Transcript: ESPN’s College Football Playoff National Championship Conference Call with Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler

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Transcript: ESPN’s College Football Playoff National Championship Conference Call with Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit and play-by-play commentator Chris Fowler discussed the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, featuring Alabama and Georgia, this morning.

Fowler and Herbstreit, along with Maria Taylor and Tom Rinaldi, will call the title game, to be played on Monday, January 8, at 8 p.m. ET in Atlanta on ESPN.

A transcript of the call is available below.

CHRIS FOWLER: Good morning, folks. Glad you’re here. I think just today I began to turn the page toward the championship game, because I was kind of on a natural high for calling the Rose Bowl all day yesterday. That was such a thrill. It was one of the greatest Rose Bowls that have ever been played. Out of 104 of them, one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever had a chance to be part of broadcasting.

So I think there’s great momentum going into the championship game based on that semifinal. This match up, I think, is interesting for a lot of reasons. I think the atmosphere in the building will be as unhinged as we’ve seen in any championship event in any sport just because of the Georgia proximity to Atlanta and Alabama’s fans traveling in there. So I think it starts with that.

The atmosphere, I think, inside will be electric, and that’s always fun to be a part of a broadcast with that as the back drop.

I will get into some of the particulars of the match ups, I know, but I prefer to see this as two excellent teams that have earned their way into a championship game rather than a quote/unquote SEC Championship game or some kind of sweeping endorsement of one conference at the expense of others or some kind of indictment of the playoff. I think that you’re bound to get stuff like that, but I really don’t think that you win a trophy for a conference. You win it for yourselves.

So this is a National Championship game between two teams from the same league, but they don’t regularly play each other. I mean, they’ve only had two regular season meetings in the last ten seasons, and they did play in one of the best SEC Championship games of all time. Obviously they have intrigue with Kirby Smart’s association with Saban and a lot of other angles of the game that I’m sure Kirk and I will get into. But couldn’t be more excited about getting down to Atlanta for this game.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: Yeah, I would echo what Chris said about the game. We were lucky enough to call out in Pasadena. I mean, we always look forward to our whole team really looks forward to the Rose Bowl production every year. We talk a lot about just typically it’s Pac 12 Big 10, and growing up in the Big 10 region, I always look forward to that event, no matter who is in it. This year it happened to be a playoff, and we happened to have Georgia and Oklahoma. You had the SEC and the Big 12 with all the fire power of Baker Mayfield. I mean, right from the git go the game did not let us down with Oklahoma’s fireworks, and we had Georgia’s grit and momentum swings, and really everything you would hope for in a game of that magnitude.

I thought both teams really laid it out there. It was just going to be one of those games you’ve watched in other sports, no matter what sport you’re watching, sometimes you see that rare game where you just hate to see one of the teams lose. It kind of felt like that. Then in a blink of an eye it was over, and Baker Mayfield and some of those players, I thought Derek Motley caught some really good shots where it was like “is that it, it’s over” type of feeling. I think all of us watching felt the same way some of those Oklahoma players felt at how abruptly it ended.

Now as Chris said, we kind turn the page, get our bearings, and head to Atlanta and get ready for what I think will be a really, really entertaining, physical, very different game from what we had out in Pasadena. I think you’re going to have a really physical game. Two staffs that are very familiar with one another, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see how it plays out.

The energy inside that dome will be pretty special. So look forward to hearing what questions you guys have, and looking forward to getting down to Atlanta.

I wanted to get your reaction to how Jake Fromm managed the Rose Bowl Game, especially the overtime periods.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I was going to say, we talked a lot even prior to the kickoff. Chris and I were part of our preparation, you meet with both teams kind of behind closed doors, and in Georgia’s case, because of scheduling, we literally met with them the night before the game at their hotel. They switched hotels to get away from some of the commotion. We met with Kirby and the coordinators, and then at the end we were able to sit down with three players and Jake happened to be one of them. It was the first time I think, I know for me, I would assume Chris too, we really had a chance to sit down and talk with him and just kind of get a feel for who he is as a person.

We watched him, obviously, and read a lot of stories, and really had grown to appreciate what he’s done all year as a true freshman. Then to be able to sit down with him, Chris asked him a great question because he’s a confident guy for a true freshman. Doing what he’s doing, Chris said, “When is the last time you were uncomfortable?” And he kind of looked perplexed and was like, “Man, that’s a really tough question. I really don’t know the last time I felt uncomfortable.” Like, in a room or on a field, nowhere. He couldn’t come up with an answer.

