Who are the x-factors that could decide the national championship?
College football’s 2017-18 national championship is up for grabs on Monday night, as Alabama and Georgia meet in Atlanta in a matchup of SEC foes. As with any big matchup, the stars are expected to shine. Georgia is led by running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, with linebacker Roquan Smith earning first-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports this year. On the Alabama sideline, quarterback Jalen Hurts and running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough headline the offense, and standout safety Minkah Fitzpatrick leads the way for a suffocating defense.
While Chubb, Smith, Fitzpatrick and Hurts will be under the spotlight to perform, who are the under-the-radar players that could deliver a clutch performance on Monday night? Here are 10 (plus a bonus pick) x-factors to watch in the national title game:
10 X-Factors for Alabama and Georgia in the National Championship
Jeb Blazevich/Isaac Nauta, TE, Georgia
The Bulldogs will be down one tight end on Monday night, as sophomore Charlie Woerner is out due to a leg injury suffered against Oklahoma. Woerner only caught nine passes in 14 games, but the sophomore was a valuable blocker. With Woerner out, more snaps for Blazevich and Nauta are in order. This duo has combined for just 11 receptions so far, but both players will be essential to blocking the standout Alabama defensive front on Monday night. Can this duo keep pass rushers away from quarterback Jake Fromm and open up holes for running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel?
Rodrigo Blankenship, K, Georgia/Andy Pappanastos, Alabama
Scoring points on every possession in opponent’s territory will be essential on Monday night. Considering how even these two teams are and the defensive prowess, this game won’t be a shootout. With that in mind, the kickers will be under the spotlight. Blankenship nailed two of three attempts, including a 55-yard bomb in the Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma. Pappanastos connected on a 24-yarder but missed a 38-yard attempt in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. For the season, Blankenship nailed 17 of 20 attempts, with Pappanastos hitting on 16 of 21. Blankenship has eight connections of 40 or more yards, and Pappanastos has connected on just four attempts of that length. If Georgia can get into Alabama territory, Blankenship could be a valuable weapon to hit on long-yardage attempts.
Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Fromm was mentioned as an x-factor prior to the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma. As was the case in the regular season, the moment was never too big for the true freshman. Fromm completed 20 of 29 throws for 210 yards and two touchdowns against the Sooners, which included a couple of clutch connections with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. With Alabama likely to load the box and stop Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Fromm may need to throw on early downs to loosen up the front seven. There’s no reason to doubt Fromm after his performance all year, but this is his toughest test of the 2017 season.
As indicated in the next writeup, one of the top x-factors in this game is likely to be Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and how often he makes plays on the ground. In order for Georgia to limit Hurts on the ground and keep the sophomore in the pocket, the linebackers need to have a big performance. On paper, that shouldn’t be a problem. Middle linebacker Roquan Smith was one of college football’s top defensive players this season, while edge players Lorenzo Carter (57 tackles) and Devin Bellamy (31) have combined for 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2017. Smith could be used to spy the middle to keep Hurts in the pocket, while Bellamy and Carter will have to maintain the edge.
Mobility of Alabama QB Jalen Hurts, QB
Considering how dominant Alabama’s rushing attack and defense has been this season, Hurts didn’t need to throw 30 times a game. The sophomore averaged only 18.9 passes a game, throwing for 2,060 yards and 17 touchdowns. Efficiency is critical for coach Nick Saban’s quarterback, as he connected on 61.4 percent of his throws and tossed only one interception. Hurts will need to make a few plays through the air to win on Monday night, but the biggest x-factor for the Crimson Tide offense could be his mobility. The sophomore is the team’s second-leading rusher with 808 yards and eight scores this year. He rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries against Clemson and had 63 on 10 attempts in last season’s national championship against the Tigers. Can Hurts continue to play mistake-free ball when he throws? And when plays break down inside of the pocket, can Hurts scramble for first downs or make plays downfield? Hurts’ mobility is going to be key for Alabama to win on Monday night.
Christian Miller, LB, Alabama
With Anfernee Jennings sidelined due to an injury suffered in the Sugar Bowl, Miller is likely to earn a start at one of the outside linebacker spots for coach Nick Saban. The junior was poised to take on a significant role in the defense this year but an injury suffered in the opener against Florida State kept him out of action until the Iron Bowl against Auburn. Miller recorded one tackle against the Tigers and contributed one stop against Clemson last Monday night. Jennings was a force off the edge (3 TFL) against the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl. Can Miller replicate that production on passing downs versus Georgia?
Cameron Nizialek/JK Scott, P, Alabama
Points are expected to be at a premium on Monday night. The over/under total is 45, and these two defenses are among the best in the nation at fewest points allowed per game. With few offensive fireworks expected, field position is going to be valuable. Both punters have performed well this year and had solid performances in the CFB Playoff. Nizialek averaged 44.9 yards a punt, had 26 of his 55 punts caught by fair catch and 25 were placed inside of the 20 this season. Scott averaged 42.4 yards per kick, with 25 of his punts placed inside of the 20. Additionally, 25 of Scott’s punts were fair caught and 14 went by 50 or more yards. Field position could be crucial to the outcome of Monday night’s game.
Bonus: Da’Ron Payne, NG, Alabama
Payne is never going to post huge totals on the stat sheet, but he’s a key cog against Georgia’s rushing attack. As the nose guard, Payne is responsible for plugging the interior and allowing the linebackers to make plays in the backfield. Against a prolific ground game, Payne needs to win one-on-one battles for Alabama to slow down Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. And of course, we can’t forget Payne’s usage on offense in the Peach Bowl to catch a touchdown pass. Will the 300-pounder factor into the mix around the goal-line once again?