LOS ANGELES — A few days after the Rose Bowl matchup between No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia was set, Sooners coach Lincoln Riley and Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart ran into each other at a high school in Georgia. They were there by themselves to recruit the same player.
“We were waiting for like a crowd of reporters to come out,” Riley said early in Rose Bowl week. “I thought it might have been staged in a way.”
Riley and Smart got a brief chance to catch up again Sunday at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, sharing the stage with The Leishman Trophy that goes to the winner of Monday’s game in Pasadena. After answering questions from reporters for 25 minutes, Smart and Riley shook hands and posed for pictures with the sterling silver football.
It’s a good looking trophy, but the big prize for Oklahoma (12-1) and Georgia (12-1) is a spot in the College Football Playoff championship game in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
“There’s been a lot of build up for this game, like Lincoln said, and it’s time to go play,” Smart said.
Riley is in his first season as Oklahoma’s head coach. Smart is in year two at his alma mater. They came into their jobs in very different ways, but both inherited ready-made rosters, with the talent to make a championship run. The challenge for each was to reach that potential.
Smart, the longtime defensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama, was hired by Georgia after former coach Mark Richt was pushed out. Richt’s 15 years in Athens were mostly successful, but there was a sense among supporters and the school administration that Georgia was not maxing out in football. Georgia had not won a Southeastern Conference title since 2005.
The program did not need an overhaul. Smart, 42, was left a roster built on the foundation of top-10 recruiting classes in both 2014 and ’15. Members of those classes make up the majority of Georgia’s starting lineup in the Rose Bowl, including star running back Nick Chubb and All-America linebacker Roquan Smith. Smart’s task was to make players who had some success understand they were capable of much more.
“They may see it as they were completely happy winning nine, 10 games a year, and that’s what I call complacency,” Smart said. “In our case that was probably the greatest challenge was not accepting what had been done before as the norm and convincing the players that are currently on the team that we can do better. How do we do that? Well, we do it this way. Well, that might not be the right way in their mind. You’ve got to convince them it is. Sometimes that takes more work than just coming in where a team’s hungry and more aggressive and listens to what you have to say.”
After going 8-5 last season, Georgia won the SEC in 2017.
Riley, 34, was already an integral part of the Oklahoma program when he was promoted from offensive coordinator in June to replace coach Bob Stoops, who had surprisingly decided to retire after 18 years in Norman. The Sooners had won the Big 12 in 2015 and ’16, making the playoff in ’15, with Riley calling plays. They entered 2017 as favorites again, led by quarterback Baker Mayfield.
With the rest of the coaching staff already in place, Riley did not necessarily have to win over the players.
“Probably the biggest challenge was starting in early June,” Riley said. “Whatever changes we did want to make you felt like you had to get them done pretty quickly. So I think for us it’s continuing to build on it, trying to find a few ways to get a little better, and maintain the high expectations there’s always been at Oklahoma.”
The Sooners rolled to another Big 12 title, Mayfield won the Heisman and the offense is on pace to set a school record for yards per play at 8.44.
Things to know about the first meeting between the two storied programs:
Mayfield has been dealing with flu-like symptoms leading up to the Rose Bowl. He has been practicing but his condition caused him to miss three team events, including two media availabilities. Mayfield made it to media day on Saturday and all indications are he will play Monday. Since 2000, Heisman-winning quarterbacks are 4-6 in the BCS championship and playoff games played in the seasons they won the award. That includes Oregon’s Marcus Mariota going 1-1 in the 2014 playoff. Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Auburn’s Cam Newton and USC’s Matt Leinart won national championship games after winning the Heisman.
Oklahoma has a four-game winning streak against SEC teams, having beaten one each of the last four seasons. The Sooners beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season and Auburn in the Sugar after last season. In between, they won a home-and-home against Tennessee.
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm has received plenty of accolades for leading the Bulldogs to the playoff as a freshman, but he is not the only newbie making big contributions for the Dawgs’ offense. Andrew Thomas has manned right tackle all season and tailback De’Andre Swift has contributed 743 yards from scrimmage as a complement to Chubb and senior Sony Michel the backfield.