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Both teams, I think based on the way they played in their semifinal game coming in, definitely heading in the right direction, feeling good about themselves, and at the end of the day, I think it’s the two teams that should be in the championship and should be a lot of fun.
I think the Deshaun Watson factor in this game against the Alabama defense is probably what everybody is most excited about.
Texas high schools go exclusively to the spread and to a large degree the colleges in this state have done so, as well. To what degree does the increased use of the spread‑out offense sort of in high school, at least, affect the way that players are coming into college in terms of being schooled and equipped to deal on defense with this offense? Is the talent level still available on defense to deal with these sideline to sideline offensive schemes and is the success of a team like Alabama that continues to sort of deal with a traditional pro‑set kind of mentality, sort of indicate perhaps that the old ways still have a legitimacy to morph sideline‑to‑sideline ‑‑
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I know you guys (Texas) have such great high school football, not just in your region, but throughout the state. As you know, that trend has been going on in the State of Texas for maybe the last five to seven years, if not even a little longer, where now it’s hard to find high school football where they line up in the old I-Formation or split backs under the enter. I’m seeing that, by the way, throughout the entire country in the last five years; that most of these quarterbacks are coming out of those systems.
I think that trend will continue, because of the success that you see at the collegiate level and I think the success that you see at a high‑profile high school level, a lot of those games get televised and I think because of word‑of‑mouth and because coaches travel around and they do their homework and they tend to look at different systems, I think it does ‑‑ I think we continue to see the systems working. I think it will continue.
I will tell you this: I think defenses are beginning to get more accustomed to the spread, because as you mentioned, high school players are seeing it, and because there are so many different variations of the spread, I think by the time you’re a high school player, you really have a good idea, if you’re a linebacker or a safety or defensive back of any kind, of what the challenges are, and then you throw the tempo aspect into it, as well, because I think that’s a big part of it for a lot of teams.
And yeah, I think it’s here to stay, for now. But it is ironic to see teams like Alabama and Stanford, two teams that really stood out last week and the way they played, they still are a little bit more traditional. Lane Kiffin, he’s been willing to do some tempo and some spread concepts.
But yeah, I think you’ll have a rare program here or there, whether it’s high school or college, that will still be more traditional. But I think the overwhelming majority right now are that wide‑open approach, and as I said, I think that’s only going to continue. And I think if anything, it helps defenses get used to it because they see it as a younger age and gets them ready to go by the time they hit the ground running in college.
Is it unusual to see a team where you see traditional big outside linebackers –
KIRK HERBSTREIT: It is. It is. It’s very unconventional. I think it’s a benefit because of that. Remember, the old days, everybody ran that kind of offense and if you had to get ready for an option attack, that was the change‑up. That was the, wow, here comes the wrinkle of the year. Now that’s all you see.
And someone lining up in an I‑Formation and just pounding you, that’s now become ‑‑ like with Stanford and the Pac-12, when teams play Stanford, here comes an offensive lineman coming off the ball. They are physical. They are double‑teams and they are working up to the linebackers and doing things that you just don’t see on a regular basis and I think that gives them an advantage.
As I said, I don’t think that that’s going to change. I don’t think you’re going to see teams ‑‑ to me, the Alabamas, the Stanfords, the teams that are able to recruit offensive linemen, tight ends, quarterbacks who can kind of fit more traditional systems, I think you’ll see them have a little bit of spread in their system, but they are going to hang their hat on what’s been working for them.
And as I said, I think even at the high school level, it’s very, very hard. I would ask you, how many high school teams have you seen run an I‑Formation with a quarterback under center. I haven’t seen that in a long time.
Now, I’ll see teams that run wishbone or I’ll see teams that run some kind of option attack. But the old school lineup in a phone booth and play football, that seems to be going by the wayside as far as high school and college.
Given how long it took Jay Coker to get to where he is, not getting the starting job last year, what is the most impressive part of his season in your eyes?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I would say ‑‑ I was there week three. I did their first game against Wisconsin and I did their third game when they played Ole Miss. And he got benched that game for Cooper Bateman.
And if you remember that was the game where they had all the turnovers and they were down 17‑3 and it was a big surprise that he did not start, after everything he had been through. And I think almost you could feel it was slipping through his fingers; finally his last chance to start after everything he had been through.
And that was the turning point in my mind; because witnessing it firsthand, instead of sulking, and saying, are you kidding me, after all this, now you’re starting this guy ahead of me, man, forget this.
