Alabama Coach Nick Saban Faces Media

Alabama Coach Nick Saban met with the media Friday before the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Here is the transcript of that press conference.

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Alabama, 11-1 overall and ranked first in the nation in the College Football Playoff Selection Committee poll, will play Missouri, 10-2 and ranked 16th, in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta with kickoff at 4 p.m. EST (3 p.m. central time) Saturday with CBS televising the game. Both teams were 7-1 in SEC games.

THE MODERATOR: We'll ask Coach Saban for his general thoughts on the Alabama team coming into the game and then take questions.

COACH SABAN: First of all, I'd like to say what an honor it is for our team to be here representing the SEC West. This is a great, competitive venue to be able to play in the SEC Championship.

I think one of the reasons that makes it that way is this is something you really have to earn your way into. You have to beat a lot of good teams, play with a lot of consistency throughout the year. There's no committee. There's no vote. There's no anything. You play your way in and you earn your way here.

A lot of congratulations to both teams for being able to do that. This year I'm especially proud of our team. This is one of the best competitive venues I think that we've been associated with. I know playing in national championship games are fantastic, but next to that, this is it in terms of playing in a great college football game in a great atmosphere in the city of Atlanta. The SEC, Mike Slive, they all do a fantastic job of making this a first-class event for the players. I know the players certainly appreciate that.

We're excited about the opportunity we have to be in the game.

THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions for Coach Saban.

Q. Will Adam Griffith be available Saturday?

COACH SABAN: As far as we know. We'll have to make a game-time decision. He has been able to kick this week. He's done a nice job for us. We fully expect him to be available for the game.

Q. Obviously Missouri is here a second year in a row. Are you surprised at all how fast they've acclimated to the conference?

COACH SABAN: No, not at all, because I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gary, the great job he's done wherever he was a coach, coordinator at Washington, head coach at Toledo, now the 13 years he's been at Missouri. I think their program has always been very, very good.

Just to think because they went from one league to the other, there was going to be this huge transition, they're a very well-coached team. Fundamentally sound in just about everything they do. They have good players who buy into doing the things the way they want to do them, and they win a lot of football games.

Their team did a great job of overcoming a lot this year to win a lot of close games, which tells you what kind of competitive resiliency they have. They're probably the best defensive team right now in the SEC the way they're playing.

Not a surprise to me that they're here this year and that they've been here two years in a row.

Q. Is Cam Robinson still on track to play? Would you say he's 100% healthy?

COACH SABAN: I don't know if anybody is 100% healthy at this time of year. But he has practiced all week. We do expect him to play in the game.

Q. What are your thoughts on the College Football Playoff Committee, some of the criteria they've created, like game control?

COACH SABAN: Well, I don't really have an opinion on all that. I don't think anybody would listen to whatever my opinion is.

I think this is what everyone wanted. I do think, and I said this in the very beginning before any of this started, that the BCS had created a criteria of picking the best teams. There were, what, 12, 13, 14, I don't know how many years of experience that went into creating that criteria, that produced at least some number of whatever, that kind of ranked the teams.

Really their failure was because they could only have two teams in the BCS game. When there were three good teams, it created a tremendous controversy. If you have four, the fifth team is always going to create a tremendous controversy.

But I thought as much of that criteria that could be used based on the experience, probably it would have been beneficial because you never got the feeling there was a vote. The polls were taken into consideration, but there was never really a vote.

So I do think this playoff has created a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and is great for the fans. It's great for college football in a lot of ways.

But I also think there's a bit of a downside to it all because not long ago, every game that got played in college was an important game, and every bowl game that got played was an important game.

How many of you can remember you spent all day New Year's Day watching every bowl game? They were all good games with all good teams.

Now, the only game that anybody's interested in is the teams that are in the playoff. I think the downside of that is is there's a lot of good football teams out there that have had good seasons, a lot of players. I just love to see people respect all the bowl games and all the teams that have had great seasons, which sometimes I think is not happening now.

Q. You've been in so many of these games, SEC Championship games, national championship games. What is the best way for a team to approach a game like this?

COACH SABAN: Focus on what you got to do, channel your energy in the right place. You can't think of the magnitude of the game. What's going to help you play well in this game, what's going to help your unit play well is that you're channeling your energy into doing things you need to do to execute, to have a winning performance.

