You know about the stars of the national championship game, but what about the little factors that could decide the matchup? Which player outside the spotlight could swing the game? Could Alabama’s Nick Saban or Clemson’s Dabo Swinney make the difference?
To determine whether the Crimson Tide or Tigers will raise the national championship trophy Monday, SI posed some questions to college football experts Andy Staples, Pete Thamel, Brian Hamilton, Lindsay Schnell, Zac Ellis, Joan Niesen, Ben Glicksman, Colin Becht, Gabriel Baumgaertner, Chris Johnson and Ben Estes.
Which head coach has more at stake?
Staples: Tie. They both have an equal amount at stake. The winner’s team gets the national title. That’s kind of the goal. And since 125 FBS coaches would happily saw off a limb to trade places with them, Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban are probably in a pretty good spot.
Thamel: Saban. Saban has the most at stake, as Alabama is the heavy favorite. Swinney and the Tigers will play with nothing to lose, just like they did against Oklahoma. A win in this game would place Saban in the conversation with the great Bear Bryant.
Hamilton: Swinney. Saban's stature and legacy at Alabama is secure. A fourth national title might mean that, given his accomplishments and given the relative challenges of their eras, Saban should surpass Bear Bryant in the Greatest Tide Coach discussion. But that's a defensible argument already. A win for Clemson certifies the Tigers as one of the nation's exceptional programs—particularly because they would finish the climb from "very good" to that elite perch against Alabama. Swinney, then, gets the ultimate validation as one of the best coaches in the country. And one suspects you can't downplay the significance of beating his alma mater.
Schnell: Saban. It’s probably Saban just because Alabama fans are sorta crazy (I mean that in the nicest way possible) and if he loses to a non-SEC team, people in Tuscaloosa might start questioning the process.
Ellis: Saban. Yes, Alabama's coach already has four national titles to his name. But with folks already debating the lifespan of the Crimson Tide dynasty, what happens if Saban goes to two straight playoffs and emerges with zero national titles?
Niesen: Swinney. This season has without a doubt been the highest point of his career, and as the only remaining undefeated coach in college football this season, he has more to lose than Saban, who, I don't need to remind you, has been here before.
Glicksman: Swinney. While Saban has a chance to further distinguish himself as the premier coach of this generation, a national championship would place Swinney in rare company. Only five active college football head coaches (Saban, Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Jimbo Fisher and Bob Stoops) have captured national titles. Swinney has already made a jump up the coaching ranks this season; a win Monday would not only cap a historic campaign, but also cement his status among the elite.
Becht: Swinney. Saban is already 4–0 in national championship games, and he's likely to be back in another title game no matter what happens Monday. So he'll have more chances in his pursuit of Bryant. Swinney will likely have more chances, too, but how many he gets could depend on Monday's outcome. There's a big difference in narrative between being a great ACC team that fell short against the mighty SEC and being the first team to go 15–0. The latter could help lead the Tigers back to the title game again and again.
Baumgaertner: Saban. Swinney has cemented himself as a Clemson legend regardless of the outcome. Maybe the fan base wouldn’t be thrilled if he bolted to coach Alabama after Saban accepted an offer from the New York Giants (note: this will not happen), but all Swinney needs to assure is that Clemson isn’t routed a la its 70–33 loss to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl. Saban, remember, still leads the program with the most demanding fan base in college football. Maybe it won’t turn on him if the Tide lose, but Phyllis from Mulga will still call into Finebaum and be angry about something. I genuinely admire how Saban manages to not simply handle the pressure, but to thrive under it.
Johnson: Swinney. Saban is the best coach in the country, and Swinney already has Clemson to its most wins in a single season in program history. So there’s not a lot at stake for either coach. That said, Saban could win his fifth championship, one fewer than Bryant’s six, and Swinney could push Clemson closer to the “elite” status we always use to describe programs like the Crimson Tide, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
Estes: Swinney. Another national championship would certainly add to Nick Saban’s legacy, but it’s already secure as is. Swinney, meanwhile, has a chance to move into a higher echelon should he win his first title.
Which QB-RB duo has the edge?
Staples: Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman. If we’re just talking about those two people, it’s Watson and Gallman. If we’re also including the five people tasked with keeping the 300-pounders from burying those two people relative to the 300-pounders who will be playing across from them, then it’s fairly even.
Thamel: Watson and Gallman. I'd give the edge to Clemson here, as the gap between Watson and Alabama's Jake Coker is significantly bigger than the gap between than the gap between Derrick Henry and Gallman. Watson is a better passer and runner than Coker, who played well against Michigan State. But let's not mistake one strong performance as anything more than that. Clemson has a much better secondary that will test Coker.
