College football’s national championship game is all that remains of the 2016 season, and there’s no shortage of intrigue with Alabama and Clemson set for a rematch in Tampa, Fla. on Jan. 9. These two teams traded punches for 60 minutes in Glendale, Ariz. last year, with the Crimson Tide edging the Tigers in a 45-40 thriller. In last season’s game, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson torched Alabama’s defense for 405 yards and four scores. Stopping Watson is the top priority for Nick Saban’s defense once again, and the Crimson Tide can counter with All-American defenders Jonathan Allen (defensive end), Reuben Foster (linebacker) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (cornerback/safety). But the Crimson Tide isn't bringing just a standout defense to Tampa. Saban's team has a talented offense in place, which is led by true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. The dynamic freshman brings a different dimension to the field than last year's starter (Jake Coker) and is a big reason why Alabama's offense has made a quick transition to more of a spread, up-tempo approach. In addition to the talent at quarterback, both teams are among the nation’s best on defense, and there’s plenty of skill talent for the quarterbacks to utilize on Monday night.
While Watson, Hurts 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. 9.
10 X-Factors for Alabama and Clemson in the National Championship
10. Clelin Ferrell, DL, Clemson
Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Carlos Watkins were already established as some of the nation’s top defensive linemen going into the Fiesta Bowl matchup against Ohio State. However, this unit appears to be even more dangerous than anticipated before the CFB Playoff, as Ferrell wreaked havoc in the Fiesta Bowl by recording four tackles (three for a loss) and one sack. The redshirt freshman seems to be peaking at the right time and figures to be another tough matchup for an Alabama offensive line that surrendered 24 sacks this year.
8/9. Clemson and Alabama Special Teams
Let’s cheat a bit and list the special teams for both teams in this space. Last year’s 45-40 affair featured a couple of big plays on special teams for Alabama. Kenyan Drake scored on a 95-yard kickoff return, the Crimson Tide recovered an onside kick with the game tied at 31 in the fourth quarter and both kickers missed a field goal. Considering how tight last year’s game was and the close contest expected on Jan. 9, a play or two on special teams could be the deciding factor.
Alabama punter JK Scott is one of the best in college football, averaging 47.4 yards per punt. Kicker Adam Griffith has connected on 20 of 27 field goals. Losing Eddie Jackson was a setback for Alabama’s punt returns, but Trevon Diggs is averaging 23.7 yards per kickoff return and 10 yards on punt returns.
Improving special teams was a focus for coach Dabo Swinney after last year’s loss to Alabama, and this unit has been solid in 2016. The Tigers have an edge over the Crimson Tide on returns, as Ray-Ray McCloud (8.4 yards on punt returns) and Artavis Scott (22.9 yards per kickoff return) are dangerous options. Kicker Greg Huegel connected on 14 of 19 attempts this season, and punter Andy Teasdall placed 21 of his 53 punts inside of the 20 (38.0 average).
6/7. ArDarius Stewart/Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Alabama’s passing game was virtually invisible in the Peach Bowl win over Washington. Quarterback Jalen Hurts completed 7 of 14 passes for only 57 yards and no completion went longer than 16 yards. In the regular season, ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley combined to catch 118 of the Crimson Tide’s 251 completions. Stewart led the team with 852 receiving yards (52 catches) and eight scores, while Ridley led the offense in receptions (67) and caught seven touchdowns. After this duo combined for just one catch in the Peach Bowl, coordinator Steve Sarkisian has to do a better job of keeping both players involved on Jan. 9.
5. Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow
Alabama’s secondary is one of the nation’s stingiest groups against the pass, but this unit isn’t as deep as it has been in previous years. Stopping Mike Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett are the top priorities for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. However, Clemson’s receiving corps still features a big-play threat in Deon Cain (19.1 ypc), the team’s second-leading receiver in terms of catches Artavis Scott (73), Ray-Ray McCloud (49) and sure-handed Hunter Renfrow. The sophomore has 34 receptions for 403 yards and four touchdowns this season and gave Alabama’s secondary (seven catches for 88 yards and two scores) all it could handle in last year’s matchup. Clemson’s receiving corps is the deepest group the Crimson Tide have faced this year. How will this unit match Renfrow and some of the other secondary options outside of Williams and Leggett?
4. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
Finding running room against Alabama’s standout front seven isn’t going to be easy on Monday night. However, Clemson can’t completely forget about the ground game and allow the Crimson Tide’s pass rushers to load up against Deshaun Watson. Gallman has rushed for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and accumulated 106 total yards in last year’s matchup against Alabama. Can Gallman have more success on the ground (45 yards on 14 carries) than he did last season? The Tigers won’t need 100 yards from their junior back but hitting 60-80 yards would be a huge boost to the offense.
2/3. The Offensive Lines for Alabama and Clemson
It’s no secret most of the pregame attention will be focused on the two quarterbacks (Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts) or standout defenses by both programs. However, the trenches are where this game will be won or lost. Both offensive lines have experienced their share of ups and downs this year and will be facing some of the nation’s best talent in the trenches.
Clemson’s offensive line has surrendered 16 sacks through 14 games, while Alabama allowed 24 in the same amount of action. The Crimson Tide had a better yards per carry average (5.7) compared to the Tigers (4.5). However, some of Alabama’s per-carry average could receive a slight boost due to the running of quarterback Jalen Hurts.
A deeper look at both offensive lines from the advanced statistics on Football Outsiders shows a few weaknesses and advantages. Alabama ranks sixth in opportunity rate and 13th in adjusted line yards, and Clemson is fourth in adjusted line yards and second nationally in passing downs sack rate.
In terms of weaknesses, Alabama ranks 88th in stuff rate and 105th in its rating for pass blocking on standard downs. Clemson is 95th in power success rate, which helps to measure how many carries by running backs are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.
In terms of production, few defensive lines were better than Alabama or Clemson this season. The Crimson Tide generated 50 sacks (second nationally), with the Tigers ranking one spot behind at third nationally with 49 sacks. Clemson also finished second nationally with 123 tackles for a loss.
Can Clemson’s front five block Alabama’s standout front led by senior Jonathan Allen? And how effective will the Crimson Tide offensive line perform against an athletic and active front led by Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins on Monday night?
1. Steve Sarkisian, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
Sarkisian is the biggest x-factor and wild card storyline surrounding this game. With Nick Saban pushing Lane Kiffin to FAU a week earlier than anticipated, Sarkisian will make his debut as the team’s play-caller on Monday night. Sarkisian has worked with the Crimson Tide in an off-field role this season and was set to take over the play-calling duties in 2017. However, Sarkisian doesn’t have time to ease into this role and there’s no shortage of pressure for Monday night’s game. What tweaks, adjustments or differences will Sarkisian utilize that’s different from Kiffin?
Bonus: Quarterback Rushing Yards
Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled to get anything going through the air against Washington, but his running ability (50 yards on 19 carries) was a key cog in the offense. The emergence of Hurts has been critical for the Crimson Tide’s spread attack, as he ranks second on the team with 891 yards through 14 games. On the other sideline, Deshaun Watson (586 yards) hasn’t been as active on the ground as he was last year. In 2015, Watson rushed for 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns on 207 attempts. With Monday night’s game the last matchup of the season, both teams are going to utilize everything in the playbook. How many carries will Clemson give Watson in what is expected to be his last game with the Tigers? And when Hurts has the ball, how effective will he be on the ground against Clemson’s standout defense?