So I was not necessarily surprised. Again, if you went back and listened to the show, we said before the game that the bigger the stage, the better he seemed to play. He’s one of those guys. Occasionally you have guys like that. So, as the game played out and Georgia was down, we kept trying to kind of get in front of Georgia’s not out of this type of thing. This young kid is making adjustments and doing things that are unique to him.

So how he played, even though it would typically be very rare or unusual to see a guy play under pressure on that stage, knowing him and watching him, I personally wasn’t surprised at all.

CHRIS FOWLER: No, but I think you have to remind yourself that what you’re seeing isn’t normal for a 19 year old true freshman to do that to make those throws. Obviously, he had a strong running game to lean on. He’s not asked to carry as much of the load offensively as Baker is, for example. But everything he was asked to do he executed perfectly. And during the stress of the moment, his ability to block all that out.

Because we talked to him about the Little League World Series, and that’s kind of a sign of things to come. When you can be 12 years old and handle your business. I said, weren’t you freaked out by the crowds and the cameras? He said, no, I was just playing a baseball game. I said, well most kids can’t block that out that well. I think he did the same thing Monday night, he blocked out that this was the Rose Bowl. This was the semifinal. There is Baker over there, our defense is struggling, you go out there and execute moment by moment, and that’s just very, very rare for really for anybody, much less a 19 year old true freshman.

We weren’t surprised based on our brief encounter with him. But you’ve got to remind yourself it’s just not normal. Now he’s got a whole ‘mother level of intensity and pressure to deal with in the championship game. Because semifinals aren’t like conference title games. They’re not like bowl games. The National Championship is a whole ‘nother level above the semifinal if you believe every player that’s ever played in one. It’s another challenge for him, but you’d be wrong to doubt this guy based on what we’ve seen.

Chris, where would you put that Rose Bowl Game amongst some of the other broadcasts that you’ve called?
CHRIS FOWLER: At the top. I mean, we had a beautiful Rose Bowl last year with the USC Penn State game back and forth. Highest scoring Rose Bowl until this one, but in a different feel because it wasn’t a playoff game. It was just a beautiful Rose Bowl part of history for both those two programs. But that was the ultimate game for both teams. There was no greater prize to play for. And I think Monday night felt different. I think you do it differently when there is the weight of the potential championship hanging in the balance. I think that that all contributed to it.

I loved the match up from the start because they’ve never played. It’s almost insane that the two programs with about 1700 wins between them have never before played.

So I think Kirk and I both felt excited about that aspect of it. And as you said very well, as it unfolds, you begin to realize that you’re part of something very special. You’re witnessing something that is at the top of a lot of people’s lists for football games they’ve ever seen. I’ve gotten lots of comments on social media that was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m a little older than a lot of people, so I’ve seen a lot more games.

But in terms of being able to broadcast one, the Clemson Bama championship game last year to be decided with one second left would have would be right up there as well. But it’s just hard to top anything that happens in the Rose Bowl. I think that people’s ideas of Texas USC as being, if not the greatest game ever, greatest championship game ever, comes in part with the fact that it took place on that stage which is as good as it gets in sport. I think that the Georgia Oklahoma game was elevated just by being played in the Rose Bowl in terms of the drama of it all.

But I haven’t been a part of anything quite that special, I think, and I certainly haven’t seen very many games in person like that either.

You mentioned the SEC angle in the intro. Is there a risk? Do you think there is a risk or a concern of that affecting interest?
CHRIS FOWLER: Potentially. I think that we try to stay away from worrying about the business side of the match up and the implications and just call the game. That’s where the enjoyment lies for Kirk, myself, and our entire production team. Certainly there are people at the network that are very concerned about the ratings and things like that. But honestly, there is not much you can do about that. And if people have a problem with the fact that two teams from the same conference are there, I’d remind them it’s hard to argue. They’ve earned their way there. And again they happen to be from the same league, but they don’t play every year. They really don’t play that often, considering they are in the same conference.

