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Sunday Sports

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CAMERON SONG, "THE COMPETITIORS")

CHANG: If you were prepping for your New Year's Eve party yesterday and didn't get a chance to watch the college football semifinals, have no fear. Alabama beat Washington in the Peach Bowl, and Clemson crushed Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. So to talk about what happened, we're joined, as always, by Mike Pesca. He's the host of The Gist podcast at Slate. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hello. It's a sad thing if you missed those games. Well, not at any point after the first quarter.

CHANG: (Laughter).

PESCA: Then they both became kind of de rigueur.

CHANG: Well, all right. Clemson's going to the championship, and it beat Ohio State in a shut-out. It's been a while since that happened to Ohio State. Tell us about that.

PESCA: Yeah, it's the first time Ohio State's coach Urban Meyer had ever been shut out in his coaching career. Now, I think - I still think we could say he's one of the - if not the sharpest minds in football. So I think this meant that going into the game, these two on paper - evenly matched teams, one-loss teams from power conferences - many people were saying, you know, I want to put my chips with Urban Meyer. He'll outsmart Clemson.

But what we saw was not just physical domination on the part of Clemson. That became clear. Clemson's defense just overwhelmed the Ohio State offensive line. But they played so much smarter in little, subtle ways that you could tell early in the game that they kind of knew every play that Ohio State was going to throw at them just by the shift of a back or the way an offensive lineman would step on the second step from a play, and they'd sniff out these plays and just, you know, crush Ohio State's offense. So it was a really convincing win.

CHANG: And let's not forget the Crimson Tide beat the Huskies. Give us a recap on that one.

PESCA: I shan't forget that. Now...

CHANG: (Laughter).

PESCA: ...This was the big game that Washington started off with a touchdown first play - first drive of the game. So you say to yourself, oh, maybe this can be a game. But what happened there was that Alabama's defense is so good. And, again, I want to talk not just about the physical domination, but the mental domination.

CHANG: Yeah.

PESCA: There was a successful screen pass, and you can see Alabama just processing this, the players, the coaches. And they basically didn't give up another screen pass all game, and their defense has scored 15 touchdowns, their defense - better than some teams' offenses. Their defense has scored 15 touchdowns. So Alabama's offense is good, but their defense probably the best unit on either side of the ball in football.

CHANG: So what will happen in the championship, you think?

PESCA: OK. So the two teams played last year, and it was a close game. It was decided by five points. And in that game, Nick Saban, the coach Alabama, who's usually by-the-book guy threw out this crazy onside kick. And he even smiled when it was successful. And it's rare to see a Nick Saban smile. It's like seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker in the wild. But, you know, one year later, the Clemson quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is - has returned. So you say to yourself, maybe that experience will get them over the hump.

I should note, though, that Deshaun Watson this year wasn't as good as last year. I have no idea. I thought that Alabama would win, but I thought that Ohio State would give Clemson a straw, a better game. And I think this could be another high-scoring game. Well, we'll see Alabama get outside its comfort zone and have to put up some points on offense.

CHANG: OK. In the 35 seconds we have left, I want to talk about this whole bowl game system.

PESCA: Yeah.

CHANG: What do you think? Is it falling apart? Doing OK?

PESCA: I - the major - the playoffs seem good, and they've been entertaining and the right two teams are playing for the championship. But overall, the bowl games are antiquated and they just exist to make the people who run the bowls money and the networks that air them. This year, we saw some players sitting out to save their bodies for the NFL, and that's a new trend that I would watch because these amateurs are making millions of dollars for networks and their conferences, and a couple of them are saying I'm not putting my health on the line before I actually draw a paycheck from the NFL.

CHANG: Mike Pesca - he's the host of The Gist podcast at Slate. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.