As the clock ticks down on the kickoff to the BCS National Championship Game between Alabama and Notre Dame, much will be written about stars like Everett Golson, Manti Te'o, A.J. McCarron and Dee Milliner, but a matchup like this will come down to the unheralded players.
Alabama and Notre Dame are about as evenly matched as any two teams in recent BCS National Championship Game memory. Neither team has a dynamic, explosive offense. However, because the defenses are so good, they can put up a lot of points in a hurry.
Expecting a lot of points in this game will leave you feeling numb. Nick Saban and Brian Kelly are masters of highlighting the positives for their team and exploiting the weaknesses in the opposition.
In anticipation of this epic, sure-to-be-classic matchup, here are the X-factors worth keeping an eye on that will play a huge role in the outcome.
Alabama Crimson Tide
This is a bit of a cop out, as it is not just one player, but the play in the trenches in a physical game like this is going to be critical.
Alabama's defense has struggled to get pressure on the quarterback at times this season, leaving the secondary to do more work in coverage.
On the flip side, Notre Dame's defense finished tied for 14th with 34 sacks this season. The Irish can create pressure either by bringing extra defenders into the box or by overpowering slower opponents with their line alone.
Fortunately, the Crimson Tide have one of the best offensive lines in college football. Chance Warmack is going to be a high NFL draft pick in April, and he will be tasked with opening holes for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, who combined to run for 2,182 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Wide Receiver Kenny Bell
Alabama's offense is predicated on the run, but that doesn't mean Nick Saban is afraid to turn A.J. McCarron loose when the situation calls for it. He has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in all of college football this season, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes with a 26-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
When McCarron does drop back, one of the best weapons he has on the outside is Kenny Bell. The junior wide receiver finished just sixth on the team with 17 receptions, yet he was first with a 25.4 yards per reception average. He also turned three of those catches into touchdowns.
In a close defensive struggle, there are not likely to be many big plays down the field. If Alabama does find an opening, it must take advantage of it. Bell is the best big-play threat the Crimson Tide have at wide receiver, so he must find a way to get behind the secondary.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Defensive End Stephon Tuitt
We all know about Manti Te'o because he is the clear star of the defense for Notre Dame. It also helps that he plays a glamour position like linebacker, which affords him the opportunity to move all over the field.
The defensive line, led by Tuitt, has been the lynchpin for all that Notre Dame wants to do on defense. They get great push up front because of their size in the middle and speed off the edges.
Tuitt is the best sack artist on the Notre Dame defensive line, as he had 12 during the regular season. He needs to create constant pressure on McCarron when the Alabama QB does drop back to pass, and he must be a disruptive presence in the backfield when Lacy gets the ball.
Kicker Kyle Brindza
You knew we couldn't get through an entire article without talking about at least one kicker. Alabama has been so efficient on offense that there weren't many opportunities for Jeremy Shelley to show his stuff. He only attempted 11 field goals during the regular season but made them all.
Notre Dame's offense is not nearly as efficient at turning possessions into touchdowns, leaving it to rely on special teams a lot.
Brindza has performed admirably this season, making 23 of his 31 attempts. He is money inside of 30 yards, as you would expect, making 11 of 12 attempts. Beyond 30 yards is where he has gotten in trouble. He went just 12-for-19 on attempts of at least 30 yards.
In a game where you know points are going to be difficult to come by, the kickers are going to play a role in the outcome. Shelley has yet to attempt a field goal this season longer than 40 yards, while Brindza has been shaky in spots.