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Transcript: ESPN’s College Football Playoff National Championship Conference Call with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit

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ESPN college football lead broadcasting team Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit discussed the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T featuring No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Clemson.

Fowler and Herbstreit will call their fifth straight CFP National Championship, along with Maria Taylor and Tom Rinaldi, on Monday, Jan.7, at 8 p.m. ET as part of ESPN’s MegaCast presentation.

A transcript of the call is available below.

CHRIS FOWLER: Kirk and I have been privileged to do two legs of our Trifecta so far, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl. I’ll give you a brief rundown. We have been doing a slow motion road trip up the California Coast since the Rose Bowl, stopping in Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, up the Big Sur coast, checking the elephant seals yesterday, taking in the scenery. Now we’re closing in, the four of us, heading up to Santa Clara. It’s been very therapeutic, relaxing. There’s football talk in the car, can’t get away from that, but also a nice way to chill out, see a part of the country none of us have seen before.

When we get up there, I think it will be very exciting to see a matchup we’re familiar with, two teams we know very well. To us, there’s not one ounce of matchup fatigue in this ‘Bama-Clemson collision, because I think it’s the two best teams. Any time you hand out the ultimate trophy, to me it’s incredibly compelling.

You have storylines on top of that, tremendous star power with two young quarterbacks who are true prodigies. Many of the faces are the same, but many of the faces are new from other years of this matchup.

I’m sure there will be more questions about that, but I can tell you for us and for our entire production team that has the privilege of doing this, we are revved up and can’t wait to see how this plays out.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: To echo what Chris is saying, just looking forward to this game. Two best teams since the beginning of the year even started based just on paper with Alabama and Clemson returning the players they’ve had. They’ve had their own unique ways of being able to get through some challenges along the way.

I know we have people that want to ask questions, so I will take more time to answer questions. But, yeah, pumped up and anxious as soon as we get done with this call to get up to the Santa Clara area and get revved up for the game.

THE MODERATOR: We’ll start with questions.

Q. Do you two of you think this game is going to go down to the wire and expect there’s little chance of this being a blowout?
CHRIS FOWLER: I hope so. I think this game is going to resemble the first year’s meeting much more than last year’s. Clemson has a defense much more dynamic than last year, two years ago when Deshaun Watson was giving Nick Saban a lot of stress. We always hope it goes down to the wire.

We’ve been on a roll with the national championship and some of the bowls the last couple years. We’re a little biased in that we always want a close game. I think it’s viewed that way by most people. It would be a surprise if it got out of hand either way for me.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think we’ll see a lot of points. Go back to the first matchup when Deshaun was there. He came close, lost in ’15. I think it was 45-40. Came back in ’16, somewhat of a shootout. When you think of Alabama’s type of defense, 35-31 when Clemson won it. Last year Alabama kind of dominated the game.

I agree with Chris. I think based on the way these teams have played, I think what Trevor Lawrence brings to the table, I think it’s a very different Clemson team, especially offensively, than who Alabama went up against last year.

Even though Alabama has an incredibly athletic defense, they’ve had a whole year, when I say young and inexperienced, in comparison to Fitzpatrick, Minkah, the group they had last year on the back end, those guys played so much football.

I think, yeah, there’s a chance it could be one of those games whichever quarterback has the ball last can lead his team down and win the game.

Q. Kirk, outside-the-box question. Lee Fitting, who was the long time head of College GameDay, now has more responsibilities in the company, including the NFL. We’ve seen some ESPN people who are traditionally college based move over to the NFL. Have you considered at all, even if it was for a one-time game, doing any kind of NFL broadcasting?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: In the past I never even gave it a thought. I’ve always been a college football guy. It’s funny, Chris and I were just talking about it yesterday, different opportunities throughout his career that have been presented to him, how he’s very selective in what he ended up doing.

In my case, I just wanted to stay in the college football lane. My goal when I first started 23 years ago is I wanted my face, my voice to be associated just with college football. That’s what I’ve tried to do.

