DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, there is a new, albeit, pretty familiar school at the top of college football. Alabama beat Clemson last night 45-40 in a dramatic national championship game. Alabama won its fourth title in the last seven years. Despite the seeming inevitability of Crimson Tide football, it was a pretty thrilling back-and-forth contest that featured the most combined points in a national title game. And for one night, at least, it turned the football conversation away from the NFL. And let's about this with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So wasn't this supposed to be an absolute blowout? And Alabama was just going to run away with this? Didn't happen.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, actually, and I think it changed some minds. You know, the best antidote to all the grumbling about this game leading up to it was going to be a great game, and it was - exciting plays, lots of momentum swings, as you mentioned. It was a score fest. Contrary to all the predictions that it would be a low-scoring defensive struggle, that Alabama would grind out a win, leaning heavily on its rushing attack led by Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry. Now he certainly delivered 158 yards, three touchdowns. But the Crimson Tide passing game flourished, too. Quarterback Jake Coker connected with tight end O.J. Howard on a couple of 50-yard touchdown pass plays. And on the Clemson side, quarterback Deshaun Watson was as fantastic as advertised - four touchdown passes, more than 400 yards passing, 70 yards rushing.
GREENE: I mean that's - he's doing everything.
GREENE: Did this quiet the grumbling over the new playoff format in college football? I mean, did it finally put an end to that?
GOLDMAN: You know, many still think the two semifinal games held on New Year's Eve was a bad scheduling idea and that the championship game wasn't the best time either. Played right after the first weekend of the NFL playoffs, when football fans were still buzzing about the NFL. And, of course, there's still hope that the four-team playoff expands soon. But yeah. Today at least, the talk is about a great game and Nick Saban's fifth national championship.
GREENE: Well, as you said, it's been hard to figure out what to talk about, college football or the NFL since they're going on at the same time. And that - as you know, I'm a Steelers fan. That Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game was nasty.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, absolutely. It was ugly. And the man at the center of the ugliness, Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict will pay for it. Late yesterday, Burfict was suspended the first three games of the next regular season without pay. You know, he's a very talented player but one of those guys who can't always control the aggression, as we saw Saturday when he drove his shoulder into the head of a defenseless Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown.
GREENE: And as much as I hate to say it, though, I mean there were flagrant hits on both sides.
GOLDMAN: Oh, right. The officials didn't seem to do enough policing during the game. They penalized Burfict but did nothing, as you say, when a Pittsburgh defender used his helmet to ram a Cincinnati running back in the head, resulting in a concussion for that running back. You know, the head coaches didn't do enough to maintain control of their players and their assistant coaches. And even the media bears some responsibility for hyping up the bad blood between these teams before the game.
GREENE: And doesn't this say something about the sport right now? I mean, the NFL's so criticized for allowing these types of hits. The NFL has spoken out saying they want to reduce them, but the reality is - I mean, fans like hard hits, and it really can drive ratings.
GOLDMAN: They like hard hits. And in fact, you know, according to Nielsen, the TV ratings for the weekend's first-round games - and there were two games after the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game Saturday night - those ratings were up 11 percent from last year. Now whether it was the violence that drove the ratings, I'm not so sure we can say that, but it certainly didn't inhibit people from watching football.
And yes, in this era of great sensitivity to - on the concussion issue, you know, you have incidents like this. And it just shows that, as much as the NFL says, at least, that it wants to police the game, they're just some times when the violence spills over, and you can't control it.
GREENE: All right NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thanks as always, Tom.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome, David.
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