X-Factors for the College Football Playoff Semis
The College Football Playoff is near, and everybody wants to know if we're going to see a rematch of the Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship Game or if Michigan or especially Cincinnati can spoil that party.
If either program is going to on New Year's Eve, it'll be up to a select handful of players.
In some cases, these players are disrupters. In others, they're doubted. In all instances, their importance is vital. The players in this list have the potential for big games, but if they don't produce, it could mean big trouble for their teams. There is one offensive and defensive player picked for each playoff squad.
A couple of players—Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and Cincinnati defensive back Coby Bryant—were already discussed last week in our top players and underrated stars to watch during the '21 bowl season, so we won't rehash them, though their importance is paramount.
Who are the others? Let's take a look at some of the biggest X-factors for each team.
Will Anderson Jr., Alabama Edge
Will Anderson Jr. is a bad man. He may be playing with a chip on his shoulder this playoff season, and that's scary news for the No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats.
The true sophomore who anchors the Crimson Tide defense had a massive season, won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award and was a unanimous All-American, but he was snubbed for many of college football's top awards.
He watched as Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson got invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony as a finalist. He didn't win the Butkus Award, given to college football's best linebacker; the Lott IMPACT Trophy; or the Bednarik Award, given to the best defensive player. Instead, the Bednarik went to Georgia's Jordan Davis.
Anderson recorded an astounding 91 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks and nine quarterback hurries in 2021. His total sacks and tackles for loss led the nation. Now, he'll go up against a Group of Five offensive line that has experienced difficulties with consistency throughout the year.
The Bearcats have not seen anyone like Anderson either. If he can wreak havoc the way he's capable of, quarterback Desmond Ridder and Co. are going to have a tough time.
David Ojabo, Michigan Edge
You're thinking about Aidan Hutchinson. I'm thinking about Aidan Hutchinson. Georgia is thinking about Aidan Hutchinson, and there's nothing wrong with that. The edge-rusher was the Heisman Trophy runner-up, and he's a defensive force every team has to scheme around.
But don't forget about David Ojabo.
The Michigan Wolverines' defensive success rotates largely around Hutchinson's leadership. But somebody else must take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves when teams pay extra attention Hutchinson, and the man on the other edge has blown through that door.
Ojabo, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Scotland, is probably going to be selected high in the NFL draft after his performance this year, and the 6'5", 250-pound defender has come a long way since his days as a raw, basketball-first high school prospect.
He tied for 10th nationally in sacks with 11, and while he didn't disrupt the offense the way Hutchinson did, he was the perfect complementary piece. With the No. 3-ranked Georgia Bulldogs needing to make sure they neutralize Hutchinson first, Ojabo could find himself more free to fly off the edge.
A big game from him could go a long way in making it a tough day for Stetson Bennett.
Kelee Ringo, Georgia Defensive Back
Lewis Cine is the star of the defensive backfield. Christopher Smith is a wily veteran who has experienced a lot of big days (and some bad ones) this year. But after a lopsided loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, UGA's vaunted defense showed some dents in the armor.
The biggest of those are in the secondary, which played like it isn't as good as its No. 3 ranking suggests.
Now, the Bulldogs are going against a Michigan team not known for taking the lid off the defense, but if the Dawgs do what they've done all year against the run, Cade McNamara and Co. are going to have to generate some downfield attack to win.
That's where redshirt freshman and 5-star talent Kelee Ringo comes in.
He has 27 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and seven passes broken up this season, but he has the potential to make a much bigger impact on the games than he has.
Georgia proved against Alabama that it needs more playmakers on the back end. A play from Ringo and Co. could turn the fortunes of this game against Michigan and send Georgia into a shot for the national championship.
Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati Cornerback
When it comes to Cincinnati's chances of toppling the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide, it's not a cop-out to talk about two defensive backs.
Yes, Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Coby Bryant was discussed last week, but his teammate Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner is just as important and may be the better shutdown corner.
They both have next-level potential, and they are both going to be important cogs in slowing down Alabama Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and his receivers, led by Jameson Williams. It's tough that John Metchie III (ACL) is expected to miss the game, but plenty of weapons remain.
Quarterbacks largely avoided targeting Gardner throughout the year, giving Bryant opportunities on which he capitalized. Look for Alabama to go right at both of them, especially if they mix coverages to shadow Williams.
It would be the most Alabama thing ever to not click as well as it usually does in the passing game before dominating on the ground. But Gardner and Co. want to make Alabama rely on the run. The Tide have a top-10 passing offense but are just 79th in rushing.
