Alabama and Clemson meet on Monday, Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl with a trip to Atlanta, Ga. and a berth in the national championship up for grabs. This is the third consecutive year the Tigers and Crimson Tide have met in the postseason but the first of the matchups to take place outside of the national title game. Both teams return a good chunk of talent from last season's squad, including Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, receiver Calvin Ridley and defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. On the Clemson sideline, Kelly Bryant has been solid in replacing quarterback Deshaun Watson, and the defense is arguably the best in college football. The Tigers are stacked with talent in the trenches, including tackle Christian Wilkins and end Clelin Ferrell.
While all eyes will be on Hurts, Bryant, Wilkins, Fitzpatrick, Ridley 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 Sugar Bowl. Which players could be an x-factor on Monday? Here are five candidates to watch:
5 X-Factors for Alabama and Clemson in the Sugar Bowl
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Alabama led the SEC in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 94.1 yards a game in 2017. The Crimson Tide held opposing rushers to 2.76 yards a carry and allowed only eight rushing scores this fall. While those numbers showcase how tough Alabama’s defense is against the run, teams have found success attacking the line of scrimmage late in the year. Nick Saban’s defense allowed just one opponent to surpass more than 100 rushing yards through the first eight games. However, Alabama gave up over 100 rushing yards to each of its last four contests. This defense limited rushers to 3.3 yards a carry in that span, but teams were finding room to run. Freshman running back Travis Etienne finished the regular season as Clemson’s leading rusher, averaging 7.2 yards a carry on just 103 attempts. Despite the limited workload, Etienne posted 744 yards, 13 touchdown runs and tied for fifth in the ACC with four runs of 40 yards or more. Can Etienne get on track against Alabama’s front seven? And will the freshman produce any big plays?
Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
It’s no secret Calvin Ridley is Alabama’s No. 1 receiver. Ridley caught 55 of Alabama’s 171 pass attempts and accounted for 896 of 2,401 receiving yards. There was a steep drop to the No. 2 option on the stat sheet, as Jeudy, Cam Sims and tight end Irv Smith Jr. each tied for second place at 13 receptions. With the month to prepare for the Sugar Bowl, could a freshman like Jeudy take a significant step forward and become a bigger part of the offense? As his 18.7 average on receptions shows, Jeudy can be a big-play threat on the outside for quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
As the team leader in receptions, Renfrow isn’t flying under the radar for Alabama’s defense. Additionally, the junior has had his way with the Crimson Tide secondary over the last two years. Renfrow caught 10 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns in last season’s win and grabbed seven receptions for 88 yards and two scores in the 2015 title game. Will Alabama’s defense have an answer for Renfrow this time around? Or will Renfrow continue to have his way with the Crimson Tide secondary on short or intermediate passes?
Alex Spence, K, Clemson
Clemson’s special teams suffered a setback when kicker Greg Huegel suffered a torn ACL in a late September practice. Junior Alex Spence has filled in as the starting option since that injury, connecting on 7 of 12 attempts and 41 of 43 extra point conversions. However, Spence has connected on just two of seven attempts from 30 yards or more. How will coach Dabo Swinney play fourth downs once his offense crosses into Alabama territory? Will the Tigers be aggressive and go for it on fourth down? Or will the coaching staff trust Spence to connect on long field goals?
Mack Wilson/Christian Miller/Terrell Lewis, LB, Alabama
Let’s group these three Alabama linebackers into one spot. Wilson, Miller and Lewis each missed time due to injury in 2017 but are expected to return to full strength on Jan. 1. The addition of all three players into the linebacking corps is even more essential after Dylan Moses suffered a broken foot in practice leading up to the Sugar Bowl. Wilson is slated to replace Moses on the interior, with Lewis and Miller helping on the outside. The return of Lewis and Miller should help a pass rush that managed 31 sacks in the regular season – down from 54 in 2016.