he Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers are the best teams in college football this season, and one of the two will leave Monday night’s matchup as the national champions. While both squads have complete rosters full of top talent, a few key players have stood out this season.
CFP National Championship 2016: Alabama vs Clemson
When: Monday, January 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
Watch: ➡ ESPN or live stream at WatchESPN
Odds: Alabama (-6.5); over-under: 50.5
Even if you haven’t watched a single college football game all year, it will take only a few minutes to recognize the top talent for each team on both sides of the ball. The upcoming battle will feature game-changing offensive players who can make a huge impact with the ball in their hands as well as defensive stoppers who are seemingly all over the field.
While dozens of players could affect the game, here is a look at the top ones to watch for each team.
When listing the top players in the College Football Playoff title game, you have to start with Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry. The Alabama star leads the nation with 2,061 rushing yards and 25 rushing touchdowns, consistently putting up incredible production against just about any defense.
The team didn’t need him much in its blowout win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, but in the two previous games, Henry finished with 90 carries for 460 rushing yards, which would be a good season for a lot of players.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney noted the entire Alabama rushing attack is a challenge to stop, per Aaron Brenner of the Post and Courier:
While Kenyan Drake can make some plays and quarterback Jake Coker has shown the ability to spread the ball around the field, Henry is the key to the Tide offense. He is responsible for half of the team’s 50 offensive touchdowns this year and consistently makes big plays whenever the team needs one.
Henry doesn’t have elite speed or agility, but at 6’3″, 242 pounds, he is almost impossible to bring down. By the end of long games, Henry wears down opposing defenses, and the same could happen to Clemson.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
While Henry has been the best running back in college football this season, Clemson can counter with the top quarterback. Deshaun Watson was a Heisman finalist and the winner of the Davey O’Brien Award as the best quarterback in the country after an outstanding sophomore year.
Watson is a dual threat with the ability to pick up yards with both his arm and his legs. He enters the final game of the year with 3,699 passing yards and 1,032 rushing yards, becoming only the third person in FBS history to top 3,500 and 1,000 in a single season, per ESPN Stats & Info.
In addition to posting the big numbers, he also remained efficient while ranking fourth in the country in Total QBR, per ESPN.com.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban had high praise for the opposing passer, per TideSports.com:
Clemson has plenty of offensive weapons in Wayne Gallman, Jordan Leggett and others, but Watson will be the key for the Tigers on Monday.
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
The strength of Alabama’s defense is its defensive line, with future NFL stars such as A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed clogging up the middle and leaving no room for opposing teams to run. This makes things easier for the linebackers, although Reggie Ragland deserves a lot of credit for his own play this season.
The senior patiently waited for his chance to shine and took over as a leader on defense last season before turning into a star this year. He led the Crimson Tide with 97 tackles, and the Associated Press named him a first-team All-American.
Ragland has a wide skill set, but his most impressive attribute might be his ability to lock down runners and keep them from getting away. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network captured an impressive stop from earlier in the year:
Watson and Gallman create a dynamic rushing attack for Clemson, but Ragland could be a big part of keeping them in check.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
One of the big question marks for Clemson heading into the national title game is the health of defensive end Shaq Lawson. The All-American missed much of the Orange Bowl after suffering a knee injury and was questionable during the week, although he will likely play Monday, according to Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press.
This is big for the Tigers as they hope to slow down Alabama’s offense. While this is a challenge regardless of who is on the roster, it would be tougher without one of the nation’s top defensive players.
Lawson leads the team with 10.5 sacks as well as an incredible 23.5 tackles for loss. His 56 tackles are also impressive for a lineman, showcasing his ability to cover tons of ground.
Even when the junior doesn’t make the tackle, he is often disruptive enough by getting into the backfield and ruining an opposing offense’s game plan. As long as he is healthy, the Tigers have a chance to keep Alabama out of the end zone.