Instead of going there, he kind of got upset and when they put him in when they were down 17‑3 to try to fight back to get into that game, he looked different. I mean, he was scrambling more with purpose. He was almost looking like he was trying to take his frustration out in the way he was scrambling, even in that game. He was more decisive with his throwing.
And I think Nick Saban didn’t mention this, I don’t think he was as worried about making mistakes as maybe he was before when he was maybe trying to be perfect. He was just kind of letting it go. And then of course, being the beneficiary of what Derrick Henry was able to start after that Ole Miss game, I think that kind of played into it.
But I would say his perseverance and willingness to accept Cooper Bateman starting, and then staying positive, staying supportive. And then when they turned to him and said, hey, sorry about that, you need to go into the game, he was still in a good mind‑set and a good approach to be able to go out there. And of course, they have not looked back since that game.
A bit of a stretch, Michigan‑related question, but I know you can imagine the excitement after 10‑3. How far off do you think Michigan is from being in the national playoff conversation?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I remember when you and I talked last year about this time, and I was probably as excited as anybody could be outside the Michigan fan base, just because I knew what this meant for the Michigan program, for the Big Ten, to be able to get one of your key members back up to where they belong. And I knew it was just a matter of time.
What he was able to do in that first year was, I hate to say, to be expected, just because I have such high expectations for him, because when you go 5‑7 to 10‑3, that’s a significant jump.
My feeling is this: They are only going to get better through recruiting. The team that he inherited is what it is. It should be a team that Michigan fans remember for a long time as being hopefully a turning point for their program. But in my opinion, he’s going to recruit quarterbacks, he’s going to recruit offensive linemen, he’s going to recruit running backs and receivers that I think are going to fit into his philosophy better.
And I think he did a heck of a job with ‑‑ inheriting Jake Rudock and some of the other players that he inherited and again I’m not trying to take away anything from what those players did. But I think you’ll see the talent level in Ann Arbor continue to climb year after year after year with his recruiting efforts. Because offensive players are going to want to play for him and they are going to want to play in his system.
How to put a timeline on that? It’s hard to really know. I just know that you’ve got the ten wins this year. To me, they are already kind of where they need to be as far as competing for a Big 10 Championship. Think about it: If Ohio State beats Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan are playing for the right to get to the Big 10 Championship game.
So they are already right there. And I think who that next quarterback will be is obviously a significant part of how fast they can climb the ladder, continue to climb the ladder.
Could you sort of assess how this Deshaun Watson factor plays in versus ‑‑ that type of quarterback versus Alabama? Is it overrated or is it a factor of what Johnny Manziel did and now everyone equates that quarterback ‑‑
KIRK HERBSTREIT: No, I don’t think it’s what Johnny Manziel did. I think it’s what that kind of offense does to every defense, including Alabama’s and what it does is it spreads the defense out. You have a quarterback with the ability to run and throw.
When you include him in the running game, he’s essentially a tailback as a quarterback, and the defense has to account for him. And when you have to account for him, you have to bring another guy down close to the line of scrimmage.
And so if they can get him running, that can set up big opportunities in their passing game. If Alabama can negate Deshaun Watson from running the football, they will put him in some obvious passing situations and that will make it very, very tough for Clemson to be able to move the ball consistently.
To me, Deshaun Watson, not just his ability to throw, but his ability to run the football Monday night is essential to the Clemson offense.
Were you surprised Clemson dominated in the Oklahoma game, and does either team have an advantage Monday night on the line?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I’ve gone back and watched that game about three or four times, and I was really surprised as the game went on to see Clemson getting stronger in the second half in the trenches and Oklahoma appearing to have fatigue. I think once fatigue set in, I think that’s where Clemson started to really take over at the line of scrimmage.
And Gallman running the football and what they are able to do there with their system ‑‑ we were just talking with the previous person about what that offense can do. You saw it firsthand. When you get Watson and Gallman into the running game, it really can take a toll on the wear and tear of a defense, and I think that’s what happened ultimately at Oklahoma that it sets up big opportunities for plays in the pass game.
I was really surprised with Shaq Lawson out of the game what Clemson still was able to do up front at the line of scrimmage against an Oklahoma team that really had been ‑‑ since the Texas game, I thought we all talked about how they had learned so much from that game and they went back to running the ball and I thought that would be a real factor in the game.
But to the credit of Clemson and the linebacker play of Goodson and Burrell where they just played with a lot of intensity and eventually, they kind of had a stronger will and I think the success on the scoreboard helped continue to build that confidence.
