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Six biggest X-factors in CFB Playoff

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

College Football Playoff commences

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The College Football Playoff commences on Saturday with a semifinal doubleheader. No. 3 Notre Dame and second-ranked Clemson begin the festivities in the Cotton Bowl. Capping the action are Oklahoma and defending champ Alabama.

Some sportsbooks are already penciling in the Tigers and Crimson Tide as the grand finale matchup. However, there are some X-factors at play to consider. Some could lead to the underdog Sooners pulling the upset.

The same goes for the Fighting Irish, though they’ll need that hereditary luck more than Oklahoma will. Below is a closer look at the biggest CFP X-factors.

 

Tua Tagovailoa’s health

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Not only has Tagovailoa dealt with a nagging knee problem all year, but he also had surgery on December 2 to address a high ankle sprain.

This will affect his ability to scramble. His mechanics have been compromised for about a month. He has a matter of weeks to recover. It may take 40-plus points to advance past the CFP semifinals.

Thankfully Tagovailoa has the benefit of a phenomenal supporting cast and deepest receiving corps in the country. Plus, that ubiquitous, downhill Crimson Tide rushing attack isn’t going anywhere.

While it’s possible for Jalen Hurts to step in if needed to advance past Oklahoma, it’s vital Tagovailoa is at least close to the best version of himself as a player if Alabama is meant to win a third national championship in four years.

 

Will Lawrence’s talent trump experience?

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Let’s be clear: true freshman Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is in the lineup for a reason. His arm talent is off the charts. When analysts and scouts say, “generational prospect,” it’s typically hyperbole. This isn’t the case here.

Barring a downright calamity, Lawrence will be the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. How soon he realizes the potential to merit that status, of course, is a titillating question.

Lawrence just hasn’t been here before. Is he ready? From a big picture perspective, it’s a win-win for Clemson, really.

If the lights are too bright for Lawrence, it’s the best possible learning experience for growth and playoff success the next two seasons. If he’s ready to rock, look for Lawrence to have a Tagovailoa-like coming-out party and lead the Tigers to a national championship.

 

Lincoln Riley’s schematic genius

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The dubious health of star receiver Marquise Brown — he’s dealing with a lower-leg injury — would be a bigger deal, except it doesn’t seem to matter who’s at Riley’s disposal. Oklahoma’s production remains elite and as exciting to watch as any offense in the sport.

Riley has now produced consecutive Heisman signal-callers in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. It’s not like Mayfield was made entirely by Riley: he was a No. 1 draft pick. Murray is also a unique talent and could go pro — if he chooses football over an MLB career.

But at some point, Riley needs greater credit for developing these superstars. They’ve set new records for passing efficiency. There’s a reason they’ve had such wide-open throws on myriad explosive plays.

Riley’s schemes have created mismatches all over the field, lifting the Sooners to the playoffs again despite an awful defense.

 

Dynamic, dominant defensive linemen

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Three of Clemson’s front four could be drafted in the first round this year: Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and perhaps Christian Wilkins. Austin Bryant is a likely Day 2 pick. The only concern: Lawrence’s recent failed drug test may dip his draft stock, and he’s been suspended from playing in the Cotton Bowl.

Quinnen Williams is a one-man Crimson Tide who could challenge to go first overall. His teammate, Raekwon Davis, shouldn’t last beyond the first day of the draft.

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery is a tremendous athlete for his size at 6-foot-7, 305 pounds. He could be an excellent value late first or early second round.

The only team that lacks a game-changing force in this area is Oklahoma. But the Sooners also have a field general uniquely qualified to avert potential chaos in the trenches.

 

Kyler Murray’s rushing ability

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The dual-threat Tagovailoa underwent surgery 27 days before kickoff. Lawrence has been discussed: a good, not great athlete. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book is slightly more fleet of foot than Lawrence without the freakish arm strength.

Murray, the freshly minted Heisman Trophy winner, is a different breed. He’s as good a thrower as anyone previously mentioned, and my goodness can he run. Murray is 4.4-40-fast. Maybe 4.3-ish (watch him fly here).

Bear in mind: in recent years, what are two of Alabama’s most memorable losses? To Johnny Manziel, true freshman Heisman winner, in 2012 in Tuscaloosa, and to Deshaun Watson-led Clemson in the national title game after the 2016 campaign.

Both Manziel and Watson devastated defenses as rushers and extended plays to make hay through the air. Murray is way faster, more agile and explosive than either of those guys. Look out.

 

Travis Etienne: Touchdown machine

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Alabama and Notre Dame have backfield committees, while Oklahoma benefits from Murray running so well. Clemson’s Etienne is the clear cream of the crop among CFP tailbacks.

Etienne has an uncanny nose for the end zone, but it’s not as if he’s some late-career Jerome Bettis. He’s not just plunging in. The electrifying sophomore averages a whopping 8.1 yards per carry.

For an inexperienced signal-caller like Lawrence, the Tigers couldn’t be more fortunate to have Etienne. His home run-hitting knack can’t be underestimated, and could contribute to turning at least one of the playoff openers into a blowout.

The more Etienne gets going, the further behind Clemson’s opponents will fall. Then that incredible Tigers defensive front can tee off in obvious passing situations.

 

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