Most Impactful X-Factors for the 2021 College Football Season
While the best and most important players on a roster are usually obvious, a college football team's upside can be heavily contingent on one person or position.
One familiar term to describe that player is an X-factor, which has a flexible definition worth clarifying. For us, it's a player (or position) who isn't an established superstar, yet needs to excel in an instrumental role for a team to compete for a national title.
In most cases, the focus landed on a key player returning from an injury or someone who hasn't previously held a featured spot. But a couple of very familiar names are considered, too.
Organized alphabetically by school, the list is subjective and considers a mix of past performance and 2021 role.
Alabama's Running Backs
Alabama has several X-factor possibilities considering the offense must replace five first-team AP All-Americans. Given that quarterback is the most important position, the transition from Mac Jones to Bryce Young has drawn the largest share of the headlines.
But the X-factor is the rest of the backfield.
In theory, the Crimson Tide should be able to quickly move on from Najee Harris. They have former 4-star Brian Robinson Jr., top-50 prospect Jase McClellan, 5-star Trey Sanders, 4-star Roydell Williams and 5-star Camar Wheaton as the next running backs in line.
Replacing 1,466 rushing yards, 43 catches for 425 yards and 30 total touchdowns is much easier said than done, though.
Alabama has other questions, but the answers at quarterback (Young), their top target (John Metchie III) and on the offensive line are more straightforward. Finding the right combination of running backs can take the offense from good to great.
Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
Based on past performance, Justyn Ross is closer to a superstar than an X-factor. During the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he collected 112 receptions for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is, without question, one of the nation's most talented receivers.
The concern for 2021 is his health.
After undergoing surgery for a congenital fusion in his spine and missing the 2020 season, Ross is cleared to return. We hope Clemson's star wideout will regain his previous form, but nobody can know the answer with any certainty.
If yes, Ross fills the "proven top receiver" box otherwise unchecked on the roster. If no, however, would quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei be able to carry an offense of decent targets? Would another receiver, such as E.J. Williams or Frank Ladson Jr., develop into that key option?
Clemson is the ACC favorite either way, but the best version of this offense includes Ross playing like an All-American.
Arik Gilbert, WR/TE, Georgia
Depending on who you ask, you'd probably find several perceived X-factors in Georgia's receiving room.
Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and Dominick Blaylock are both returning from injuries. Blaylock, in particular, is a solid choice considering he caught 18 passes for 310 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman in 2019. But our focus is on Arik Gilbert.
While at LSU last season, he made 35 receptions for 368 yards and two scores. Gilbert transferred to UGA, where he's expected to help fill the void of top receiver George Pickens (torn right ACL).
The challenge? Gilbert is sort of a tight end.
Listed at 6'5" and 248 pounds, he's officially a wide receiver on the roster. Georgia is likely to move Gilbert around, though, and his elite versatility translating to elite production is vital for the Dawgs to truly contend for a national title.
Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State
Established? For sure. Brock Purdy is a three-year starter who already owns a handful of single-season and career records at Iowa State. Superstar? That's a different story.
To be clear, this is a measured criticism. Purdy has been a pivotal part of Iowa State's rise to national respectability, and he's generally an above-average quarterback. The dilemma is Purdy's worst performances can be downright disastrous.
Last season, for example, the Cyclones lost three games. Purdy averaged a meager 4.1 and 4.8 yards per attempt opposite Louisiana and Oklahoma State, respectively, and tossed three interceptions against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Raising the low-bar performances is not easy, but it's imperative for Purdy. Avoiding a multi-turnover game is hard, but it's crucial.
Otherwise, the Cyclones will again max out as "usually very good."
Jack Coan, QB, Notre Dame
While at Wisconsin, Jack Coan was an ideal example of a high-floor, low-ceiling quarterback. He averaged 7.5 yards per attempt—not great, not bad—with 28 total touchdowns to eight interceptions, and Wisconsin posted a 12-6 record in his 18 starts.
Is that his ceiling, or is there more to unlock?
After missing 2020 with a foot injury, Coan transferred to South Bend and inherited a good situation. The offense has two quality running backs (Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree) and a star tight end (Michael Mayer) to lead the skill-position group.
But there are questions, too. Marshall transfer Cain Madden is a major help, but the Irish are replacing four starters on the offensive line. Avery Davis (322 yards) is the top returning wide receiver, so the pass-catching group is largely unproven.
Coan must be a playmaker—not simply a caretaker—for Notre Dame to hang with the premier championship threats.
Jadon Haselwood, WR, Oklahoma
Oklahoma's passing game did fine without Jadon Haselwood last season. Spencer Rattler threw for 9.6 yards per attempt, and his top three targets—Marvin Mims, Theo Wease, Austin Stogner—are each returning for the 2021 campaign.
But the return of Haselwood could be the final piece of a spectacular passing attack. He missed a majority of the 2020 season while recovering from a torn right ACL.
Haselwood, who made several great contested catches as a freshman, brings a different element to the receiving corps. His ability to win vertically—and we don't simply mean downfield—is something Oklahoma lacked on the outside last season.
If he can provide that big-play ability in 2021, Oklahoma's offense will be unforgiving at every spot.
Anthony Brown, QB, Oregon
While he's not officially QB1 at Oregon, Anthony Brown entered fall camp as the first-stringer. At this point, it appears likely the former Boston College starter will secure the role.
Oregon is determined to improve on back-to-back Pac-12 titles, and most of the roster is well-prepared for that pursuit. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye give the Ducks two excellent runners, the entire offensive line is back and edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux headlines what should be a top-tier defense.
But it all comes down to Brown.
In short, he's unproven against the highest level of competition. Brown never beat a Top 25 opponent with Boston College and routinely had underwhelming showings in those games, too.
While the Ducks have enough talent to win the Pac-12 with average QB play, they're aiming higher. Provided he wins the competition, Brown's performance will be the difference between Oregon as a strong Pac-12 program or legitimate national threat.
Texas A&M's New Quarterback
Might be Haynes King. Could be Zach Calzada.
Either way, the winner of Texas A&M's quarterback competition will embrace an enormous weight of expectations.
Thanks to an experienced defense, the Aggies are widely viewed as a second-tier championship contender. However, they need to replace four-year starter Kellen Mond, and neither King nor Calzada brings any significant college experience. They've combined for 28 career pass attempts in College Station.
If King or Calzada thrives, it probably means Texas A&M is excelling, too. If the quarterback falters, though, the Aggies will struggle to compete in the ever-loaded SEC West.
Sometimes, it's just that simple.