I think it’s a championship game that I see as being two great teams. This country in large part people are angry and divided about lots of institutions in this country. The playoff might be one of them. There may be some anger and frustration based on lots of things that happened during the season. But when you get to the championship game, if you love the sport, how could you not watch it? If you love college football, these are two excellent teams. It’s an excellent match up. I didn’t love the Patriots or the Falcons, but you sure watched the Super Bowl and enjoyed the drama. I think that goes for lots of sports fans everywhere.

I hope people will tune in and enjoy it. I hope it will be a game worthy of everybody’s attention.

Kirk, how do you see Alabama’s defensive front matching up with Georgia’s O line, and Nick Chubb and those running backs?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think that will be obviously a big story line that we’ll follow very closely. That was something that really throughout the whole year they’ve been able to hang their hat on. It’s their identity. Even when they got down to Baker Mayfield, I thought it was a great job by Jim Chaney of sticking through to who they are. So you’ve got a veteran offensive line, and I think we all were anxious to see Alabama’s defense healthier. I know they’re still missing some guys. But at least they had Mack Wilson back, it was good to see Terrell Lewis back making plays, and even Christian Miller. They were at least able to get some of their pieces back.

I know Anfernee Jennings is out, which is a significant loss in my mind. But I can’t wait to watch that, just the line of scrimmage. This will be a very different game than what we all experienced because the Rose Bowl was open with Oklahoma, and the scoring ability, and how quickly they could strike. This will be a game really more about the line of scrimmage on both sides. Not only because of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart and what their philosophies are, but just because that happens to be the strengths of the two teams.

I can’t sit here and say Georgia’s going to win that battle. They’ve run the ball on everybody with the exception of the game at Auburn. But I do think much like the Oklahoma game, Nick Saban is going to be determined to stop that aspect of Georgia’s game. He’s going to try to put the game on the shoulders of Jake Fromm. He’s going to try to do what Kevin Steele did in that first Auburn game against Georgia where they took away the running game and they put Fromm into those 3rd and 7s, and 3rd and 8s. They really struggled on third down. I think, what was it, Chris? 2 of 11 or 3 of 12 or whatever it was in that first one against Auburn.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see them try to give Nick some different looks. Throw the ball more just to try to stay balanced, because you can’t just lineup and run the ball against a now healthy defensive front and kind of an angry defense. They played with an attitude in their game against Clemson. I would assume that would be on display once again against Georgia.

Does the way this postseason played out make the case for an expanded playoffs with Central Florida doing what it did, the Big Ten doing what it did, especially the 5 and 6 teams in the rankings? Or is it just the opposite that these are the two teams they probably ended up with anyway?
CHRIS FOWLER: I think what happens every bowl season, people that want to see an expanded playoff say this makes the perfect case for an expanded playoff. The Big 12 a few years ago, the Pac 12 has certainly felt that in recent years. Maybe it’s the Big Ten’s turn. Certainly at UCF like many group of five teams before it have had the season they feel like they demand inclusion.

But what I haven’t really heard are great ideas about how to expand from 4 to 8 without doing serious damage to the overall product. I think I’m an advocate of keeping it at four for a while to see how things play out. We’re pretty young in the process. Are we headed that direction in the future? Perhaps.

But I honestly believe you’d have to do away with conference championship games in order to have an eight team playoff. I think you’d have to level the playing field a little bit. You’d have to have everybody play the same number of conference games and perhaps regulate the out of conference schedule that happens late in the season.

But for now, if you looked at an eight team bracket, you have four more teams in. You tell me, and let’s say you play them on the higher seed’s home field. That’s been talked about a lot. There is a limit to how many neutral field games you can have and travel and so on. Let’s say you play four home games with the four highest seeds, which of those four teams we saw Monday are going to lose a home game to a UCF? We don’t know. It’s unknowable.

But I think there is a good chance you probably would have had the same four teams get through those games and perhaps even the same two play in the championship. That’s no defense at keeping it at four, but I think you have to look at it realistically and not to just franticly beat the drum without really good ideas of how an eight team playoff filed would look and feel like. And look at the wear and tear you see with these teams that played on Monday, it’s very real. You talk to anybody that has played in these games, and even the coaches that have been there, and adding another tier of 16 teams, to me, is tough.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: I was going to say I’m not one to typically have a knee jerk reaction to a season and say this is unfair. I can’t believe this. What’s happening? And I’m not a defender of the four team system. If it ever went to eight in a couple years or if it flipped to eight next year I wouldn’t be jumping up and down saying it’s unfair. I wouldn’t have a problem with eight if it went to eight.

