Which X-factors could play key roles in the national championship game?
Looking over the Oregon and Ohio State rosters, it’s striking just how many difference-makers both teams have. These aren’t guys classified as impact players at the bottom of TV screens. Almost everyone who will play on Monday night has the talent to change the game.
The Buckeyes and Ducks both possess a next-man-up mentality, and their depth has been tested well into the season. Yet guys all over the field folded into the mix and became part of the concoctions created by Urban Meyer and Mark Helfrich.
It’s easy to point to players like Marcus Mariota, Royce Freeman, Cardale Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa. We know they will play a critical role in Dallas. But it’s the next layer down that could end up pulling the cake together.
Or, if you prefer non-baking analogies, these guys might just make a play that wins the national championship. Here are five potential X-factors from each team.
• RB Thomas Tyner: The sophomore running back was supposed to be what Freeman has become this season. However, inconsistency, injuries and Freeman’s emergence relegated the former five-star recruit to mostly backup duty. That is, until he broke out at the best possible time against Florida State. Tyner carried 13 times for 124 yards with two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl and should give Oregon another key threat against Ohio State.
• WR Charles Nelson: When Bralon Addison went down in the spring with an ACL tear, Byron Marshall stepped up. That set off a chain reaction down the Oregon depth chart and provided more opportunities for Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford, Darren Carrington and Nelson. But now Carrington is suspended for a positive marijuana test and Allen is out with a knee injury, so it’s on Nelson to shine. The freshman from Daytona Beach, Fla., broke out for 104 yards in the Pac-12 title game and logged 40 yards in the Rose Bowl. Mariota likes to spread the ball around, so don’t be surprised if he targets Nelson frequently on Monday.
• TE Evan Baylis: The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder made four catches during the entire regular season. Yet he took on a much larger role in relief of the injured Pharaoh Brown, making six catches against the Seminoles, many to move the chains. He served as a capable release valve for Mariota when the Seminoles pressed outside receivers. Then, after Florida State finally began to respect Baylis, Mariota went over the top and connected on a huge play.
• C Hroniss Grasu: The veteran leader of the offensive line, Grasu brings the Ducks’ offense together. He was terrific against Florida State despite battling through injuries. Oregon will need him to be healthy against an Ohio State front four that will bring constant pressure. In fact, the Buckeyes likely have the best defensive line the Ducks have seen this season.
• CB Chris Seisay: Oregon will have its hands full against the Buckeyes’ talented receiving corps, and the Ducks could sure use injured All-America cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. In his place, Seisay will be relied upon to slow Ohio State’s offense. The redshirt freshman -- along with senior Troy Hill -- did a great job in the Rose Bowl. If the Ducks’ secondary can hang with Devin Smith and Michael Thomas, it will put more pressure on Jones to make accurate throws.
• H-back Dontre Wilson: Wilson has the perfect combination of skills for Meyer’s offense. But his sophomore season skidded to a halt after he broke a bone in his foot at Michigan State on Nov. 8, and he missed the team’s final three regular-season games, the Big Ten championship and the Sugar Bowl. Still in a walking boot, he has been upgraded to probable. He could add another versatile weapon to an already explosive attack.
• WR Evan Spencer: Spencer showcased his full array of skills in the Sugar Bowl, making an acrobatic catch (though it was ruled incomplete), throwing a touchdown pass and recovering a key onside kick. Spencer is not the first, second or even third option in the Buckeyes' passing game. But rest assured: If Oregon forgets about him, the Ducks will likely regret it.
• RB Jalin Marshall: The Middletown, Ohio, native has caught some flak for his fumbles, but has the gift of being able to take any touch to the end zone. He is an elusive, dynamic return man who can also inflict damage in the receiving game. (See: Ohio State’s 42-27 win over Indiana on Nov. 22.) He and punter Cameron Johnston will be critical cogs on special teams, helping shape the ever-important field-position battle.
• LB Joshua Perry: Here is what Meyer had to say about Perry this week: “He's one of my favorite guys. He'll be a captain for us next year. He's a guy that just does everything right, everything right.” Perry is the Buckeyes’ leading tackler and a big piece of a linebacking group who will have their hands full against the Ducks. Oregon breaks runs to the second level with regularity, and Ohio State needs Perry to wrap up and make plays.
• CB Eli Apple: Mariota is a master at exploiting defenses, so everyone in Ohio State’s secondary has to be up for the challenge. Apple, a redshirt freshman, has college football’s biggest stage to show why he was once such a touted recruit. When Oregon goes into attack mode, Mariota will use the entire field, and that means Apple will have chances to step up.