Examining which under-the-radar players could be crucial to deciding the national title
Alabama and Clemson are set to square off Monday night in Santa Clara with the national championship at stake. There’s no shortage of interesting matchups to watch in this game, as both teams bring high-powered offenses and standout defenses to the West Coast. However, while all of the pregame focus is likely to fall on Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa or Clemson signal-caller Trevor Lawrence, a couple of x-factors for each team could decide who wins this game.
While all eyes will be on Lawrence, Tagovailoa, Quinnen Williams, Christian Wilkins and a few of the other high-profile players, a couple of under-the-radar players always break out with performances that could help decide the winner of the national championship. Which players could be an x-factor on Monday? Here are 10 candidates to watch:
10 X-Factors for Alabama and Clemson in the National Championship
Joseph Bulovas, K, Alabama
Field goals and extra points have been an adventure at times this season for Alabama. However, since the Crimson Tide haven’t played in many close games, as last-minute field goal wasn’t needed. Could that change on Monday night? Additionally, Clemson’s defense won’t be afraid to bend a little but force Alabama to take three points instead of touchdowns in the red zone. Bulovas has connected on 13 of 17 kicks this fall but missed two attempts in the 30-39-yard range.
Lester Cotton, OL, Alabama
With Deonte Brown suspended, Cotton will once again start at left guard on Monday night. Cotton has played in 13 games and made nine starts this season, so experience certainly isn’t an issue. However, against the tackle tandem of Albert Huggins and Christian Wilkins, he will be tested early and often versus the Tigers.
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Etienne rushed for 1,572 yards and 22 touchdowns this year and averaged a whopping 8.3 yards per carry. His ability to take any rush for a score is no secret for Alabama’s defense, but Etienne was largely held in check in the win over Notre Dame. The sophomore gashed the Fighting Irish for a 62-yard run but was limited to 47 yards on the other 13 carries. In Clemson’s last two games against Alabama, the ground game has been held to a combined total of 155 rushing yards. Will Etienne find enough running room against this defense to keep quarterback Trevor Lawrence out of third-and-long situations all night?
Mark Fields, CB, Clemson
Fields did not play due to injury in Clemson’s win over Notre Dame, but as the No. 3 cornerback against a prolific Alabama offense, he will be needed on Monday night. How close is Fields to full strength?
Christian Miller, LB, Alabama
Miller is a key cog on Alabama’s linebacker unit, recording 11.5 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks through 14 contests. However, Miller suffered a hamstring injury in the win over Oklahoma and is questionable to go on Monday night. If Miller can’t play, the Crimson Tide would have to shuffle their linebackers, which could force Dylan Moses to slide from the interior to the outside.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Alabama’s secondary is going to have its hands full against big-play threats Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers on the outside. With those three players drawing attention downfield, Renfrow could see his share of opportunities over the middle of the field. The senior caught seven passes for 88 yards and two scores against the Crimson Tide in 2015 and posted 10 catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns in ’16. Renfrow was held in check (five receptions for 31 yards) last season versus Alabama.
John Simpson/Justin Falcinelli/Gage Cervenka, OL, Clemson
Simpson, Falcinelli and Cervenka are the three projected starters on the interior for Monday night’s matchup. Their performance will be critical to keeping quarterback Trevor Lawrence upright in the pocket, as all three will likely have a hand in battling Alabama nose guard Quinnen Williams.
Irv Smith, TE, Alabama
Clemson’s defense hasn’t played a ton of talented tight ends this season, and at 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, Smith is a tough matchup for opposing defenders. The junior is averaging 16.7 yards per catch and enters Monday’s game with 40 receptions for 667 yards and seven scores this year.
Patrick Surtain, CB, Alabama
Surtain has been a steady player as a freshman for Alabama’s secondary this season, collecting 36 stops, one interception and six pass breakups in 14 contests. However, after an uneven performance in the Orange Bowl, Surtain is going to be frequently tested by Clemson’s standout receiving corps. How will the freshman perform on the biggest stage of the season?
Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
Clemson’s defensive line is the best in college football. In addition to a standout group of starters, coordinator Brent Venables’ line also has quality depth. Thomas is one of those reserves to watch, as the true freshman has flashed potential with 10 tackles for a loss in limited snaps. Thomas’ speed off the edge could be a valuable asset for the Tigers in the second half or as Venables looks to give his starters a rest.