The head coaches of the four teams in the College Football Playoff shared a stage in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, positioned two to each side of the national championship trophy that all of them seek.
Alabama’s Nick Saban and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, whose teams will meet in a semifinal in the Orange Bowl, were seated on one side of the trophy. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, whose teams will meet in a Cotton Bowl semifinal, were on the other side.
The four coaches came to Atlanta for an annual pre-playoff news conference at the College Football Hall of Fame and for the College Football Awards show, a made-for-ESPN event held at the Hall of Fame later Thursday.
One of the highlights of the news conference was Saban’s awkward attempt to explain why he said Georgia was one of the four best teams in the country immediately after the SEC Championship game – but then voted the Bulldogs No. 5 on his coaches poll ballot the next day.
“Well, I do think they are one of the top four teams in the country,” Saban said. “But I don’t think they were going to get in the playoff with two losses, so I voted the teams that I thought had the best chance to get in.
“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.’”