ATHENS — The SEC championship game is here, as Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and Alabama head coach Nick Saban met with reporters to preview Saturday’s SEC championship game.
This will be the third time these two have met in this game, with Alabama winning both previous matchups in 2018 and 2021.
Below is a full transcript of what both coaches said. Saturday’s game is set for a 4 p.m. ET start on CBS.
Georgia football coach Kirby Smart
Opening statement: Yeah, we wrapped up the regular season last night in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. Incredible atmosphere there at night. Very passionate rivalry game. That’s what college football is all about. I think everybody across the country or at least the southeast ends on that rivalry week. Usually a lot of emotions spent in those kind of games. That’s the tough thing about our conference and college football: you got to bounce right back and get ready to go play in a championship game.
It’s an opportunity that was earned by our team and this program. I know our players are certainly excited for the opportunity. I tell them all the time it’s one of the best venues, best atmospheres in all of sports. I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of it a lot of times.
I know our guys are excited about the opportunity. We’ll have their full attention preparing for Alabama this week.
Q. What are the challenges of prepping for a player like Dallas Turner? How do you prepare for that in practice during the week?
KIRBY SMART: I don’t know if I caught the whole question. Sounded like you were asking about preparation for Dallas and how...
Q. How do you try to recreate that during the week designating a player to mimic him?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I mean, you put a plan together. The best you can do is not put yourself in bad down-and-distance situations to try to stay ahead of the sticks. You got to stay on schedule and stay ahead of the sticks.
He’s got speed, talent, ability. He’s improved so much throughout his career. We’ve seen him grow, study under Will. He’s gotten bigger to me, much more impactful on the run game. Every-down player. Still elite on the pass-rush side of things.
You can’t really mimic that. You do the best you can to simulate it and you work technique and you put a game plan together. At the end of the day you got to have skilled people that can block those kind of guys. They’re hard to block.
Q. You and Nick Saban obviously have met a few times in this game. You coached with Coach Saban in the 2009 game. When you go up against Coach Saban, what is it like to go up against someone you worked with and know so much about and knows so much about you?
KIRBY SMART: Seems like you go against people you worked with more often I guess the older you get. I don’t know, maybe the longer you’ve been here. Not the first person that you’ve worked with that you go against.
It’s one of those deals it’s happening more often as you go across a coordinator like last night or somebody that used to be on your staff. It happens with more and more regularity as you get older and you’ve coached with more people.
But I can’t say enough about the tremendous respect I have for him, the job he’s done, how long he’s done it. People don’t really understand how hard it is to be consistently really good, consistently great. He’s accomplished that at the highest level to me. Our conference is certainly really tough and hard. He’s done it for every year he’s been there besides maybe the first. He’s had really successful seasons.
He’s a really good leader. He’s good at motivating. I think he’s kind of evolved with the times in the way he goes about things.
Q. Any update on Brock, Ladd, Rara or Josh?
KIRBY SMART: Who is the last one?
KIRBY SMART: Tate Ratledge.
As far as last night, Brock was probably the closest of being able to go of those guys. Just didn’t feel as good as he had. He was a little sore. We wanted to be able to use him situationally, see what he could do if he felt comfortable with it.
Just didn’t think he could go. Nothing about who we’re playing or anything else. He’s got to be able to go compete at the highest level and be able to feel good about what he’s doing. We didn’t feel that he had that last night.
Tate, he may have, could have played, but he wasn’t 100%. We’re hopeful to get him back.
As far as the other guys go, it’s going to be day to day. We just don’t know anything. We certainly don’t know anything more today because we haven’t done anything.
Q. Has this game changed to you, the SEC Championship game, from when you were a player, when you first participated in it? You spoke this spring about the 12-team Playoff, you got concerns about teams that may not get to play in a conference championship game. Do you view this exactly the same as you once did or as another rung in the ladder of where you ultimately want to go?
KIRBY SMART: Hmm... Not really understanding exactly what you’re asking.
Q. I guess I’m asking, do you worry about the importance of this game as we move forward in a 12-team Playoff? Do you think conference championships will be as important moving forward?
KIRBY SMART: I don’t know that for other conferences. It’s hard for me to answer. I would think that other conferences will have conference championship games that will impact the 12-team Playoff in terms of if a team wins, they jump into the 12, and if a team loses, they fall out of the 12.
Certainly if you look over the history of the SEC, it might not impact the 12. It might impact who has to play when, who gets byes. You’re playing for a bye, for a home game. You’re playing to get in, to get knocked out.
None of all of that matters to me as much as an SEC Championship does. I think that’s lost on everybody. Nobody cares. All they want to know is who’s the champion of the NCAA and the national champion, who is not the conference champion.
