It doesn’t take a lot of expertise to determine some of the key factors that could decide the national championship between Alabama and Clemson. Everyone knows Alabama’s front seven is incredible. Everyone knows Deshaun Watson is an exceptional passer. Everyone knows that Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts’s ability to handle Clemson’s pass rush could make or break the Alabama offense.
All of those things are true, but they present an incomplete picture of what could ultimately determine whether the Crimson Tide or the Tigers raise the championship trophy Monday night at Raymond James Stadium. Beyond the stars who might be in contention for MVP honors, the championship will come down to little things, role players whose contributions may not be the subject of YouTube highlight videos but could decide the game.
These are the championship x-factors to watch:
Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow
Let’s start with an easy one, a player with whom Alabama is certainly familiar (and will re-familiarize itself with as it watches film this week). Renfrow is an incredible statistical anomaly; he ranks sixth on the Tigers in receiving yards this season and ranked fifth last season, and yet his value skyrockets once Clemson enters the College Football Playoff. Over Clemson’s 24 regular season games the past two years, Renfrow caught 51 passes for 698 yards (29.1 yards per game) with six touchdowns. In the Tigers’ three playoff games, he’s caught 16 passes for 197 yards (65.7 yards per game) with three touchdowns.
The former walk-on shined in last year’s championship game with seven receptions for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Renfrow won’t be able to fly under the radar in this year’s rematch, but with the bevy of receiving options at Watson’s disposal, Renfrow could still catch Alabama sleeping and make a big impact.
Alabama S Minkah Fitzpatrick
Everything above about Renfrow probably won’t matter if Fitzpatrick doesn’t do his job. The Alabama defensive back was the loser of one-on-one battles with Renfrow last year, but his role in this year’s title game is different. When All-America safety Eddie Jackson fractured his leg in the Tide’s win over Texas A&M on Oct. 22, Fitzpatrick moved from cornerback to safety to fill his role.
The move has paid off for Alabama, which ranked second in the country in yards allowed per pass attempt in November (4.6) and which held Washington’s Jake Browning to 150 passing yards in the Peach Bowl. But Clemson’s offense will present the toughest challenge the Crimson Tide have faced all season, and unlike in last year’s title game, Alabama will have to account for Mike Williams, the Tigers’ No. 1 wide receiver who missed nearly all of last season with a fractured neck. So Fitzpatrick will have his hands full, whether helping out in man coverage or playing a deep zone.
Clemson LG Taylor Hearn
Alabama’s Jonathan Allen is a massive matchup problem, both literally (he’s 6’3”, 291 pounds) and schematically. The defensive end has racked up 15 tackles for loss and a team-high 9.5 sacks along with 15 quarterback hurries, three fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. While on most downs, he’ll battle with Clemson left tackle Mitch Hyatt on the outside, Allen could be Hearn’s problem on some of the most critical plays of the game. On clear passing downs, Alabama will sometimes move Allen inside, pitting him against opposing teams’ guards to try to create a matchup advantage. That means that on potentially key third downs, Hearn could be entrusted with blocking the Bronco Nagurski Trophy winner. Hearn may get help from his teammates (and there’s no shame in that), but his ability to hold his own could be essential to Clemson keeping drives alive.
Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
Ridley became a national name late in the 2015 season for his ability to burn defensive backs on deep balls, particularly in the Crimson Tide’s wins over Florida in the SEC title game and Michigan State in the playoff semifinals. But Clemson held the speedster in check, limiting him to 14 yards in last year’s title game.
This year Ridley’s role in Alabama’s offense has changed to match Hurts’s skill set. That’s meant fewer deep balls as the Tide’s reliance on the downfield passing game has diminished. For the second straight year, Ridley leads Alabama in receptions, but his yards per catch is down to 10.9 (from 11.7 in 2015).
His new role has never been more valuable than against a ferocious pass rush like Clemson’s. The Tigers won’t give Hurts enough time for many deep passing plays to develop, so Alabama’s aerial attack will rely on Hurts completing short and intermediate passes. That’s been Ridley’s bread-and-butter this season, so he could be in for a much larger role than a year ago.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson’s running game
It's no secret Watson’s arm will be essential, but what he can do with his feet could be the difference-maker. Unlike in 2015, when Clemson ran Watson as much as was productive (he finished the season with 207 carries for 1,105 yards), the Tigers have taken a more cautious approach with their prized quarterback this season. The only games in which he has carried the ball more than 12 times have been against Louisville, NC State, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Ohio State—all close games or a national semifinal. Basically, when the stakes are at their highest, Watson becomes a true dual-threat.
With running back Wayne Gallman’s numbers this season falling short of his 2015 production, the need for Watson to move the ball on ground has never been higher. Alabama contained Gallman in last year’s championship, holding him to 45 yards on 3.2 yards per carry. Watson, who finished with 73 yards rushing, was the more effective ball carrier. If he can’t replicate that success, Alabama’s pass rush will be able to feast. But if Watson can escape the pocket and force the Tide to respect his running ability, he can neutralize one of Alabama’s biggest strengths.
Film study is obviously essential to every game but takes on an added element of importance in the first national championship rematch of the BCS and playoff eras. What can the coaching staffs of each team learn from last year’s title game? Both offenses shined last year, so what adjustment can the defensive staffs make to get more stops?
The teams’ changes, particularly Alabama’s, add even more uncertainty. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables now has to prepare for what the Tide’s offense might look like under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. The switch from Jake Coker to Hurts already added plenty of new elements of Alabama’s offense.
The programs' back-to-back championship appearances attested to the fact that both coaching staffs are among the best in college football. That makes the chess match leading up to the game and the in-game adjustments all the more compelling.