Pinpointing player impact in a one-game sample is a risky venture. Some guys, by virtue of their positions, are likely to affect the outcome in meaningful ways, but it is often unexpected fringe contributors who swing the final score one way or another.
Monday’s College Football Playoff final between Georgia and Alabama is atypically low on star power, but the two teams wouldn’t have reached this point without consistent, high-level production from certain individuals during the regular season and playoff semifinals. Whether the same individuals who shined from September to December (as well as on New Year’s Day) will do so in Atlanta on Monday night is not clear, but consider this a best guess at identifying which ones will. Here are the players we think will have the biggest say in deciding the national champion:
WR Calvin Ridley, junior, Alabama
Ridley is not just Alabama’s No. 1 pass-catching threat. He’s a first-team All-SEC honoree and potential first-round NFL draft pick whom the Crimson Tide have targeted more than three times as often as any other wide receiver on the roster. Ridley wasn’t heard from much in the Sugar Bowl outside of the 12-yard touchdown pass he snatched late in the first quarter to give Alabama a 10–0 lead, finishing with only four receptions for 39 yards, well below his season average of 71.9.
Yet Ridley can compromise Georgia’s defense even if he falls well short of that mark again. Whenever the Bulldogs line up to cover him, they must prepare for the possibility that Ridley will streak past their defensive backs and haul in a bomb from Jalen Hurts. The Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback hasn’t consistently beaten quality coverage with deep balls this season—as pointed out by CFB Film Room on Twitter, his completion percentage on throws 15 yards or more downfield against teams ranked in the top 50 in total defense is just 36.7%—but that’s little consolation to a Georgia defense that’ll need to devote most of its attention to snuffing out Alabama’s potent running game.
Ridley is averaging 15.85 yards per catch, the third highest figure in the SEC among players with at least 50 catches, and no receiver in the conference recorded more receptions of at least 60 yards than his four this season.
QB Jake Fromm, freshman, Georgia
Fromm has already outstripped every reasonable expectation about his performance coming into this season. From beating out a former five-star recruit with a year of starting experience under his belt for the top spot on the quarterback depth chart to guiding Georgia to an SEC championship for the first time since 2005 to helping the Bulldogs erase a 17-point deficit to a Power 5 champion led by a Heisman Trophy-winning QB in the Rose Bowl, Fromm has traded the indecisiveness and growing pains that typically hamper true freshman passers for the big-stage aplomb of an all-conference veteran.
He has seen the Freshman Wall and hopped over it, but his biggest challenge yet awaits Monday night in the form of Alabama’s defense, a future pro-laden destruction machine that stymies what opposing offenses do best and punishes them for their mistakes. Fromm calmly and accurately connected with six different pass catchers in the Rose Bowl, but the task he faced in that game was far less demanding than the one he’ll face Monday. Oklahoma ranks 56th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in defensive Passing S&P+ and 80th in yards allowed per attempt, while Alabama ranks sixth and first in those two statistics. An encounter with the Crimson Tide could provide a reminder that Fromm, despite all evidence to the contrary, enrolled in college only a year ago.
QB Jalen Hurts, sophomore, Alabama
There are only a handful of programs across the country at which a quarterback could win the offensive player of the year award in a Power 5 conference as a true freshman, reach the national championship game twice, post a 25–2 starting record and still be the subject of intense debate over whether he belongs on the bench.
Fair or not, there remain some folks, even at this late juncture of the season, who believe that true freshman Tua Tagovailoa ought to at least get some time leading the first-team offense. An AL.com report on the day of the Sugar Bowl said that Tagovailoa was expected to play against Clemson. That didn’t happen, but even if he does take the field at some point against Georgia, Hurts is Alabama’s first option. His downhill running and shrewd playmaking propelled the Crimson Tide to the brink of yet another title to add to their dynasty, and they’ll need him to operate the offense as efficiently as he has all season to have a chance to vanquish Georgia.
Alabama doesn’t need Hurts to repeatedly fire cross-field lasers into the Bulldogs’ secondary. If he can consistently connect on short and intermediate throws while toggling between QB keepers and handoffs to Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and other members of Alabama’s deep running back rotation, the Crimson Tide should be able to put up enough points to grind out a low-scoring victory.
RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, seniors, Georgia
Two players are being counted as one here, because one shouldn’t be discussed separately from the other in the lead-up to this game. As Georgia showed in the Rose Bowl, it can use its pair of stud tailbacks to batter an opposing defense to the point that not even a nation-leading offense operated by an absurdly efficient passer can make up the difference.
Against Oklahoma, Chubb and Michel combined to produce 326 rushing yards on 25 carries (13.0 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. The two seniors zipped through holes along the line of scrimmage time and again, and as Chubb showed on this 50-yard score early in the third quarter, running through contact wasn’t an issue. Chubb and Michel won’t churn out yards at the same clip against Alabama; the Crimson Tide lead the FBS with only 2.70 yards allowed per rush, whereas the Sooners rank 70th with 4.38. But the Bulldogs can’t afford to have their two leading rushers neutralized by Alabama’s front seven, which remains formidable in spite of an injury-riddled linebacker corps. The Crimson Tide will be keen on forcing Georgia into unfavorable down-and-distance scenarios by limiting its running attack to short gains. That would put even more pressure on Fromm, who plays an efficient game but can’t be counted on to outfox Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and ace safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
LB Roquan Smith, junior, Georgia
Smith has already won the Butkus Award honoring the nation’s top linebacker, and he’s widely regarded as a first-round draft prospect (if he declares), but late in the Rose Bowl, he played like he was still trying to win over doubters unconvinced that he’s the real deal. After ranging to his right to repel Oklahoma wide receiver Jordan Smallwood short of the first-down marker on a third-and-two in the first overtime period, Smith tracked running back Rodney Anderson on a short pass and wrapped him up in space for a two-yard loss in the second—two plays before fellow linebacker Lorenzo Carter got a hand on the Sooners’ 27-yard field goal attempt, allowing Georgia to take over and unleash Michel for a 27-yard walk-off touchdown.
The Bulldogs will need a lot of things to go their way to hang with Alabama, but if they can land enough punches early to avoid one of the slow, life-sucking, hopeless asphyxiations that SEC teams routinely suffer at the hands of the Crimson Tide, Smith is capable of serving as the crunch-time playmaker who puts Georgia over the top. He could be the difference between Hurts extending a time-consuming drive in the fourth quarter and failing to pick up a new set of downs, or Harris gaining an extra 10 yards to get in field goal range and him being tripped up on a spin move. Smith is one of the few players for whom Alabama has no effective counter.