SEC football fans know the stars, even the ones yet to emerge. Benny Snell at Kentucky and Jake Bentley at South Carolina are among players who will assuredly capture headlines.
However, every team in the SEC has at least a few stars. Football games are won with those players in between. We consider those “X-factors.” Ultimately, every team has several who must step up in big spots.
Quarterback play will be a huge deciding factor. Picking quarterbacks for every one of these would be a waste of your time. We tried to move away from them for this piece.
Here is every SEC East team’s X-factor heading into the 2017 season.
Florida: WR Antonio Callaway
2016 stats: 54 catches for 721 yards, 3 TDs
The Gators offense in 2016 was putrid. Florida was last among SEC teams in total offense, behind even South Carolina and Vanderbilt. That’s despite playing against easier competition in the SEC East and reeling in top recruiting talent. It’s astonishing.
However, Florida believes it might have its quarterback of the future in Feleipe Franks. Now, the key will be finding weapons. Callaway is quietly one of the best wide receivers in the SEC, but was seldom a target because of the mediocre arms of Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby. If Callaway can consistently get open, it will open the playbook for Franks.
Georgia: OT D’Marcus Hayes
2016 stats: n/a
The Bulldogs offense struggled last season, and its line was the primary reason why.
Despite having two of the best running backs in the SEC in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the Bulldogs had just the eighth-best rushing offense in the conference. The line was built for Mark Richt’s offense, not the power run scheme that Kirby Smart wants.
After losing three starters, Georgia will need immediate help. Hayes, a transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, seems a lock to start. He was a 4-star prospect and the No. 2 junior college offensive tackle in the 2017 recruiting class. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, he fits the prototype. Hayes’ readiness will be critical to whether Georgia takes a step towards competing for the SEC East.
Kentucky: LB Josh Allen
2016 stats: 62 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 7.0 sacks, 3 QB hurries, 4 forced fumbles
Kentucky took a major step forward in 2016, making the first bowl game since 2010. However, the catalyst behind its improvement came mostly on offense and largely at running back. Kentucky was No. 11 in rushing S&P+ per Football Outsiders.
Despite the improvement, Kentucky’s defense still has a long way to go. The Wildcats were No. 86 in defense S&P+ and No. 85 in total defense per game. However, Kentucky returns several productive edge rushers. Denzil Ware will be the big name, but Ware’s production will be based on whether Allen can create havoc on the other side of the field. Allen is perhaps the most versatile linebacker for Kentucky. He will have considerable impact the overall success of the defense.
Missouri: WR Dimetrios Mason
2016 stats: 47 catches for 587 yards, 3 TDs
Missouri switched to an air raid offense in 2016, and there were immediate results. The Tigers moved from last in 2015 to No. 2 in passing offense after one season with Josh Heupel coordinating the offense.
The Tigers got contributions from several underclassmen at the skill positions last season. Wide receiver J’Mon Moore headlined the group and finished second in the conference in receiving yards. However, Mizzou needs more guys to step up. Mason had at least 60 receiving yards in four of his final five games. He must keep that level of production for Missouri’s offense to take a step forward.
South Carolina: RB Rico Dowdle
2016 stats: 133 carries for 764 yards, 6 TDs; 15 catches for 55 yards, TD
The Gamecocks surprised many with their solid performance in Will Muschamp’s first season. South Carolina shockingly qualified for a bowl game, despite a depleted roster. It had surprising victories over No. 18 Tennessee and Vanderbilt despite ranking No. 79 in S&P+ in Football Outsiders.
Quarterback Jake Bentley expects to take the next step forward, but he was not the only true freshman to make a late impression. After finally getting in during the Gamecocks’ fifth game, Dowdle went off. Dowdle rushed for 100 yards in games against Tennessee, Missouri and Western Carolina. Quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper needs Dowdle to take pressure off Bentley for the offense to move up from No. 107 in S&P+ offense and No. 109 in S&P rushing offense.
Tennessee: WR Jauan Jennings
2016 stats: 40 catches for 580 yards, 7 TDs
Jennings is probably good enough to be considered a star. With Josh Malone gone to the NFL, Jennings should compete to be one of the SEC’s few 1,000-yard receivers in 2017, and perhaps develop into a legitimate NFL prospect.
His production will be even more essential for a roster with quarterback questions. Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano are competing to become the starter, but neither has any legitimate collegiate experience after Josh Dobbs dominated the snaps. Jennings must help the next quarterback by creating easy opportunities.
Vanderbilt: LB Oren Burks
2016 stats: 59 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, INT, 7 passes defended, 5 QB hurries
Vanderbilt’s linebackers were perhaps the best unit on the field last season. Junior Zach Cunningham led them with 125 tackles, which was No. 2 among all Power 5 athletes. He was truly one of the best defenders in Vanderbilt history.
The Commodores used Burks in several ways last season, but the converted safety will likely move into a more permanent inside role. More importantly, he will lead a total team effort to replace Cunningham’s production.