I love the regular season the way it is. I love that the regular season feels like it has urgency to it, even late August, early September. I mean, there is excitement in the college football season that I hope we never lose. I’m an NFL fan, and the NFL doesn’t really seem to match our intensity in our sport until right now. So that would be a shame if we ever lost that.

I think Chris is right. I think we’ve seen the last two years teams that have not won their conference championship or been invited to the conference championship make it into the playoff. So if you did go to eight, I wouldn’t have any problem with eliminating the conference championship, personally, and get it to eight. I think that way if you keep it at five power conferences and you can make sure that you get the higher seed of the group of five, like a UCF this year, assures them of getting in and still have a couple spots for a couple at larges.

It all makes sense on paper, but there is the wear and tear factor. There is the whole issue of where do you play the games and things like that. But if it ever went to eight, I don’t think you would see Chris or I or anybody from ESPN saying that that’s crazy. That’s the worst idea in the world.

You members of the juried the wear and tear, should there be another week between the semis and the championship game?
CHRIS FOWLER: For a broadcaster or for a player? I wouldn’t mind a couple extra days. But I think it’s tough if you start pushing it back. I think next year there will be two more days than there are this year, if I’m correct in reading the schedule. This is the shortest turn around that you get. But it’s no different than the regular season. It presents a challenge, but both teams are on even footing.

I was wondering, Nick Saban’s so known for that never satisfied approach. Saying things like, “Don’t wait for failure” at SEC media days. All the games you’ve been around him, covered him, seen that personality, is there a moment that sticks out where you were kind of like wow, this is real that he acts like this?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Oh, man. I think we a lot of times see a very different Nick Saban than the one that’s at the podium or the one that’s on stage. I think when he gets on a stage, I think he’s clearly sending a message to somebody, many times it’s his own team, sometimes it’s his own fans, sometimes it’s to the conference commissioners and the people that are kind of making decisions about the sport. He always has he’s got a great approach to he talks about never wasting an opportunity to failure. He never wastes an opportunity in front of a microphone. He knows what he’s doing at all times.

For me, I see a very different Nick Saban. So maybe when that first started to happen with me and him and I saw how normal he was, because of the persona that most people see, I guess that would be the thing that kind of always makes me kind of raise my eyebrow is just how normal of a guy he really is.

Like this week whenever we get a chance to sit down and talk with him, it will be a very pleasant and incredibly informative conversation, and he’s probably, of all the coaches that I get a chance to talk to, he’s probably the guy that I look forward to talking to the most just because of the back and forth and the way he says things. It’s just incredible what clarity he has. So that probably to me is the part that makes me raise my eyebrow and be surprised by what I hear sometimes. Not the crazy stuff because I think he’s performing when he does that on stage.

CHRIS FOWLER: I agree with a lot of that. Every time you get a chance to meet with Nick it has been pleasant and informative. I don’t know that I’d use the label normal for him. I think he’s abnormal in a lot of ways, but good ways that help him win championships. His intensity is focused.

The only thing I would remark about as coaches when you get to know them a little bit and how they react to wins and losses, is I wish Nick, like a lot of the guys, could savor victories more deeply and for a longer period of time. I think a lot of coaches would say the victories, even the championships, are a relief, and the losses are devastating. And I think that’s not in perfect harmony or balance. But a coach’s life isn’t often in perfect balance.

But I wish he’d enjoy for a little bit longer what he’s achieved, and reflect a little bit more on how things have gone in his career, because I think he’s deserved it.
Do you think that I know so much is made of his chase of Bear Bryant in the National Championships, but will there ever be a coach that has his presence in terms of the things you’re talking about with the microphone and his ability to influence the sport?
CHRIS FOWLER: I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I think hopefully there are a lot of years to college football to come. To achieve his level of success is going to be very, very difficult to do. I don’t know if he views it as chasing Paul Bryant. I think that’s what we talk about with the overall championships. I happen to think already that he’s the greatest coach to ever coach college football, and I think a lot of people, we share that opinion.