When the dust settled, you’re right, Clemson just had a much better performance where it mattered, which is up front at the line of scrimmage. How it plays into Monday night, everybody in the world has watched Alabama football would tell you that this is probably Nick Saban’s best front seven that he’s had, because of the depth and versatility of his front. Right now, they have just been about as tough to move the ball on as any defense that I can remember. But, the last time a team moved the football, it was Ole Miss, and Ole Miss runs the exact same offensive system that Clemson runs.
And so I think we’re going to see how much Alabama has really improved against this kind of system with Deshaun Watson spreading him out, using tempo. You would think on paper, there would be an advantage, at least on that match up, for the Alabama defensive front in the line of scrimmage.
And just based on the way Clemson played against Oklahoma, I might say that Clemson’s defensive line and linebackers have an advantage up front at the line of scrimmage against the Alabama offensive line. So maybe it’s the two defenses; instead of one team, it might be the two defenses that have an advantage at the line of scrimmage.
Alabama’s offensive line is 84th in the nation in giving up tackles for loss, and with Clemson’s defensive line playing like they did, how do you think that plays out?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: As I was just saying, I think the defensive line is coming in with a great deal of confidence. I think we’re all kind of anxious to see how Shaq Lawson is able to bounce back from that injury. Early it sounded like, hey, it’s a no‑brainer he’s going to play. Sounds like you cover him very closely.
I think he came out yesterday or the day before and said, you know, it’s going to be situational based on how much I’ll be able to play, which obviously would be a setback when you have your Alpha unable to play.
But even with that being said, I think that battle up front will be ‑‑ they loaded the line of scrimmage with safeties and linebackers. They were determined to stop the run. It was very predictable going into that game that Calvin Ridley and Jay Coker would which early downs on playaction, and that’s the way it turned out and that to me is going to be a big factor. It’s not just stopping Henry, but being able to deal with Ridley and Stewart and the group of wide receivers that they have and Coker playing with some confidence.
I know he every time he puts a plan together, the very first thing he tells his guys is we have got to stop the run. And the fact that they are going up against Derrick Henry and Alabama, I have a feeling they are going to be very, very ‑‑ their intent will be to stop the run and win the line of scrimmage, which to me is going to come down to Coker usually and Alexander being able to hold up on islands because they are going to be playing a lot of man‑to‑man, being able to get the safeties up and get them involved in stopping Derrick Henry.
A very big picture question here. But beyond the championships and all the wins, is there any way to put in perspective Nick Saban’s impact and influence on the college football landscape from the standpoint of building a program and kind of everything that goes into that?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Well, I’ll never forget when he came back from the NFL, how excited I was to see him back in college football. I figure with his intensity, his competitive spirit, the resources and tradition at Alabama, I don’t think it took a lot to figure out that Alabama was going to be back and be back in a hurry.
Now, if you think about that breakthrough year in 2009 when they beat Texas for the National Championship, from that point on, winning three national championships ‑‑ and the thing that really stands out to me, is even when he doesn’t win a championship, because people are counting championships, his three ‑‑ if he wins another one Monday night, it will be his fourth at Alabama, fifth overall; that’s obviously ridiculously impressive.
But it’s the years where he doesn’t win a championship ‑‑ it’s not like he goes back down to a seven or an eight‑win season. His teams every single year are either in the championship or they are a play or two away from getting to the championship. And that consistency with 85 scholarships, with the parity that we see now in college football, it’s very hard I think to compare them to the legendary names that are out there in college football from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, even the 90s, because I think it’s a different game today because of those reductions; because of the way every team now, they are on TV every single week.
I think the landscape of college football is very different. And if you would have told me that a team like Alabama would be able to go for seven or eight straight years and win at this level, I would have thought they would have to have a year or two where they are down.
But they have been able to avoid complacency for the most part and stay at a very high level. If he wins Monday night, without a doubt, at least in my lifetime, I’m 46, he would be right up there with some of the elite names, whoever you want to bring up, whether it’s Tom Osborne and what he did at Nebraska, Bo Schembechler, Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno at Penn State; to what he has done and by the way, even if he doesn’t win Monday night, I still have Nick Saban up there as legendary status and right now he’s guiding a dynasty in college football that I for one certainly appreciate and marvel at every single year.
You’ve been involved in the broadcast for ‑‑ this is the fourth time with Alabama in the National Championship game. Could this be the toughest challenge the Crimson Tide is going to face out of those four games?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Let me think back. Texas, if you remember the Colt McCoy injury, that really changed that game, where they went to a freshman. Obviously Notre Dame, that was a difficult one to watch. And LSU, because the teams knew each other so well.
