Southeastern Conference Football Championship Game: Alabama vs Georgia

 THE MODERATOR: We’re ready to continue with Coach Nick Saban. Coach, welcome back to Atlanta. While we wait on questions, would you mind commenting as you prepare for the SEC Championship Game.

NICK SABAN: We think it’s a great opportunity that our team has created for ourselves to have a chance to play in the SEC Championship Game. We think that’s an outstanding, competitive venue against a really good team, probably one of the most complete teams in the nation in terms of offense, defense, special teams, and they’re very well coached. Kirby has done a really good job. His staff has done a great job. They’ve got some really impressive wins. They’re ranked very highly in a lot of categories, and this will be the most challenging game that we have all year. But I’m really proud of our guys for what they’ve been able to accomplish so far this year. This is why guys come to this school is they get to play in games like this against great teams, and this will be a great challenge for us.

  1. Coach, good afternoon. I know you’re a coach that wouldn’t take a conference championship appearance for granted, but with the constant

playoff talk, eight-team playoff talk, do you have a long-term concern for what these games might mean in the future?

NICK SABAN: Well, we’ve been in this game, and we’ve always played a really good team, most of the time a team that would be a playoff caliber team, and I don’t think there’s anything different about that this year. I think it’s — the playing field is not level for all teams relative to conference championship games. They have them. They don’t have them. Who they play, who they don’t play. But it is what it is, and it’s the challenge we have before us. I don’t really have an opinion right now on expanding playoffs and eliminating championship games and all that. I really just never, ever thought about it. I just kind of think about what we have to do right now, and we’ve got a heck of a challenge ahead of us in this game.

  1. The first half of the last couple of games, the offense has been a little slow getting started, but they’ve had great second halves. Is that just a matter of simple execution? Can you put your finger on that?

NICK SABAN: I have not been pleased with the way we played in the first half of the last two games on really either side of the ball. We don’t seem to have the kind of intensity, mental energy to start the game that you’d like to see in your team or that we had earlier in the season. So we want to play for 60 minutes in the game. So if we don’t start out well, we want to start out better. And if we don’t finish well, we want to finish better. So these are all things that we need to focus on improving on.

  1. And my follow-up question, I know everybody is talking about Tua, rightfully so, having just a great year. How gratifying is it to see Jalen Hurts come in and do some really good things like he did against Auburn?

NICK SABAN: I think Jalen has shown a lot of class this year and the way he’s handled the situation he’s in, he’s been a great team guy. He’s been very supportive of his teammates, and when he’s got an opportunity to play, I think he showed that he’s improved dramatically. Even though he hasn’t played all the time this year, he’s made a lot of progress as a player in practice, and we have a great amount of confidence that he can go in and do the job if we need him to.

  1. I know Mike Locksley is a semifinalist for the Broyles Award. Just wondering what kind of job you think he’s done this year, and what makes him

a worthy guy to win that award?

NICK SABAN: I think Mike has done as good a job as any guy in the country could do in terms of the way the players have responded to him, the way he’s implemented the system that we have, the way he’s used the players that we have on offense on our team, and the success that we’ve had is certainly a reflection on the job that he has done. So I certainly think he’s very worthy, and we’re really fortunate to have someone of his caliber and quality here on our staff that has the experience he has, and he’s done a fabulous job for us.

      1.Obviously, these two teams played for the National Championship last season. In July you guys were the overwhelming favorites to win your divisions. You’re here again now. It’s been a good year for the league, a lot of eight and nine-win teams, but what has kind of separated Alabama and Georgia, do you think right now, from the rest of the pack?

NICK SABAN: Well, I can speak to Georgia, just kind of watching them through the year. They have a lot of really good players, very talented guys that are very well coached. They play hard. They’re very disciplined. They’ve got great balance on offense. They can run the ball. They can make explosive plays. The quarterback is very efficient in the passing game. Defensively, they’re ranked very highly in all categories in terms of stopping the run, pass defense. They’ve got some very explosive guys on special teams. They’re one of the best punt return units. They’ve got a great kicker. They’ve got good specialists. So this all around is just a really, really good team. We didn’t play everybody in their division, and I don’t know those teams as well as maybe sometimes when you’re playing somebody, but they have been a pretty dominant team all season long.

