ATLANTA — Chris Petersen chatted up Nick Saban while they waited to pose with the championship trophy, looking for any bit of insight that might help the College Football Playoff’s rookie coach.
No such luck.
“You know,” Petersen said, breaking into a grin, “he’s pretty tight-lipped.”
The four playoff coaches were all together Thursday for a nationally televised awards show at the College Football Hall of Fame, not far from the stadium where Petersen’s Washington Huskies will face Saban’s defending national champions, the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, in the Peach Bowl semifinal game on New Year’s Eve.
The other semifinal matches Ohio State, coached by Urban Meyer, against Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl.
Petersen couldn’t help but notice he was the only one on the stage who hasn’t been to the playoff. Alabama will be appearing for the third straight year, having beaten Clemson last season in a thrilling title game. Two seasons ago, Meyer’s Buckeyes won the title after knocking off Alabama in the semifinals.
“I’m the rookie up here,” Petersen said. “I’ve just got my eyes wide open and trying to echo what they say and do.”
If he learned anything from Saban, it was not to say much of anything.
The Alabama coach was asked a couple of questions about offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who is reportedly in line to become the next Houston coach.
“I don’t think anything has been decided about that officially,” Saban said, with that last word effectively turning it into a non-denial denial. “I’m sure the University of Houston will make an announcement about who their coach is when they’re ready to do that.”
When pressed on whether Kiffin would remain at Alabama through the playoff, which culminates with the Jan. 10 title game in Tampa, Saban turned testy.
“We will make that decision when we have something to make a decision about,” Saban said. “We’ll do what’s in the best interest of Lane, our program, our players, but I would think that he would want to finish the season with us. I can’t speak to that right now. ... I’m not going to answer any more questions about hypothetical situations.”
Petersen guided the Huskies to a Pac-12 title and a playoff spot in just his third year on the job. He previously coached at Boise State, where his reputation for a gambling style and major upsets was established in his first season with a 43-42 victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Broncos sent the game to overtime with a 50-yard hook-and-lateral touchdown in the closing seconds of regulation, and then won it in overtime with another trick play on a 2-point conversion.
Petersen might need some similar tactics to knock off the mighty Crimson Tide, which will be playing close to home after going 13-0 during the regular season, capped off by a 54-16 rout of Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
“I know about their offense and I know about their defense,” he said. “Then I put on their special teams, and I got more depressed. They’ve got really good players and they don’t give you anything.”
Meyer said he was “very skeptical” about the playoff system in the beginning, but he’s now a big fan. It’s certainly worked out well for the Buckeyes, who improbably won it all two years ago with a third-string quarterback and got in again this year without winning their division in the Big Ten.
“Like most everyone else, I just listened to the people who thought they knew, and I didn’t find out” until the announcement, Meyer said.
He watched it from a maternity ward, where his grandson was born a few hours before selection committee announced its decision.
“It was a great day,” Meyer said. “That was a day you put in the win column.”
Despite a stunning home loss to Pittsburgh, Swinney’s team is getting another shot at the title. The Tigers came up just short a season ago, falling to Alabama 45-40.
“We lost to a great football team,” Swinney said. “A great experience for our guys, and I’m glad that we’re getting an opportunity to go compete again.”
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