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College football prepares for bowl season

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The college football post-season is about to get underway - everything from the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl, to perhaps lesser-known fare like the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. For many, the real focus will be on the College Football Playoff games to determine the best D1, the best Division I team in the country. For a look at what is ahead, we've got Nicole Auerbach, senior writer for The Athletic. Hey, Nicole.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Hey, thanks for having me.

KELLY: Let's begin with the vast number of bowl games. There are more than 40. And I know schools depend on these games for financial boost, but why has the system evolved in this way?

AUERBACH: Because people watch them. ESPN puts them on. Everyone always argues, there's too many bowls, there's too many bowls. Well, the viewership would say no. People are going to watch this. They'd rather watch this than college basketball. They'd rather watch this than other things that they could possibly be watching.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's get to the playoff, which, as I mentioned, is going to be, for a lot of people, what they want to watch. There are four teams, and I'm going to let you walk us through and give us a little bit of a tip sheet for what you are watching for. Perennial favorites - Alabama, they are - and they are the No. 1 seed. They're playing the No. 4 seed, Cincinnati, and that's a little bit of a surprise. Tell us about Cincinnati and how they got there.

AUERBACH: Cincinnati Bearcats are the first team from a Group of Five league, so that is a league that is not the SEC and the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12. And they're, you know, kind of the underdogs. They became the first Group of Five team to make the playoff by going undefeated. They have a win over a Top Five team in Notre Dame. And they got a lot of help. Other perennial powers are not in the playoff this year, so this is the typical David and Goliath game, right? Because we've got a David finally into the playoff. And of course, it's against Alabama. Of course, Alabama is the No. 1 overall seed.

KELLY: So does Cincinnati have a chance?

AUERBACH: Absolutely they have a chance. I mean, this is something that, you know, detractors would say, you know, we're just going to watch a Group of Five team get blown out if they made the playoff. Well, there have been a lot of blowouts in the semifinal round in the playoff era. So if it happens, it happens. Alabama - we've seen the ceiling. They played the best game of the season just recently against Georgia in the SEC Championship game, but this is a team that has been wildly inconsistent all season. And if Alabama is not firing on all cylinders, they absolutely have a chance to win this game.

KELLY: Speaking of Georgia, wander with me over to the other side of the bracket. We have Georgia and we have the Big Ten champion, Michigan. Who's your money on there?

AUERBACH: Georgia is coming off a shellacking. They were totally exposed against Alabama. This is the team that we thought was the best team in the country, hands down, so dominant, and it's caused us to question, well, who did they really beat? So fans of Georgia are nervous about this. They're riding high a few weeks ago, and it just feels like someone popped the balloon.

The opposite is Michigan. Michigan is a team that no one expected to make the playoff. Jim Harbaugh had not beaten Ohio State, had not won a Big Ten title, had not made the College Football Playoff over the course of his tenure, and everything has gone right. They have just steamrolled their last two opponents. So they're coming into this with a lot of confidence and really playing with house money here, again, because no one expected Michigan to be in this position. So I think this is going to be a fascinating game, and you could not have picked two programs coming in with totally different levels of motivation, direction. Could not feel better about your team, if you're a Michigan fan, and you could not feel shakier about your team if you're a Georgia fan.

KELLY: Are you allowed to say who you are hoping to cover and report on in the title game?

AUERBACH: I - honestly, this is one of the years where I am happy to cover any of these matchups, any order of these games, because it's so compelling. Certainly, if Cincinnati were to win a game, I think that puts this playoff and this season in a totally different stratosphere in terms of college football history.

KELLY: Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic, thanks so much.

AUERBACH: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.