COACH SPEAK : Championship Week
By Leo Haggerty
Archived under Featured Articles – Breaking News & Coach Speak

Again, I was fortunate enough to find a way to get into all the Power 6 (yes, the AAC deserves to be part of that conversation now) Championship Game Football Coaches Teleconference.  Still, I can’t convince the SEC to allow me question-asking access but I’m working on it.

Below you’l find the answers to my two questions of each of the participating Head Coaches in Championship Week.  I didn’t get in fast enough to catch Cincinnati HC Luke Fickell but was able to converse with all the rest.  Got a giggle from a few but, if you’ve read this column in the past, you know I like to add a bit of levity to my queries and it starts with the first one.  Enjoy.

ACC

Clemson HC Dabo Swinney

LH : Admiral Yamamoto said after Pearl Harbor that we woke a sleeping giant and filled him with terrible resolve. When they put you fifth coming out of the first committee’s ranking, did that fill you with a terrible resolve and get your players totally motivated?

DS : Well, I like that.  We’ve been totally motivated all year. We really didn’t need a playoff ranking of fifth to be motivated. This team has been locked in all year, has done a wonderful job.  They have a lot of playoff experience, so they understand these in-season rankings really don’t matter. What matters is where you are in December. So teams that get distracted by that stuff from week-to-week usually get beat. What you got to do is just stay focused.  Having said that, I do think it certainly made our guys kind of raise their eye a little bit. Wow, we must not be very good, or a lot of people don’t think we’re very good. You go from one to fifth pretty quick.  At the end of the day we’re where we hoped to be, and that is in Charlotte with a chance to compete for our league championship. If we can find a way to do that, win it, and a chance to go back to the playoff.  It doesn’t really matter where we are, one, two, three or four. We just hope to have the opportunity to get there. The next goal for us is the ACC championship, and the next goal after that is to win the closer. We’re just hopeful that it works out.  We just want a shot. We’ll be excited to play anybody wherever they send us.

LH : There’s an old adage in coaching and that is offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. Is that true today?

DS : No, that’s never been true to me. I’ve told my team forever, teams win championships. That’s what I believe. Defense doesn’t win championships, offense doesn’t win championships, but teams win championships. That’s just what I believe. I don’t buy into anything else.

Virginia HC Bronko Mendenhall

LH : How hard is it to prepare for an opponent you haven’t played in six years?

BM : It certainly is a challenge because there are no existing reference points or shared experiences of a coach or a team that you can refer to that are relevant.  I don’t have any experience against Clemson or Coach Swinney or really any of their existing players. So really, at that point. the focus certainly has to be really more on your own scheme, your own strategy, your own execution, your own position mastery, mindset, everything that you can control.  My job hopefully is to predict and assess and plan for, in the very best way I can, what the opponent will be like and move from there.

LH : A lot of people are comparing this to David and Goliath. At least David had a slingshot. You shouldn’t have any trouble with bulletin board material with your players because no one expects you to win. Would that be the case?

BM: I think that’s probably the case with anyone that Clemson has played this year. I don’t find us in any different situation.  If you look at the program they have established over time, the job Coach Swinney has done, as well as their record, I think we’ll just be the next team that will be lumped in the same category as everyone else.  The difference simply is that we’ve battled, scrapped and clawed our way to win our side of the division in a program that hasn’t known recent success and is hungry for more. The rest of it will be played out in the game.

PAC 12

Oregon HC Mario Cristobal

LH : Who is the one player on offense and defense for Utah that you need to account for on every play?

MC :  Oh, gosh, I don’t think you can single out one player.  They have excellent players across the board.  If you try to over-focus on one side, then you’ll get hurt on the other side.  I think it would be offensive to them to single out one player.  They have great talent all across the board.

LH : If my wife ever divorces me, at the top of contributing causes will be PAC 12 football.  I’m up watching games at 1:30 or 2 am Eastern time.  Is it frustrating for you that you never get to play a noon game and that almost all your games are late afternoon and evening kickoffs? 

MC : No, not at all.  Honestly, for us, we love our conference despite all the things that are going on  For us, just throw the ball out in the Walmart parking lot at whatever time and we’ll play ball.  I just doesn’t matter to us.

Utah HC Kyle Whittingham

LH : Who is the one player on offense and defense for Oregon that you need to account for on every play?

KW : You know, on offense, the obvious answer is the quarterback or the running back or the receivers but I’m going to say the left tackle and that’s Penei Sewell.  He’s a beast.  He may be one of the best offensive lineman in the country.  He’s a guy who is a phenomenal football player.  So, I’, going to break from the norm and say Penei Sewell is the guy we need to be aware of.  Defense, they have a lot of great player but the linebacker, Troy Dye, is a tremendous player so I’ll have to go with him.

LH : If my wife ever divorces me, at the top of contributing causes will be PAC 12 football.  I’m up watching games at 1:30 or 2 am Eastern time.  Is it frustrating for you that you never get to play a noon game and that almost all your games are late afternoon and evening kickoffs? 

KW : Well, ideally, I think players and coaches would rather play early.  Now, I wouldn’t say that never happens because I think there was an occasion this season, like the game at Washington, that was early.  Be nice for the fans but, of course, TV drives everything.  In fact, we’ve even stopped talking about that anymore because we really have no control over it.  So, I would say given our druthers, yeah.  We would rather play early in the day.  That’s just not in the cards right now so we’ll just play the hand that we’re dealt.

