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Big changes are coming to college football ahead of the sport's playoff expansion


The college football season kicks off tomorrow. And if you haven't been paying close attention, you're in for quite the surprise. The off season was a period of transformation. Legacy conferences like the Pac-12 are on life support after schools like UCLA and USC left. Schools will compete on new stations and streaming platforms thanks to billion-dollar TV contracts. There were even rule changes to how the clock will run. It's all happening one year before the College Football Playoff expands from four teams to 12. Nicole Auerbach has been covering all of this for The Athletic and NBC Sports. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: You know, the off season used to be your slow period. What happened?

AUERBACH: Well, it's busier than the season because you've had congressional input. You've had Supreme Court rulings. You've had all sorts of stuff that's affected the business of college sports, which has led to this realignment and name, image and likeness changes. It's been nonstop.

SHAPIRO: So can you break down how things moved so fast just in these last few months and why?

AUERBACH: Ultimately it comes down to money, and it comes down to people's anxiety about their own futures. And the Big Ten and the SEC are going to be bringing in so much more money than even their peer conferences that people have been essentially begging to get invited to the Big Ten or the SEC. All of this was really kicked off when Oklahoma and Texas left the Big 12 for the SEC. The rest of the musical chairs has essentially been in response to that. But the Pac-12 implosion earlier this summer was because they did not have a suitable media rights deal. And their schools revolted, believing that they would not be able to compete at the highest levels against their peers in the richer conferences if they had the deal with Apple that was presented to them. So at that point, the schools that had options to leave left. So you had Arizona, Arizona State and Utah go to the Big 12 and Washington and Oregon go to the Big Ten.

SHAPIRO: OK. So that's the big picture. I want to talk specifically about the Georgia Bulldogs because they won back-to-back national championships. And since then, the team has had at least a dozen incidents of reckless driving and speeding. A team member and staffer were even killed in a crash. How is that likely to affect their chances of repeating their success this season?

AUERBACH: Well, I don't know that it will affect what we're seeing on the field because Georgia's schedule leaves something to be desired. I think the expectation for sure is that they will be undefeated heading into the College Football Playoff. But there have been a lot of questions, and I'll be fascinated to see what disciplinary procedures are in place for reckless driving in particular. This has been a problem not just at Georgia, but it is definitely under a microscope there. And you've got to think that there would be some real punishment to actually deter and change behavior there because this is just awful. And you would think that having a player die and a staffer die would be enough. But we'll have to see. Again, I don't know that it would necessarily impact what they will do on the field unless players are withheld from competition.

SHAPIRO: Well, on the field, if Georgia looks as strong as ever, what teams do you think are well-suited to possibly challenge them this year?

AUERBACH: Michigan is a team that we've seen make the playoffs the last couple of years and should be the best team that Jim Harbaugh has had yet. Ohio State - always right there. You've got Texas, questions about whether or not they can be back. Clemson has a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. And then really, there's a handful of teams out west in the last year of the Pac-12 as we know it that could really break through and end the drought that that league has had. USC, Oregon, Washington could be among the contenders there. So it's actually more of a wide open field than usual.

SHAPIRO: The season is long, and it hasn't even started. So I'm not going to hold you to this, but who's your money on to make it to Houston for the championship?

AUERBACH: I think I'm going to go with the Georgia Bulldogs. They're trying to three-peat. This is insanely hard to do, but the way the schedule falls, I'd be shocked if they're not in the College Football Playoff. They are so deep and so talented because of how Kirby Smart has recruited. And I'm going to say that they're going to be facing the Michigan Wolverines. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy should take the next step in his development to go with a great bruising run game and a great defense. So I think we're going to see a rematch of a matchup we saw a couple years ago between these two teams. Georgia got the better of Michigan. But I think that's where we're headed, and I think it would be a fantastic season finale.

SHAPIRO: Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic and NBC Sports. Thanks a lot.

AUERBACH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.