Clemson and Ohio State meet on Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl with a trip to Tampa, Fla. and a berth in the national championship up for grabs. There’s no shortage of intrigue in Glendale, Ariz. when these two teams take the field, as this game was picked by many as the No. 1 matchup of bowl season. As if the playoff implications wasn’t enough, the Fiesta Bowl features some of college football’s top players. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was a Heisman finalist in back-to-back years, the receiving corps is arguably the best in the nation, and the defense is loaded with All-America players. On the other sideline, Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes is led by a dynamic three-headed attack on offense (J.T. Barrett, Curtis Samuel and Mike Weber), while a rebuilt defense didn’t miss a beat in 2016.
While all eyes will be on Watson, Barrett, Weber, Samuel, Dexter Lawrence 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 Fiesta Bowl. Which players could be an x-factor on Saturday? Here are five candidates to watch:
Five X-Factors for Ohio State and Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl
Nick Bosa, DL, Ohio State
Stopping Clemson’s high-powered attack starts in the trenches. While Ohio State has only 26 sacks in 2016, the defensive line isn’t hurting for talent. End Tyquan Lewis (7.5 sacks) garnered most of the attention in 2016, but Bosa could be the difference maker up front to watch on Saturday. While Bosa didn’t record a start, he received snaps in all 12 games, posted five sacks (second among Ohio State defenders), recorded three quarterback hurries and seven tackles for a loss. One game-changing play could make the difference in Saturday’s game. Keep an eye on Bosa’s production off the edge and how effective the freshman is in getting to quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Related: Fiesta Bowl Preview and Prediction
Noah Brown, WR Ohio State
Brown has flashed potential in 2016, including a huge performance (five catches for 72 yards and four scores) in the 45-24 victory over Oklahoma. However, Brown finished the year with only 30 catches for 385 yards and seven scores. Ohio State needs a No. 2 receiver to step up to take some of the pressure off of Curtis Samuel on Saturday. Can Brown deliver a performance similar to the one against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl?
Ryan Carter, CB, Clemson
Passing against Clemson was a tough proposition for teams this season. The Tigers ranked fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense and allowed only 12 passing scores through 13 games. Senior Cordrea Tankersley earned second-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports after breaking up 10 passes and blanketing opposing receivers this fall. With Ohio State likely to avoid Tankersley’s side of the field, Clemson’s other top corners – Carter, Marcus Edmond and Mark Fields – will be tested by quarterback J.T. Barrett. Carter certainly held his own through 11 starts in 2016 and recorded seven pass breakups and one pick. Expect the Buckeyes to test Carter and the other defensive backs in the Clemson secondary.
Isaiah Prince, OT, Ohio State
In his first season as a starter, Prince experienced his share of ups and downs. The 6-foot-7 right tackle started all 12 games for coach Urban Meyer and will be tested early and often by the Clemson defensive front. The Tigers recorded 46 sacks and 112 tackles for a loss and limited opposing offenses to just 3.5 yards per carry in 2016. The front four for Clemson is an active and incredibly talented group, headlined by sophomore Christian Wilkins and senior tackle Carlos Watkins. The strength of Ohio State’s offensive line rests with senior center Pat Elflein and guard Billy Price, but this unit needs Prince, left tackle Jamarco Jones and left guard Michael Jordan to step up on Saturday night.
Hunter Renfrow/Deon Cain, WR, Clemson
Let’s cheat a little and list two players in this spot. It’s no secret Mike Williams (84 catches) is the go-to receiver for quarterback Deshaun Watson. Additionally, tight end Jordan Leggett (38 grabs) is another big-play threat for the Clemson offense. Stopping Williams and Leggett won’t be easy for Ohio State, but if the Buckeyes can find a way to slow down those two targets, the Tigers need their secondary weapons to step up. Cain averaged 19.4 yards per reception (32 catches), while Renfrow caught 29 passes in nine games. Renfrow is a sure-handed option who came up big in last year’s national championship game (seven grabs for 88 yards).