Does anyone remember the TV show The X-Factor?
If you don’t, I understand. It was pretty terrible, and I say that as someone who is openly a Simon Cowell fan. Cowell was looking for a musical act that had that certain intangible that could make them special. It was generally the same idea as American Idol, but came around at a time where the show had kind of worn out its welcome in the pop culture lexicon.
Trying to find someone who has that “it” is not exclusive to music. That applies to sports as well. Every team, every conference, has someone who can make or break the success of others through their performance. So allow me to put on my deep V sweater, practice a British accent, and see who among the Group of 5 conferences can be an X-Factor for the 2022 season.
Camar Wheaton, RB – SMU
It stands to reason that when you think of the ultimate X-Factor, your mind probably goes to a quarterback whose success can make or break the team. And that’s fair. If that’s how you roll, then I offer Gerry Bohanon for USF as an option. If the Bulls are going to be successful, then he will almost assuredly be the reason why. But I’m going a different direction.
Looking at the American from a big picture view, it appears to be Houston, Cincinnati, UCF (in some order) then a drop off. But the team most likely to make a move into that upper tier is probably SMU. They return all-conference quarterback Tanner Mordecai and a high-octane offense, who could be even more potent now that former Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is at the helm. They also get Houston and Cincinnati at home, that’s important.
Any college football fan knows that throwing it all around the yard is fun to watch, but the most successful offenses need to keep defenses honest through balance. Enter Alabama transfer Camar Wheaton.
Wheaton, a five-star from Texas, was rated the Number 3 running back in the Class of 2021. But he saw the writing on the wall early in a perpetually crowded Crimson Tide backfield, so he transferred to SMU to be closer to home. Assuming he is fully healed from a meniscus injury that caused him to redshirt last season, he could the the piece that turns SMU from a fun offense to watch to a flat-out threat in the conference.
Grant Gunnell, QB – North Texas
One of the most interesting position battles in the entire conference is the quarterback battle in North Texas. Returning starter Austin Aune led the Mean Green to a terrific finish last year, winning their last five games to become bowl eligible. However, Aune didn’t exactly put up eye-popping numbers (nine touchdowns and nine interceptions) and the winning streak is generally attributed to a solid defense and outstanding running game. So UNT looked toward the transfer portal to find a quarterback to potentially take them to the next level in a conference that is UTSA, UAB and everybody else. And former Arizona and Memphis quarterback Grant Gunnell could be that guy.
With a conference game this Saturday at UTEP, North Texas starts the season off with a bang. And as of this writing, a decision has not been publicly made regarding who will start. But all signs seems to point to Gunnell as the man to lead the type of offense former Texas Tech gunslinger Seth Littrell wants to run. If the 6-6, 230 lb. Gunnell – who started for the Wildcats in 2019-20, throwing for 15 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions in those two seasons – is healthy, he could make the Mean Green a serious threat in Conference USA.
Harrison Waylee, RB – Northern Illinois
A vast majority of X-factors are newcomers. That’s kind of the nature of the concept. But sometimes it is a player who has been with the program but is getting his opportunity. Harrison Waylee is that player.
NIU is the defending conference champion, but kind of getting lost in the shuffle among teams like Toledo and Miami (OH). Rocky Lombardi returns at quarterback, but running back Javyon Ducker, who rushed for over 1,100 yards last year, transferred to Memphis. If Waylee, who has rushed for over 1,000 yards himself over his two-year career, can carry the load without the offense missing a beat, there is no reason the Huskies can’t be right in the thick of things again in the MAC.
Harrison Bailey, QB – UNLV
In a conference where the champions the past two years have come from seemingly out of nowhere (San Jose St. in 2020, Utah St. last year), a lot of pundits are looking at UNLV to potentially be that team in 2022. And a major reason for that is incoming Tennessee transfer Harrison Bailey.
Bailey, at 6-5, 225, has legit pro potential and a fellow Power 5 transfer to throw to in former Michigan St. Spartan Ricky White. If I’m being honest, it reminds me a lot of what Nevada worked with last year in the combo of Carson Strong and Romeo Doubs, and they were quite successful.
With games at Utah St. and at San Diego St. as well as a non-conference game at Notre Dame, the schedule does the Rebels no favors. And the defense left a lot to be desired last year. But this team is going to put up some points, and if you want to win games in a wide open conference, that’s half the battle.
Jarret Doege, QB – Troy
This decision was a lot tougher about a week ago. But when Doege left Western Kentucky and signed on to join the Troy Trojans about a day later, everything changed.
I am admittedly not the biggest Doege fan. He was fine at West Virginia, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns for the Mountaineers last year, but not good enough to take them to the next level in the Big XII. So he transferred to Bowling Green, Kentucky to be the catalyst for a Hilltopper offense that put up record-setting numbers behind Bailey Zappe last year. However, he got beat out for the position and transferred again.
Troy is one of the better teams in a Sun Belt West that could be there for a taking with all the losses Louisiana suffered. The Trojans have arguably the best defense in the entire conference, but an offense that was 109th in the country last year. So this could end up being a perfect marriage of a dangerous team that needs an offensive jumpstart with a talented quarterback looking for a place that trusts him.
So there are five guys (not to be confused with the delicious burger joint) who will be key to their team’s success. Which Group of 5 players did I overlook? Let us know (@walkonredshirts) or (@justincripe).