  1. And I wanted to take you back a decade, if I could, to when you played Florida back to back for the SEC title games. Obviously, the first one didn’t

go your way in ’08 and the second one did in ’09. When you’re in that situation of knowing that you’ve got a team you’ve got to knock off, how do

you balance that challenge? Because you’re always, obviously, wanting to develop and focus on within, but how do you balance that when you’ve

got another team out there that kind of is standing in your way?

NICK SABAN: I think every team that we play is standing in our way. I mean, in our league, I think that you have to play well every week. There’s a lot of teams that are capable of beating you if you don’t bring your A game. This team obviously has accomplished more than any team we’ve played all year in terms of their record, the success they’ve had all season long in all phases of the game. So this is obviously even a bigger challenge. But I’m not sure you approach the game a whole lot different in terms of the mindset you need, the kind of preparation you need to have, the kind of execution you need to have. When you play against the best players, I think you should assume that we’re going to play against some of the best players we played against all year, and I think every day when you prepare, that’s how you need to try to prepare.

  1. Given the way the National Championship Game ended, especially that second half that you all put up, and all the talent returning, did it ever feel like this year that this would be the matchup in the SEC Championship, that you versus Alabama, kind of a rematch, so to speak?

NICK SABAN: I really thought that, in playing Georgia last year and knowing the kind of players they had coming back and the job they do there and the job that Kirby does with his entire staff, that they would have an excellent chance to come back in the game. I never really thought much about how our team would develop. You hope your team develops. You always have a lot of holes to fill. You’ve got a new team. So we were just trying to focus on what we could do to get our team to be able to play as well as they could play and hope that that was good enough to win our division. As it turns out, even though we don’t have a lot of depth in some areas and we’ve lost some key players in some places, we’ve been able to overcome those things and feel fortunate to have the opportunity to play in the SEC Championship Game.

  1. And secondly, what are you seeing — you obviously have seen tape and watched Fromm quite a bit, but what are you seeing from Justin Fields and what he’s been able to do for Georgia coming in off the bench?

NICK SABAN: Well, he’s certainly got an outstanding skill set. I mean, the guy is a very athletic guy. He’s a good runner, but he also has a capacity to make any throw that he needs to make. He’s got a strong arm, and he’s fairly accurate and a very athletic guy in the pocket. Both guys are outstanding players. Jake does a great job of managing their offense. He’s very accurate, very poised in the way he executes, and he’s got a lot of confidence in the system and scheme and does a good job of helping all the skill players that they have make plays, whether it’s running or throwing.

  1. I can almost envision you short of rolling your eyes at this question because so much was asked about it last year, but when it comes to Kirby — and, obviously, he has used a template that he took from you at Alabama and brought it over here to Georgia — even now, a year later, you’re running headlong into his program again. Are you proud on some level of that? How do you view what you’ve seen the growth in Kirby Smart as a coach from that guy you first hired down at Miami?

NICK SABAN: Well, I actually hired him at LSU.

  1. Oh, yeah.

NICK SABAN: So it’s even longer than that. But anyway, no, I think Kirby has done a fantastic job, and no surprise to me. Georgia has always had a pretty good program, no doubt, and he has taken it to the next level. They’ve done an outstanding job of recruiting good players, but they’ve also done a really good job of developing the players and getting the players on their team to play at a high level on a consistent basis. So I always like to see guys — hey, we grew up with Kirby, and we were there when his children were born, and I know his family and have a tremendous amount of respect for him and appreciate the great job he did for us for nine or ten years or however long he was with

  1. You always like to see those guys do well. When you compete against them, it’s really not personal, at least not to me. I’m for trying to get our team ready to play the best that they can play for our players’ sake, and I’m sure he’s going to do the same thing for his team.
  1. And one other thing. It’s easy to look and see, you know, common opponents, and you guys have just — your margins of victory have been so

impressive this year. Is there any concern — you know, is there anything to be worried about, in terms of your own guys knowing what you’ve been

able to do, I don’t know, over confidence or what? Is that a danger in a game like this, or is it just out the window because the stakes are so high?