Maybe that’s lessened in value to the outside world. It hasn’t lessened in value to the coaching world or the men in our room, the players. We had a team meeting not too long ago. I said we’ve won as many SEC championships as we have national championships around here.
They’re hard to win. You better appreciate ‘em. They’re really hard to do. So I have an appreciation for winning a conference championship. It’s hard.
Q. Ladd, he’s played in half of your games this year. Being the competitor he is, how has he handled just a year that has had a lot of ups and downs?
KIRBY SMART: Frustrated. I mean, I think he gets frustrated with it. A lot of it’s beyond his control. He’s done everything he can from a rehab standpoint to get back. He’s filled his role as a leader, an energy guy on the sideline, a supporter of the other guys. That’s all you can ask him to do. He was right there last night pulling and supporting everybody.
Q. Jalen Milroe and Carson Beck have been in the same boat, replacing star quarterbacks for teams that had national championship aspirations. How has Carson handled that from the start of that to now? What have you seen from Jalen’s progression from earlier in the season?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I mean, we’re just starting on those guys. Watched two games. That’s hard to answer. I haven’t watched a lot of the earlier stuff. We didn’t get to cross over with them a whole lot in the regular season, so I hadn’t seen them, especially offensively, as much.
When you talk about Carson and his growth, I think he gained more confidence through playing time and being in some tough contests going on the road, playing in hostile places. He’s grown up and gotten better. Excited to see where he can go.
Q. With all the questions that surrounded Alabama in September, for them to get to where they are now, what can you say about the coaching job that Nick has done this year?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, tremendous job. I mean, year in, year out he does. Like I said, he does it with different formats of teams. I think just like us, every team has a different identity. This one for him, I mean, without seeing much more than two games, it’s a different identity than previous years.
They certainly have talented players. They got talented players all over the place on the offense and defensive line. Their line of scrimmages are big and physical, which that always is an identity of an Alabama team. You know that.
But this one has been very unique. They play really hard. They play well together. They respond for each other. They’ve been in some tight ball games, made some big-time comebacks in games.
Q. You always very consistently talk about how much you love this game, the importance of the game. Obviously in your young coaching career, you’ve accomplished about everything, pretty much everything, but you have not beaten Alabama and Coach Saban in this game to say Georgia is in the best in the SEC. Is that a motivation for you?
KIRBY SMART: Not really. The motivation for me is for our players to get better throughout the year. I don’t look at it as who we play. I look at it as we don’t control who goes into that game we play.
We had a chance to beat LSU and didn’t. Then we had a chance to beat LSU and we did. We had a chance to beat Auburn and we did. We had a chance to beat Alabama and we haven’t.
When you’re playing in this game, you’re going to play a really good team. You’re going to play really good teams as you go along.
It’s not on extra motivating factor for me. I’m not looking for checkmarks or checking boxes or certain tick marks to try to get on your belt. That’s not what I got in this for.
For me it’s for giving our kids a chance to do something special and represent this university. That’s what we want to go do, we want to go play our best.
Q. What have you seen from a guy like Jermaine Burton and how much of a threat has he become from Alabama?
KIRBY SMART: I’m sorry, I’m not catching the beginning of these questions. Like I’m catching halfway through them. I didn’t hear the beginning.
Q. The improvement you’ve seen from a guy like Jermaine Burton and how much of a threat has he become?
KIRBY SMART: Well, I mean, I just don’t know if I’ve seen enough tape to fairly answer that question. We catch some of their games when we’re done playing. I haven’t watched enough tape.
I know he was a really good player when he was here. To be two years removed from that, the impact he had in that national championship game against Alabama, to have two years under his belt and grow as a player, we know how talented he is. Certainly has a lot of ability.
Q. What are two things that you learned real early on when Coach Saban first hired you that you still implement today? Could you have imagined back then that the two of you would go on to become such iconic SEC coaches?
KIRBY SMART: No, I couldn’t have thought of that then because I was just -- I mean, I’d never been a full-time Division I coach. I mean, I’m talking about an assistant coach then. Never would have fathomed that it would have come this far during those days when I first got hired at LSU. I mean, that was a long time ago. 2004 maybe. I mean, that seems like ages ago.
What was the other part of the question?
Q. What are one or two things that you learned from him early on there at LSU that you still implement today?
KIRBY SMART: Just attention to detail. The ability to be locked down on the task at hand. Never before has our sport or this level of college football required such multi-tasking. One minute you’re working on special teams, the next minute you’re chasing guys, dealing with the portal, dealing with transfers, NIL.
His ability to compartmentalize and work at the task at hand was always incredible to me. It’s something that I try to do. I don’t know that I do it as well as he does when it comes to being able to focus on the task at hand and not get distracted on the little things.