Hamilton: Watson and Gallman. Michigan State dared Coker to beat them, and Coker demonstrated he was capable of beating them. But Clemson's secondary is on another level and its defensive front should be just as adept at limiting Henry as Michigan State's was. As for the Tigers' backfield, the tailback doesn't matter; Watson's mobility and unpredictability is important in flummoxing that voracious Tide front.
Schnell: Watson and Gallman. Coker was terrific in the Cotton Bowl, but the obvious answer here is Clemson with Watson and Gallman. Watson is one of the most dynamic players in college football, and he hands the ball off to a guy who's sometimes referred to as Gall-MAN for his ability to drag tacklers around. It’s tough to pick against that pair.
Ellis: Watson and Gallman. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Henry, might reside in Tuscaloosa, but Coker isn't the do-it-all player that Deshaun Watson is for Clemson. Add in Gallman, a 1,400-yard rusher this year, and the Tigers have the more complete duo.
Niesen: Watson and Gallman. I'm going to have to go with Watson and Gallman, even though human bowling ball Henry is clearly the best running back in the game. Still, I think Gallman's skill combined with Watson's ability to scramble (he finished the year with 1,032 rushing yards; Coker had 88) gives that duo the edge.
Glicksman: Watson and Gallman. Henry has the edge at tailback and Coker played his best game of the season in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State, but the Tigers have what may be the most potent backfield tandem in the nation. Watson is prolific with his arm and his legs, while Gallman (511 all-purpose yards, four touchdowns over his last three games) remains vastly underrated and has come on strong down the stretch. The bigger question: Can Watson and Gallman find room to operate against a defense that ranks second nationally in yards allowed per play (4.09)?
Becht: Watson and Gallman. Gallman is averaging just 0.2 yards per carry less than Henry this season and was certainly the better of the two in the playoff semifinals. Coker was sensational against Michigan State, but even that great performance couldn't match Watson's 332 total yards against Oklahoma. The dual-threat Watson has done it all, all season for Clemson, and his edge over Coker more than makes up for the narrow gap between Henry and Gallman.
Baumgaertner: Coker and Henry. After watching Alabama’s defense suffocate Connor Cook and bottle up the Spartans’ running game, it’s hard to favor any unit against Alabama’s front seven. Coker is also pretty good flushing the pocket and has a better offensive line than Oklahoma’s, so he may not be hounded by the Clemson defense the way Baker Mayfield was. And, most importantly, Henry’s durability means he will get yards. It’s simply a matter of when he does.
Johnson: Watson and Gallman. Watson is the nation’s top quarterback, and Gallman has churned out 337 rushing yards on 6.3 yards per carry over the Tigers’ last two games. Henry is a workhorse who wears opponents down and Coker played his best game of the season in the semifinals, but he’s unlikely to replicate that performance against a Clemson team ranked fourth in the nation in defensive Passing S&P+.
Estes: Coker and Henry. Coker is the weakest link among the four players being considered here, but the Alabama duo gets the edge for two reasons: Henry is the best of the group, and he and Coker have the easier matchup going against the Clemson defense.
Which individual matchup are you most excited to watch?
Staples: Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley vs. Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander. The Tide punished Michigan State for trying to cover Ridley with a safety when he lined up in the slot. It will be interesting to see how Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables handles this. Given the fact that Alexander followed Sterling Shepard around the field quite a bit against Oklahoma, it’s a safe bet we’ll see best-on-best most of the night.
Thamel: Clemson left tackle Mitch Hyatt vs. Alabama D-line. I'm excited to see how Hyatt, a true freshman, holds up against the Crimson Tide defensive line. It'd be unfair to say which Alabama defender because the Tide bring in pass rush specialists on third down and rotate so frequently that Hyatt will see numerous ends and rush linebackers. Will they wear him down?
Hamilton: Ridley vs. Alexander. Alabama will have to throw some to win, and that means it has to find Ridley, and that means Alexander is likely to be nearby. It'll be fascinating to see how Ridley, the freshman stud with 83 catches in his debut season, holds up against Alexander, one of the best cover corners in the nation—and one of the most talkative as well. Can Alexander get in Ridley's space, not to mention his head?
Schnell: Gallman vs. Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland. Can one of the top linebackers in the country contain Clemson's rush attack and put more pressure on Watson to beat Bama with his legs and arm?
Ellis: Clemson O-line vs. Alabama D-line. Tigers linemen Eric Mac Lain described this matchup as a "clash of the titans." Can Clemson move the ball effectively against one of the best defensive fronts we've seen in years?
Niesen: Ridley vs. Alexander. I can't wait to see how Alexander does covering Ridley, Alabama's standout freshman receiver. Ridley broke Amari Cooper's freshman receiving record this season, and he's one of the most exciting young players in college football. Alexander is no slouch, either; he was named first-team all-ACC, and in the Orange Bowl, he held Oklahoma's top receiver, Sterling Shepard, to just 87 yards.
