The biggest X-factor for every SEC East team in 2021
Welcome to July.
Football is so close you can almost feel the first handshake with an old family friend at the season’s first tailgate. You can taste that first pregame meal on the tip of your tongue. Or maybe that’s just the burger from your Fourth of July barbeque. I don’t know. But what I do know is that football is close. We’re less than 3 weeks from SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey kicking off SEC Media Days on July 19 and from there, we all know it’s a sweltering, sweat-soaked summer sprint to teams starting fall camp.
From there, it’s football time down south until mid-January — and this year, it will be “normal again.” Full stadiums. Loud third downs. The Grove decked out with tents, candelabras, fine china and enough red cocktail dresses to make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. The LSU band playing “Neck,” the Pride of the Southland Band firing up “Rocky Top” at least 50 times a quarter, Alabama winning by 40 and Saban complaining about the students leaving early, and a packed house for Florida-Georgia in Jacksonville with an actual Cocktail Party.
Once the calendar hits July, you can feel SEC football coming in your bones. The commute is a bit easier. The morning coffee is a bit sweeter and the summer breeze a little gentler.
It’s also “talking season,” the time of year where you fill the last two months without college football with “talking.” Will this coaching change finally fix Tennessee? How much longer will Saban reign imperious over the sport? If Kirby Smart can’t win this year, with this roster, then when? If LSU doesn’t lack institutional control, what would? Are Florida fans really that jazzed about the future after going 8-4 with a Heisman finalist and a once-a-generation talent at tight end? Who’s underrated (cough, the answer is always Kentucky)? Who’s overrated? The topics roll off the tongue and Media Days only add gasoline to the fire.
Another fun topic? What one thing could be the difference between a solid season and a spectacular one. It could be a player, whether it’s a big recruit who lives up to the hype or a 3-star gone good who lifts the team from good to great. It could be the way the schedule sets up: maybe you get a young, talented team early — and the result will almost certainly influence the trajectory of your season. Maybe it’s a unit: a set of safeties that make the jump from mediocre to menacing or a loaded quarterback room that finally delivers. Every program in the SEC has them.
They are called “X-factors.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of X-factor is “a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.” Fans often think they know what their “X-factor” will be, but what’s “talking season” without a little debate.
Here are the SDS X-factors for every program in the SEC East.
Florida: Ty’Ron Hopper and Mohamoud Diabate, LBs
This Florida team is young enough to where you could go a number of different directions. Emory Jones, the 4th-year player who takes over at quarterback for Heisman-finalist Kyle Trask, was the most obvious. A loaded running back room, featuring a pair of 5-star transfers in Lorenzo Lingard (Miami) and Demarkcus Bowman (Clemson), was another.
But ultimately, the “X-factors” for Florida in 2021 really needed to come from a defense that looks to bounce back from a miserable 2020 campaign.
Florida’s most talented position group on defense might be at linebacker, where Mullen’s staff has recruited exceptionally well. The linebacker room is stacked with blue-chips and the bulk of them have gotten strong enough and old enough to contribute right now.
Diabate has contributed since his freshman season, making plays on special teams and finding a niche as a pass-rusher. “He’s electric, a guy with a huge burst and one of the smartest young men I’ve ever been around,” a Florida assistant texted me this week. Diabate should benefit immensely from Florida’s improvements in the middle of the defensive line. He was swallowed up on the second level at times last year when Florida’s defensive tackles failed to gain any push or leverage. That should happen less this season, and Grantham will move Diabate around the way he did Vosean Joseph in 2018. The result should be big plays and nice sack numbers for the Auburn, Alabama native.
Hopper, a top-100 recruit out of Atlanta who was one of the top 5 linebackers in the 2019 recruiting class, played sparingly in his first 2 years on campus, adding bulk and muscle. But he impressed the staff throughout the spring with his penchant for the big hit and his ability to get off second-level blocks and find the football.
Thomas Goldkamp, Florida’s terrific 247 beat writer, said, “Hopper was everywhere this spring, constantly around the ball, attacking downhill and making plays,” commentary that bodes well for a defense that needs a player with Hopper’s athleticism and speed who can play inside or outside.
In Hopper and Diabate, Florida has two bona fide stars in the making at linebacker, and they’ll have plenty of opportunities to make plays with a better interior defensive line and senior Ventrell Miller, who is in the first round in many NFL mock drafts, manning the other linebacker spot.
Georgia: James Cook, RB
Georgia fans who clicked this article to read about Arik Gilbert may be surprised to see Cook here. That’s fine — and if I were writing about the “X-factor” for one game, and not the season, I’d be sure to pick Gilbert for the Cocktail Party. Todd Grantham has failed to cover the tight end in both of Mullen’s losses to Kirby Smart and Gilbert will test that failure again this coming season.
But Cook is the “X-factor” for the whole season for two fundamental reasons.
First, he’s dependable in the run and pass game. “X-factors” on offense tend to be players who can exploit a defense in multiple ways, and Cook fits that bill. Here, he works Alabama’s All-SEC linebacker Christian Harris on a simple motion-and-go concept. The 82-yard touchdown was Georgia’s longest play from scrimmage on the season.
TD JAMES COOK ! 82 YARDS !
Horrible couverture de LB Christian Harris et TD du running back des Dawgs !
Alabama 7, Georgia 14 pic.twitter.com/syGCS0pjTy
— TBP College Football (@thebluepennant) October 18, 2020
Cook was also Georgia’s most effective running back carrying the football. He led the Dawgs in yards per carry (6.7), success rate running the ball (66%), and scored all 3 of his rushing touchdowns late in the season, after JT Daniels had taken over at quarterback.
