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Travin Dural, O.J. Howard among CFB bowl season X-factors

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Soon after the bowl pairings were announced Dec. 7, attention turned away from team-vs.-team talk and moved to the intriguing individual matchups that will be on display in the postseason.


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Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will face off in what will be just the third bowl meeting between Heisman winners. We'll see Melvin Gordon vs. Nick Marshall in a battle of big-play guys and Connor Cook vs. Bryce Petty in a high-level quarterback duel. Justin Hardy will battle Vernon Hargreaves III in an intriguing receiver-cornerback matchup. We'll also see Ronnie Stanley vs. Danielle Hunter in what should be a highly competitive tackle-defensive end matchup as well as Ameer Abdullah vs. Javorius "Buck" Allen in a "Who gets more yards?" tailback battle.

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But while those individual matchups will go a long way toward determining who wins those games, you can single out one player on each of the 76 bowl teams who could play a surprisingly big part in his team winning. Let's call those the "X-factor" players, and here are 10 to keep an eye on during the bowl season.

East Carolina RB Breon Allen

Bowl game: Birmingham Bowl vs. Florida, Jan. 3.
The skinny: Allen, a senior who is a Florida native, sometimes is a forgotten man in the Pirates' "Air Raid" attack. ECU throws the ball on 59 percent of its plays from scrimmage, but Allen has been the ball carrier on a third of the Pirates' rushing attempts and averages 6.5 yards per carry. As prolific as ECU QB Shane Carden and WR Justin Hardy are, ECU is not going to beat Florida strictly throwing the ball. That's where Allen comes in.

LSU WR Travin Dural

Bowl game: Music City Bowl vs. Notre Dame, Dec. 30.
The skinny: LSU is all about the run -- the Tigers run the ball 69 percent of the time -- but don't overlook Dural, a junior with speed and big-play ability. Notre Dame's defense has fallen apart, surrendering at least 31 points in seven consecutive games. But as weak as the Irish have been defensively, LSU isn't going to score 31 by being one-dimensional on offense. Dural's ability to get deep will be important for the Tigers.

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Bowl game: Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama, Jan. 1.
The skinny: Heuerman, a senior, is one of the better all-around tight ends in the nation. He's not necessarily a standout in any one facet of the game, but he does everything well -- run, block, catch, get open. He has been underutilized in the Buckeyes' offense this season (just 17 catches), but he has the ability to truly hurt the Tide's linebackers with his receiving ability. The Tide correctly will be focused on stopping guys such as Ezekiel Elliott and Devin Smith. But don't be surprised if Heuerman steps up and makes a big play or two.

Oregon CB Troy Hill

Bowl game: Rose Bowl vs. Florida State, Jan. 1.
The skinny: With Ducks star CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu done for the season (reportedly with a knee injury), Hill needs to step up and play at a high level against FSU's passing attack. If Hill struggles, that bodes ill for the Ducks' secondary -- and for their entire defense. In some respects, he's not necessarily an "X-factor" but rather a hugely important player. Still, whether he can play at the needed high level is an "X-factor" -- and could help determine the outcome.

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Alabama TE O.J. Howard

Bowl game: Sugar Bowl vs. Ohio State, Jan. 1.
The skinny: Both tight ends in the Sugar Bowl have been underutilized. At the same time, their teams are 12-1 and in the playoff, so it's hard to criticize the coaches. Howard is a physically gifted tight end with just 15 receptions this season. Yes, his blocking needs work. But he is freakishly athletic and fast for a man of his size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds), and as with Heuerman, don't be surprised if he steps up and makes a big play or two.

Memphis DE Martin Ifedi

Bowl game: Miami Beach Bowl vs. BYU, Dec. 22.
The skinny: Ifedi had 10.5 sacks as a junior last season and looked poised for an even bigger season this fall. But he has been bothered by a knee injury for much of the season (he missed all of three games and most of another). He has just two sacks and nine tackles for loss. But he remains a dangerous pass rusher and also is solid against the run. Ifedi has the athleticism to be moved around, and look for Tigers coaches to do just that against a sometimes-shaky BYU offensive line. BYU has allowed 34 sacks, and if Ifedi gets numerous one-on-one opportunities, he could equal or even surpass his season sack total in the bowl game. Memphis wins with its defense, and a big outing from Ifedi would go a long way toward nailing down the Tigers' 10th win of the season.

Florida State WR Travis Rudolph

Bowl game: Rose Bowl vs. Oregon, Jan. 1.
The skinny: FSU has suffered at times this season (then again, how much has an unbeaten team truly suffered?) because of the lack of a consistent No. 2 wide receiver. Senior Rashad Greene is the go-to guy, but unlike last season, when he had Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw as secondary targets, Jameis Winston hasn't been able to always count on any other wide receivers. Rudolph, a highly touted true freshman, has come on of late, and he needs to continue that in the Rose Bowl. More than a third of Rudolph's receptions (13 of 32) have come in the past four games, and he has shown he can both get deep and settle in as a check-down target against a zone. Greene and TE Nick O'Leary offer an effective 1-2 punch. But FSU needs a third receiver to come through against Oregon, and Rudolph is the most likely guy to do so.


» Predictions for every CFB bowl game


Georgia Tech WR Darren Waller

Bowl game: Orange Bowl vs. Mississippi State, Dec. 31.
The skinny: The Yellow Jackets win because of their triple-option rushing attack, but there's no doubt it's easier to win when they can hit a big pass or two. With leading receiver DeAndre Smelter out with a knee injury, it's up to Waller, a physical senior, to provide those big receptions. He has just 21 catches this season, but five have gone for TDs, including one scoring catch in each of the past two games. Waller plays because he is a good blocker, but Mississippi State's secondary -- which has been lax at times this season -- can't fall asleep on him in the Orange Bowl.

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Ole Miss TB Jaylen Walton

Bowl game: Peach Bowl vs. TCU, Dec. 31.
The skinny: It might be stretching it a bit to say a leading rusher is a team's "X-factor," but that's the case with Mississippi. The Rebels have five players that have rushed for at least 213 yards and Walton, a 5-foot-8 junior, leads the way with just 583. He has rushed for 100 yards only once and at least 60 just four times. But taking pressure off senior QB Bo Wallace is the key, and if Walton can do that effectively -- say, run for 50-plus yards -- it will help the Rebels immeasurably against TCU. "Stopping Walton" is not necessarily going to be high on TCU's defensive priority list, given Wallace's dual-threat ability, but "Getting Walton going" should be high on the Rebels' offensive to-do list for this game.

Minnesota TE Maxx Williams

Bowl game: Citrus Bowl vs. Missouri, Jan. 1.
The skinny: Williams is the third tight end on this list -- and he also is the third tight end who was underutilized in his team's offense. He plays for a run-heavy team (Minnesota runs the ball on 72 percent of its plays from scrimmage) and has just 29 receptions. But seven of those have gone for TDs, and Williams was a finalist for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end. Mizzou will be focused on stopping star RB David Cobb, who makes the offense go. But the Tigers' linebackers and safeties also will need to keep Williams under wraps. Williams is a good blocker, which helps Cobb. In turn, that enables the Gophers to use play action, and that's when Williams becomes dangerous.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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