I would say this: because of the way the college game — when I watch the NFL, I feel like I’m watching college football. If they ask me to do a game or they ask me to do some work, I did the draft last year, I’d have no problem listening to that and entertaining those thoughts.

I don’t know if I would do it. Where I was before, where I would absolutely have no interest in it, I’m at least now in a position where I would definitely listen if that’s something they might want me to do.

Q. I wanted to get your opinion on something. You guys get a unique perspective of these programs that most of the media doesn’t get. What do you see as the similarities between the way Dabo runs the show and the way Nick runs the show, especially considering they are very different personalities?
CHRIS FOWLER: That’s what makes this compelling. That’s what I was hinting at before: the plot lines, storylines of these two programs getting in each other’s way. Dabo being a former Alabama walk-on. His personality is extremely different than Nick’s, some of the other top coaches.

The similarities are an absolute rock-solid top-down commitment from each school. They pour resources in, human resources, financial resources, incredible attention to detail. The recruiting machine at each school, they know that’s the fuel that keeps the engine running. They’re both great at it in different ways, different styles perhaps. The way they round up talent is what sets them apart.

But I do think it’s a different style. Dabo would clearly say the Clemson culture is distinct from what Nick has built at Alabama, most other places. But I think he’s become a remarkably brilliant coach, comprehensive, all the skills you need at the job, very high end, not a lot of (indiscernible) coming when he first got the job.

He’s assembled a staff that has been able to be loyal, unlike Nick, who has constantly had to find new coordinators, which is a heck of a challenge, revolving coordinator carrousel in the biggest games. That’s not really what Dabo has been dealing with.

There are distinctions, but they separated themselves for a reason.

KIRK HERBSTREIT:
I would say the differences are probably greater than the similarities as far as just the way they run their program. I would say, if you’re asking for similarities, I think it’s the competitive spirit and drive that both these guys have. It’s the creativity of trying to change things while they have success, not allowing complacency to set in. I think that’s a big part.

I have four boys of my own. I kind of understand and see this next generation. To be able to get these guys every year to challenge for championships, it’s remarkable.

I think it’s their desire to push, to push their staff, to push everybody that’s within their program, then to push the players in the off-season, have a great strength and conditioning program.

At the end of the day, I think the difference between Clemson from where they were before Dabo got there, probably the last 20 or 30 years, and now, is they’re recruiting at such a high level. I think it’s year after year after year. I mean, think about the players they’ve lost in the last five or six years, and think about who they’ve brought in to replace them.

This defensive line right now, people are thinking, Man, what are they going to do when this defensive line leaves? They’re going to be in trouble.

There’s a guy like Xavier Thomas waiting in the wings to take over, who could be one of the best defensive linemen in the country this year. He’s a true freshman. It’s things like that that both these programs have figured out how to recruit to their culture and how to maximize it every year.

Q. Have you seen a quarterback or a true freshman quarterback do what Trevor Lawrence has done this year? What kind of challenge will it be for him going up against Nick Saban and his Alabama defense?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: There have been quarterbacks going back since I’ve been on GameDay that were freshmen that made you step back, I can’t believe that guy is a true freshman. I don’t think I’ve seen a freshman that’s 6’5″, 215, has an unflappable personality towards the big moment. That is unusual, special. I keep saying, I can’t wait to see where he is in two years when he’s a junior. I can’t even imagine where he’ll grow.

I’ve heard a lot of analysts say, We’re waiting for him to have that freshman moment. I just don’t see that happening based on watching almost every snap he’s taken this year…

You can talk about his physical skills all you want. To me it’s the ability, in this offense, especially when they go up-tempo, the ability not to make mental mistakes, process the coverage, get out of a bad play into a good play. That is just unbelievable. To go along with the arm strength, the athletic ability, all the physical attributes.

He’s a once-in-a-generation type of guy. I think we all knew last year when Clemson lost to Alabama the potential of this offense when he came into it. Now we’ve seen that play out. Now they’ll get their big test.

All those defensive linemen, I heard one of their players made a comment yesterday or today, Kendall Joseph, saying, When we were walking off that field against Alabama, this is what we wanted, another chance. We felt like we got out-classed that night.