Will we see another like him? I don’t know. Dabo’s young. He’s got a championship at Clemson. He’s probably got the best chance of the guys that are active right now.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: I don’t think there is a current coach coaching as a head coach that can do what Nick Saban is doing not only with his team but with how he represents not just his team and maybe the SEC. But I think people misunderstand him. When he talks about what he thinks is for the best, for the college football player or for the sport, if you take away your bias and all hatred that people have for Nick Saban at Alabama and you listen to what he says, he takes advantage of his form, of where he is, his pedestal.

He’s a coach that when he was a young head coach at Michigan State or when he started to have some success at LSU, I think he’s one of the guys that realizes how America and how the media, and how the fans of the sport look at him. I appreciate his willingness to stand up for things.

Right away he comes out this week and talks about this time off. He’s not just saying it for Nick Saban and Alabama. He’s saying that for the next team and the next coach. So there is a willingness there with the platform and the stage that he has. There is a willingness to go out and try to say what he thinks is in the best interest of the sport of college football. I can see that objectively that he truly means that. Most people think that he’s being just selfish and it’s all about what Alabama needs, and he’s really not that way at all.

That’s why I think it’s rare. That’s why I think it’s very hard to imagine seeing another Nick Saban. The success on the field, which is incredibly unique and rare, combined with the willingness to stand up and say what he thinks is best for the sport. He’s the guy that wants a commissioner for the sports. He’s the guy that wants everybody to play the Power Five.

As much as people rip on him and Mercer, here essaying everybody should play nine conference games. Everybody should play Power Five teams in their non conference. He gets accused of some things that he’s really against.

Chris as a resident down here and Kirk as an astute observer, doing Miami games in the final weeks of the season, how big of a gap do you think between Miami and Clemson and Alabama? Was a 38 3 score reflective of the gap that still remains, and in what areas is the biggest, quarterback, line, et cetera?
CHRIS FOWLER: Yeah, the biggest gap we saw that play out when they had three guys injured on the offense against Clemson. I don’t think the gap is representative of the score in that game. But clearly the Canes are not at a place on their roster. They’ve just barely gotten back to the number of scholarships other people have where they can sustain injuries like that.

You look at the attrition, even Alabama who has the deepest most talented roster in the sport, especially on defense there is a limit to what you can sustain. I think the limit is pushed. The Canes limit is nowhere near that.

They’ve got to get better quarterback play for sure, and they’ve got to get a deeper, more talented roster they’re recruiting, especially when they might be headed in that direction. But the gap is still there. I look forward to seeing where they’re going in the future, because I think it’s good for the sport, it’s good for the ACC to have Miami be a factor and be reckoned with every season.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: Yeah, I think the depth is a big thing that I recognize. When you lose Mark Walton, Ahmmon Richards, the tight end Christopher Herndon, when those guys went down, I think you’ll notice in two or three years, the next couple years, the way Mark Richt’s going to recruit, when you lose the caliber of an athlete like that, I don’t think you’ll see as big a drop off. When they were in towards the end of the year, and you take off Richards who has kind of had nagging injuries most of the year and then went out late in the year, when Herndon went down and Walton, you take three of the best weapons off that lineup, if that happened to Clemson, there are other guys there that are not quite maybe have the same experience, but pretty similar skillsets. I think that’s what they’re building towards as far as skill is concerned.

The other thing I think is you have to take baby steps. If you go back even not to any team but just Miami specifically, I remember in the mid ’90s, the latter part of the ’90s, the way Butch Davis built that, it took him some time to build the pieces and do it the right way. Of course, Miami wants it instantly, and they want to be able to win a National Championship. But, boy, that’s how Butch Davis laid out a perfect blueprint. Just taking a few steps, a few steps, a few steps.

In 2000 they came up just a little bit short. I can’t remember. I think it was the Washington game, and they beat Florida State, and Florida State went ahead of them or something like that. It was like, man, we got short changed. They came back in ’01 with an attitude. It was just a process of building it back up.

When I look at Mark Richt, I think he’s doing the exact same thing, just in his second year. Great recruiting class coming in. And they’ve got to get better at quarterback. You’ve got to get more consistent throwing the football than the way Malik Rosier played this year, we’ll see if he gets a chance next year or if somebody else takes him out.

