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.
It’s a nice 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 buildup 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 2015. 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.”
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 2016, 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.”
Matchup: Oklahoma (12-1) vs. Georgia (12-1)
Kickoff: Monday, 5:10
Site: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.