Looking back at it, I would say absolutely. I think because the team that they are playing, there’s two things: No. 1, when you’re 14‑0, the confidence that this football team is playing with, somehow they are able to maintain a chip on their shoulder and play that disrespect card that as you know, 18‑ to 22‑year‑old kids, when they all believe it, it can become a very powerful thing, and right now, they believe it, much like Ohio State did a year ago.
You can go back through these championship seasons and think about teams and one of the things that really drove that team was: We’re trying to prove everybody wrong. Well, Clemson has that on their side right now.
Then you throw in, to me, the whole X‑factor in this entire match up and I know a lot of people are talking about it so it gets tired, but it’s a reality, and that’s DeSean Watson and this system that they run. It’s a spread, tempo system that’s been very difficult for Alabama to defend over the years.
And with a quarterback that is a lethal weapon with his ability to run and throw; and not to mention that he is as calm and as poised as any quarterback that I’ve watched in a long time and he has a great understanding of the offense and reads that he needs to make. So he gets the ball out of his hands quickly.
When you the Combine all of that, yeah, I think this will be as good as Alabama has looked since the Ole Miss game. I would say going in, this is our greatest challenge in a Championship Game.
A little offbeat question. If you were not working the game Monday night and sitting at home what do these alternative telecasts might you be tempted to watch?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: You know, I personally would probably not ‑‑ because I’m calling the game, but I personally like just watching the normal broadcast. But I would probably watch, because I’m a football guy, I might watch the analysis with (Chris) Spielman and (Brian) Griese would be one I would probably check out from time to time.
When I watch a Super Bowl and when I watch a championship, whether it’s baseball, basketball, whatever it is, I’m a really boring guy to go watch the game is, because I like to either sit in a room by myself and actually listen to the broadcast and feel the crowd and listen to the announcers and what they are saying, based on their homework and what they have learned.
I’m not one to like stand around and talk to each other and be at a party. If I’m not at the game, I like to try to feel the game through the broadcast. So I personally just prefer the traditional broadcast. But if I were going to try something out, I would probably check out the analysis of whoever they happen to have in the booth.
Derrick Henry is obviously the person to watch for Alabama, but what do you think Clemson has to do to start deep threats like Calvin Ridley?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think there’s an awareness from Brent Venables, and there’s a lot of film study on the way Jay Coker has played, not just in the Michigan State game but the Florida game with Lane Kiffin, I don’t know if he gets enough credit for the job he’s doing, and he’s putting Jay Coker in a position to be successful by taking his chances on first and second down.
He’s avoiding those third down situations where it’s third and seven, third and eight, obvious passing situations where Coker has really struggled this year. That Alabama offense has struggled mightily in those situations and I think they have done a heck of a job of trying to keep them out of those situations and doing everything that they can to give him a chance to be successful.
If you’re looking at being Clemson, you’ve got to be able to take away those big shots to Ridley and anticipate that those shots are going to be coming on those early downs and let’s face it, you’ve got to hope that your corners and the guys that you leave out on islands, that they are able to hold up, because as we have seen, as good as Coker has played, if you can make him hold the ball with good coverage, two things are positive that can happen to the defense: One being if he holds the ball, you can get sacks and with the pressure that Clemson puts on quarterbacks that’s something that he has to do is get coverage sacks where you make him hold the ball. And the second thing you is force him to throw the ball before he’s ready and look for turnovers. If you’re Clemson, those are the areas that you’ve got to try to take advantage of, some things that Jay Coker has struggled with earlier in the year.
But right now, man, he and Lane Kiffin are on the same page and I’m worried about early shots to Ridley and to Stewart downfield.
You’ve obviously had great things to say about Clemson and the chances they have to win this game. Are you surprised that Alabama is the overwhelming favorite even though Clemson has the winning streak and has played well in big games?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I think some of that stems from Las Vegas sets odds, people start to kind of listen to who is favored, who is not favored and then that starts to get played up I think in the media and they will even ask (Clemson Coach) Dabo, wow, you guys are an underdog and he kinds of feeds off that, as you know.
That’s kind of been a real big thing for him, and I don’t blame him. I mean, if you can get your guys to get focused and to get locked in and get mad about, hey, we are an underdog, nobody respects us, man, I would play that as far as it would take me. We’ve seen that many times be the case.
I really don’t think it’s anything personal towards Clemson. I think maybe it had to do with the way they played the last, whatever it was, three games or so. They had issues with turnovers and the turnover margin wasn’t in their favor and they had a big lead on South Carolina, and South Carolina came back and they had a big lead on North Carolina. North Carolina came back.