Q. A lot of Georgia players scattered around to the FBS ranks. 16 in the two deep, 11 starters. A couple at Alabama that you’re facing. What of that, playing against former players, kind of your general thoughts about facing guys that you helped develop?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I think the first thing you look for is, is it a better opportunity for them. In each one of those cases on a case-by-case basis, they have to determine that, not us.
The guys that helped us win games, whether it was last year, two years ago, three years ago, they’re somewhere else, I want them to do well. I don’t wish negative upon anybody. I certainly want Georgia to do well. They were part of building something. If they were part of that, then more power to them. When we play against ‘em, we’re going to do all we can to make sure we come out on top.
It’s not a personal thing by any means. It’s the nature of the beast. The NFL, that happens all the time, right? Do we get traded? People have free agency in college, they make choices and decisions that fit what they need to do or what they think they need to do for their career.
We don’t look at it as a negative. We had two guys last week that we played against that were here and did great things for us.
Q. It seems like the perception with Coach Saban that he had mellowed a little bit. Are you buying that? Seemed to be pretty fired up yesterday?
KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not over there. I don’t have eyes and ears on that program to be able to answer that. It’s a hard one for me.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Opening statement: This is a tremendous opportunity for our team. They sort of created that for themselves by making a tremendous amount of improvement throughout the season. I’m very proud of the transformation of our team from the beginning to the end, the hard work and preparation that our players have been focused on all year long.
Georgia obviously is to me the best team in the country. Got a great offensive team. They run the ball. Great passing game. Quarterback’s really, really good. They got great running backs. Their defense is one of the best defenses in the country, probably the best defense in the SEC.
There’s a lot of challenges relative to playing a great football team. The SEC Championship game is one of the best competitive venues I’ve ever been involved in. Our team is excited about having the opportunity they created for themselves to play one of the best teams in the country.
CHUCK DUNLAP: We’ll begin with questions.
Q. It looked like Jase McClellan was on crutches after the game. Do you have an update?
NICK SABAN: He’s had a little foot injury all year long. He tweaked it in the game. He’ll be day to day this week. I can’t tell you how much progress he’ll make. Probably the next 48 hours will tell us whether he’ll make the kind of progress he needs to be able to practice some and play in the game.
Q. How have you seen this Georgia team change and evolve from the last time you played them two years ago?
NICK SABAN: Well, I haven’t had a whole bunch of time to study them on both sides of the ball. I’ve seen them throughout the course of the year.
I think their defense is a lot like it’s been in the past. They’ve got really good players. They’ve got a really good system. They do a good job of executing. They got good tackling, good secondary people.
Offensively they’re running the ball very effectively. A lot of squeeze formations. Have a great play-action passing game off of that to go with the running game. Obviously with the quarterback and the receivers they have, they have an excellent passing game as well.
I don’t see tremendous difference, but they certainly do a great job at utilizing the players that they have.
Q. We’ve talked a lot about how the progress of Jalen Milroe. He could have gone maybe a different way and taken the Texas game, not playing against Florida, had a negative impact on him. How did he handle that and how key was that kind of winning over the coaching staff and teammates?
NICK SABAN: I think his transformation at the quarterback position has helped us transform our entire offensive team. The confidence that he’s playing with, the confidence that our players have in him. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to utilize the skill set that he has.
He’s learned that the most important thing at his position is to distribute the ball. He’s done a really, really good job of that. I think that’s really enhanced the transformation of our offensive team to be much more effective and productive.
Q. You’ve been obviously associated with this game since LSU knocked off Tennessee in 2001. Has this game evolved in any way? Do you think it would have the same magnitude next year once it gets into a 12-team Playoff? Will winning the SEC be as important next year as it is this year?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think winning the SEC is always a big thing. Ever since I’ve been in this league, when you played in this game, when maybe the Playoffs weren’t the significant outcome that it is right now, it was still something special to be able to win the SEC.
I mean, this is a great league. There’s a lot of good teams. For your team to get in the position to play another great team in this league... Most of the games we’ve been involved in involved great teams.
It means a lot to me. I think it means a lot to our players. I think it will mean a lot in the future, as well. I don’t think whether there’s four teams in the Playoffs or 12 teams in the Playoffs, I mean, this game has some significance in terms of what might happen in the Playoff, but that’s not necessarily true all the time.
There is a significance to playing in the SEC Championship game.
Q. Two years ago you had a game at Auburn where you struggled for a lot of it before pulling it out. You turned around the next week and played well against Georgia. Are there lessons you can take from that week-to-week deal that you can use this week?
NICK SABAN: Well, we didn’t sort of channel all the passion and the great execution in this last game. I think that was very similar to the game you’re referring to a couple years ago.
To get our players to sort of have good perspective on building on the things they did well and improving the things we didn’t do well so that we can channel our passion into positive execution on a more consistent basis. I think that was the focus a couple years ago, and certainly going to be the focus in this game.