Cook isn’t as explosive a runner as his All-Pro brother Dalvin — but he’s just as fast and is the most well-rounded running back on Georgia’s roster, excelling as a pass-catcher, runner and blocker. Georgia has a ton of weapons on offense, but Cook is the one who can stress defenses in the most ways, and playing for a big NFL contract, he’s the Dawgs X-factor in 2021.
Kentucky: Wan’Dale Robinson, WR
This was the easiest choice in the SEC East.
The former No. 1 recruit in Kentucky in 2019, Robinson broke Bluegrass hearts when he elected to play for Scott Frost at Nebraska. Two years later, he’s back at home playing for Mark Stoops and seems poised to fill the Lynn Bowden “X-factor” role for a Kentucky offense that desperately needs explosive plays.
The Bowden comparisons aren’t just talk.
Robinson tallied 580 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in addition to 91 catches for 914 yards and 3 more touchdowns at Nebraska, and plays like the one below make it hard not to think of consummate SEC X-factors like Bowden and Florida’s Kadarius Toney when you watch Robinson.
Wan'Dale Robinson ran about 30-35 yards on that 4-yard touchdown. pic.twitter.com/lDOgqCj2MN
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) October 26, 2019
Expect new OC Liam Coen to line him up all over the field and make sure he gets 15-20 touches a game for an offense that finished last in the SEC in explosive plays a season ago.
Missouri: Tyler Badie, RB
How underrated is Badie? In 2020, only DeVonta Smith, Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts converted touches into first downs at a higher rate than Badie (44.5%). That statistic stuck with me as I pondered another program where players like Keke Chism, the team’s leading returning receiver, or Javian Hester, a big-time recruit who is finally healthy, may get more preseason attention.
But as Mizzou looks to replace the program’s all-time leading rusher in Larry Rountree III, Badie is the heir apparent and in truth, is more versatile than Rountree ever was. That’s what you want from “X-factors,” and with nearly 2,000 yards rushing and receiving in his career, Badie is Missouri’s most capable defense stresser.
Most receiving yards among HBs since 2019:
1. Travis Etienne, Clemson – 1,021
2. Demetric Felton, UCLA – 753
3. Najee Harris, Bama – 729
4. Tyler Badie, Mizzou – 689 pic.twitter.com/PTCTfsmAqk
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 31, 2021
With 9 career touchdowns as a runner and 7 as a receiver, Badie can find the end zone in either role, but it’s his ability to motion and line up all over the field that makes him such an ideal fit for Eli Drinkwitz’s offense.
Now that he’s the feature guy, an All-SEC type season is possible.
South Carolina: Jordan Burch, Edge
The 5-star hometown hero and former top-10 national recruit was a force in spring camp after a freshman season that was hamstrung by a pandemic, coaching change and hand injury.
South Carolina’s defense has a chance to be sneaky good in 2021, and Burch could be the player who benefits the most. Playing opposite star defensive end Kingsley Enagbare, who opted to return to school instead of declaring for the NFL Draft, Burch is likely to line up one on one in most situations. This would be true if only Enagbare were on the Carolina defensive line, but the Gamecocks added national sack leader Jordan Strachan (Georgia State) over the winter and senior Aaron Sterling (10 career sacks) also returns.
If Burch is ready to live up to the recruiting rankings hype, South Carolina’s defensive line will pose matchup issues for most any team in front of them– an intriguing possibility and perhaps the only path to a bowl game in year one under Shane Beamer.
Tennessee: The Pitt game, Sept. 11
Lane Kiffin was the last coach to post a winning record in his first year at Tennessee. For Kiffin, of course, his maiden voyage was his only voyage, as he bolted for USC at season’s end. We can discuss at another time whether his being fired by USC on a tarmac was karma coming full circle for that choice.
In any event, the Pitt game feels more critical to Tennessee than any “X-factor” we could choose, from brilliant young wideout Jalin Hyatt to immensely talented defender Tyler Baron.
Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt team went 6-5 in 2020 before opting out of a bowl game, and the Panthers visit Rocky Top in Week 2 to provide Josh Heupel’s first big test as Tennessee head coach.
It feels like a vital moment in Year 1. Win, and it is a sign that all of Heupel’s culture changes, designed to produce early buy-in, are working. There will be a buzz around the Vols and the path to a bowl becomes viable. Lose, and 4-8 seems more likely. That will be a tough pill for Vols fans to swallow, even if Heupel is doing the right things off the field and in recruiting.
Vanderbilt: Chris Pierce Jr., WR
Count me in on Clark Lea.
While we aren’t sure if he can be a great head coach, it’s the hire Vanderbilt needed to make. A Vanderbilt alum who is joining the program at a time when the university is finally investing big bucks into football. A young up and comer who is bringing in a respected NFL offensive mind in David Raih to run the offense. A Vanderbilt team that is shifting to the type of Air Raid spread that has served other programs at talent disadvantages so well in years past.
The results won’t come immediately, but in Year 1, it’s a player like Chris Pierce Jr, Vanderbilt’s fastest receiver and a guy who can line up inside, run the ball on a jet sweep in motion, or play the slot, who will benefit most.
Pierce is also a polished route runner who has the strength to shake tackles and gain yards after the catch the old-fashioned tough way.
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) November 21, 2020
He led the ‘Dores in yards per reception in 2020 and, having returned for a second senior campaign, should benefit from a new scheme and the continued growth of quarterback Ken Seals, who had a very impressive freshman season, completing 65% of his passes and throwing for 1,950 yards.