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4-Top Teams Meet New Year's Day In College Football Playoffs


The first day of 2015 is a historic day for college football - the first ever playoff in the game's highest division begins today. We've got two semifinal games - Oregon against Florida State and later Alabama takes on Ohio State. NPR's Tom Goldman is so excited he can barely contain himself. Hi, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Happy new year.

INSKEEP: And happy new year to you, of course. This is something that sports fans - college football fans - have been demanding for quite some time, but would you explain how the world is different today?

GOLDMAN: We have these two playoffs and people will be able to say, well, now we have a national champion who's proving it on the field. There was always this complaint that the national championship was settled by polls and computers and not on the field, but you've got four teams playing then the winners will play for the title a week-and-a-half later. It gives more a sense that the winner earned it.

INSKEEP: Two of them, of course, are Florida State and Oregon - each with a great quarterback.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's the headline here. This year's Heisman Trophy winner - Oregon's Marcus Mariota - he's an athlete as dangerous running as he is passing and he has been pretty darn good passing with 38 touchdown passes, only two interceptions. Then there's Florida State's Jameis Winston - the 2013 Heisman winner - not as efficient as Mariota.He had 24 touchdown passes, 17 interceptions, but Winston led the Seminoles to another undefeated season. The team has won 29 straight. They are the defending national champion. It's also billed as a quarterback match-up of good guy versus bad guy - a morality play here. Winston's troubles are well known, from his shoplifting charge to a rape allegation that he's been cleared on twice. He has been brash and immature, at least off the field. On the other hand, the media and Oregon fans have placed a halo over Mariota's head. He's a nice guy, very humble, polite, the pride of Hawaii, although, he's not perfect, Steve. He got a speeding ticket in November for going 80 in a 55-mile-per-hour zone.

INSKEEP: But, of course, on the field, what people might focus on is the fact that you have one quarterback who's thrown a lot of interceptions and another who's hardly thrown any. Who's got the advantage?

GOLDMAN: Oregon is favored, a very explosive offense, but Florida State is dangerous. The Seminoles have won a bunch of close come-from-behind games. They're the underdogs and, you know, they can use this us-against-the-world feeling as motivation. Also Oregon is missing a key defensive player. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu - he's out with a knee injury. That could make things easier for Florida State's top wide receiver, Rashad Greene.

INSKEEP: Now, the other game here - we've got Alabama against Ohio State. For a Midwesterner like me, it's always a tough moment of deciding whether you are going to, you know, just kind of ancestrally despise Ohio State because you grew up a Purdue fan or you're going to root for the Big 10. But what's going to happen in this game?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Well, you've got a typical Alabama team - big and skilled. They are the class of this four-team field. 'Bama is a 10-point favorite, but Ohio State comes in on a role, playing its best football at the end of the season. But they've also got a third string quarterback going. They lost their top two quarterbacks to injury. Cardale Jones was great against Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game, but tonight is only his second career start. He's going against a fearsome defense that most likely will stop the run and put even more pressure on an untested cornerback. Alabama is very tough on offense and defense, and lest we forget, Steve, it's also a match-up of two of the best college coaches - Alabama's Nick Saban against Ohio State's Urban Meyer.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: Why, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.