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Orange Bowl 2018: Underrated Stars to Watch and Picks in Alabama vs. Oklahoma

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2018

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 10:  Josh Jacobs #8 of the Alabama Crimson Tide is tackled by Grant Harris #90 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Outside of the eventual college football National Championship Game, the Orange Bowl appears to be the crown jewel of the 2018-19 Bowl Season.

The No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide and No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners are set to take to Miami with a National Championship berth on the line. 

It's the game with the most star power in the bowl season. Names like Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts and Marquise "Hollywood" Brown have dominated the landscape throughout the year. 

In a game featuring the two most prolific offenses in college football, there are plenty of recognizable names. But in a contest with teams this talented, there are always a few players that might slip through the cracks that will have a big impact on the game. 

Here's a look at a few guys that don't necessarily dominate the headlines but could play a big role in determining who will go on to the championship. 

     

Oklahoma H-Back Carson Meier

LUBBOCK, TX - NOVEMBER 03: Carson Meier #45 of the Oklahoma Sooners gains yardage after making the catch during the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on November 3, 2018 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. Oklahoma defeated Texas Tech 51-46. (P
John Weast/Getty Images

Most of Oklahoma's star power resides on the offensive side, but it's actually not too hard to spotlight someone who doesn't get enough credit for what the Sooners do with the ball.

Head coach Lincoln Riley's offense might have a reputation for throwing it around with great success, but what makes it really hard to stop is a demoralizing ground game. 

H-Back Carson Meier is a key player in both that dazzling pass game and devastating run game. He will move all over formations to give the Sooners a numbers advantage in the box, help with pass protection or even reel in some clutch passes. 

Meier doesn't get many targets, but when he does, something good is happening. He has 16 catches on the season; 10 have gone for at least 15 yards and four have been touchdowns. 

Riley has been complimentary of his big senior target, praising him for putting together a final campaign as a Sooner. 

"Sometimes, guys seem to get to that senior year and they haven't had a huge role on the team and they gain that opportunity and they gain some confidence, and they get as invested as they've ever been and they play some of the best ball of their lives," Riley said, per Tyler Palmateer of the Norman Transcript.

"That's what he's doing right now. He's blocked really well. That's a very demanding position mentally with all that we put on those guys. ... I would say the big bonus has been how much of a threat he's become as a receiver. He's made some game-changing plays for us there."

It's going to take a massive offensive effort for Oklahoma to keep pace with Alabama, and a lot of that starts with Meier having a great game blocking, running routes and making the occasional big catch. 

       

Oklahoma DL Kenneth Mann

AMES, IA - SEPTEMBER 15: Quarterback Zeb Noland #4 of the Iowa State Cyclones passes the ball under pressure from defensive lineman Kenneth Mann #55 of the Oklahoma Sooners as offensive lineman Josh Knipfel #66 of the Iowa State Cyclones blocks in the sec
David Purdy/Getty Images

There's no question this game's biggest mismatch is the Oklahoma defense trying to stop the Alabama offense. The Sooners' much-maligned defense gave up an unimpressive six yards per play this season while the Tide's offense ranked second in yards per play.

In short, Oklahoma's defense has underperformed for most of the year. However, there is talent among the Sooners' ranks. Players like Kenneth Mann will have to step up when it matters most to slow down the Tide. 

Mann's stat line is nothing to get excited about. He has 47 tackles, one sack, and 5.5 tackles for a loss on the season, but his biggest plays have come in big moments. 

His only forced fumble of the season came at a point in the game where the West Virginia Mountaineers were within striking distance and Oklahoma was up 52-49, thus eliminating the Mountaineers' shot at a comeback. 

When Army nearly took the Sooners' playoff dream before it even started in the regular season, it was Mann who picked off a Knights pass on 3rd-and-14 from the Oklahoma 34-yard line. 

If someone on the roster is going to have a come-out-of-nowhere game to make a big impact, it's Mann. 

     

Alabama RB Josh Jacobs

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 24:  Josh Jacobs #8 of the Alabama Crimson Tide draws a facemask penalty as he is tackled by Daniel Thomas #24 and Montavious Atkinson #48 of the Auburn Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 24, 2018 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It's usually pretty difficult to make a case for an Alabama running back being "underrated," but the title fits just fine with junior Josh Jacobs. 

Jacobs was an unheralded recruit out of Oklahoma when he came to Tuscaloosa, now he's a big-time playmaker for the Tide within the role he's been given. Jacobs is just third on the team in carries, but he has found the end zone 11 times on just 94 carries. 

But his biggest contribution might be on special teams, where he is one of the best kick returners in the country at more than 30 yards per return. 

His teammates praise him for doing the things great teammates do that don't show up in the box score as well. 

"He's playing unbelievable football right now," said fellow Alabama running mate Najee Harris, per Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com. "Yeah, he does things he gets a lot of credit for, like scoring touchdowns and making big returns in the return game, but he also does the dirty work that no one really sees. Someone who does all those things and not ask for more credit than what they're getting gets a lot of credit amongst the team."

The Tide are going to be facing the best offense they've seen. While they are the favorites, they will need to bring their firepower to the game, and Jacobs is one of the team's best playmakers despite a relatively small role. 

Whether it be big kick returns that give Bama field position, his nose for the end zone or his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, Jacobs can be a difference-maker in this game for the Tide. 

      

Prediction

This looks a lot like last year's playoff matchup for Oklahoma. The Sooners' offense is undoubtedly playoff worthy. Baker Mayfield and Co. proved that they could score on a high-level SEC defense in a shootout, but the defense ultimately betrayed them. 

This year, the offense is actually a bit better statistically with Murray manning the helm. But that defense is even more troublesome, and Alabama's offense is even better than Georgia's was last season.

Tagovailoa has taken that offense to another level, and Oklahoma's defense simply doesn't appear ready to get the stops it will need to keep this game close down the stretch. 

Expect fireworks on both sides at the beginning of the game before Alabama wins a war of offensive attrition. 

Alabama 45, Oklahoma 31

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