College Football Playoff coaches make an early stop in Atlanta

Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley  were seated side-by-side at a College Football Playoff news conference in Atlanta late Thursday afternoon. It wasn’t the first time of the day that the two coaches found themselves in the same place. 

“I thought it was pretty cool this morning when I walked into a local high school (recruiting) and the first guy I saw was him,” Smart said. “He was going solo and I was going solo, and we got to sit there and talk and enjoy it. I’ve got a lot of respect for him and what he does and how fast he was able to do it.” 

Smart, who is 41 years old and has Georgia in the playoff in just his second season as a head coach, said he “couldn’t imagine” getting to this point as quickly as Riley has. 

Riley is 34 and has Oklahoma in the playoff in his first season as a head coach, having moved up from offensive coordinator when Bob Stoops, the Sooners’ coach for 18 years, retired in June. 

Georgia and Oklahoma will meet in a playoff semifinal in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. 

Smart and Riley joined the head coaches of the other two playoff teams – Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Alabama’s Nick Saban, whose teams will meet in a semifinal in the Sugar Bowl – for Thursday’s news conference at the College Football Hall of Fame.

Two of the four coaches will bring their teams to downtown Atlanta for the national championship game Jan. 8 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

The playoff coaches attended the “College Football Awards” show at the Hall of Fame on Thursday night. 

Swinney and Saban were seated next to each other at the pre-show news conference. Their teams have met in the national title game the past two years -- Clemson winning 35-31 last season and Alabama winning 45-40 the season before – and will meet one round earlier this time. 

“I can’t seem to get away from these guys, as hard as I try,” Swinney said. “Man, it’s not an easy task to play Alabama. 

“We know it’s been two great games, and I don’t have any doubt this one will be another great matchup.” 

Swinney was asked if he felt Ohio State was more worthy of the fourth spot in the playoff than Alabama, given that he voted the Buckeyes No. 4 and the Crimson Tide No. 5 on his ballot for the final coaches’ poll. The playoff selection committee saw it differently, giving the final playoff spot to Alabama ahead of Ohio State. 

A smiling Swinney attributed his vote to “a moment of insanity, complete insanity” at 3 a.m. on a bus ride from Charlotte to Clemson after the ACC Championship game. 

“At that moment, that’s the way I voted. But they’re all great teams, man,” he said. 

Then Swinney looked at Saban and joked: “I’m trying to get rid of him. I can’t shake him.”

The other semifinal pairs two schools that have never played one another in football, Georgia and Oklahoma.

“Going to be a great game, like the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff should be,” Riley said.

Even before Riley became a head coach, Smart was familiar with his work as an assistant at Texas Tech, East Carolina and Oklahoma.

“I’ve followed his career,” Smart said. “He's done a tremendous job. A lot of the time that I was a defensive coordinator, when you had opportunities to get a head-coaching job, everybody's million-dollar question was: Who would be your offensive coordinator? He was a guy on the radar for a long time.” 

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