AAC

Memphis HC Mike Norvill

LH : In my 50 years of watching college football, the last two AAC Championship games with you and UCF, in my opinion, have been the greatest two championship games in NCAA history.  You must have aged ten years during those two contests. Do you expect the same type of run-and-gun game that you’ve had with UCF against Cincinnati?

MN : I really didn’t enjoy the last two championship games very well.  When you get the top teams in this conference, it’s going to be an exciting game.  Cincinnati, this year, has been elite.  Last week, there quarterback was out and a couple of other things happened plus they had secured the East Division.  We saw just how talented they are and this week will be no different.  Another Battle of the Ages I’m sure.  Our guys understand that and we’re excited for the opportunity to represent our division.  As I said before, it’s going to be a fun game to be apart of and to work and prepare for.  I expect nothing less than a classic.

LH : Does the AAC need to have the last week of the schedule games within the division so this playing the same team twice in the space of a week doesn’t happen again?

MN : Yeah but that’s out of my pay grade.  When the conference does their scheduling, there’s a lot of factors that goes into it.  If you look over it, there are past traditions and geographical rivalries.  Cincinnati and Memphis is a series that has gone on for a long time.  I think it’s set up well to play late in the season.  It’s two very good football teams.  It’s unique that it just worked out that we’re going to play in back-to-back weeks.  When the schedule first came out, I saw that could be a possibility.  In the end, the conference has a way that it schedules and the teams they link up to play.  We just have to live with that.

BIG TEN

Ohio State HC Ryan Day

LH : The championship game will be played indoors.  Is that advantage for Ohio State or Wisconsin or both to know that Mother Nature will not be a factor?

RD : Both teams have to play in any type of weather and any type of conditions that are there.  I will say that I am happy that we are playing indoors.  It’s not going to be in rain or cold that we had to play in the last four weeks. The Wisconsin game was in the rain.  Rutgers and Penn State and that game up north were all in the cold.  It will nice to play indoors.

LH : What’s the one thing on offense and defense you have to be successful to beat Wisconsin?

RD : It’s not just one thing.  It’s a lot of things. I would say take care of the ball and tackle but there’s more that goes into that.  It’s all about the things that we worked on all season.  We’ve talked about being tough.  Typically, the tougher team wins the game.  So, nothing will change this week on our preparation.

Wisconsin HC Paul Chryst

LH : The championship game will be played indoors.  Is that advantage for Ohio State or Wisconsin or both to know that Mother Nature will not be a factor?

PC : That’s a good question but I don’t know if I have the answer to it.  Both teams, throughout the game, are playing in it.  For us, weather is a part of it, right?  All the elements. Obviously, when you go indoors, you don’t have that problem.  I don’t know if it’s an advantage to one or the other.

LH : What’s the one thing on offense and defense that you need to be successful to beat Ohio State?

PC : I laughed because you’re playing against a really good team and I guess the one thing you have to do is play good, winning football.  That doesn’t help you much with that answer.  You have to execute.  When you have a chance to make plays, you have to make plays.  The game is made up of a lot of individual battles and you have to win your share of them.  Anytime you play a game like this, turnovers and takeaways are a big part.  That’s what’s awesome.  I wouldn’t say it’s a complicated game but there’s a lot that goes into it.  It’s hard for me to give you an accurate answer to that question.

BIG 12

Oklahoma HC Lincoln Riley

LH : Your the only conference where you play every school during the regular season.  Is it an advantage or disadvantage to play a team in the conference championship game that you have already played? 

LR : I think it’s all on how you look at it.  I think it’s been a different factor for our conference.  I certainly understand why we have done it.  At the end of the season, you have a marquis game with your No. 1 team playing your No. 2 team.  That fact they we are the only conference to do that is definitely unique.  It’s very positive for the Big 12.  From a competition standpoint, it’s difficult to beat a team twice in the same season.  It always is tough.  It makes it challenging but that’s how it should be.  It doesn’t get any better than the two best teams going at it.

LH : Being that you have already beaten Baylor, do you feel that’s an advantage or is this a brand new game?

LR : Yeah, it’s a new game.  It’s definitely a new game.  Different venue.  Different time.  Even though it wasn’t that long ago, it’s still different.  We start at 0-0 and the team that plays the best will win.

Baylor HC Matt Rhule

LH : Not too many people saw Baylor going 11-1 this season.  When do you and your staff realize you could be this good?

MR : At the end of last season, after the bowl game.  We thought we were going to have a good season.  We thought we had good players and we thought that they had bought in.  They were learning and improving.  Again, it’s like at Temple.  We were 6-6 and, at the end of the third year, we were 10-2 at the end of the regular season.  We felt we were on a very similar trajectory.

LH : Your the only conference where you play every school during the regular season.  Is it an advantage or disadvantage to play a team in the conference championship game that you have already lost to and know what you need to fix? 

MR : I think it puts us both in the same boat.  It’s like if you were in the NFL.  You have to play teams twice in your conference division twice a year.  You can go back and look at the things you do well and the things you did poorly and you have a chance to fix them.  That’s true for both teams.  Both have really good staff and I’m sure that both will make alterations based upon the things that they did not do well in the first game.