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Saturday Sports: College football championship weekend; Nadal's comeback, MLS playoffs

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

And it is time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: College football playoffs - good luck choosing four. A tennis legend returns to the court, and the MLS Conference Finals. Michele Steele of ESPN joins us now. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE STEELE: Good morning, Asma.

KHALID: So it is championship weekend in college football. It is the last chance to impress the College Football Playoff committee for those top four playoff spots. And last night, the Washington Huskies defeated the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game. They seem to be certain to make the playoffs, but we also have Texas, Florida State, Alabama playing tonight. Help me sort of understand what's going on. I mean, is it fair to call this year's selection process chaotic?

STEELE: The short answer is yes. And first, we should definitely congratulate the unbeaten Washington Huskies outlasting Oregon, as you mentioned. It was a nail-biter last night. The Huskies are essentially locked into one of just four college football playoff spots, and all those will be announced tomorrow at noon. Now, the issue here, Asma, is a math equation. There are eight teams that either have no losses or just one loss. Now, they have a shot, a good shot, at being in the final Four, and that's where the chaos comes in - right? - especially if we see an upset tonight in the Georgia-Alabama SEC title game where Georgia's favored or in the Michigan-Iowa Big Ten championship game.

Now, Georgia and Michigan will be in the playoff if they take care of business. Question here is undefeated Florida State - you mentioned them. They're playing Louisville in the ACC championship, but there's some speculation that the College Football Playoff committee snubs FSU after their star quarterback suffered a serious leg injury last month, because availability of key players is also taken into consideration by this committee. So Texas, Ohio State - there's hope, Asma.

KHALID: All right, so shifting gears, tennis legend Rafael Nadal is making a comeback to the world of tennis. The 37-year-old Spaniard announced this week that he'll be playing at the Brisbane International tournament next January. And he has been out of action for quite some time, for the past 11 months, after dealing with a hip injury at the Australian Open. Michele, this is widely expected to be his final year as pro. What do you think?

STEELE: Yeah, it's sad. You know, for those of us who love the tennis Big Three era, Nadal is going to be...

KHALID: Yeah.

STEELE: ...A must-watch this upcoming year. He's won 22 Grand Slams, right? He does not want to go out on an injury. In a press conference, he announced in an emotional video that he posted to social media he's going to be back in January in Australia after sustaining a hip flexor injury there last January at the Australian Open. Now he's had surgery on that hip. He wants to be competitive next season because he is planning for that to be his ultimate final year in tennis - professional tennis. And like I said, if you loved watching Fed...

KHALID: I know.

STEELE: ...If you loved watching Rafa - yep, yeah, I know you're a tennis player.

KHALID: He's one of the most beautiful players to watch, Rafael Nadal.

STEELE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

KHALID: I really hope we get to see some good tennis.

STEELE: Absolutely. And I think that you will. And, you know, you have to hope to catch a match when he's in the U.S. next year for sure.

KHALID: All right. Finally, let's talk soccer. The MLS Conference Finals are tonight. What can we expect?

STEELE: Yeah. So Cincinnati plays Columbus for the Eastern Conference, and LAFC plays Houston in the West. FC Cincinnati is playing the most important match in the history of their franchise because they're pretty newcomer to MLS. They just joined in 2019, and they are hosting the Columbus Crew. It's going to be a battle of Ohio, so to speak, and at least those Bengals fans have something to root for after Joe Burrow went down with an injury recently. In the West, the always relevant LAFC hosting the Houston Dynamo. Now, here's the interesting thing here, Asma - how Houston has struggled on the road this season. They only won three away games during the regular season, but one of those three - LAFC. So a chance to play for the MLS Cup on the line tonight for these games - should be a lot of fun and especially in Ohio. Both of those offenses - very high-powered. Could be a high-scoring game.

KHALID: All right. Michele Steele of ESPN, thanks for joining us.

STEELE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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