4 Georgia, Alabama football players who could be X-factors in the 2022 CFP national championship
INDIANAPOLIS — In a rematch for the national title, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart will undoubtedly fine-tune their respective game plans to limit the star players against whom their teams have already matched up.
That's only natural, 38 days after Alabama (13-1) and Georgia (13-1) played in the SEC Championship Game.
Everyone knows Alabama's Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. Everyone knows Georgia's Brock Bowers and Jordan Davis. But this national championship game will be loaded with other talent, even if all the names aren't as recognizable.
Here are four X-factors whose impact could decide the game Monday (7 p.m., ESPN) at Lucas Oil Stadium — one on offense and defense for each team.
Alabama offense: OL Seth McLaughlin
SEC football games are so often won or lost in the trenches. Alabama's inconsistent offensive line nearly cost the Crimson Tide games in the regular season. Then it delivered in the SEC Championship Game, bringing its best performance against Georgia's awe-inspiring defense. Center Seth McLaughlin was a big part of that, making his first career start with Darrian Dalcourt injured. McLaughlin stabilized the Crimson Tide's pass protection and run blocking, and he continued to fill the role effectively in the Cotton Bowl. Young is considerably better with a clean pocket. Alabama needs another epic outing from the line, and McLaughlin will be at the proverbial (and literal) center of that effort.
Georgia defense: CB Derion Kendrick
The majority of Georgia buzz surrounds its imposing front seven against the run. But Alabama shredded the Bulldogs' secondary through the air last time.
Even among Georgia's defensive backs, safety Lewis Cine has emerged as the premier name, but former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick will play a vital role. He is thought to be a rising second-round draft pick. That talent will often be on the same side of the field as Alabama's first-round receiver talent, Jameson Williams. With John Metchie III injured, all Georgia's attention now is on containing Williams' speed. The Dawgs will likely throw a number of coverage looks and matchups at him, but Kendrick is certain to be involved. His two interceptions helped carry Georgia in the semifinal against Michigan. Now can he rise to the occasion against the receiver who torched him and his teammates one month ago?
Georgia offense: RB James Cook
The brother of Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook has carved out a place as Georgia's No. 2 rusher this season. Zamir White will get the majority of handoffs, but James Cook's involvement is pivotal because of his versatility. He has 25 receptions for 269 yards this season, including a colossal Orange Bowl performance in which he was responsible for 144 total yards (112 receiving) and a receiving touchdown.
Cook had a season-high 11 carries but just 38 rushing yards in the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs need to mix him in with White, but most importantly, they need him as a receiving option out of the backfield to give Stetson Bennett another target. Bowers is elite, but Georgia's receiving room isn't a strength.
Alabama defense: LB Dallas Turner
Anderson was the focal point of this year's defensive-player-for-Heisman movement. And with good reason. But Alabama's edge linebacker on the opposite side is becoming a quiet difference-maker. Dallas Turner is a true freshman who only recorded stats in four of the first eight games this season.
Since then, he has exploded with 6.5 sacks in the last six games. He had one tackle against Georgia in December. It was a sack. He had one tackle against Cincinnati. It was a sack. Expect the freshman to drop in at a crucial moment again, especially if Georgia's efforts are focused on Anderson. A big defensive play can swing a game.