I think if you look at the way the games are unfolding and not just looking at the record, I don’t think it was anything personal, it was just looking at the teams on paper, you would say, if they keep playing in that manner, they are going have their hands full and they are lose this game. To their credit, they took the time off to get healthy. Scott looked like, maybe since going back to August, having him being able to make plays on the perimeter. Obviously the way Gallman is running the football.
This just looks to be a team right now that is playing with a purpose, and they are really I think playing off of ‑‑ emotionally, playing off of that underdog role. So if I were a Clemson fan or a player or a coach, I would love ‑‑ I would rather be a six‑ or seven‑point underdog than a six‑ or seven‑point favorite just because that seems to be kind of an angle that they are really enjoying. So I think that would be a positive. But I don’t think anything personal towards Clemson. I think it’s about the respect that people have for Alabama and what Alabama has done since their loss to Ole Miss.
A lot’s been made about Clemson’s offensive line has only allowed 16 sacks so far this year. How will they old up against Alabama’s defensive line?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I called three Clemson games this year, three big ones, with Notre Dame, Florida State and North Carolina, and I remember Notre Dame was the first one earlier in the year and I remember looking at this offensive line and thinking, man, essentially, with Norton out, they had five new starters up front. And they had to deal with Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith that day and I remember walking out of that stadium thinking: That offensive line is really impressive, considering the way they are all five new starters.
A few weeks later I came back and did the Florida State game and at that point they had become a real strength with the rare continuity of Watson. There’s just kind of a swagger about that offensive line and a belief in their quarterback. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a group of guys believe in their guy the way that offensive line and the way that whole group believes in Watson.
I think when you can get five guys working together, loving each other on and off the field, they probably train together, they probably go to movies together; they just seem like that kind of group. It can really allow you to go out and execute. That’s going to be a fun matchup to watch that group with that continuity against the Alabama defensive line that has the exact same thing going for them as far as a love for one another and a belief in each other.
So that matchup will go a long way in determining who ultimately wins this game.
From a cable ratings perspective, with the low ratings for the playoffs on New Year’s Eve, are you concerned about the challenges of transforming this into a football holiday in future years?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: Absolutely. I call the games, and if they tell me it’s on December 31, it’s on December 31. If they tell me it’s on January 1, it’s on January 1. I pretty much go where I’m told to go, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to have a chance to be able to call these big games.
I’m not complaining at all, but I think you can tell by the ratings that the American public definitely didn’t necessarily jive with the New Year’s Eve games. And you can make an argument, well, the games weren’t necessarily that competitive. I think even if the games were competitive, I think we would have seen a noticeable difference in the ratings from the first year to the second year. We’ll have to see what Bill Hancock and the conference commissioners decide to do in the few year. They seem to be very set in their ways, that we are going to try to create a new tradition. And we’ll see if they are going to kind of dig in and just say the heck with it, that’s the way we feel, we don’t care about the ratings, or if they are going to be able to adjust to what the American public wants which is moving the games off of New Year’s Eve.
I wish I had a vote in that because I would like to be involved in that conversation, but I don’t, so I’ll continue to do what I’m told and hopefully look for better matchups in the future.
This is not other a showdown between No. 1 and No. 2, but all two of the three Heisman finalists going at it. I understand the importance of tradition, but in your opinion, should they wait until after the Championship Game to award the Heisman?
KIRK HERBSTREIT: I’ve often thought about that. I can remember one year, I think it was 2000, Josh Heupel and Chris Wienke ended up playing in the National Championship, Oklahoma and Florida State, and I think the linebacker from Oklahoma went out for the coin toss. And he basically looked at Chris Wienke and said, “I’m here to take my boy’s trophy back tonight” at some point in the game.
Tim Tebow has talked a lot about how it provided motivation when Sam Bradford won it and they ended up playing each other in the championship in the 2008 season.
I think it does play into motivation for these teams. I’m with you; I think it would be great to allow the season to be completely done and then maybe we could put our vote in. Think about Christian McCaffrey in the Rose Bowl, I think if everybody had a re‑vote after that, he probably would have won the Heisman in a landslide in terms of listening to a lot of the buzz around the country after that.
You know how the Heisman is so traditional and history‑based, I don’t think it will ever be moved off of the way we vote on it now. But it’s definitely fun to think about that. But McCaffrey will definitely in my mind be up there for winning it after the way he played in that Bowl game.
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