Now they get it with Trevor Lawrence. We’ll see if they can get it done this time.

CHRIS FOWLER: I think the most exciting thing about college football is the emergence of these prodigy quarterbacks. I think that’s the proper word. Kirk said ‘once in a generation’. The good thing is we’re seeing more and more of them.

I think these two are special because of the mindset that Kirk talked about, the poise, unflappability, as well as the obvious talent. It’s just a beautiful thing to watch Tua and Trevor throw the ball.

College football has become so much about the quarterback, there’s so many wannabes, young guys eight, 10, 12, 14, getting great coaching, developing their skills, being mentally ready when they hit college. It’s astounding for me who has been around for a long time, you have to recalibrate what the expectations are for freshmen because of guys like these two guys.

If you think about first-year starters, all three top Heisman getters, all CFP quarterbacks. Very different circumstances, but all first-year starters. You’re not supposed to be able to do this as a first-year starting quarterback, play that kind of high level.

I think it’s very exciting. I think it’s more than a quarterback dual Monday night. But that’s the main storyline people grab onto. Sit back and enjoy two prodigies in the ultimate pressure game and see how they play and see who emerges. It’s fun.

Q. I want to use the ‘perspective’ word. If Nick happens to win his seventh national championship, where do you put that, where does that place in college sports history in general?
CHRIS FOWLER: I think you have to talk about sports history. You have to start talking about Red Auerbach, Coach Wooden, very different landscapes and different eras. But I already think Saban has the most accomplished résumé in the history of college football, even if he never wins another game. To me it’s astounding to be able to do what he’s done with no signs of slowing down.

Whether it’s six or seven, it’s adding, in my opinion, to a legacy that’s unequaled in college football. I think you do have to have a much broader perspective throughout the history of sports to see where he would rank because, as Kirk pointed out, it’s not easy to do what he’s done.

You don’t get to have a guy eight or 10 years like you did when you had the Celtics. It’s more akin to Wooden’s machine at UCLA. I think it’s harder to win a championship in football than it was in basketball in that era.

It’s a good barstool conversation.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: It is. I’m with you. People want to compare him to whether it’s Bear Bryant, Bud Wilkinson, Woody Hayes, Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, those are all legendary coaches. If he’s able to win on Monday night, I think you have to love the sport of college football. I’m with Chris, and going way back, I know John Wooden had a ridiculous run, Red Auerbach with the Celtics, Phil Jackson, what he did with the Bulls and Jordan.

Here is the funny thing. It’s not slowing down. People in the NFL, they’re looking for cracks in that armor. Belichick, they lost a game. Brady is done. They’re waiting for the Patriots dynasty to be done.

With Alabama, they might lose a game, but for 10 or 11 years they’re either in the national title or they’re a play or two away, they get upset, that close to being in it again. We’ve never seen anything like this. It’s not slowing down.

They just maybe signed arguably their best recruiting class they’ve ever been able to put together in December. I told Chris, I think next year, they’re going to lose some great players, but with Tua coming back, I think this team scores 45, 50 a game next year again. I think they could be better next year than this year.

People that hate Alabama, they can’t stand their dominance, it’s not fair, blah, blah, blah. Whatever they have to say… I just tend to pull up a chair and appreciate it. 30, 40, 50 years from now people are going to be talking about that run of Nick Saban and Alabama.

We’re lucky enough to be sitting right in front of it watching it. I choose to appreciate it instead of nitpicking or questioning or complaining about it. I think it’s incredible and fun to watch.

CHRIS FOWLER: The championships are there. Ralph would know this fact. They have more weeks at No. 1 in the last 10 years than the rest of college football combined. Think about that. That’s, like, wire to wire, start to finish. That’s incredible.

For the Clemson side, let’s not forget, if they get the win, they’re cementing a mini dynasty, too. They’re not just chipping away at Alabama, but they’re also building something themselves. They would have taken two out of three against the Tide in championship games. They’re not going anywhere either.

