ATLANTA — The final press conferences for the SEC Championship Game were held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday afternoon.
Here's what Nick Saban had to say:
It's certainly an honor for us to be here. I'm very proud of our team for what they were able to accomplish over the course of the season to create this opportunity to play in the SEC Championship Game. I'd also like to congratulate Georgia, Coach Smart and their team for winning the East, and they're obviously an outstanding team that will be a tremendous challenge for us tomorrow in the game.
We'd like to thank the SEC for the great competitive venue, Mercedes Benz for the great stadium that we have here to play in, and the City of Atlanta for hosting this thing, which is, to me, one of the most -- one of the best competitive venues that I've ever had the opportunity to be associated with.
So this is quite an honor for us, and it's going to be a great game.
Q.Coach, great success you've had throwing the ball this year, and Tua had such a great year. How pleased have you been with your three running backs? Not quite the limelight they've been in the past maybe, but what do you feel about their performance this season?
NICK SABAN: Well, we feel like having the opportunity to create balance on offense is really a key for us. We have made a lot of explosive plays in the passing game, but we feel like in a game like this, especially being able to control the line of scrimmage and allowing some of the running backs that we have to contribute in a positive way is going to be a real key to our success because for us having balance on offense is always when we play the best.
Q.Coach, with Tua having such a stellar second half in the National Championship Game, in this venue against this team, do you feel that there's any added pressure on top of Tua to perform against the same team in the same venue?
NICK SABAN: Not really. This is a new game, new season, new team, new opportunity. There's a lot of things for us to look forward to here. I think the key to these kinds of games is you're always focused on what's right in front of you, not something that's happened in the past or even something that could possibly happen in the future. I think you've got to play these games one play at a time. It's important that every player on the team have that kind of focus, and I think it's going to be important for Tua to have that focus as well.
Q.Coach, to start the season No. 1 and finish the season No. 1 is a remarkable feat in itself. Winning National Championships, you've ever dealt with. Does it mean more to you to win it as an undefeated National Champion or just the National Champion?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think that, obviously, every game we play we go into the game trying to prepare our team to play as well as they possibly can, and the ultimate goal is to have success in that game, which is usually defined by whether you won or lost the game. So we certainly want to win every game that we play. We're always looking forward to the next opportunity that we have. Sometimes teams respond a little better when they don't have success to some of the things they need to do to improve on.
I think it's very difficult sometimes to deal with success and be able to continue to focus on the things you need to do to play well, psychologically at least, and that's always been a challenge for us and our team, and it's been the challenge for our team this year.
I don't think it matters one way or the other. I think we're in the situation that we're in right now that, if you want to control your own destiny, you need to be able to continue to have success, and I think that's what we try to focus on.
Q.In touching on that wanting to control your own destiny, do you think at all about playoff scenarios and even the thought that you all could even lose this game and still make the playoff? You've gotten in a couple times without winning the SEC, obviously.
NICK SABAN: Well, I think our total focus is on this game. We're going to play against a really good team. It's going to be important for us to play as well as we've played all year long and do it for 60 minutes in the game, every minute in the game probably.
So that's where our focus is. I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about what ifs, which that would be a what if this happens. So not really, no. We like to focus on the game. I think it's only fair to our players as coaches, as people in our organization, and for each one of them, to stay focused on what they have to do that's right in front of them, which is this particular game against a really good team.
Q.Coach, your team statistically has been the most dominant in SEC history, just from a numbers standpoint, the average margin of victory and winning by 20 points 12 consecutive games. Has it felt like that during the regular season, and do you have concerns because your team has been largely unchallenged most of the season in the second half of football games?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think that we're certainly happy to have been able to do the things that we're able to do throughout the course of the season. You never know how your team's going to respond, but if you focus on the next play -- you're not focused on the scoreboard, you're focused on not really even winning or losing, but how do I execute on the next play? Which is really what we try to get our players to do -- then that play becomes the most important thing. The circumstance of the situation in the game really doesn't.
So hopefully, we've been able to drive that home with our players so they can stay focused even if they are in a tight game and will play the situation that is presented to them in a positive way.
Q.Coach, can we get an update on Buggs after hyperextending his knee in the Iron Bowl?
NICK SABAN: Yeah, he practiced every day this week, and I think he should be fine for the game.
Q.Nick, what's the latest on Tua's knee? He had the braces off for the last two games, but he did say this week it's not fully recovered. It's getting there, but it's not fully recovered.
