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First College Football Playoff In New System Pits Ducks Against 'Bucks'


Tonight, it's Ducks versus Bucks. It's a huge moment for college football - the first national championship game under the new playoff system. The Oregon Ducks are taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes for the title. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is there at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where the game is being played. Hey there, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie. How are you? Greetings from chilly Arlington, Texas.

CORNISH: Oh, well, stay warm because we're going to talk for a few minutes about these two teams, which I understand are pretty evenly matched. Talk about what we should expect.

GOLDMAN: They are, Audie, that's a really good point. You know, statistically, you can look at it - both teams on average score about 45 points or more a game and give up about 22 points a game, so it looks like it should be a big offensive explosion. But of course, when we always say we know what's going to happen, the opposite happens, so it may be a defensive struggle. But I will get a little footbally on you, Audie, and say that the key to the game - the real key - is going to be the battle of the line of scrimmage between the offensive and defensive lines. Can Ohio State's great defensive line slow Oregon runners Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner and put pressure on Marcus Mariota, the great Heisman-trophy-winning quarterback for Oregon? And on the Oregon side, can be the defense rattle third string quarterback Cardale Jones into mistakes? And can that line contain running back is Ezekiel Elliott? He's a big bull of a runner. He's shown he can get through the opponent's line and go all the way for touchdowns.

CORNISH: At the same time, Tom, two key players for Oregon have been suspended. I mean, how much could that hurt the Ducks?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right. Wide receiver Darren Carrington and teammate Ayele Forde tested positive for marijuana, so they're out. The past two games for the Ducks, Carrington has been an important player with a lot of receiving yards and several touchdowns. Ayele Forde has been an important special teams player. The Ducks have dealt with missing players all season long because of injuries and they're using the next man up motto with these suspensions. And they're hoping that the next man up for these two guys will help them tonight.

CORNISH: And Tom, as you mentioned, Ohio State missing a key player; specifically, their starting quarterback. Now, I take it their third-string quarterback is now their starter?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, exactly. The last two games Cardale Jones has been fantastic. Interestingly, before the last couple of games, he was best known for a tweet in which he spoke an uncomfortable truth about big-time college sports. He said, essentially, we don't go to school to go to classes. We go to play football. Well, now he is playing football. He's doing it very well. He hasn't looked like a third-stringer so far. It's going to be up to Oregon to see if they can make him look like that.

CORNISH: Tom, you've covered Super Bowls, you've been to a ton of big football games. Is this a success, this first national championship game under the new playoff system?

GOLDMAN: Oh, it's been a rousing success, Audie. And I think, you know, tonight is going to be even bigger. The two New Year's Day semi-final games - Oregon beating Florida State and Ohio State beating Alabama - the ratings were off the charts. The ratings were even greater than the BCS championship game the year before - that was the old college football system - and even bigger than the 2014 March Madness final in college basketball, so this has been a rousing success. The New Year games generated some tremendous excitement that's gone on for the last 10 days and it's going to culminate here in Arlington. And I'm expecting this to be a real exciting atmosphere. It'll be Super Bowl-like, but beyond the Super Bowl because the Super Bowl is very corporate. That element is here, but you're also going to have the passion that you get with college football, so it'll be a thriller.

CORNISH: Tom, thanks so much, and stay warm.

GOLDMAN: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman talking about tonight's college football championship between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Oregon Ducks in Arlington, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.