Can you talk a little bit about D’Andre Swift. He’s a guy from Philly, went to St. Joe Prep and has been able to get on the field for Kirby Smart’s team at Georgia and do some good things. Obviously he’ll be playing in this championship game?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Special, special player. Right now you look at that back field, and of course Nick Chubb and Sony Michel get the majority of the opportunities for good reason. They’ve kind of paid their dues and have an incredible kind of tandem. They’re the best we’ve seen in a long time in college football. And Swift, even though he’s only a freshman, he’s shown to me very similar set of skills, maybe even better out of the back field catching the football.

I think that’s the thing that, as he grows within this offense, you’ve got to remember, he’s right there with Jake Fromm. He’s going to be a big part of their growth, and with the way they’re recruiting.

The one thing I personally love the tandem. I think you see it more in the NFL. We have a one two punch. I think he keeps both backs fresh as they get into the third and fourth quarter, and it becomes a real strength of Georgia. I would not be surprised to see Swift find another guy to be able to help him the same way. But I see a huge future for him. You talk to people on that football team, and even others within that conference.

I talked to Saquon Barkley, and he was going on and on about him. We had him on game day on the morning of the first. He just kept talking about Swift and how special he is, and what a great player he’s going to be. To hear that from Saquon Barkley among other players I’ve talked to, it tells you it seems to be unanimous that people are excited about the opportunities he’s going to get in the future.

Kirk, when you look at the match up of Kirby and Saban, that’s obviously known. But obviously Kirby has coached a lot of those defensive guys for Alabama, the key ones (indiscernible), Ryan Parris, Da’Ron Payne. Do you think that gives him any advantage that he not only recruited them, but he coached them, and kind of knows the DNA because of his experience of being around those guys and coaching those guys?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Yeah, I don’t know if it necessarily gives them an advantage. I think it gives them familiarity of certain maybe tendencies and strengths or potential weakness. Not only the background of maybe knowing their mindset, but where they had to be really pushed to want to practice or a little bit of a dog, or are they a guy that gives great effort. He’ll know a little bit more than your normal game prep week of knowing about the intangibles of a player. I think that might help him a little bit.

But let’s not forget the same could be said for Alabama with Jeremy Pruitt, who I know is going to be the head coach at Tennessee. But his time at Georgia and somebody in the media asked him a question about how much involvement or how much understanding or background do you have with these Georgia defenders? He said, How many of them? He said, All of them.

So you could make the same case for Jeremy Pruitt and knowing some of the kids in Athens as well. So there are so many different, I guess there are a lot of different dots and a lot of ways of connecting those dots with these two teams.

A lot of teams have tried to replicate the Saban process with their own guys. Why is it working with Kirby at Georgia?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Kirby stayed for a long time, waited to be very selective with where he went. He happened to go back to his alma mater, and he happened to pick a roster that had not only talent but experience. And I think that probably as much as anything, he is, of all the coaches that have left, he’s probably the most similar, in my opinion anyway, to Nick as any of them, as far as his approach.

When you go to practice and watch him coach, it’s crazy how similar and how demanding he is on the defensive side of the ball. I think Jeremy Pruitt, I don’t know if he’ll have the roster that Kirby inherited in Athens. But he’ll have the same kind of approach in Knoxville. Wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him be successful.

So I think it’s a demanding approach never, literally never taking your foot off the accelerator. As far as when they’re in the weight room or when they’re on the practice field. I think they do a good job of loving on the guys when it’s the training table or you’re in the locker room or whatever. But as far as when it’s time to work, man, it’s unlike any other place you go as far as how demanding Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are, and how involved they are. I mean, I don’t know how many calories they burn during practice, but they’re involved.

Then when it up cans to recruiting, same thing, man. They’re right at the front row. They’re not, okay, you guys get close to closing a deal, I’ll come in on the back end. They’re on the front end of the recruiting process and what needs to be done. So they, like I said, at the end of the day I think Kirby is the most similar to Nick of any of the assistants I’ve seen leave. You combine that with his familiarity of the alma mater and the roster he inherited, I think that’s why they’ve had the success they’ve had.

This part of the country from the high schools we have a lot more of the 54 to 48 games than we have the 24 to 6 games. Has offense more or less permanently taken the upper hand? What does it take for defense to once again be more than anything than a relative after thought for most teams?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Yeah, that’s a great question, especially in your region. I thought the Big 12, I haven’t written it out or looked at it, but just from watching the games, I know the Big 12 defensive coordinators like to say during the season let’s see how these other defensive coordinators in other conferences do when they get a chance to face these Big 12 offenses.

