The College Football Playoff officially gets underway on Saturday afternoon with the Cotton Bowl matchup between Clemson and Notre Dame. The Tigers are nearly a two-touchdown favorite over the Fighting Irish, and it’s easy to see why coach Dabo Swinney’s team is projected to make it to Santa Clara for the national championship. Clemson possesses a deep line to anchor one of the top defenses in college football, while the offense is led by rising star quarterback Trevor Lawrence and All-American running back Travis Etienne. Notre Dame has been doubted this year and is an underdog for this matchup, but coach Brian Kelly’s team doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses and is certainly capable of pulling off the upset. For that to happen, the Fighting Irish need a big performance out of quarterback Ian Book, steady play from the offensive line, while the defense has to continue to limit big plays.
While all eyes will be on Lawrence, Etienne, Book, 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 Cotton Bowl. Which players could be an x-factor on Saturday? Here are five candidates to watch:
5 X-Factors for Clemson and Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl
Jafar Armstrong, RB, Notre Dame
Armstrong emerged as Notre Dame’s top running back while Dexter Williams was suspended for the first four games of the season. However, a knee issue and Williams’ return eventually pushed Armstrong back into a reserve role. He still ended the year with 377 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 12 passes for 151 yards over nine contests. Armstrong’s versatility and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield could be a huge asset as quarterback Ian Book looks to quickly get rid of the ball against Clemson’s standout defensive front.
Alohi Gilman, S, Notre Dame
Gilman has been an impact addition as a transfer from Navy this season. He ranks second on the team with 76 tackles (three for a loss) and has recorded two interceptions and three pass breakups. The Fighting Irish defense has allowed only five plays of 40 yards or more this season but will be tested by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a deep group of options at receiver. Gilman’s presence could be crucial in keeping the big plays to a minimum in the passing game.
Albert Huggins/Nyles Pinckney, DT, Clemson
Huggins and Pinckney are expected to replace Dexter Lawrence at defensive tackle. While neither is as established as Lawrence was, Huggins and Pinckney are capable players for coordinator Brent Venables. Both players recorded 24 tackles (3.5 for a loss), while Huggins chipped in 2.5 sacks during the regular season.
Alize Mack, TE, Notre Dame
Clemson’s secondary has been a little vulnerable this season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Notre Dame lean on quarterback Ian Book to win this matchup. At 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, Mack is a size mismatch for Clemson’s defensive backs in one-on-one matchups. Mack has caught 34 receptions for 349 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Renfrow has delivered clutch performances in Clemson’s previous trips to the CFB Playoff, so another standout game wouldn’t be a surprise on Saturday. The senior has caught 43 passes for 472 yards and a touchdown this season, and those numbers are slightly off his 2017 totals (60 catches for 602 yards and three scores). With Notre Dame focused on keeping the big plays to a minimum, could this be an opportunity for quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Renfrow to connect over the middle of the field?