It’s a tussle for this trophy. It’s also a collision of these two dynasties that have gotten in each other’s ways. I think Clemson is on the rise. Dabo is young, not going anywhere, I don’t think. It will be fun to see what they achieve in the years to come. Nick has to retire at some point, you’d think (laughter).

Q. Is yet another Alabama-Clemson final good for college football or is it not? An old Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Cowboys-Steelers? Would it be better to have more diversity in the final?
CHRIS FOWLER: You have the two best teams. You can’t ask for more than that. Star power, storylines. Are there fans out there that are envious of the success of these two programs? Absolutely. Would they like to have a piece of it for themselves? I totally understand that.

I think there’s massive need for fresh blood in the Playoff. I think you want to have different teams to compete. What’s bad for the sport is the notion there’s four, five or six programs capable of winning a championship, many more capable of making the Playoff. I don’t like the idea that the power is concentrated more and more at the top.

As for a championship matchup, when it comes down to playing for the trophy, I don’t know how you can complain about the two best teams. Unlike an NBA series, it’s not best of seven. They meet once a year for all of it. The names and the faces, there’s continuity, but they to change more in college than pro sports. There’s that.

Is it bad for the sport? That’s sort of in the eye of the beholder. Not in my opinion. We need more regional distribution of title contenders. We need one from the west, the Big Ten to be in the mix. That’s just logic.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think you’re right about that. Any time you get the same two teams, you’re always going to get people talking about changing the system or adding more teams. All that I think is natural when you go through this.

As far as it being good or bad for the game, I enjoy competitive games. I enjoy the competition. I think if you tune in to watch this game, it’s going back and forth, it’s 7-7, 14-7, 14-14, all the way into the fourth quarter, 34-31, the team has the ball last…

I tend to think people who like football would find that very intriguing, no matter who is playing. It’s the two best teams. I don’t think they get caught up in all the issues or questions about is it good for the sport or not.

I think what would be great for the sport is to have a competitive game on Monday night. But it would be fun. It would be fun to have a team from the Pac-12 or the Big Ten, the Big 12 having a chance to make a run and get into the championship, of course.

Q. Kirk, you mentioned your boys a few minutes ago. Two of them are going to be playing for Dabo at Clemson. Will they be enrolling in January or August? I think it was your first trip to Clemson in 2006, you mentioned how blown away you were with everything there. Did your boys appreciate Clemson for a long time from afar or was their decision more sudden?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Typically I will go home and over the years talk about different coaches, different programs in normal conversation around the house. But make no mistake, they are complete brainwashed Ohio State fans. They have been their whole lives, all four of my boys.

When they got into high school football, decided to go to camps over their high school career, they went to an Ohio State camp, Alabama, they went to Clemson this past summer. Did well enough for Dabo and for his staff to kind of reach out to us and talk about a preferred walk-on to have an opportunity to go there. It was completely up to them. I had no idea if they were going to play football in college or not.

After that camp, I think they were more confident that they might have an opportunity. Of course, putting their time in, trying to put on some weight, get bigger, stronger, faster, all those kind of things.

I think what they fell in love with was when we sat down with Dabo, and he told them his story, what they did. They really didn’t know anything about his time at Alabama, how he grew up, how when he showed up to practice the first day, he’s like 15th string or whatever it was, how discouraged he was, how he kind of worked his way up and eventually got to play, and went on to be part of a national championship team. He said he has friendships for a lifetime. He talked about how he runs his program. Whether Trevor Lawrence or a preferred walk-on, he treats everybody the same.

As he’s telling the story, I’m looking at my boys. It’s weird to be a dad when you’ve been talking to Dabo forever. I can tell my boys were just more and more drawn into what he was saying. When we left, it was over. They were like, I want to go play for that guy, be a part of that program, be a part of that culture.

As much respect as I have as a dad for that program, when they said that’s what they wanted to do, of course I was excited for them to have that opportunity, looking forward to them going down. I think they’re leaving in early to mid June to have an official visit set up for next weekend, not this coming weekend, but the following weekend. I’ll be a part of that just like a normal dad. It’s a chance to see the boys have a kind of final opportunity to talk with Dabo and Jeff Scott, all the coaches. We’ll go from there.