If he has a big game, Gardner will ride it into the first round of the 2022 NFL draft.
Ja'Corey Brooks, Alabama Wide Receiver
The great Alabama Football Factory has found a fruitful supply line of wide receivers from the Sunshine State.
Every year, it seems, head coach Nick Saban has another weapon emerge from Florida.
Though this year's star (Jameson Williams) hails from St. Louis, you should remember a Miami native who played at IMG Academy. That would be 6'2", 190-pound true freshman Ja'Corey Brooks.
The 5-star prospect was the nation's second-ranked receiving prospect in last year's class, and though he has just five catches for 79 yards this season, two of those came in the Tide's last-minute, come-from-behind win over Auburn. One of those receptions was a 28-yard game-tying touchdown with 24 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.
"He made a really big play," quarterback Bryce Young told AL.com's Mike Rodak. “We had a one-on-one matchup, and I had faith in Ja'Corey to win that matchup."
Brooks followed those heroics with a quiet one-catch performance in the SEC Championship Game, but he has big-play ability. With John Metchie III out, Slade Bolden figures to get a lot more reps. But Brooks could be called upon for the downfield threat. Circle his name. This game could be one to remember.
Cade McNamara, Michigan Quarterback
"He's a game manager." "He does everything coach Jim Harbaugh asks him to do, but he doesn't do too much." "He's just keeping the seat warm for J.J. McCarthy."
You've heard it all when it comes to Michigan starting quarterback Cade McNamara. At every turn, though, he's silenced the doubters and then some.
The 6'1", 212-pound junior from Reno, Nevada, has thrown for 2,470 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions this year. He's led a decisive, methodical offense that does rely heavily on the run, and he's done so while minimizing mistakes.
But he's also shown everybody that he's plenty capable of making big plays, even without putting up big numbers, including when he threw three touchdowns in a 21-17 win over Penn State when the Wolverines' rushing attack wasn't working. Or his 14-yard completion on 3rd-and-8 against Nebraska on the go-ahead touchdown drive.
Sure, Harbaugh sprinkles in a little of McCarthy's uber-athleticism and big arm throughout the game plan, but this is McNamara's team.
Can he do enough to beat the nation's second-ranked defense with pass-rushers breathing down his neck? If he can get the Wolverines a spot in the national championship game, it'll be the ultimate silencer.
Nobody is expecting McNamara to put up monstrous yardage totals, but he's going to have to make some massive plays and keep his head for Michigan to win this game. Can he elevate his play to another level? That may be what it takes.
George Pickens, Georgia Wide Receiver
George Pickens' ability is as tantalizing as any wide receiver in college football.
The junior pass-catcher missed most of the season after tearing his ACL in a spring practice, and while the Bulldogs were anything but explosive on offense, coordinator Todd Monken schemed around his loss with guys like tight end Brock Bowers and receivers Ladd McConkey, Adonai Mitchell and Jermaine Burton.
But Pickens returned in time for the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech. In the SEC Championship Game against Alabama, he recorded two catches for 41 yards.
No other receiver besides Alabama's Jameson Williams has the raw athleticism of Pickens. As he gets reacclimated and trusts his knee more, he could be a game-changing elite force. Just remember the 2019 Sugar Bowl win over Baylor in which he was unstoppable with 12 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown.
As SI.com's Evan Crowell noted, "Expecting him to pick up where he left off is unreasonable for most, though George Pickens is not your common athlete and he could still make a crucial difference in postseason play."
Pickens is a first-round talent who has been an afterthought much of the season. You can bet he's giving Michigan defensive coaches fits right now.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati Quarterback
When Desmond Ridder decided to return to Cincinnati for another season, he had a special finale in mind. This year should certainly suffice.
The No. 4 Bearcats became the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff, and they shrugged off a late-season lull to look like they're playing some of their best football entering the semifinal showdown against Alabama.
That's a good thing because Nick Saban's seasoned program is used to winning championships.
Alabama's defense has been playing much better lately, but it has been vulnerable at times throughout the year. Now the unit will face a quarterback who can beat them with his arm or his legs. Ridder could use this as a showcase game for NFL scouts, but most importantly, it could be a springboard to the national title.
So far this season, he has thrown for 3,190 yards and 30 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He has 361 rushing yards and six more scores. He's going to have to do a little more on the ground and make sure he takes care of the ball against the Tide's talented secondary if Cincy is going to overcome being nearly two-touchdown underdogs.
It's going to take the game of Ridder's life to beat Alabama. He's capable, but with an offensive line that has been up-and-down in 2021, he may have to do it running.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.