So I think the Big 12 gets killed a lot for the lack of defense. But as we see, I think it’s more prolific offenses and quarterback play and the systems that they play as much as anything. What’s the answer? In my opinion, the only answer when you have a Big 12 style of offense, with the Baker Mayfields and Mason Rudolphs and that kind of quarterback, if you don’t recruit defensive linemen who are first round caliber defensive linemen who just win up front, whether it’s the run or the pass, they’ve got a chance to be productive.

The old Gerald McCoy and Tommy Harris type of guys. If you can’t recruit those type of players consistently, you’re always going to be at a schematic disadvantage, always. Because the offense, with the rules of the sport and the way people have gone to this offense, you have a quarterback that essentially has the chalk last in the discussion. And these RPOs, these run pass options that are kind of built into most of these offenses, and you have a smart quarterback, it gives you a chance that if you see the defense cheating to stop the run, no problem. Flip it out to the receiver who is left one on one out there and make a guy miss. There is an easy 12 yards. It just goes on and on and on.

A good quarterback will always win in these systems unless you’ve got defensive linemen that are difference makers, and you don’t have to commit a certain amount of bodies into the line of scrimmage to stop the run, being vulnerable now to the pass. Or, oh my gosh, we have to stop the big play in the pass. Now they’re going to run the ball for 250 yards. So it’s kind of a cat and mouse game, and if you don’t have defensive linemen, you don’t have a chance to stop these offenses.

Because of seven and seven are we always going to have more good quarterbacks in this part of the country than we have good defensive linemen, I wonder?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Well, yeah. I think that is a part of the sport of college football that’s probably changed the most. I would say in Florida, in Texas, and in California. That is these quarterback gurus that get ahold of these guys in fifth grade, and they start working with them and get them in systems, these kids by the time they’re in eighth grade are flipping the ball around back the way kids did when they were seniors in high school and they’re in 8th grade. So the amount of reps, the specializing of the quarterbacks and the wide receivers, the seven on sevens that they do year round, by the time you get into high school football, your season goes from late August, middle of August, into maybe early December. A lot of these guys are still throwing the ball in those seven on seven camps in January through June and July.

So it’s a very good point about how that part of it, you get a kid like Jake Fromm who is part of that world, and while we all sit back and marvel at what he’s doing and his own brain since he’s probably been in 7th or 8th grade, he’s had a football in his hands, flipping it around playing seven on sevens and playing in All Star seven on seven camps much of the last five years of his life. So he has incredible confidence.

Whereas, if you go back to Buck Belue coming out and getting ready to play at Georgia or anybody in the last 20 years, you are not as focused and specialized in throwing the football.

So I still think defensive linemen that are big and naturally fast and strong can still be disruptive. But if you don’t have that, like I said, it makes it incredibly difficult for very smart defensive minds. People forget, Mike Stoops is a smart guy. It’s not like he’s forgotten how to coach. It’s just Gary Patterson, he hasn’t forgotten how to coach defense. You’re just as such a schematic disadvantage. My only answer would be go pound the pavement and find those difference makers up front. It’s your only chance you’ve got.

I’m curious about the emotional edge in this game. Kirby told us yesterday on the conference call he didn’t want his team to burn anymore energy and emotion than they already had. Obviously they spent a ton against Oklahoma and obviously Alabama had it against Clemson. Would you give either team an emotional edge in this one?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: You know how it is by the time you get to Monday night and that adrenaline’s cranking. I think it’s going to be about that night. I do think as we sit here right now and we’re five or six days away, I think it’s easy to look at, man, they had to fly all the way out to California. They had to spend all that energy to get into double overtime and find a way to somehow win the game. Then they had to fly back to Athens. They may have lost a day of preparation. There is a lot to look at there and wonder how that could impact them.

But you know you’ve been covering this as long as I have or longer. I think by the time they get their feet under them, they start to look at each other. Happen to be from the same conference. Even though they haven’t prepped for each other, they’ve seen each other a lot, based on film study by their teams. The background of knowing each other very well. I think that will help them.

