An X-factor isn’t necessarily the best player on a certain team, even though they may be exactly that.
In this scenario, an X-Factor is a player/coach/group of players whose success (or lack thereof) will directly correlate to their team’s overall success.
With less than 50 days until the kickoff of the 2019 season, here’s my look at an X-Factor for each team in Conference USA.
FIU - Entire defensive coaching staff: FIU has exceeded expectations in their first two seasons under Butch Davis and is a trendy pick to win C-USA’s East division entering year three.
While they have more than enough talent to do so, a major question mark has to be the overhaul of the defensive coaching staff from last season.
Starting with the resignation of defensive coordinator Brent Guy due to health concerns, only one coach from the defensive side of the football returns for the Panthers - current co-defensive coordinator Jeff Copp.
Copp, a first-time DC will be joined by former Cleveland Browns’ assistant defensive backs coach Jerod Kruse.
Along with those changes, Kenard Lang takes over as the defensive line coach and former North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner is the cornerbacks’ coach.
FAU - B.J. Emmons: It was widely expected that the Devin Singletary era would come to an end in Boca Raton last season.
What caught many by surprise, was that Kerrith Whyte Jr. would also take his game to the NFL as well.
With that comes the need for an entirely new core of running backs to head the Owls’ rushing attack. Former four-star recruit B.J. Emmons has landed at FAU after stints at Alabama and Hutchinson Community College.
If the 5-11, 235-pound back, who played for FAU head coach Lane Kiffin with the Crimson Tide can live up to his potential, expect the Owls to be back in contention for a conference title.
Marshall - Fermin Silva: At the end of the 2017 season, it looked as if Fermin Silva might be a potential NFL draft pick, coming off a 50-tackle, six-sack season with FIU.
Now, after missing most of last season with an injury, he’s with Marshall, looking to regain his former status as one of the best defensive linemen in C-USA.
With Ty Tyler leaving the program in the offseason, the addition of the 6-2, 235-pound hybrid DE/LB will be crucial for the Thundering Herd defense.
Old Dominion - Quarterback: There are no two ways about it. The Old Dominion quarterback room is crowded and just who will emerge as the starter is just as unclear.
“It could be a situation like last season, where we use two quarterbacks into the regular season until one separates themselves from another,” said Monarchs’ head coach Bobby Wilder at C-USA media days.
Whether or not ODU is a quarterback away from being in contention, in my opinion, is irrelevant.
With the departure of Blake LaRussa, the team has to figure out what they have in Steven Williams and if he’s not the guy, can Stone Smartt or Messiah deWeaver be a player that they can build around.
MTSU - Run game/Crews Holt: Rick Stockstill’s club started slow out of the gate, going 3-3 in their first six contests, but won five of their last seven games to win the C-USA East in 2018.
Much of that was spurred by the play of the Blue Raiders’ all-time leader in all major passing categories, Brent Stockstill. With the younger Stockstill now gone, the play of running backs Chaton Mobley and Terrelle West can help ease the transition to a new signal-caller.
Along with the run game, kicker Crews Holt is a bit of an enigma.
The junior is deadly accurate from inside of 40 yards, going 17-17 on those attempts. However, he was just 1-7 from beyond that.
Charlotte - Quarterback: The argument can be made that if the 2018 Charlotte 49ers had consistent quarterback play, they’re able to win seven games and qualify for a bowl. Fast forward to 2019 and they’re still looking for the answer behind center.
First-year head coach Will Healy has a trio of quarterbacks to choose from.
Chris Reynolds threw for 1,179 yards with just under a 65% last season before suffering a broken leg. Evan Sherriffs went 1-3 in four starts last season, and South Florida transfer Brett Kean was a three-star prospect coming out of high school who’s a dual-threat quarterback.
If one of the three can be the answer, there’s enough surrounding talent for Charlotte to once again contend for a bowl in this season.
WKU - Tyson Helton: It may seem a little odd for a head coach to be considered an “X-Factor.” In this case, Tyson Helton has two jobs that are of equal importance, in my opinion.
