NCAA Football

Six X-factors in the 2016-17 CFP National Championship Game

Written by Andrew Kulha

Well, it’s here. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. Ironically, it’s a moment we’ve seen before. No. 1 ranked Alabama will take the field against No. 2 Clemson in the 2016-17 CFP National Championship Game. It’s as rematch of last season’s title game — a contest that saw the Crimson Tide win, 45-40 in a classic.

Clemson enters the rematch at 13-1 after dismantling Ohio State, 31-0, in the CFP semifinal (Fiesta Bowl). Alabama is undefeated and seeking its second-straight national championship and four out of the last seven. The Tide beat Washington in the Peach Bowl, 24-7.

Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide are a modern day dynasty, but Clemson got close to winning last time around. This time, anything can happen.

Expect these six players to be the X-factors in this season’s CFP National Championship.

Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Clemson

Last season, Watson almost single-handedly beat Alabama in what will go down as a legendary title game performance. His team may have lost, but Watson did everything he could to keep Clemson in the game, and nobody all season looked better against the Crimson Tide’s defense — a unit that was truly elite.

Watson completed 30-of-47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns (one interception), while rushing 20 times for 73 yards (3.7 yards per carry).

This season, Watson may not be coming into this matchup with the Heisman trophy under his belt — as many expected. But he’s still the same dual-threat quarterback who nearly beat Alabama in 2015-16. He’s thrown or 4,178 yards and 38 touchdowns this season (17 interceptions), while rushing for 586 yards and eight touchdowns.

If Watson can get Alabama’s defense on the run out of the pocket while maintaining his accuracy as a thrower, Clemson absolutely has a shot to dethrone the Crimson Tide.

Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Alabama

An argument can be made that Jalen Hurts, a true freshman, was a Heisman Trophy candidate this season. Not only has he led Alabama to an undefeated season and another national championship game, but he’s done so with the poise of a junior or senior quarterback. Keep in mind, he’s just a season removed from high school football. He joined the team just this past spring session.

Hurts has thrown for 2,649 yards and 22 touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions. He’s also added the variable of a rushing threat to Alabama’s quarterback position, which is something that Saban has generally not had in the past. So far this season, Hurts has rushed 181 times for 891 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns.

Watson kept Alabama’s defense off balance in last season’s contest and he has the talent to do the same in this one. The same can be said about Hurts and Clemson’s defense, though. If the Tigers can’t contain Alabama’s quarterback, they’ll be in for a long night.

Mike Williams, wide receiver, Clemson

Alabama’s front seven is always stout, and this season is no different. The Crimson Tide boasted the best rush defense in football in 2016, giving up only 62 yards per game on the ground and three rushing touchdowns.

If Clemson wants to find room for Watson to run — not to mention running back Wayne Gallman — the Tigers are going to need to spread the field vertically to soften Alabama’s defensive front up. And that’s where Mike Williams comes in.

At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Williams is a big target for Watson. And he’s shown the ability to make big plays in the passing game this season. Williams has caught 90 passes for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns. That includes a three touchdown performance against South Carolina, and a 202 yard game in Clemson’s only loss against Pitt.

Statistically, Williams has been a top 25 receiver this season for Clemson. In order to beat Alabama, though, the Tigers will need him to be a superstar.

O.J. Howard, tight end, Alabama

Howard came away wth MVP honors in last season’s national championship game. After a season that didn’t see him find the end zone, Howard busted onto the scene with a 208 yard and two touchdown performance against the Tigers.

He solidified himself as a big-game player and lived up to his five-star hype. Though it’s worth noting that 2016 has been somewhat quiet again, at least in terms of touchdowns. In 14 games this season, Howard has caught 41 passes for 489 yards, but he’s only found the end zone twice.

Still, he proved last year that he can gash Clemson for major yards and big plays. Though the Tigers will likely be keyed in on him this time around, would anybody be surprised if he had another big game?

You shouldn’t be. Saban’s the type of coach to go back to Howard (a lot) just to prove a point: His team is better than yours, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Ben Boulware, linebacker, Clemson

Alabama’s defense tends to get a lot of credit, but with a dual-threat quarterback who can score just as easily with his feet as with his arm and plenty of weapons around him, Clemson is going to need somebody, anybody, to step up on its defense.

The likely candidate in that regard is senior linebacker Ben Boulware, who has been a beast for Clemson all year.

Boulware led the Tigers in tackles with 110 total (54 solo) and he averaged 8.46 tackles per game. If somebody’s going to get a body on Alabama’s play-makers on offense, it’s going to be him.

Hurt and the Tide backfield will to have to keep a keen eye out for No. 10. He finished sixth on the team in tackles for loss with 9.5 and was fourth in sacks with four for minus-32 yards. And just in case you were thinking Alabama may try to avoid him in the box, keep in mind he did notch a pass broken up, three forced fumbles and an interception this season.

Boulware is a true linebacker, in that he’s always around the ball — wherever it is. He’ll be one of the keys for Clemson against a very good Alabama offense.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, cornerback, Alabama

Alabama’s front seven will get after Watson and the Clemson backfield, but the Tigers’ quarterback proved last season that he can hurt the Tide through the air while moving around in the pocket. With that in mind, Minkah Fitzpatrick is going to have to end up playing a huge role for Alabama if the Tide want to repeat.

To good news is, Fitzpatrick is certainly used to making plays and playing in big games — even as a sophomore. He was a freshman All-American last season for the Tide and started in the title game win over Clemson.

This season, he’s been one of the top cover players for Alabama. He’s notched six interceptions, which leads the team, and has taken two back to the house. He’s also broken up seven passes officially, was fourth on the team in tackles with 62 (38 solo), and he forced one fumble.

Fitzpatrick is still a season away from the NFL, so watch him play for the Tide while you can. And if Alabama is able to slow Watson down, he’ll be one of the major reasons why.

About the author

Andrew Kulha