But I think it’s more about, and this is where both of them have some experience, Nick as a head coach, Kirby as his defensive coordinator, when to push them. How physical do you get this week? When do you go to shorts and shells? When do you get them off their feet? How are you feeding them? How are you hydrating them? I think that part of it will be probably as significant as just the wear and tear of the games that they both played and the emotions that they expended on Monday night.

You and Chris both talked about the SEC. It’s not a sweeping endorsement of SEC as a league. It sure looked down with so many teams in the SEC with bad records and six coaches opening up. Do you think there is some slippage of the SEC which looked top heavy this year? Could that be a trend?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s a trend. Clearly the athletic directors of however many it is, five or six schools thought it was time to make a move. I think anybody who is looking, depending on how, I guess, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you look at the conferences they have, two of the teams playing in the championship, the SEC is still the best conference. If you choose to look at it that way, more power to you.

I happen to look at it more of who has the depth of a conference? Who has five or six or seven teams that are close to being around the top 25, which is where the SEC typically has been. It’s not just that they were winning championships, but they had incredible depth. They typically have two or three teams in a Top 10. They’d have another three or four in the top 25. So they weren’t only winning the championship, but they had tremendous depth. But when you have Florida playing the way they have, you have Tennessee down, you have A&M down, it’s very hard, I think, for that conference to kind of look at themselves and say, hey, this is exactly where our goals are. This is who we are as a conference. No, of course not. They need those other teams to be more successful to really be able to sit there and be proud of who they are as a conference.

With that being said, as Chris said, I don’t think you can take anything away from the Alabama team that you and I will watch play Clemson. It’s hard for me to say they definitely don’t deserve to be in this. And same thing can be said for Georgia and what they’ve achieved this year, and the way they took Oklahoma’s best shot, came back to find a way to win in double overtime.

If you’re being fair, I don’t know how you could say no, no, no, you see their conference? They’re terrible. They didn’t beat anybody. Both these teams deserve to be in the top four. Both these teams are in the championship. You may disagree with it. You may say it’s not deserving or whatever you want to look at. I personally have no issue with it. They happen to be the last two teams standing.

Yes, their conference top to bottom happens to be down this year. But as far as the individual teams are concerned, these two teams are outstanding, and in my opinion, worthy of being in this game after what they did on Monday night.

Talked a little bit earlier about the short time span between the semifinal and the final, which I don’t think happens again for another six years. Does it give one team the advantage over the other in this particular match up?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Well, as crazy as it sounds, I would have said Georgia just because they were playing earlier or Oklahoma. Like when we went into this I thought man whoever wins the Rose Bowl, they can get on a flight, get home, and by the time they land the other game still may be just wrapping up or maybe in the postgame press conference and still has to get all the way back home.

So I would have said the Rose Bowl maybe had the advantage, despite the distance that they had to travel. But with the way the game played out and as late as it went, and then you have to board a flight and go all the way back, I would say that maybe the two teams that ended up winning, I think there is less wear and tear put on Alabama.

Now with that being said, emotion is a big part of the game. At times it can really help you, and at other times at the back end of that it can be very deflating.

I thought Alabama played with a lot of emotion, out to prove everybody wrong, chip on their shoulder, take that kind of thing. So that’s why I think both these teams have some work to do as far as getting their feet back under them and just settling back down and getting ready for Monday night. So just because of the circumstances, I don’t think you can say, well, Alabama has an advantage because they didn’t have such a competitive game against Clemson. Shorter flight, no problem, Alabama has the edge. I think there was some emotional wear and tear there on Bama.

Both these guys are experts in getting their team where they need them to be. So I don’t think we’ll have an issue by the time Monday night comes around. But I do think both coaches are keenly aware of these issues that we’re talking about. I think they’re going to do everything that they can to talk to their strength coaches and their nutritionists, and everybody that they need to talk to to make sure that both these teams are kind of at their peak by the time they get together Monday night where the adrenaline will really be flying for both teams.



Anna Negron

It was always a dream of mine to work at ESPN, and here I am! I joined the College Sports PR team in March 2016. Hailing from the great Garden State, I graduated from Seton Hall University (Go Pirates!) with a degree in sport management, where I not only sang the National Anthem at games, but was also a member of the Seton Hall Sapphires Dance Team and a student reporter for Pirate Sports Network. Before joining ESPN, I served as a Public Relations Associate for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
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