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College Football Playoff final a welcome change and likely ratings bonanza

Evan Spencer of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates

Evan Spencer of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates a 13 yard touchdown pass thrown to Michael Thomas late in the second quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the All State Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Jan. 1, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Getty Images / Sean Gardner

ESPN did not exist until 1979, thus missing its opportunity to televise the first NCAA basketball final, between Oregon and Ohio State, by 40 years.

But patience is a virtue, and on Monday, the Worldwide Leader will be all over the rematch.

Actually, ESPN already is all over the first College Football Playoff national championship game, giving the event the sort of weeklong hype usually associated with pro football's biggest game.

But Monday night itself will be a milestone, not only in the history of major college football but of major college football on television.

While there were championship games under the old BCS since late last millennium, the Jan. 1 semifinals under the new system demonstrated that America is excited about it.

Those semifinal games each averaged more than 28 million viewers, the two biggest cable television audiences ever.

Given the momentum generated by those games, an attractive matchup and the shiny newness of the format, it is a given that the finale will set a new cable record and a probability that it will surpass the biggest audience of the BCS era.

The 2006 Rose Bowl, a thriller between Texas and USC, averaged 35.6 million viewers and 21.7 percent of homes on ABC, ESPN's broadcast sibling. If Monday's game is close, Oregon and Ohio State should beat that easily.

(The biggest audience for a BCS game on ESPN was 27.3 million for Oregon vs. Auburn in 2011.)

Analyst Kirk Herbstreit said it was strange after the Rose and Sugar Bowls to have them be seen as steppingstones rather than destinations -- but not in a bad way.

"We're used to all covering these big bowl games, thinking, 'Hey, it was a great run. On to college basketball,' " he said. "Now here we are getting ready to all head to [Texas] and watch these two teams that looked so good last week play again. I think the momentum is very exciting and very different."

Under the old system, Alabama likely would have faced Florida State for the championship after a hiatus of more than a month. Under this system, there are only 11 days between games, and an entirely different, well-earned matchup.

It's not perfect, certainly. But in the context of a century of college football silliness, it is a welcome step toward competitive logic.

Another wrinkle that in theory could help in less traditional college football neighborhoods such as New York: In an extreme rarity, there is no team from the South involved in the sport's biggest game.

"It's arrived with a twist; the new era symbolic of the shift away from Southern teams in the championship game, too, is something fun," play-by-play man Chris Fowler said.

(By the way, New York's rating was dead last among 56 markets Nielsen measures for the Rose Bowl and 54th for the Sugar.)

Among the other appealing elements of Monday's matchup is the likelihood of plenty of points, perhaps enough to surpass the 79 scored in Oregon's 46-33 victory in the 1939 basketball final.

"Personally, I hope it's not 22-19," Fowler said. "I'd take a close game, but I'd like to see both offenses execute the way they're capable. Not to say that I want to see 52-50. That's a bit much."

Herbstreit agreed. "I think it's almost becoming like Arena Football," he said. "I'm not a fan of games that are 55-48 with over a thousand yards combined passing . . .

"Right now is it exciting? Yes. Is it fun to watch Oregon go really fast? Absolutely.

"In the big picture, when everybody is doing this, is it healthy for the sport? Absolutely not, in my opinion."

There is little debate about whether the new format is good for the sport. After decades of chatter, Americans will vote with their TV remotes about whether they like it, and there isn't much doubt what they will say.

Herbstreit recalled "all the debate about whether or not a four-team playoff was possible, is it good, is it right, the committee, did they blow it, did they do it right?"

Then he considered the reality that the talk soon will turn into action and said, "It's almost surreal."

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