief that a Leggett or a Williams can win that matchup, so he’ll put the ball up there. Against guys as good as Alabama has got, you’re not going to win all of them. They win their share.
Whether or not he regulates that, modulates that, the instinct to allow his guys to make plays, plays a little bit more cautiously.
It’s devastating to give up a pick-six, especially if the game is not a shootout. Clemson almost survived all the special teams issues that Kirk just described and they still had a chance at the end despite all that. But, boy, you’re living with a slim margin for error when you do that.
Alabama is hard enough to score on without letting their defense get in the end zone, so… I’m sure that’s going to be talked about a lot at Clemson. If you give up a turnover, you ask your defense to go out there as they did against Ohio State and minimize the damage or prevent the other team from getting in the end zone.
Remember Alabama’s offense had great field position throughout almost the entire game against Washington. Definitely in the first half. They only scored one touchdown. They had the ball at midfield or in plus territory a lot, and didn’t cash in. Even if you give up a turnover and don’t let them score, the defense has got to go out there and try to prevent the damage from happening.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Yeah, all of college football games are games of momentum swings, back and forth, sudden change, how your own defense responds to a turnover. If there’s a pick-six, I think in Clemson’s case, you’re very fortunate to have a quarterback that’s played a ton of football, has an ability to bounce back from mistakes. If you look at his track record, it’s not like he goes in the tank after he potentially throws a pick or a pick-six.
I’ve always been really impressed by him. We’ve called a lot of his games. Just when you think the average quarterback, Wow, he threw a pick in Tallahassee, what is he going to do? He gets the ball back the next series, it’s like it never happened.
Yes, it will obviously affect the game, momentum, energy in the stadium, score on the scoreboard. I don’t think it would lead to potential further damage just because he may throw a pick.
I think he needs the defense to step up, like Washington did last week, when they were put in some tough spots.