An X-factor doesn’t necessarily mean the best player on a certain team, even though it may sometimes be exactly that. Basically, an X-factor in this scenario means that that player/coach/group of players’ success will be directly correlated to the overall team’s success. For Conference USA in 2018, there will be a handful of people in this category to keep an eye on as the season shakes out.
Without further ado, let’s talk about who holds their team’s fate in their hands in C-USA.
Charlotte - Kicking Game: The 49ers made just four field goals on 13 attempts last season and had the worst PAT percentage in the league at .842. Sure, the offense needs to get better too, but they aren’t going to score a touchdown every time regardless. So the special teams needs to improve to give Charlotte a real shot at climbing out of the league’s basement.
FAU - Devin Singletary: “Motor” leads an Owl offense that led the league in scoring and total offense in 2017. Singletary himself scored more rushing TDs than any other player in FBS and was fourth in FBS with 1920 yards. Without a clear starter at quarterback right now, the load is once again on Singletary’s shoulders.
FIU - Defensive Line: To contend with all the high powered offenses in the east, FIU are going to need to counter by bringing a strong pass rush and plugging up the line of scrimmage. Anthony Johnson returns after 6 solo sacks and 2 assisted in 2017. Fermin Silva is an all-league pick for the upcoming year. Four-star prospect Teair Tart-Spencer joins the Panthers after transferring in from East Mississippi Community College. The tools are there with this group.
Marshall - Offensive Line: In 2017, Marshall’s offensive line was just fantastic with only 11 sacks allowed. In a year where a new quarterback (probably grad transfer Alex Thomson) will take the reigns from Chase Litton, that quality protection could be what allows them to repeat the success of last season’s 8-5 campaign.
Middle Tennessee - Brent Stockstill and Khalil Brooks: Cheating a little bit here since these guys are two completely different positions, but they’re both monumentally important to the team. Stockstill needs to stay healthy to give the offense a chance. Brooks is the life blood of the defense at that linebacker spot. Both need big years here.
Old Dominion - Steven Williams: The Monarchs quarterback took his lumps last season as a freshman, but he’s a year older and a year wiser. For ODU to get back to a bowl though, he’ll need to improve on the 55.9% completion rate that he had last season...especially now that Ray Lawry isn’t around to hand the ball off to.
Western Kentucky - Offensive Line: We’ve harped on it plenty over the last year, but WKU’s offensive line simply has to be better in 2018. The fewest rushing yards in FBS, two shy of the most sacks in FBS, and no runs over 20 yards in 2017 are not accomplishments to be proud of. The Tops won’t win many games if the backs have no room to run and the QB is on his back all day.
Louisiana Tech - J’Mar Smith: Smith is a redshirt junior now after becoming the regular starter last season. 16 passing touchdowns and six rushing TDs from the Bulldog quarterback was a solid performance, but Skip Holtz and Tech fans will be looking to see him make the next step if they want to get to, and win, their fifth straight bowl game.
Southern Miss - Running Backs/Receivers: Ito Smith, Korey Robertson, and Allenzae Staggers are all gone this year. That’s 32 touchdowns worth of offensive production to replace. Kwadra Griggs and Jack Abraham both have the talent to be the Golden Eagles’ starting QB, but now it’s a matter of who they’re going to get the ball to.
North Texas - Mason Fine: What’s an air raid offense without a talented quarterback? Fine looks to follow up his record-setting 2017 campaign with another trip to the conference championship for his Mean Green squad. The reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year is the single biggest piece of this team now after the departure of fellow all-league performer Jeffrey Wilson.
Rice - Quarterback: The Owls didn’t have much that they did well last season, but the passing game especially needs improvement. Rice QBs combined for just six passing TDs in 2017 with 16 interceptions and were twelfth in the league in total passing yards. Sam Glaesmann has the most experience, but Jackson Tyner had a decent spring as well. Whoever earns the starting job has their work cut out for them.
UTEP - Kahani Smith/Defensive Backs: I wanted to say “pretty much everything” here, but figured I should stay specific as possible. UTEP’s pass defense was arguably the strongest part of their game in 2017, finishing top five in the conference in total passing yards allowed and passing yards allowed per game. Smith was the main playmaker of that group with two defensive touchdowns, 46 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and three passes broken up with two interceptions.
UAB - Spencer Brown: Brown returns to lead a rushing offense that was a huge reason for UAB’s success last season. With the exception of Devin Singletary, Brown ran for more yardage than any returning offensive player in the league. He was a non-factor in the Bahamas Bowl though, so UAB can’t afford for him to have many off days.
UTSA - Coaching Staff: Despite not getting a bowl last year, Frank Wilson’s team has put together some admirable results in the last few seasons, including a defense that led the league in scoring defense in 2017 and wasn’t far from the top the year before. Now, the Runners have a different defensive coordinator, a new special teams coordinator/tight ends coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new safeties coach, and a new offensive line coach. The new guys are going to have to learn fast.