But I’m incredibly thrilled for them to have a chance to go there and be a part of that.

Q. Kirk, from what you’ve seen from Clemson’s pass protection this year, do you see that matchup playing out differently than last year’s game when Alabama’s defensive line took that over?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Yeah, that’s a great question.

Like most people, once we found out this is the matchup, I went back and watched that game. What stood out to me is a couple things. Number one, Clemson started most of their drives inside their own 20 yard line. The game seemed to be played on their end of the field a lot. That’s very tough when you’re playing against a talented Alabama defense to call plays when that’s the case.

The second thing that stood out to me is they could not throw the ball downfield. Most of what they did was quick throws, getting the ball out fast, jet sweeps, tried the run. The problem is, because Alabama did not fear that vertical passing game, they had everybody up close to the line of scrimmage, basically begging Kelly Bryant to throw it downfield.

They never were able to do that, so you’re dealing with nine, 10, 11 guys up close against that quick, short passing game. A lot of times those guys are covered. When they’re covered, Kelly is holding onto the ball. Anthony Jennings, who had a huge game, and company, were getting sacks.

To me, we could talk about the offensive line, but there’s so much more to it. The big thing is, Trevor Lawrence and these receivers have got to get the ball down the field in the air. When you do that, it opens up the running game and makes the offensive line have a much better matchup against a very talented defensive line led by Quinnen Williams. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, all kind of plays in together.

I think the vertical passing game, being able to stretch that Alabama defense back, could go a long way in helping the running game, which could go a long way in helping the offensive line not get into such obvious passing situations like they were a year ago.

Q. As we draw further away from when Miami was truly elite, like the Alabama, Clemson level, could you envision that happening again any time in the next several years? What do you think of the Manny Diaz hire?
CHRIS FOWLER: I think it’s hard to envision anybody getting to this level. That’s what we were talking about earlier. This is the stuff we’ve never seen in the sport before. Miami’s run was tremendous. I know Miami fans have incredibly high standards. They don’t feel like Miami is back. Is that realistic? First thing’s first: let’s temper things a little bit and try to win the ACC.

I think they need to reverse negative momentum. Manny Diaz’ hire I think has a good chance of doing that. People will want to see what the offense looks like, how he describes it, before committing. Obviously there’s enormous potential. As a most-of-the-year resident down there, I’m biased. I’d like to see the ‘Canes back.

There are certainly challenges. The facilities are there. The brand I think is still strong. But the memories of recruits don’t reach back to the days when Miami was great. People around South Florida understand that. You have to recruit nationally these days. It’s going to take a little repairing.

Again, I think a dynamic offense is what people are going to want to see before casting their lot with Miami when they have the choices of all the other top teams.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think we all miss Miami. It’s been a long time. I also miss the OB. I know they’ve done a nice job in renovation. That is such an unusual set of circumstances when you have to ask your students to drive as far as they have to drive to be able to attend their football games and provide a really hostile environment.

It is what it is. I think the Orange Bowl, that setting, they’ve not quite been the same program since they lost that environment. I know it was an older stadium, I understand we have to move forward with today’s world, but I would love to see them build a campus stadium. If that could ever happen, I’m sure politically it can’t, but that’s my personal take.

I think Manny Diaz is an energy guy. He obviously did a heck of the job with a defense. His reputation as a great defensive mind precedes him. Now he has to be a head coach, stand in front of room.

They’ve been playing good enough defense over the last few years to win a lot of games. As Chris said, they have to hire a key offensive coordinator. They have to go find quarterbacks. We were talking about it on GameDay the other day, you have to go back to Ken Dorsey, maybe all the way to Testaverde when they had an elite quarterback that would go on to the NFL, play, do well in the NFL. Think about that. In that state, with that program, its tradition.

Whoever they bring in, you’re going to have skill as far as wide receivers, runningbacks, but they’ve got to go find a difference maker. I’m sure in that competitive state, whoever they hire as the OC, they’re going to have to be able to hire a guy that’s going to win a lot of recruiting battles because people are going to want to go play for him.