Glicksman: Ridley vs. Alexander. It’s hard to understate how pivotal Ridley has been to Alabama’s run to the title game. The true freshman from Coconut Creek, Fla., came to the Crimson Tide as the top-rated receiver recruit in the nation and has somehow exceeded the hype: His 1,031 receiving yards to date are more than both Cooper (1,000) and Julio Jones (924) racked up during their debut seasons at Alabama. Alexander, meanwhile, is a former five-star prospect in his own right who was named first-team All-ACC this year. The guy who gets the best of this matchup could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game.
Becht: Ridley vs. Alexander. Michigan State kept Henry in check (20 carries for 75 yards) but didn't have the secondary to capitalize as Ridley torched the Spartans for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Clemson's front seven is capable of causing similar problems for Henry. The Tigers allowed 3.7 yards per rush this year and smothered Oklahoma's ground game. If Clemson forces Alabama to move the ball through the air, it'll be on Alexander to contain the true freshman Ridley. Alexander shut down an even better big-play receiver in Notre Dame's Will Fuller earlier this year. If he can do the same to Ridley, the Crimson Tide may have few weapons to rely on.
Baumgaertner: Ridley vs. Alexander. If Ridley matches up with Alexander, then two of the nation’s best at their respective positions will square off for all of us to enjoy. Alexander is quick, physical and really loud as he demonstrated in the semifinal. (He yapped at an Oklahoma assistant coach and then at Sterling Shepard. For some reason he left out the mascot.) If Alabama chooses to throw early in order to preserve Henry for later in the game, these two should put on an entertaining show.
Johnson: Ridley vs. Alexander. Ridley has emerged as a dangerous No. 1 receiver for Alabama a season after Crimson Tide watched the Biletnikoff Award-winning Cooper depart for the NFL. But Ridley could have a hard time breaking free for big plays if he spends most of the game trying to escape Alexander, a redshirt sophomore who was named first-team All-ACC and whom ProFootballFocus rated one of the top NFL prospects in the playoff.
Estes: Ridley vs. Alexander. Ridley blew open the Cotton Bowl with a career-best performance, but Michigan State’s secondary was the weakest part of its team. Going up against Alexander is a different story. The two should have quite the battle whenever they’re matched up with each other Monday night.
Which under-the-radar player could make a huge impact?
Staples: Alabama running back Kenyan Drake. Drake is as close to healthy as possible after dealing with a litany of injuries. The Tigers are good enough in the front seven to slow Derrick Henry, but if the Tide can hit a few big gains using Drake on the edge, it could loosen things up for Henry or for the passing game.
Thamel: Alabama punter JK Scott. The sophomore struggled early this season after having a monster freshman season, when he averaged 48.0 yards per punt. Since Alabama's game against Arkansas on Oct. 10, Scott has recaptured that form and level of productivity. I suspect this will be a lower scoring game and Scott will have a big impact on field position.
Hamilton: Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson. Anderson has the third-most tackles for loss on Alabama's defense (11.5) and is tied for the team lead in quarterback hurries with 10. So to call the junior linebacker “under-the-radar” is a little misleading, but he doesn't get the attention that stars like Ragland and A'Shawn Robinson enjoy. Anderson was a terror against a good Michigan State offensive line in the Cotton Bowl, and if he can disrupt Watson enough, Clemson might have nowhere to turn.
Schnell: Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. I'm all about rooting for players you've written about, so I'll take this time to plug Clemson walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow, who's bringing pride to all 68 of his cousins (seriously) with his postseason play. Renfrow caught four passes for 59 yards in the Orange Bowl, including a 35-yard touchdown reception. Could he be the difference Monday night?
Ellis: Gallman. Clemson's running back set a program single-season record with 1,482 rushing yards this season, but no one is talking about him. If Gallman can form an effective one-two punch with Watson, this Tigers offense will be very hard to stop.
Niesen: Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones. I think Jones still counts as being under-the-radar, even though he was selected as the Cotton Bowl's Most Outstanding Defensive Player last week. So much of the attention paid to Alabama's defense this season focused on its line—rightfully so—that Jones and the rest of the team's defensive backfield seemed at times overlooked. Jones put together an impressive season as a leader in an Alabama secondary that greatly improved from a year ago.
Glicksman: Alabama linebacker Tim Williams. The junior linebacker isn’t even a starter, but he makes a tremendous impact for the Crimson Tide nonetheless. He ranks second on the team in sacks (10.5) and has tortured quarterbacks in recent weeks: Williams had two sacks against Auburn, two against Florida and one—on a third-and-12 to end a drive—against Michigan State. If he can get to Watson on a few key passing downs, Williams could put Alabama’s offense in the driver’s seat.
