The X-Factor is one of my favorite discussion points in sports. Every year, contenders in college football enter the year with positions or players they have few question marks about – proven players who they trust to produce. However, teams that win or compete for championships are generally boosted by that surprise breakout performance, an excellent contribution from a player that wasn’t expected to do so. Without that player, that X-Factor, a championship team simply becomes a really good team, and a really good team can beocme borderline average. So with a game in the books for many teams who we consider to be contenders to qualify for the ACC Championship,. let’s take a look at who the X-Factors are for those squads, on the offensive side of the ball. For the purposes of this piece, we narrowed our list to the four teams with the best current odds to win the ACC.
Clemson Tigers – Braden Galloway, TE
Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne headline a lethal Clemson offense, but their wide receiver corps did have some question marks, as the season-ending injury to Justyn Ross forced Amari Rodgers to become WR #1 for the Tigers. This left an opportunity for someone to step up as Lawrence’s second option in the passing game, and Galloway played the part in the season opener. He tied with Rodgers for the team lead with five catches for 60 yards. After not playing in 2019 and having just five total receptions in 2018, Galloway looks primed for a breakout season that could add another layer to this dynamic Clemson offense.
UNC Tar Heels – Michael Carter, RB
Carter maybe doesn’t fit the traditional ‘X-Factor’ definition, as he is a proven player who has produced for the Tar Heels. However, he is so critical in both facets of the UNC offense that, with a lack of unproven breakout prsoepcts, makes Carter my choice for the X-Factor here. The biggest key for Carter will be an increased role in the passing game. Taking too much from one game is dangerous, but Carter collected six passes for 60 yards in their opening clash with Syracuse. He had more than 2 receptions in a game just once in 2019. Combine that with his seven carries for 78 yards, and Carter averaged nearly 11 yards per touch in his first outing of 2020. He’s explosive, and he looks like he might have added more versatility to his toolkit in 2020.
Miami Hurricanes – Jaylan Knighton, RB
The addition of a freshman playmaker is always exciting, and Knighton looks like he could add another dimension to this Miami offense in 2020. The hype regarding the Hurricanes has largely revolved around the arrival of transfer quarterback D’Eriq King. King is a great dual-threat quarterback, and Miami complements his skills with Cam’Ron Harris, a proven running back. However, Knighton played a significant part in the gameplan during Miami’s season-opening victory against UAB. The true freshman notched nine carries for 59 yards, over 6.5 yards per pop. With the sturdy Harris taking the bulk of the rushing load, Knighton, weighing in 20 pounds lighter than Harris, provides a great change of pace. His arrival in Miami hints at dynamic potential and creativity to the Hurricanes’ playcalling.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish – Michael Mayer, TE
Mayer is currently listed as the 3rd-string tight end for the Irish, but he flashed some of the playmaking ability that enticed the Irish to seek him out as their top target of the 2020 class. He caught three passes for 38 yards, continually racking up yards after the catch and proving very difficult to take down. At 6’5, 235, Mayer is an absolute monster on the field, and Notre Dame offensive coordinator showed an inclination to use tight ends in the passing game, targeting starter Tommy Tremble (5 receptions, 38 yards) frequently. Notre Dame lacks proven playmakers in their receiving corps, and quarterback Ian Book has lost his safety net that was Chase Claypool last season. If Mayer can emerge as a dependable threat, that will be a huge boost for the Irish.