Manny will get the defense right, a great face for the program. I think we’re all kind of sitting, waiting to see what they can do offensively before they can ever think about trying to win the ACC and get into the Playoff.

Q. Chris, when you said the massive need for fresh blood in the Playoff, is that a challenge to teams in various parts of the country to play better, or are you saying that you think there needs to be better access for those teams to be part of the field?
CHRIS FOWLER: Well, I think without getting into an expansive conversation, any Playoff bracket is better served when there’s contenders that are distributed around the country, just so fans in different parts of the country become more invested with it.

One of the Playoffs, it’s hard to top that: Oregon, Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State. A very dynamic bracket with a lot of geographic diversity. That was ideal.

We haven’t had a West Coast team. Washington obviously made the bracket one year. But you’d just like to have teams from all over playing into November in true Playoff contention. It makes the regular season more interesting, more compelling for fans.

But, hey, there’s not much room. ‘Bama and Clemson have gobbled up two of the spots, the other two have been up for grabs. There is an access issue as long as those two programs are dominant at the top.

There’s a philosophical debate about whether or not a Playoff exists to create access or whether it exists to determine a champion. Does the NFL have playoffs expanded so more teams can make it, more teams can be on TV? Sure. Ultimately it’s about determining a Super Bowl champion.

That’s the same thing in other professional sports and with the NCAA tournament. Do you want a bunch of teams that can say, Hey, we made the Playoffs, the coach is happy, didn’t get fired.

If you have an eight-team Playoff, did quarterfinals at campus sites, somebody going into Tuscaloosa as the 8 seed, winning that game, Death Valley and win. Upsets happen. But there’s a good chance you would have had at least three of the same four teams in the bracket. A very good chance you have the same two playing for the championship.

You add a layer on so some teams can say, We made the Playoff. I think it’s going to happen eventually, but I want it to be done for the right reasons.

Q. Premature question. If ‘Bama does win on Monday, considering how dominant they were in the regular season, considering they’d be the first 15-0 team in a century, where do you think they’d rank among the best teams ever?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: This specific team or the dynasty?

Q. This specific team.
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think the offense with Tua makes this Alabama team different from some of the previous teams that Nick won the championship with. But I don’t think the defense this year is of the caliber of some of those defenses we saw with just, I mean, you talk about domination, they were giving up nine points a game one of those years.

Whether it was 2009, 2012, the team they had last year with Minkah, I think when Lane Kiffin came, everyone raised their eyebrows, he definitely helped Nick Saban change his style. Before that Nick Saban was kind of fussing he didn’t like up-tempo offenses, RPOs, linemen downfield. To his credit, he said, The heck with trying to stop this stuff, I’m going to get one of these myself. So he changed. Instead of winning with defense, ball control, special teams, field position, he said, We’re going to start spreading people out ourselves.

I think Lane Kiffin, when he made that decision to change things… But I know they’re scoring a lot. I know Tua is incredible. I don’t know even within Alabama’s era with Nick Saban, I don’t know that I would say this is the best team ever, whether they win Monday night or not.

CHRIS FOWLER: I see it a little bit differently, to be honest. I think there’s different ways to judge best team. You could look at personnel, the number of guys that go on to great careers. 2001 Miami is in that conversation. Or you can look at achievement, dominance.

For me, I don’t think I’ve seen more dominant teams than Nebraska had in the middle ’90s, winning three out of four, the team that demolished Florida, put 52 on them in the Fiesta Bowl.

I think 15-0, winning all the games by 20 until the Georgia game, I’m not saying it’s going to happen, I already said I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think it’s in play as one of the great single-year runs, whether the defense is as good as other teams.

They’re winning games big. They’re controlling it. They didn’t stumble like some of the other Saban championship teams. They didn’t absorb a loss.

You go wire to wire, wearing a massive target, for me, I mean, it’s up there. It would be right up there in the greatest seasons we’ve ever seen. Certainly a contender for the No. 1 spot in my view.

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