Biggest 2020 College Football X-Factors Who Could Have Been or Might Still Be
The odds that any form of a college football season will be played in 2020 seem to be getting worse by the minute. However, just like the band that kept playing while the Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean, we're pushing on.
For today's edition of "Suspending Disbelief," let's talk about X-factors—guys who aren't yet stars, but who likely need(ed) to be for their teams to live up to their potential.
Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State were well-established as the preseason favorites to reach the College Football Playoff. Those teams don't need X-factors to become the best in the country, so they won't be covered here.
However, there are more than a dozen teams just on the other side of that cut line who could vie for a national championship if just one breakout candidate hits the mark.
It's from that collection of teams that we've selected CFB's biggest X-factors and listed them in alphabetical order by school.
Please note this is not intended to capture every team with a decent shot at reaching college football's final four.
Of particular note, neither Oklahoma nor Penn State appears on the list, even though both would open the season in the AP Top 10. The teams making the cut simply have roster situations with clearer opportunities for X-factors to thrive.
Derick Hall and Coynis Miller Jr., DL, Auburn
The defensive line was Auburn's heart and soul last season. Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Co. made up for a hit-or-miss true freshman quarterback and a running game that was respectable but nothing compared to what the Tigers had in 2010, 2013 and 2016.
However, Auburn needs to figure out its front seven without Nick Coe, the No. 7 pick (Brown) and the No. 47 pick (Davidson) in the 2020 NFL draft.
In a world without COVID-19, perhaps true freshmen Zykeivous Walker and Jay Hardy would have been in the mix to help fill those voids. But Auburn didn't get a single spring practice in before everything got shut down, making it hard to imagine either newbie will vie for a starting job.
That probably means Derick Hall and Coynis Miller Jr. get promoted to starting jobs, despite a combined career total of 22 tackles with no sacks.
In fairness, though, that was probably more of a depth chart issue than an indictment of their potential. Miller was a top-150 overall recruit in 2018, as was Hall in 2019. Neither made much of an immediate impact, but the expectation has always been that they would eventually play a key part in this defense. If they're ready to do so in 2020, Auburn will be a tough out in a loaded division.
2020 Projection: 69 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks
Lorenzo Lingard, RB, Florida
The breakout potential is undeniable here.
Lorenzo Lingard was a 5-star recruit in the 2018 class and was expected by many to make an immediate impact as a true freshman with the Miami Hurricanes. However, he played sparingly early in 2018, suffered a season-ending knee injury and then never even got a touch last season—inexcusable if he was healthy, given how anemic Miami's running game was.
He transferred to Florida, was granted immediate eligibility and will look to make a fresh start elsewhere in the Sunshine State.
And the opportunity is certainly there for the taking with the Gators. Lamical Perine didn't put up particularly noteworthy numbers as a senior (676 yards, six touchdowns), but he was clearly No. 1 on the running back depth chart.
Dameon Pierce (305 yards, four touchdowns) becomes the presumed starter with Perine gone, but that's hardly a guarantee. Lingard could win that job if he can prove the knee injury is behind him. Even if he doesn't serve as the starter, he should feature prominently as the primary backup.
2020 Projection: 97 carries, 502 yards, six touchdowns
Cordale Flott, DB, LSU
To put it lightly, Cordale Flott will be tested.
Not only is he in the SEC where he'll need to face quarterbacks such as Kellen Mond, Kyle Trask and K.J. Costello, but he'll also be starting opposite arguably the best cornerback in the country, Derek Stingley Jr.—who those aforementioned talented quarterbacks will be trying to avoid as often as possible.
With 2020 second-round draft picks Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton out of the picture, a lot of that responsibility will fall on Flott's shoulders. And assuming the Tigers aren't going to have one of the greatest offenses of all time for a second consecutive year, they'll need the defense to be even better if they have hopes of repeating.
Flott certainly wasn't expected to be a key contributor as a true freshman last season. Rated as the 610th-best player in the 2019 class, he was only the fourth-highest rated cornerback in LSU's group of signees.
But he ended up seeing action in 13 games, including one start against Ole Miss. He made 15 tackles and defended four passes. He should see much more playing time.
2020 Projection: 43 tackles, nine passes defended, two interceptions
Braden Lenzy, WR, Notre Dame
For X-factor purposes, you've got to love a chunk-gain guy likely to be inheriting a larger role. And as the only player in at least two decades to join what I'm dubbing the 10-15-10-20 club, Braden Lenzy is certainly a chunk-gain guy.
Those numbers are, in order: rushing attempts, yards per carry, receptions and yards per catch.
Granted, he barely had 10 each of rushing attempts and receptions, accumulating just 13 of the former and 11 of the latter. It would be preposterous to expect him to maintain those averages while getting upward of 60-70 touches in 2020. Regardless of the sample size, though, it bears repeating that he's the only player to hit those marks since at least 2000, thanks to gaining at least 10 yards on 12 of his 24 touches.
And Notre Dame is in the market for impact performers after it lost each of its three leading receivers (Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet and Chris Finke) as well as its leading rusher (Tony Jones Jr.). Aside from the 546 rushing yards by quarterback Ian Book, Lenzy had, by far, more total yards from scrimmage (454) than any other returning member of the Fighting Irish.
The 5'11", 180-pounder didn't get a ton of attention last year, but thanks to similar size and speed, the comparisons to former Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller V (6'0", 184 lbs) will be frequent and inevitable. If you'll recall, Fuller led the Fighting Irish in receptions, yards and touchdowns in both 2014 and 2015 before being selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft.
Perhaps Lenzy's ceiling isn't quite that high, but he should benefit greatly from becoming one of the favorite targets of one of the most well-established quarterbacks in the nation.
