“What this basically indicates is that the SEC Championship game was a playoff game,” Saban continued. “It was a heck of a game. They played a great game, and they have a great team. I think they are one of the best four teams in the country, and that’s no disrespect to any of the people that are here. But I didn’t think they had a chance to get in with two losses.”
Follow-up question: So you’re saying the playoff teams aren’t necessarily the four best teams?
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying what I said, and I’m not changing what I said,” Saban said. “I thought they were one of the four best teams in the country. That doesn’t mean they are any better than the teams who are here, and I voted for the four teams that are here.”
Saban, Swinney and Riley have become familiar faces on the playoff stage. Saban’s team is in the playoff for the fifth consecutive season, Swinney’s for the fourth consecutive season and Riley’s for the second season in a row. (Oklahoma also was in the playoff in 2015 under then-coach Bob Stoops.) Notre Dame is in the playoff for the first time.
“We are the new kid on the block,” Kelly said.
The returnees expressed appreciation for being back.
“The College Football Playoff is a dream for everybody at the start of the season, but the fact is there can only be four,” said Riley, whose Sooners got the fourth spot over Georgia as the selection committee favored a one-loss Big 12 champion over a two-loss SEC runner-up.
“We’ve been here before,” Saban said in an understatement, “and this is one of the great venues in sports to be a part of.”
Not surprisingly, all of the playoff coaches had praise for their coming opponents. The strongest praise may have been Riley’s for Alabama backup quarterback Jalen Hurts, who lost the starting job to Tua Tagovailoa but came off the bench to rally the Crimson Tide to the come-from-behind SEC Championship game victory over Georgia after Tagovailoa was injured.
“How Jalen Hurts handled that entire situation,” Riley said, “I don’t know if there is a coach in the country who doesn’t look back at that and say, ‘Every college football player, every young football player out there, every 6-year-old that is getting ready to play the game, ought to see that story. Because we need more guys like him.’”