X-factors that could decide the Alabama-Clemson national title game

The X-factors that will decide Monday night's national championship game between Clemson and Alabama.
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Ezekiel Elliott’s championship game performance last year has gone down in Ohio State lore. Cardale Jones’s herculean rise defined the Buckeyes’ run to the title.

But do you remember safety Tyvis Powell crashing in to keep Oregon’s Thomas Tyner out of the end zone on fourth down with score 14–7? Or Jalin Marshall, who had a fourth-down reception to keep Ohio State’s first scoring drive alive and a third-down reception that helped the Buckeyes expand their lead to 15 in the third quarter?

Championships require more that just the unforgettable star performances. Alabama’s Derrick Henry or Clemson’s Deshaun Watson may be the focal point of their respective teams’ championship gameplans, and both are good bets to be in the running for the game’s MVP honors. But some of the overlooked names and aspects of the Crimson Tide or Tigers will be critical to winning the title Monday night. 

Here are the x-factors that could decide the championship game:

Clemson’s Joe Gore and Maverick Morris

Alabama’s front seven presents the toughest task of the season for Clemson’s offensive line, a unit headline by left tackle Mitch Hyatt and All-ACC honorees Eric Mac Lain and Jay Guillermo. But while the left side of the line attempts to keep A’Shawn Robinson out of the backfield, the right side of Gore and Morris may define the Tigers’ success at keeping Deshaun Watson upright.

Michigan State handled Robinson well, holding him to just one tackle. But the Crimson Tide’s defensive front is the most fearsome in the nation and averages 7.2 tackles for loss per game because it presents the most threats. So while the Spartans’ star linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin played well, Alabama feasted on the lesser regarded right side of Michigan State’s line with great success.

Defensive end Jonathan Allen sacked Connor Cook twice and linebacker Ryan Anderson picked up two tackles for loss.

Expect Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to test Gore and Morris early and often. If they prove to not be up to the task, Clemson’s offense will struggle to find its rhythm. Watson gives the Tigers a more mobile option than Michigan State had in Cook, but if Watson is consistently forced to flee the pocket to his left, he’ll struggle to throw across his body. If he tries to run, the predictable pattern will make him easy to spy.

Clemson’s offensive line required a complete rebuild after 2014 and showed some early vulnerability in a narrow win over Louisville. But the unit has strengthened with experience and steamrolled Oklahoma’s front to help the Tigers rack up 312 rushing yards in the Orange Bowl. That progress will be put to the test on Monday.

Alabama’s JK ​Scott

One of the many advantages the Tide have had this season is in the field position battle, where Alabama’s net average starting field position of 4.6 yards ranks 14th in the country. Of course the No. 1 defense in yards allowed per play contributed significantly to that, but so did Scott.

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The sophomore averaged 44.4 yards per punt this season, which ranked 17th in the nation. With an inconsistent offense, Scott’s ability to consistently flip the field was critical to Alabama’s success. Forcing teams to go the length of the field against the best defense was a nearly impossible task and helped get the Tide get the ball back with a shorter field.

As good as Alabama’s defense is, it’s unlikely to completely shut down Clemson’s offense. But if Scott can force Watson & Co. to consistently need 70 to 80 yards to get to the end zone, that could make the difference.

Clemson’s Greg Huegel

The Tigers’ special teams edge comes in the kicking game, where few have been better than Huegel. Clemson’s undefeated run has required Huegel to boot a late game-winner, but his kicks proved the difference in wins over Louisville and Notre Dame and broke a fourth-quarter tie against Florida State.

Huegel made 25 of 29 field goals this season with just one miss in 20 tries from inside 40 yards. However, he has missed two of his last three field goals from 40 yards or more, including a 47-yard miss against Oklahoma when the Tigers led just 23–17.


Alabama’s secondary rushers and receivers

Michigan State’s defensive gameplan for the Cotton Bowl was to stop Henry and force Alabama to win the game in the air. That strategy backfired as quarterback Jack Coker came through and consistently connected with true freshman Calvin Ridley (eight catches for 138 yards with two touchdowns) to pick apart a vulnerable Spartans secondary.

But now Ridley has to battle Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who has stymied star receivers all season, including Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard in the Orange Bowl. So the question becomes what happens if the Tigers manage to replicate Michigan State’s success at slowing Henry while Alexander blankets Ridley?

Running back Kenyan Drake could ease the burden on Henry by making plays on the edge. Despite battling through injuries, Drake still managed to gain 662 yards of offense this season, including 5.4 yards per carry. While Henry cuts and bangs between the tackles, mixing in Drake could force Clemson to spread out its run defense.

In the passing game, secondary receivers like ArDarius Stewart, Richard Mullaney and tight end O.J. Howard will have to step up if Ridley can’t gain separation. That’s a tough job against a Tigers secondary that features more than just Alexander. Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley made five interceptions and broke up nine passes while safety Jayron Kearse earned first-team All-ACC honors. But Stewart, Mullaney and Howard have all stepped up at times this season, and Howard had a big 41-yard catch to set up a first-half field goal against Michigan State.

Championship experience

It’ll be impossible to quantify how much of a difference this will make, but Saban knows championship games. He’s 4–0 in national title games, including 3–0 at Alabama. The stakes are familiar to him, and he has been unfazed by them.

That’s not to say that DaboSwinneywill be flustered, but apart from his role on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team as a player, he has not been in this environment before and neither have his players. Swinney thrives on motivation and emotion. Can he channel his players’ nerves to get a championship performance? We know the answer to that question for Saban.