NICK SABAN: You know, you always want your team to have the right mindset, and I don’t think there’s any question that our players are going to have a tremendous amount of respect for Georgia, what they’ve accomplished, what they’ve done. We played against them last year, and it was a tremendous football game right down to the overtime. So I think we’ll have the right sort of mindset and respect for the team that we have to play. It’s always a concern when you have success, are players going to continue to focus on doing the things they need to do to improve and get better? And that’s always been a challenge for us here throughout the season, and I’m sure it will continue to be for any game that we play.

  1. When you think about the way you won championships when Kirby was there, could you have envisioned offensively what your teams look like now with Tua and his receivers along with still running the ball well?

NICK SABAN: Well, I think what we’ve always tried to do on offense — and I don’t think it gets recognized much — but we’ve changed our offense quite a bit relative to what our players are capable of doing, and I said before the season started this year, we were going to have a different kind of team this year. It certainly worked out to be that way. I think it’s the best personality for this group on offense that we could possibly have relative to the players that we have. I think the challenge is to get them to continue to execute and improve in some of the areas that we’ve not been as efficient in and try to focus on improvement and getting better. When you play better teams, the little things that you don’t do correctly, they don’t get you till they get you. So we need to get those things fixed.

  1. And when you think of Quinnen Williams, when did you think he would emerge into the type of player we see now, and what does it allow you to

do to run your defense when you have someone as impactful as him?

NICK SABAN: Well, he’s certainly had an outstanding year for us, no doubt. We always knew Q was — he always was a little undersized earlier in his career. He’s gotten bigger and stronger. He’s a really good athlete. He’s got really good initial quickness. He’s certainly been very productive for us this year, and it’s been very helpful because we went into the season thinking that was an area of concern is how we could rebuild the defensive line. Him emerging as a very, very good player has certainly contributed positively to that group and our success on defense.

  1. Coach, most of the programs that have had the consistent championship success that your program has had have had a certain level of continuity on the coaching staff. You’ve been able to maintain a great level of success without necessarily having the same coordinators year in and year out. What would you attribute that most to?

NICK SABAN: Well, first of all, I think we’ve had a lot of really good people, and I think that continuity is something that you always look for or like on your staff, but most of the guys that have gone on to better opportunities here is what they work for so they’ll be able to have those opportunities, and we’re certainly happy that they were able to get them. That’s why they all work. That’s what I did when I was an assistant coach as well. So when you have to replace people, you want to get quality people who are going to be a good fit in your organization, and they’re going to bring new enthusiasm and ideas, and you try to incorporate that without changing the philosophy of what you want to do as a team. I think we’re very fortunate that the guys we hired this year certainly have done that extremely well.

  1. To follow up on that, it’s a pretty well-known, fascinating statistic, your record against former assistants, other programs that know exactly what

you do at Alabama, that know the philosophy. What would you attribute that run of success you’ve had against your former assistants to?

NICK SABAN: Well, I think that all those things are circumstantial. Obviously, Georgia’s got one of the best teams in the country, and Kirby’s built that there and improved that circumstance so that they are one of the best teams in the country. A lot of guys that we’ve played against in the past that are our assistants, they were rebuilding programs that were down and hadn’t had an opportunity to build them up. So it’s not always been a level playing field, but we certainly have a lot of respect for Georgia and what they’ve done and what they’re capable of. We’re going to do everything we can to try to get our players ready to be ready for the challenge.

  1. LaBryan Ray and how he played in the Iron Bowl, especially how he stepped up after the injury to Isaiah Buggs, how would you evaluate the development of LaBryan Ray, Coach?

NICK SABAN: He’s done a good job for us. He’s played well for us all year long. He’s gotten a little bigger and a little stronger. He’s playing with a lot more confidence now. He’s gotten a little more power at the point. He’s athletic. He can run. He plays hard. He’s a really good competitor. He’s smart. We’re very pleased with the way he’s developed for us and played for us this year.

  1. The development of your secondary, if you could speak on that, and could Keaton Anderson play Mayden’s role in Saturday’s Championship Game?

NICK SABAN: We’ll have to evaluate that and see where we go from there. You’ve got to do what you prepared for relative to backups when you go into a game. We have a week here to decide what the best thing is for us to do there, but Keaton did a pretty good job in the game.

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