2020 Projection: 57 receptions, 989 yards, eight touchdowns
Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe, LBs, Oregon
For all of the national attention paid to quarterback Justin Herbert, stingy defense was arguably the biggest reason Oregon spent much of last season in the hunt for the College Football Playoff. The Ducks held six opponents to seven points or fewer and allowed just five rushing touchdowns in the entire season.
The defensive line and the secondary both still look rock solid. In fact, the latter unit would have ranked among the best in the country if the Pac-12 hadn't postponed its season. But linebacker was a bit of a question mark after Troy Dye and Bryson Young both graduated.
The Ducks would have had little choice but to rely on true freshmen Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell.
The good news is those 5-star recruits were the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked linebackers in the 2020 class. It's not like they're throwing walk-ons into the fire and simply hoping for the best.
More good news is that the Ducks have developed quite the reputation for getting the most out of first-year players. Oregon's top 2019 signee was Kayvon Thibodeaux, who had more sacks (9.0) than any other true freshman. Penei Sewell was their prized recruit in 2018, and he quickly blossomed into one of the best offensive linemen in the past decade of college football. Penei Sewell might be the No. 1 draft pick in 2021, and it's hardly unfathomable that Thibodeaux could claim that title in 2022.
If Oregon's success with freshmen continues, the Ducks might have the No. 1 defense the next time they play. But if Flowe and Sewell need another year before tapping into their collective potential, the Ducks could have a mess on their hands in the middle of the defense.
2021 Projection: 127 tackles, 8.5 sacks
Tarik Black, WR, Texas
Fun Fact: This isn't even the first time I've written about Tarik Black as one of the biggest potential X-factors in college football. It looked like he would be a major player in Michigan's offense before the 2018 season. But after a 2017 campaign that was cut short by a broken left foot, he suffered a broken right foot just days before the Wolverines' 2018 season opener and missed the majority of that campaign as well.
He finally got and stayed healthy for the 2019 season, but it was clear Michigan's offense had adjusted to life without him. After accounting for 80 yards and a touchdown in the opener against Middle Tennessee, he managed just 243 yards and no touchdowns the rest of the way.
Presumably (and understandably) frustrated with his role in Ann Arbor, he jumped into the transfer portal and landed with the Texas Longhorns, who could desperately use another pass-catcher.
In Sam Ehlinger, they still have one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the nation. However, his two favorite targets are gone. Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson combined for 253 receptions over the past two seasons and ranked first and second on the team in both receptions and receiving yards in 2019.
They do still have Brennan Eagles (32 receptions, 522 yards, six touchdowns in 2019) as the presumed No. 1 receiver, but the rest of the depth chart is up for grabs. Don't be surprised if Black snags the No. 2 spot and eclipses his totals from the past three years with Michigan.
2020 Projection: 39 receptions, 497 yards, five touchdowns
Ainias Smith, ATH, Texas A&M
Barring injury, Isaiah Spiller will be the star of Texas A&M's backfield. Full stop. He had 10 rushing touchdowns and 1,149 total yards from scrimmage last year as a true freshman. Granted, a lot of that damage came against non-SEC foes—he had a combined 439 rushing yards and five touchdowns against Texas State, Lamar and UTSA—but he should be one of the five best running backs in the conference this year.
The Aggies also essentially have a second starting running back in the form of senior quarterback Kellen Mond. The dual-threat QB has rushed for 1,315 yards and 18 touchdowns over the past three seasons, averaging almost exactly 10 rushing attempts per game.
But even with that duo, Texas A&M ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing yards per contest last season and was shut down by above-average defenses. In five games (all losses) against Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia and LSU, the Aggies averaged a meager 60.8 rushing yards and had two rushing touchdowns.
If someone can emerge as a legitimate backup in the backfield, A&M has a much better chance of winning the loaded SEC West. And with Jashaun Corbin, Cordarrian Richardson and Jacob Kibodi all out of the picture, Ainias Smith looks like the only option to fill that void.
Smith was primarily used as a receiver last year, making 22 receptions for 248 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. It wasn't until the bowl game against Oklahoma State that he finally got involved in the running game with seven carries for 54 yards. He should feature somewhat prominently in both facets of the offense this year.
2020 Projection: 75 carries, 423 yards, five touchdowns; 30 receptions, 317 yards, four touchdowns
Nakia Watson, RB, Wisconsin
Perhaps "X-factor" isn't an appropriate description for Nakia Watson. That title is generally reserved for guys who might get you a few hundred yards or a couple of sacks or interceptions throughout the season, whereas it's almost a given that the starting running back at Wisconsin will rush for well over 1,000 yards.
With the exception of the 2015 season, the Badgers have averaged at least 200 rushing yards per game for more than a decade. Whether it was John Clay, James White, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement or Jonathan Taylor lined up behind the quarterback, that guy has typically excelled.
And with Taylor out of the picture, it's time to find out whether Watson can keep that trend going or whether Wisconsin's offense—which also has to replace top receiver Quintez Cephus—will fall to pieces.
Maybe Watson isn't Wisconsin's biggest X-factor, but his limited experience is easily the biggest reason Wisconsin is an X-factor, if that makes sense.
Watson had 74 carries for 331 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. For the Badgers' sake, hopefully he improves in the yards-per-carry department as a sophomore. But even if he doesn't, expect a healthy dose of touches. Clement only averaged 4.4 yards per carry in 2016, but he still got to 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns thanks to Wisconsin's unwavering commitment to establishing the run.
2021 Projection: 196 carries, 1,024 yards, nine touchdowns