Alabama and Clemson will meet on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. to decide the 2015-16 college football national championship. Both teams earned convincing wins in the playoffs, setting the stage for an intriguing matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium. There’s no shortage of star power for the Tigers and Crimson Tide in this game. Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finishing third. In addition to Henry and Watson, players like Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and Alabama lineman A’Shawn Robinson are just a few of the superstars taking the field on Monday night.
While Henry, Watson and the other All-America or all-conference players from Alabama and Clemson are critical to the outlook of either team’s chances of winning the national title, there are always a few x-factors that deliver a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine 10 potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 11.
10 X-Factors for the 2016 College Football National Championship
Jake Coker, QB, Alabama
With Michigan State’s strength in the trenches and a gameplan to stop running back Derrick Henry in the Cotton Bowl, coordinator Lane Kiffin asked more of Coker. The Crimson Tide came out throwing against the Spartans, and Coker responded by completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. The performance in the Cotton Bowl continued a string of solid performances by Coker. He’s tossed zero interceptions over the last four games and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in 10 straight contests. Considering the strength of Clemson’s defense in the front seven and its ability to stop the run, Alabama might have to throw or open up the offense more than it prefers. Can Coker pick up where he left off in the Cotton Bowl?
Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama
It’s no secret the focus of Alabama’s backfield is with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. But the Crimson Tide’s stable of running backs isn’t just a one-man show. Drake has the ability to be the lightning to Henry’s thunder. The senior averaged 5.4 yards per carry this season, recording 407 yards and a touchdown on 76 attempts. Drake was also a valuable weapon out of the backfield, catching 27 balls for 255 yards and a score. In the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State, Drake recorded 60 rushing yards on four carries and caught three passes. Don’t be surprised if Kiffin finds a way to get Drake more involved against the Tigers.
Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama
The secondary was Alabama’s biggest concern this preseason, but the defensive backfield finished fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense (up from 30th in 2014) and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 46.4 completion percentage in SEC games. Jones earned Cotton Bowl Most Outstanding Defensive Player honors after recording three tackles and one interception against Michigan State. Additionally, he scored on a 57-yard punt return in the third quarter. Not only is Jones critical to the success of Alabama’s pass defense, but his ability to change the game with one return is an underrated storyline to watch on Monday night.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, Howard is one of the most physically gifted tight ends in the nation. However, Howard only has 33 catches for 394 yards this season and has yet to reach the end zone. Could that change on Monday night? After two games – Auburn and Florida – with zero receptions, Howard recorded three for 59 yards against Michigan State. While Howard’s blocking is valuable, the junior should have opportunities to attack the middle of the field against Clemson.
Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Clemson’s offensive line returned only one starter this fall and entered the year as a question mark. The emergence of Hyatt at left tackle was a big reason why this group was one of the best in the nation by the end of 2015. The true freshman started all 14 games at left tackle for Clemson’s high-powered offense and helped to lead the way for a line that allowed only 16 sacks in 14 contests. Hyatt more than held his own in 2015, but Monday night’s matchup against Alabama in the national championship will be his toughest assignment this season. Will Hyatt win the battles against A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen and keep quarterback Deshaun Watson upright in the pocket?
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
If quarterback Jake Coker is the biggest x-factor for Alabama, Lawson is the No. 1 pick for Clemson. The junior was among the nation’s best at defensive end this season, recording 10.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for a loss. However, just how healthy is Lawson? The junior suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma and may not recover to full strength by Monday night. If Lawson plays, how effective can he be against a stout Alabama offensive line? And if Lawson is limited or can’t play, will Kevin Dodd, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin match his production?
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
Mobile quarterbacks seem to provide the most headaches for Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s defenses at Alabama. While Smart and Saban have made a few tweaks to combat spread offenses, containing Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a tough assignment for the Crimson Tide defense. In addition to throwing for 3,699 yards and 31 scores this year, Watson added 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The sophomore recorded at least 100 rushing yards in five out of the last six games. Will Alabama utilize a spy to contain Watson in the pocket? The Crimson Tide should be able to generate pressure with its defensive line, allowing the linebackers to make plays in space or devote attention to keeping Watson from hitting the edges. Ragland is one of college football’s top linebackers, and as the anchor in the middle, he will play a key role in getting Alabama’s defense aligned against Clemson’s spread attack.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Clemson’s receiving corps suffered a setback when big-play threat Deon Cain (17.1 ypc) was suspended for the Orange Bowl and national championship. With Cain sidelined, the Tigers needed some of other options to step up and take some of the pressure off of leading receiver Artavis Scott. Renfrow delivered a clutch performance against Oklahoma, catching four passes for 59 yards and one touchdown. With Scott expected to draw a lot of attention from the Crimson Tide secondary, Renfrow should see more opportunities on Monday night.
JK Scott, P, Alabama
Scott is one of the nation’s top punters and a weapon on special teams for Alabama in the battle for field position. The sophomore averaged 44.4 yards per kick in 2015, placed 22 of his 63 punts inside of the 20 and boomed 20 kicks for 50 yards or more. Scott averaged 46.5 yards per punt on six tries against Michigan State, placing four of those inside of the 20. If Scott is able to consistently pin Clemson’s offense in bad field position, that’s a huge advantage for Alabama.
Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
Mackensie Alexander is one of the top cornerbacks in the nation, and the sophomore could be matched on Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley on Monday night. If Alexander takes on Ridley, that leaves Tankersley against ArDarius Stewart or Richard Mullaney. While the Crimson Tide needs to get the ball in Ridley’s hands, don’t expect quarterback Jake Coker to test Alexander too often. Instead, Coker could utilize Stewart and Mullaney more, attacking Tankersley and the other Clemson cornerbacks. According to CFBFilmRoom.com, Tankersley allowed four completions on seven targets against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.