So not to get caught up in all the other things that are happening, know that it's about what you do. It's about what you do, I think is probably the most important thing.

How every team responds to that can be a little different, but I do think that's the most important thing that the players need to realize, the coaches need to realize. Go play the game one play at a time and know you're going to have to play a tough game for 60 minutes.

Q. Missouri has been strong on the defensive line, especially the two ends. What has been your impression?

COACH SABAN: They're great players. Both guys have had tremendous years, great production, whether it's sacks, tackles for loss. I think their quickness, they're instinctive players, and I think that creates a tremendous asset for them.

Obviously the challenge is, can you keep a hat on a hat with these guys, not let them get the kind of penetration to create the negative plays and the disruptions to your offense because the way they play defense when they get you behind in down and distance, that plays right into their hands.

It's going to be really, really important to be able to control the line of scrimmage and not allow these guys to get a lot of penetration with their movement and quickness.

Q. Sunday we were talking about cornerbacks, being some competition there after the Auburn game. How did that go? How is Eddie (Jackson) looking this week?

COACH SABAN: We have confidence. Eddie has played well for us all year long. Bradley Sylve did a nice job when he went in the game. We'll make a decision sometime between now and then who we play. Both guys may get an opportunity to play.

Q. Gary (Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel) wanted to remind you that you were a year older than him. Anything you want to remind him of?

COACH SABAN: Gary was a really good player, a much better player than me. But we did win a championship together, my senior year, his junior year. We were GAs together. Actually, Dom Capers, who was a coach in the NFL, was a GA for us.

Don James did a really good job of inspiring some of us, definitely me, because I didn't even really want to be a coach, and he talked me into being a GA. I've been doing it ever since and loving it ever since.

I don't really have anything to remind him of really. I have always had a lot of respect for Gary. He was always a really good person, really good player, great competitor. I think he's always represented our profession with a tremendous amount of professionalism and class, which I know Coach James would have been very, very proud of.

Q. On your relationship with Coach Pinkel, is there any specific trait of him that stands out that's allowed him to have this pretty consistent success he's had as a coach?

COACH SABAN: I think it probably goes back to his roots, our roots. I think the way we both run our programs to a large degree is the way Coach James did it when we were players.

It was a lot about developing people, a lot about helping people be successful, a lot about emphasizing the importance of graduating from school, developing a career off the field, a lot about being all you could be in everything that you did, including being a good player. Always used the lessons of athletics to the lessons of life, how that could help you be successful.

So Coach James was very, very successful wherever he coached. I think you get a certain kind of person in the program that is going to work hard to try to do those things, buy into those things. I think that's philosophically why Gary has been very, very successful, because we both had a great mentor to start with.

Q. A lot has been talked about the SEC West, specifically this year. How difficult was the West this year compared to other years?

COACH SABAN: Well, I think the SEC in general, and I don't really think it's fair to talk about one division versus the other because I think there were a lot of good teams on both sides of our league. I do think it was an especially strong year in our division. Whether it's Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas, just about every team we played in our division was a really tough challenge for us.

But that's kind of what you expect, not necessarily in our division, but in our conference in general. Never did I think when we played Florida or Tennessee that it was any easier playing them as it was anyone else. I know that playing a team that we're going to play tomorrow is certainly going to be of the caliber of all those teams that we played in the West this year.

Q. In what areas do you see the most improvement from Missouri's offense over the last month of the season?

COACH SABAN: Well, the last three or four weeks of the season they had their best numbers, played with the most consistency.

I think Maty Mauk has played really, really well as the season has progressed. I think his consistency, not only in passing efficiency, doing a good job on third down, but just in overall managing their offensive team and putting them in the right plays, doing the right thing, being efficient and effective in utilizing the skill players that they have.

They have great balance on offense in terms of their ability to run the ball and throw it, and put those two things together, play-action-wise, to create lots of issues for how to defend them.

I think he's very athletic in his ability to scramble and extend plays. It's been something that has been very effective for their team.

So they're playing their best football of the year, there's no question about it. I think it starts with the quarterback, but I think you have to give their entire offensive team a lot of credit for the consistency and performance that they've created the last three or four games.

