RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It is New Year's Eve, meaning college football playoffs. Clemson plays Oklahoma while Alabama dukes it out with Michigan State. Kevin Blackistone is a columnist with The Washington Post and a professor of sports journalism at the University of Maryland. Thank you for joining us.
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: This is year two for college football's new playoff system. Four teams compete in semi-final games, with the winners meeting in the championship game. So how is it going?
BLACKISTONE: It's going great. It's going probably better than expected, particularly from the financial side because that's really what this was all about. The power conferences used to, in the previous system, share bonuses worth about $28 million. Now they're going to be sharing bonuses worth about $50 million. So everybody is making more money than ever off of college football right now because of this playoff system that was devised in part by someone else I take a paycheck from. And that's ESPN, when just a few years ago they offered the powers of college football about a six or $7 billion check over the next 12 years to put together this playoff system that college football people said they would never exceed to. And now you have it.
MONTAGNE: Right, although may I say, isn't - one of the arguments for it is it's the best going up against the best?
BLACKISTONE: Sure. It's the best going up against the best. But they used to make that argument under the old system as well. But now it's the best going up against the best and more money is being made than ever before.
MONTAGNE: OK, well, let's start with the first matchup - Oklahoma meets Clemson in the Orange Bowl in Miami. Talk to us about those two teams.
BLACKISTONE: Well, this one's going to be an interesting matchup simply because these are probably the two most exciting quarterbacks in college football, Baker Mayfield for Oklahoma and Deshaun Watson for Clemson, who is virtually a one-man wrecking crew for Clemson. He scores running the ball. He scores passing the ball. So this should be a really fun shootout.
MONTAGNE: And then later tonight, in prime time, two more powerhouses.
MONTAGNE: Michigan State faces Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.
BLACKISTONE: Right. And this is really about the two coaches, Nick Saban for Alabama, for Michigan State Mark Dantonio. What's going to make this interesting is that it features Derrick Henry, the running back for Alabama who was the Heisman Trophy winner. And he's really, really good. Alabama has the best defense in this playoff series. And of course we know that Nick Saban does one thing. And that's win championships. So I really like Alabama, as do a lot of people, to get by Michigan State.
MONTAGNE: You know, I'm curious. You were talking just a moment ago about watching college football that is now much work lucrative, not for the players but for the schools. Does that effect at all your - how you watch it, I mean, what you see when you're watching it?
BLACKISTONE: Yeah, it absolutely does, especially after these last couple of years where you've seen football players like those in my alma mater, Northwestern, really raise the question about welfare and benefits for them as college football players in a system which is just awash in money now. And though they have made some cosmetic efforts, I would say, to appear to play nicer with the laborers whose blood and sweat, they earn so much money, they still have a long, long ways to go. And I think people should realize that, you know, most of these teams now, if they get this far into the season, they will be playing a season that is basically as long as an NFL season. But they're reaping far fewer benefits. And they suffer the same injuries and don't have the same coverage.
MONTAGNE: All right, well, thank you very much for joining us and talking about all this.
BLACKISTONE: Thank you very much for having me. Enjoy the game.
MONTAGNE: That's Kevin Blackistone. He's a columnist with The Washington Post, and he teaches sports journalism at the University of Maryland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.