NICK SABAN: Well, from a medical standpoint, they didn't feel like he needed to have a brace on his knee any longer. He looks like he can run efficiently and effectively. He doesn't have a lot of pain or anything like that. So as far as I'm concerned, as far as we're concerned, he's medically cleared to play, and he's never, ever thought that where he is right now has any effect on his ability to play.
Q.As you look at this Georgia team on film, a lot of the same players, but is there anything that stands out to you that they're doing much better than when you guys played them in January?
NICK SABAN: I thought they were a very good team a year ago, and I think they present a lot of issues and problems for you on both sides of the ball. A, they're very well coached. They do a good job of executing whatever it is they're called on to do. I think offensively they've made a lot of explosive plays, and they've been able to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball effectively.
The quarterback, whichever quarterback has played, certainly has done his role extremely well. Jake's played really well for them. When No. 1 comes in, he does a really good job of executing his role, and it creates some preparation issues for you when you try to defend that.
They still play really, really solid, sound, good defense all the time. They're physical. They run to the ball well. They've got good team speed, and they play especially well on special teams. So this is a good, complete team we're playing, and I think they've made improvements from a year ago.
Q.Coach, could you speak about special teams. How important is that in a game like this that could be closely contested? Also, on Georgia's end with Mecole Hardman, what kind of challenges does he pose?
NICK SABAN: First, you want your teams to be able to control vertical field position in the game. Your special teams have to execute in order to do that. That's not just your punter and kicker, but it's also the skill guys who are the returners. Mecole Hardman is as fine a returner as I've seen anywhere in the country. This year he's very explosive, he's very fast. If he gets a seam, he can certainly accelerate through it, and he's made some big plays in that regard.
So it's going to be important for our specialists to execute, but it's really going to be important for our cover teams to control him, and I think in close games special teams always has a huge impact on the outcome of the game. It could be field position, or it could be an explosive play that makes the difference.
Q.Last night on your radio show, you talked about some of the adversity that your team has overcome this year. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that because, at least on a superficial level, some people might look at a team that's won every game by 22 points and think they haven't gone through a lot of challenges.
NICK SABAN: We have internal challenges. Every team does. When you lose players, you have players get injured, and we've had a couple of really good players on defense that were injured and are out for the year. We've had several really good backup players that were core special teams guys that were injured and out for the year.
So I think internally you always have challenges of who's going to step up. Is that guy going to be able to play effectively for you? Are the other players on your team going to have confidence that that guy can do the job well? And how's that going to affect the chemistry of your team? So we've had those kinds of challenges throughout the season, and I think we've handled them well. So far, the next guy has done a good enough job for us.
Q.Coach, can you talk about the development of Najee Harris this season and what he's added to the offense.
NICK SABAN: Well, Najee is a very talented player. He's got great size and speed. He's very effective when he has the ball in his hand, and he's a complete player in terms of being a good receiver as well as a good runner with the ball. I think the improvement that he's made has come because of the experience that he's gained as a player, and he's a more complete player now. We have total confidence that he can go in the game. Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs have both been very productive for us as well.
I think those three guys are all very good players, and we need them all to play very well.
Q.Coach, you have now played Georgia for the second consecutive postseason. Is there any sense of anticipation with you that you could be doing a lot more of this in years to come, playing Georgia in games like this?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think Kirby has done a fantastic job at Georgia, and they've recruited well. They have good players. They do a good job of coaching them. We obviously have our challenges to continue to try to play at the standard that we played at. And that's something we're going to continue to focus on. I have no doubt they'll continue to have a very, very good program because I think they've established that, and I think they'll continue to do well in the future.
Q.Coach, obviously, Georgia got a look at Tua in the second half of last year's National Championship Game. Does that affect your preparation at all, and do you think that gives them any kind of advantage knowing that most of the teams you faced haven't seen much of him before?
NICK SABAN: Most of the teams we played this year, we played against last year. I think the fact that we played Georgia last year, we learned a little bit about them. I'm sure they learned a little bit about us. And I think you always take some of those things into consideration when you plan for this year's game. What worked well? What didn't work well? What do we need to change? What do we need to fix? What can we do better? That's the first thing we do after any game we play is analyze, if we play this team again, what would we would differently?
