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College Football National Championship Game Preview: How to Watch and Key Players and Coaches

Who might affect whether Alabama or Clemson goes home with the national title after tonight? Here are a few candidates

Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

In less than 12 hours, the College Football Playoff National Championship Game between Alabama and Clemson will kick off, and the 2015 season will be a few hours away from its official close. There's been plenty said and written about the game over the last week, but here's a final look at some of the coaches and players who could change the course of the game.

THE VETERAN
Nick Saban, Head Coach, Alabama
Love him or hate him, it's difficult to regard what Nick Saban has done at Alabama without at least a touch of awe. In an era that seems almost built to deny coaches a long run of sustained success at a single program, Saban has built a powerhouse and is going for his fourth national title in seven seasons. The Tide has appeared in the SEC or national title game (or both) in all but three of Saban's nine years in Tuscaloosa. It's tricky to compare any coach to Bear Bryant while that coach is still in the game -- recency bias and all -- but it's getting to ignore that Saban has done almost as much with more limitations and obstacles than Bryant ever faced.

THE DEPARTURE
Kirby Smart, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
The new head coach of Georgia has faced some criticism for coaching the Tide's defense for its final two games. (Much of it overblown, in the opinion of your humble correspondent.) But Smart got the job at his alma mater -- and probably would have had another head coaching job if not that one -- in large part because of what he's done in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban is the architect of the Crimson Tide's defense and has more than a little input in what goes on, but Smart deserves a good bit of the credit for the side of the ball that has driven much of Alabama's recent success. We'll find out soon enough whether Smart can run his own team, but he's one of the better No. 2s in the game.

THE ALUM
Dabo Swinney, Head Coach, Clemson
It would be easy to characterize Swinney as overly emotional and not too bright, given his outbursts in post-game settings and the verbal feuds with Steve Spurrier that he didn't generally win. But it would also be a mistake. Swinney has made the Tigers relevant again in a way that his two predecessors didn't, going 75-26 over seven-and-a-half seasons and winning four division titles and two conference championships. Oh, and he has his team in the national championship game this year. Swinney was also a wide receiver on the Alabama team that won a national title in 1992; defeating his alma mater to claim Clemson's second championship in school history would make a victory Monday night even more special.

Dabo
Tommy Gilligan -- USA Today Sports

THE DUO
Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, Co-Offensive Coordinators, Clemson
The co-coordinating system doesn't always work out, and Scott and Elliott took over for Chad Morris, one of the better offensive minds in the game. (Whether he's that good of a head coach is still to be determined after a lackluster first season at SMU.) But the pair -- teammates on the Clemson football team as players -- has thrived. Scott and Elliott have overseen an offense that amassed a gobstopping 7,168 yards this year while averaging 6.4 yards a carry. There are also plenty of school records and Top 10 lists that will need to be updated in next year's media guides thanks in part to these two.

THE HEISMAN WINNER
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Snipe at whether he should have won college football's biggest individual award all you want; Henry has put together a fantastic year and helped power the Crimson Tide to the last game of the season. He's run for 2,061 yards -- the first 2,000-yard season in SEC history -- and 25 touchdowns on 359 attempts. Carrying the ball that many times in major college football without breaking is enough to earn respect. Can Alabama win without Henry having a blockbuster day? The beatdown of Michigan State would seem to indicate the answer is yes. The Spartans held Henry to 75 yards on 20 carries and still lost handily. But there's no reason to try to win without Henry if he can get going.

Henry
Butch Dill -- USA Today Sports

THE TRANSFER
Jake Coker, QB, Alabama
The weak link for Alabama is supposed to be the Tide's passing attack -- and that hasn't looked like much of a weak link the last couple of games. In the SEC Championship Game against Florida and the semifinal against Michigan State, Coker went a combined 43-of-56 passing for 490 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. The Florida State transfer isn't going to light up the stat sheet -- he's passed for more than 250 yards just twice this season -- but when the Spartans found a way to limit Henry, Coker shined (with some help from his receivers). Alabama fans would just as soon Lane Kiffin RUN THE DANG BALL, but there are reasons to think the Tide will be okay if they have to throw it a few times.

THE LATE BLOOMER
Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Nick Saban's Alabama program has become synonymous in many corners with a tough defense and a grinding running game, and those are certainly the key building blocks. But the Tide has also had some great wide receivers come through, including Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. It's too early to put Calvin Ridley in the same sentence with those two players, but the five-star wide receiver has shown some flashes of promise this year. And he ended the season with perhaps his best three-game stretch, catching 22 passes for 330 yards and a couple of touchdowns. That put his numbers for the year at 83 catches for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns.

Ridley
Jerome Miron -- USA Today Sports

THE INSTAGRAM STAR
Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama
With two words -- "Alabama does" -- and some snappy editing by someone, Jonathan Allen became a social media sensation after the Tide's beatdown of Michigan State. Well before that, Allen was gaining headlines for his play. While it's hard to single out anyone on Alabama's defense, Allen had 12 sacks among his 14.5 tackles for loss this season and is credited with another six quarterback hurries. He also broke up four passes and forced a pair of fumbles. Given that the explosive Clemson offense runs through the Tigers' quarterback, Allen and his teammates are going to have to get some pressure.

THE FINALIST
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
No team is built on one player, but there's no doubt that Watson is the center of the Tigers' offense. Passing the ball? He's 303-of-444 for 3,699 yards and 31 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Running the ball? He's the No. 2 rusher on the Clemson offense, carrying the ball 187 times for 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns, even if you count sacks as runs. Put the two together and you have the most total offense generated by a single player in ACC history. And while getting 301 yards passing against Alabama's defense is no easy task, if Watson could do so, he would "become the first player in FBS history with 4000 yards passing and 1000 yards rushing in a season," per Clemson. Yes, caveats about the number of games and all that -- but even getting close to that mark is an accomplishment.

THE OTHER GUY
Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
On just about any other team in America, Wayne Gallman would be the star. Gallman has run for 1,482 yards and 12 touchdowns on 269 carries -- a school record. He's run for more than 100 yards nine times in 13 games (didn't play against Wake Forest), including 187 yards on 28 carries against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game and 150 yards on 26 carries against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. In other words, Gallman has shown up for the Tigers' biggest games of the season.

Gallman
Kim Klement -- USA Today Sports

THE CONNECTION
Artavis Scott, WR, Clemson
The receiver that Watson targets the most is not likely to blow anyone away with his explosiveness; Artavis Scott averages just 9.8 yards a catch. But he's caught the ball and caught the ball and caught the ball some more -- 89 times for a total of 868 yards and five touchdowns. Scott grabbed the ball fewer than five times against just three opponents this year: Georgia Tech (four), Miami (one) and South Carolina (three). While the receivers who pile up yardage are always going to get the headlines, a consistent wideout can be just as valuable, and Clemson has one of those.

THE WRECKING BALL
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
The Tigers offense gets a lot of the attention, and deservedly so, but the defense is also a great unit, and Lawson is perhaps the best player on that unit. He has 10.5 sacks this season, including at least one in eight of the Tigers' 13 games. Only one opponent (Florida State) avoided giving up at least one of Lawson's 23.5 tackles for loss. Even against Oklahoma, where he only played six snaps because of an injury, Lawson had four tackles and a snap. And Lawson is expected to take the field Monday despite that injury.