Q. You talked about this being a building year for the team. Was there talk of an SEC or national championship from the beginning? If so, how did the players react after the Ole Miss loss?

COACH SABAN: Well, we never, ever really talk about that, to be honest with you. We have never talked about it in any year whether we've had the opportunity to win one, get in one, play in the SEC Championship game.

I think our focus is really about taking our team from wherever it is and trying to improve them so that they can be the best team they can be. That was certainly the approach that we took with this year's team.

Ultimately our players have high expectations for what they want to accomplish. They set their goals for what they want to accomplish as a team. In those goals have never been winning the SEC and have never been winning a national championship for any of our teams.

It is a lot about being the best that you can be, trying to do the things you need to do to dominate the competition, to dominate your box, to be the best player that you can be on the most consistent basis, to overcome adversity and compete well for 60 minutes in the game, play together as a team, trust in each other, affect other people in a positive way.

Those are more the types of things I think we try to emphasize with our teams so that we have the opportunity to sort of grow and develop and be all we can be.

Q. Do you enjoy coaching against really close friends or is that more stressful mentally on you?

COACH SABAN: To me, I value the relationships I have with other people probably more than anything else, especially at this station in my life. I think when you get a little older, you realize how important those relationships are.

I certainly value my relationship, whether it's Will Muschamp when we played against him or any other coach that's coached for me or that is a good friend of mine, like Gary Pinkel.

At the same time I never, ever have taken any of these games that we play personally. It's not personal. I respect them as a competitor. I hope they respect me as a competitor. I think they know when we play the game that we're both going to do the best we can to compete with our group the best that we can.

But that's part of what we respect about each other. When the game's over, that friendship is not affected by what happens in the game. At least it isn't for me. But maybe the respect grows in terms of the other person and the quality of work that they did.

So in one way I certainly respect the relationships, but in the other way I want to protect those relationships and never make the game personal with the people I'm coaching against.

Q. A lot has been said about the Missouri defensive ends. Has anything else stuck out to you about the Missouri defense that has allowed them to have the success they've had?

COACH SABAN: I think their entire defensive team is well-coached, play well together, do a great job of executing their scheme. I don't see any bad players out there at any position. They have a lot of good players.

Their team sort of reflects what they want to do on defense. They have bigger corners who are good tacklers, more physical players. They play a lot of cover two. They jam people a lot.

So their players fit their style and their players do a really good job of playing their style.

This is a unit that to me plays really well together and executes and every guy does their job extremely well. I think that's why they play great team defense.

Q. This is not so much about this game, but as a defensive coach, a lot has been made of tackling, maybe kind of a lost art with the loss of practice time, maybe even into the pros. Is that a fair assessment? Do you think tackling is not what it was 10, 20 years ago, and if so why?

COACH SABAN: I think the whole culture of how you play defense and how you have to practice defense has changed dramatically with the no-huddle, fast-ball, speed-ball approach.

I think it's more difficult to coach defensive players in practice because what do you practice? Do you practice the fundamentals or do you practice the pace of play?

Until recently we always emphasized the fundamentals. We didn't play very well when the pace of play was faster. This year we tried to put more emphasis on pace of play, and I do think there is a bit of a downside in terms of fundamentals. Tackling is one of the most critical fundamentals of playing defense because the ultimate objective is tackle the guy with the ball.

So when people used to get in a huddle, you used to practice, a player didn't do something, you had time between plays to correct him, show him exactly what he did wrong, tell him exactly how he should have fit the tackle, how he should have leveraged it, or the technique he should have used.

Now I start to run over there to tell a guy that, they're ready to start the next play, they're about ready to run over me...

As Terry said, Stay out of there (laughter).

But I think you have to find a balance and do both. And I do think that spreading out defensive players, used to be they had two backs in the backfield, two tight ends, a wideout. There were nine guys in close proximity to the ball, so there was not as much space created.

These plays we see now, there is a lot of space created from horizontal and vertical, all right, which is going to stress the defensive player athletically to be able to make the play in space.

Q. You have only given up eight sacks all season. Why have you been so good at keeping people off Blake?

COACH SABAN: I think, first of all, the offensive line has done a good job. Secondly, Blake is very athletic. At times he avoids pressure. Third, we move the puck effectively where it makes it a little more difficult to zero in on the quarterback.