So I think the answer to the question is probably yes, but at the same time, I think it's important that you do what you do well, and your players have confidence in it, they understand it, and they've got to be able to go out and execute it. So I think, when you make a lot of changes sometimes, maybe you're not as effective in terms of your ability to execute.
Q.Kirby is one of many former assistants you've had who have gone on to become head coaches. What qualities do you look for when you're hiring an assistant? And what things did you see in him when you hired him at LSU that maybe might have led you to think, if not then, but later on that he might get to a level like he is now?
NICK SABAN: Well, first off, you want to hire people that are knowledgeable, which usually means they're bright. Kirby is certainly very bright. You want to hire people who are a good fit on your staff. That means he's going to get along with the other people. That you have working, so you work well together as a group. And you want to have people that have goals and aspirations for what they want to accomplish and what they want to do because that's going to motivate them to do a very good job.
Kirby did an outstanding job for us for all the years that he was with us, and I think the record sort of speaks for itself in whatever he was responsible for was very, very efficient and successful.
But those are the qualities that we try to look for, and we've been fortunate to have really good assistants. We've been fortunate to have people who work well together in our program, and I think all those people have really made a much greater, more significant impact on what we've been able to accomplish than sometimes they get credit for.
Q.Nick, I want to take you back to your first SEC Championship Game in 2001 with LSU and Tennessee. At halftime, you were down big, didn't have your starting quarterback, starting running back. Can you kind of take us into the locker room as a young coach going through that adversity that you handled there?
NICK SABAN: Well, you bring up an interesting point. I think in that game I probably made the biggest blunder of my coaching career. We got behind 14-0 right off the bat. First two times Tennessee had the ball, they scored touchdowns. We got the ball, we got fourth and an inch on our own 29 yard line after a kickoff, and I say, if we don't keep the ball on offense, we may get beat 100-0. So we went for it, and John Henderson was the nose guard, and Rohan Davey was the quarterback. John Henderson knocked the center back to about where we got the huddle, and we didn't make it, and we went in and stopped them on defense and they kicked a field goal, so now we were behind 17 to whatever.
And I'm like for the next ten minutes of the game, I'm thinking this is the dumbest thing you've ever done in your coaching career. And from that time on, we ended up winning the game 31-20. So we kind of played pretty well. I was still a little shook after the game, and a couple of seniors came up to me and said, you know, Coach, when you went for it on fourth down, that's when we really thought you thought we could win, and that changed the way we played. So the dumbest thing I ever did turned out to be one of the smartest (laughter). That's what I remember about that game.
Q.Just talk about halftime, you go down and what happened?
NICK SABAN: Rohan got hurt in the game. Jimbo did an outstanding job. Matt Mauck was a freshman quarterback at that point. He hadn't developed much as a passer. So we were doing a lot of quarterback runs, which they probably weren't prepared for, which helped us control the ball in the second half of the game. The momentum of the game changed, and obviously, that's one of those ones that you always remember.
Q.Nick, walk us through the progression of Keaton Anderson as a player within your program and your organization, and his potential for an expanded role for tomorrow?
NICK SABAN: Keaton is a bright guy who has always been a core special teams player, and he's always been one of those players who has worked extremely hard to try to make improvements. He's never, ever gotten frustrated with his role on the team, and he's always stayed focused on what he needs to do to improve and continue to get better as a player.
In year, because we've lost now three DBs and a guy that's suspended for the first half of the game, his role expanded in the last game, and he did a nice job. His role may certainly expand in this game tomorrow. But I think it's certainly a great example of someone who showed tremendous perseverance in his career to continue to work, grow, develop, and become a better player.
He played linebacker in high school, so he really wasn't a defensive back. So he didn't have any previous experience, and he's done a really nice job for us.
Q.Coach, Christian Miller missed a lot of time last season. What has he accomplished this season?
NICK SABAN: He's been one of our most consistent performers on defense. He understands exactly what his role is and what he's supposed to do, and he's physically talented enough to do it effectively, and he's really played well for us all season long. By losing Terrell Lewis in the summertime, who was also a significant player who missed a lot of time last year due to injury, the fact that Christian has stepped up big for us this year has been really important.
THE MODERATOR: Coach Saban, thank you for your time.
NICK SABAN: Thank you. I would like to say, I know you all think that I don't like the media, but that's not true. I think you all do a tremendous amount of good things to promote our game for our fans, the people who support college football, the interest that is created in college football. I think all of you do a marvelous job at that, and I certainly appreciate what you do. Thank you for that.