Becht: Clemson right tackle Joe Gore and right guard Maverick Morris. Gore and Morris make up the right side of Clemson's offensive line, a less heralded group than left tackle Hyatt, left guard Eric Mac Lain and center Jay Guillermo. The stars of Michigan State's offensive line, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, actually had decent games against Alabama, but few will remember that because the Tide picked on the right side to help rack up six tackles for loss and four sacks. Watson will need time to pass and room to run to give the Tigers' offense a chance to succeed. Whether he gets those may depend on Gore and Morris's ability to block the rotating mix of pass rushers and run-stoppers Alabama will throw at them.
Baumgaertner: Clemson wide receiver Artavis Scott. Scott has the speed to break a play wide open and give the Tigers the long-distance touchdown they may need. He’s hardly “under-the-radar,” but he’ll need to be present in Clemson’s offense with Gallman facing Alabama’s vaunted run defense.
Johnson: Alabama wide receiver ArDarius Stewart. Ridley is a dynamic playmaker who could turn the game with a long touchdown catch, but don’t overlook Stewart. The sophomore recorded only 37 receiving yards against Michigan State, but he averaged 16 yards per catch and scored a touchdown in Alabama’s SEC Championship Game win over Florida. Coker could look for Stewart if Ridley is blanketed downfield.
Estes: JK Scott. Field position will end up being crucial in what I expect to be a relatively low-scoring game. Scott is the superior of the two punters playing in this one, and his ability to pin Clemson in less advantageous spots could be an important x-factor.
Which statistic could prove key to the outcome?
Staples: Watson's yards per carry. If Watson can run effectively, it will open up every other aspect of Clemson’s offense. If the Tide can keep him contained on the ground, everything else becomes more difficult as well.
Thamel: Clemson’s runs between the tackles. Coaches who've played Alabama have stressed one thing to me: Do not under any circumstances run up the middle. If Clemson is smart enough to keep its runs to the outside, it should be able to move the ball. So I'll be charting how many times the Tigers attempt to run between the tackles.
Hamilton: Third-down defense. Clemson ranks No. 2 in the country, allowing opponents to convert third downs just 25.7% of the time. Alabama ranks fifth in the nation in the same department, permitting conversions merely 27.7% of the time. If either offense can move the sticks on third down, it could get the opposing defense off-plan and off-balance—which would be a significant accomplishment given the strength of these units.
Schnell: Return yards. It's all about special teams. The group that returns a kick or punt for a score will likely win.
Ellis: Turnover margin. Clemson reached the national title game despite ranking ninth in the ACC in turnover margin (minus-one). Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, has thrown 12 interceptions this season. The Tigers have overcoming losing the turnover battle before, but that might not work against a team like Alabama .
Niesen: Henry’s rushing yards. If Clemson can somehow contain the reigning Heisman winner, that should make all the difference in shutting down the key component of Alabama's offense and allowing the Tigers a shot at the title.
Glicksman: Halftime score. Four points. That’s the largest deficit Clemson has faced in the second half of any game in 2015. It entered the third quarter of its Nov. 7 showdown with Florida State down 10–6 before rolling to a 23–13 victory. In fact, the Tigers have not trailed in the fourth quarter of a game this entire season. Alabama is at its best when it races out in front and uses the punishing Henry to repeatedly wear down an opponent’s will. If the Crimson Tide can carry a lead into the championship’s final stages, it will be telling to see how Clemson responds.
Becht: Turnover margin. With 26 giveaways and 25 takeaways this season, Clemson could become the first team in at least 20 years to win the national title with a negative turnover margin. More realistically, the Tigers will need to get that margin to neutral or into the positives to claim the championship. One of Alabama's biggest strengths over Clemson is in net average field position, where the Tide rank 14th and the Tigers rank 111th. Clemson can't afford to give Alabama easy points off a short field, nor can it afford to waste a promising drive with late turnover.
Baumgaertner: Return yards. Alabama has had its share of special teams blunders this season, and that’s the easiest way to complicate its path to winning the playoff.
Johnson: Jones’s punt return yards. Alabama’s Jones has returned four punts for touchdowns this season, which leads the nation. For Clemson to hang with the Crimson Tide, it can’t afford to let that number increase. The Tigers will have their hands full stopping Alabama’s offense. Yielding a special teams score will decrease their margin for error and put more pressure on Watson and Co. to consistently drive on the Tide.
Estes: Watson’s rushing yards. The Tigers will find it tough to move the ball through the air or with Wayne Gallman on the ground. Their best bet might be using Watson on designed runs or him scrambling when plays break down, especially since that’s proven a way to beat Alabama.