First, he must right the ship in his return to Western Kentucky after things went awry under Mike Sanford. Second, he has to rejuvenate a fan base that feels somewhat deflated following the program going 9-16 in their previous 27 contests.
Southern Miss - Quez Watkins/Arvin Fletcher: Southern Miss has the pieces to make a run at a C-USA West title in 2019.
If the dynamic Quez Watkins isn’t a part of the program, they could be heading towards another pedestrian season. The latest on his status is that he “has done what he needed to do and is on track to regain his eligibility” for the upcoming semester/season.
Assuming Watkins is in tow, my next X-Factor for the Golden Eagles is OL Arvin Fletcher. Southern Miss signed multiple offensive linemen during the spring, including two JUCO transfers who could push for time.
However, Fletcher has started every game over the past two seasons and could be the starting left tackle on opening day. At his peak, he has the potential to be an all-conference performer.
La Tech - Bob Diaco: Along with Southern Miss, La Tech has the pieces to push for a division title.
Especially with the high-powered North Texas offense in the division, having a solid defense will be crucial for Tech in 2019. Luckily, they have arguably the conference’s best defensive back in Amik Robertson.
This is where defensive coordinator Bob Diaco comes in.
The former UConn head coach is in his first season with the Bulldogs and is one of the best assistants in FBS football. If he can help elevate the Tech defense to another level, they’ll be in contention come December.
Rice - George Nyakwol: It seems odd to say that a team that’s coming off of a two-win season is heading in the right direction. I’m comfortable saying just that about the Rice Owls. Mike Bloomgren’s club fought hard throughout the season, earning the respect of head coaches around the league.
“I told our kids; these guys have fought their tails off all season long. The record might say one thing, but if we don’t show up, we’re in for a long night and they pushed us tonight,” said Butch Davis after FIU’s 36-17 win over Rice.
In Bloomgren’s second year, he returns a bevy of talented and young players, one of which is safety George Nyakwol.
The junior had 67 tackles, two interceptions and a sack in 2018. If he can continue to play at a high level, both he and sophomore Prudy Calderon will form one of the best safety duos in C-USA.
UAB - Kendall Parham: The Blazers’ magical run from nonexistence to C-USA champs has been one of college football’s best stories.
Now, with the graduation of many key contributors on both sides of the ball from their championship season, Bill Clark will need playmakers not named Spencer Brown.
Look for Kendall Parham to be the number one wideout in Birmingham. The 5-10, 180-pound senior is the team’s leading returning receiver.
UNT - D’Andre Plantin/Jaelon Darden: Seth Littrell’s team has all the pieces to finally get over the hump and win Conference USA in 2019.
Two key players in those efforts will be tackle D’Andre Plantin and receiver Jaelon Darden. Plantin, a Virginia Tech transfer potentially could be the starting left tackle, while Darden has the job of filling the shoes left behind by Jalen Guyton, who’s now with the Dallas Cowboys.
UTSA - Tyke Ogle-Kellogg: Last year’s three-win season was a disappointment for Frank Wilson and his Roadrunners.
Heading into 2019, there’s a level of uncertainty as to just how good - or bad UTSA might be. With the graduation of Greg Campbell Jr., the number one receiver spot is up for grabs. Tyke Ogle-Kellogg was a three-star recruit coming out of high school.
Despite only having 14 catches last season, he led the team in touchdown receptions (3) and at 6-5, 215-pounds has great size.
UTEP - Everything: By no means is this meant to be a sarcastic comment about UTEP.
The fact of the matter is, in Dana Dimel’s second season, there’s a lot of players who are unknown commodities, with a lot to prove.
Outside of running back Quadraiz Wadley and defensive end Denzel Chukwukelu, the Miners will all be looking to establish themselves.
If I had to choose one player, I’d go with true freshman Deion Hankins. It’s unfair to put expectations on such a young player, however, the El Paso native chose his hometown school over various Power Five programs.
Along with Wadley, he can help establish a rushing attack, while the quarterback situation falls into place.