ATLANTA — Sitting beside Nick Saban, Lincoln Riley and Dabo Swinney at a gathering of the College Football Playoff coaches, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly referred to his team as “the new kids on the block.”
The description fit. Saban has guided No. 1 Alabama, the defending champion, to its fifth straight playoff. Swinney and Clemson are making their fourth straight appearance. Riley’s Oklahoma team is in the playoff for the third time in four years.
The Fighting Irish are newcomers, but the playoff is an old dream for one of college football’s most familiar names.
“It’s something we certainly look toward each and every year,” Kelly said Thursday at the College Football Hall of Fame.
Finally, Kelly has his chance when No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) plays No. 2 Clemson (13-0) in the Cotton Bowl. Alabama (13-0) will play No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) in the Orange Bowl.
Are these college football’s best four teams?
Georgia, which made it all the way to last year’s national championship game, took a 35-28 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Following the game, Saban said he believed Georgia was one of the nation’s best four teams.
In his final vote in the coaches poll, however, Saban voted for the four teams that actually made the playoff. Georgia was No. 5 in his poll.
Saban stuck by his vote — and his Georgia claim — on Thursday night.
“I do think they were one of the top four teams in the country, but I didn’t think they were going to get in the playoff with two losses,” Saban said, adding that he voted for the best four teams he thought had a chance to be included in the playoff.
“What this really indicates is the SEC championship game was a playoff game,” he said.
Asked a follow-up question, Saban wouldn’t say Georgia should be one of the playoff teams.
“I’m not saying that,” he said. “I’m just saying, I’m saying what I said, and I’m not changing what I said. When we played Georgia I thought they were one of the best four teams in the country. That doesn’t mean that they’re any better than the teams that are here, and I voted for the four teams that are here. Is that correct? OK.”
The loss to Alabama dropped Georgia (11-2) to No. 6 in The AP poll. The Bulldogs will play No. 14 Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray edged Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in AP Player of the Year voting released Thursday. Murray has a chance to give the Sooners two straight Heisman Trophy winners, following Baker Mayfield.
“To have a chance to have guys back to back, you really never dream it,” Riley said.