Q. When you first hired Kirby back in the day, did you have a sense he would be a successful Division I head coach right away or soon into his career? Having done much of what he has accomplished in his career already, are you still kind of amazed at what he’s been able to put together at Georgia?
NICK SABAN: I think to answer that honestly, I hired Kirby, he was really, really young. He was a position coach and did a great job as a position coach. We elevated him to be the coordinator.
I kind of knew that he had great leadership qualities. That’s why we made him coordinator. When he was a coordinator, he did a great job of managing that side of the ball. I knew he’d be an outstanding head coach someday.
It’s phenomenal what he’s been able to accomplish at Georgia. I mean, to win as many games in a row, win a couple championships, have another chance to do it again a third time, I mean, that’s phenomenal.
It’s phenomenal to win however many games - what is it, 29, I don’t even know for sure - but how many games they’ve won in a row... We won 19 games in a row here twice. I know how hard that was. It’s hard to sustain.
So he’s done a phenomenal job of recruiting and developing players in the program. I think the result bears that out.
Q. I read where you said the games that haunt you the most are the lost championship games. Is that the case the last time you played Georgia in Indianapolis? If so, what in particular?
NICK SABAN: It was a great game. I don’t know, I think we were at 18-13 with, I don’t know, 10 or 11 minutes to go in the game. They just outplayed us tremendously in the last 10, 11 minutes of the game.
You always want to be able to finish. We lost on the last play of the game to Clemson way back when. I felt like I should have called timeout and didn’t. So there’s always things that haunt you when you don’t have success.
They outplayed us the last 10, 11 minutes of the game. You always want your team to be able to finish.
Q. A lot of Kirby/Nick talk again. Kirby has accomplished an awful lot at Georgia, but he hasn’t been able to beat you or Alabama in this game in particular. You see each other in the off-season. I know you to be a competitive guy. Is there any away-from-the-arena ragging about that? Is it a piece of motivation for you and your staff to hold sway in this game?
NICK SABAN: Well, they beat us in a national championship game the last time we played, so I don’t know that one game is more important than the other.
Obviously whoever plays the best in this game will have the best chance to win. I have a lot of respect for Kirby. We don’t jostle about winning and losing, dog each other about it. I think I have respect for what he’s been able to accomplish.
He did a great job for us when he was here. I just appreciate him a lot for the kind of person he is, kind of coach he is, kind of job he’s done.
Q. It looked like Auburn’s safety clapped (indiscernible) Seth McLaughlin into snapping the ball in the final drive. Did you see that? What can you do in the future to avoid that situation?
NICK SABAN: First of all, the defense is not allowed to clap. If that’s what you’re using as a cadence...
If what you say actually occurred, and I did see the film, then I’m not criticizing the officiating, but I’m saying that’s supposed to be a penalty.
Q. Is there a thought of going towards maybe a silent count in that situation? Are you just relying on the officials to make the call there?
NICK SABAN: Look, we’ve gone to the silent count before, and that has its issues, too.
Look, you’re not allowed to clap on defense. If you’re using clap as your cadence, why would you change the cadence so that somebody does something they’re not supposed to do on the other side of the ball? It doesn’t make any sense to me.
We went silent at Texas A&M. We had nine false starts. It didn’t work too well.
Q. Another Kirby question for you. Watching from afar, what would you say the area that he’s grown the most in? How have you seen him implement what y’all do into Athens?
NICK SABAN: I can’t answer the second part of your question because I don’t see what they do every day. I do see the product they have on the field. Their players are well-coached. They play with really good discipline. They’re focused on doing their job. They do it the right way. I assume that all those things are sort of coached into ‘em and the players are taught and go out and respect what they need to do to be able to create value and success for themselves.
I can’t answer that because I’m not there on a day-to-day basis. I don’t really know how they do what they do. I know the finished product is really, really good.
Q. How does a talented tight end challenge a defense?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think first of all, tight ends are bigger people. When they’re very athletic and very good receivers, it’s a little bit like basketball in a way. If you have a really talented big guy, and he’s athletic enough, you got to guard him with a smaller guy, that creates some advantages for the bigger guy. If you cover him with a bigger guy, and the bigger guy is not as athletic, that creates some problems, too.
I think it’s a mismatch issue that comes from having guys that are really good blockers. If you have smaller guys guarding ‘em, then you got a mismatch in the running game, too.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Carson Beck. What have you seen from him this season that impresses you?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think he does a really, really good job of executing their offense. He doesn’t make very many bad reads. He throws the ball in the right place. He’s very accurate with the ball. He throws it on time. He understands their offense very, very well. Executes the play that’s called and distributes the call correctly, almost flawlessly.