So I would say a combination of those three things is probably the reason.

Q. You knew what you were getting with Lane Kiffin when you hired him. But what is the most important thing he's brought to the team?

COACH SABAN: What I knew I was getting is a very, very good coach, who does a great job with the players, is a great teacher. He is exactly what I thought he was, does what I expected him to do.

He's a really good play caller. He's done a great job for us this year. I think I got exactly what I expected. I don't think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people.

But I got what I expected. You all didn't get what you expected. That's what you really want to write about.

Q. Missouri has had a lot of recent success getting those division titles, but they haven't been able to get over the hump of a conference championship. What in your eyes would an SEC Championship do to validate Missouri within the conference?

COACH SABAN: I can't really speak for Missouri and their team, what they've done in championship games. I mean, I can't validate what they need to do for anything. I'm here to represent our program, our team, our players, the significance of the game for our players.

I want to win the game for our players. Our players have worked very hard all year long. I would like to see nothing more than our players be happy about the fact that they have an opportunity that they've created for themselves to finish their season so that they sort of accomplish something of significance.

So that's my motivation for the game. That's what I want to see for our players. I can't really speak for anybody else's players.

Q. You talked earlier about the downside of the playoff. Obviously with the collapse of UAB this season, what is your thought about the whole UAB situation, and what could a playoff system do?

COACH SABAN: Where are you from?

Q. London, England.

COACH SABAN: Glad to have a little diversity in the group here (laughter).

You know, I think one of the things that college football does is creates a lot of opportunities for a lot of young people, all right? That's something that I've always really cherished and respected relative to our profession and what we do as coaches in any sport.

So I hate to see those opportunities not exist for players in any program where they chose to go to get an education and have an opportunity to compete in whether it's a football program or any other program.

But saying all that, you know, there's a business aspect to college athletics that maybe really does fit in the university experience. But whether it fits or not, it does exist, it is a reality, and everybody has to make a decision from a business standpoint as to whether it's feasible for them to have a program relative to the cost and the revenue created.

There's two sides of the issue here. It's not for me to judge other than the fact that I love that we can create opportunities for young people to get an education and compete and learn a lot of lessons in life through the competition. I hate to see it go away anyplace. But at the same time I understand the business part of it, as well.

Q. There's a lot of pressure to cover Amari Cooper. How do you get him the ball so he can play to his full potential?

COACH SABAN: He's been a very effective player for us all year long. People do do things to try to take him out of the game.

I think one of the things that we try to do to counteract that is move him around a lot, all right, which people really don't sort of understand and maybe respect how difficult that is for him, to be able to make the adaptations and adjustments to play different positions, even though it's all receiver.

It does change what he does week-to-week, how he does it based on the receiver location he ends up in. But it's also been one of the things that's been helpful to us being able to get him the ball so that the defense can't totally zero in on where he's going to be.

I think that is a real credit to our offense and the strategy that we create, the way Lane Kiffin has come up with formations and motions to make it more difficult for the defensive team.

But I also think it's really important that all of our other players have an expectation, our skill players, of how important it is for them to be physical, play fast, and get ready to take advantage of opportunities, because if and when they do and are able to minimize his impact, it should create some opportunities for other people who we have a lot of confidence in, as well.

Q. The challenge of this week. A week ago you didn't know you were playing Missouri or that you were going to be in this game. What was Saturday night, Sunday like as you dive in to look at that kind of film?

COACH SABAN: I think sometimes you can get a jump on things when you know what's going to happen. We didn't know if we were going to be in the game. We didn't know until Friday if we were in the game, who we'd play in the game.

But when you're in the playoffs in the NFL, you don't always know who you're going to play, and you don't know who you're going to play until you win your game and they win their game.

You have to do the best you can as a coach to create a normal week of preparation for your players. I think that's the most important thing.

No matter how much time you have to spend or what the grind might be to get it done, I think that's the most important thing, is to be able to prepare your team well. That's really what you want to do as a coach when you play in games like this, is make sure you have a well-prepared team.

Now, saying all that, also when you play in games like this, you have to expect the unexpected because somebody is going to do something you couldn't prepare for in terms of what they change, how they changed it. Your players are going to have to be able to adapt in the game, as well.

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