Every team has one. He’s not necessarily a team’s best player, but he’s perhaps the guy with the widest possible range of performance, or the guy in a key role where the team doesn’t have a reliable “other option” if he doesn’t have a good season. He’s the guy that, if he has a great season, it might mean an extra win or two for his team. I’ll call them “pivotal players,” and here’s my pick of one for each team in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division (I did the East on Monday).
Alabama: kicker Cade Foster
Alabama is so ridiculously loaded everywhere, it’s hard to figure that perhaps outside of quarterback, where the Crimson Tide have almost no experience outside of A.J. McCarron, taking one player away from the ‘Tide would cause a serious problem.
But even in the Crimson Tide’s run of dominance — three national titles over the last four years — there have been five losses, and three of those losses have come by a field goal or less. And speaking of field goals, everybody remembers the one loss in the 2011 LSU came because Alabama couldn’t hit enough of them — the Crimson Tide missed four that day. One came from Cade Foster, ‘Bama’s “long-distance” kicker who will now likely kick all of Alabama’s field goals since Jeremy Shelley graduated.
As dominant as ‘Bama will be, there be a close game or two in there somewhere. Will Foster make, or break, the ‘Tide in that regard?
Also considered: Alabama lost one of the best cornerbacks in America in Dee Milliner, a high NFL first-rounder. That leaves senior Deion Blue as the No. 1 cornerback on Alabama’s roster, making his performance a key for the UA defense.
Arkansas: running back Jonathan Williams
Arkansas transitions from a passing team to a running team in coach Bret Bielema’s first year in Fayetteville, and Williams ended the spring as the team’s top tailback. The true sophomore was a four-star rated recruit by Rivals.com, and played pretty well as a freshman, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt on 45 tries. The Razorbacks will be hard-pressed to make a bowl, but if it happens, they’ll have to have a good year from their top tailback.
Also considered: Arkansas must replace an outstanding quarterback in Tyler Wilson, and sophomore Brandon Allen will get first crack. With Arkansas’ margin of error already thin, solid performance from the quarterback is a prerequisite for success.
Auburn: quarterback Kiehl Frazier
Frazier was a disaster as a starter last season, with two touchdowns against eight interceptions and barely a 50 percent completion rate. That was probably the biggest reason that Auburn went 3-9.?
Enter new head coach Gus Malzahn, who hand-picked Frazier to run the Auburn offense when he was Auburn’s offensive coordinator. Malzahn’s offense is better suited to Frazier’s talents, but Frazier didn’t exactly take the job and run with it in the spring. Still, he’s probably got the biggest upside of any quarterback on the roster, and if he can take a big jump up, so will Auburn.
Also considered: Auburn’s defense was also sub-par last year and lacked play-makers. The Tigers feel they may have one this season in linebacker Justin Garrett, a junior who’ll be a first-year starter for Malzahn this fall.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger
Mettenberger had a rather pedestrian first season as LSU’s starter last year — 2,609 yards, 12 touchdowns, seven interceptions. The first eight games were certainly sub-standard, and suddenly in Week 9 against Alabama, Mettenberger threw for nearly 300 yards. From that time on, the rest of his season was a cut above what he’d done to that point. Mettenberger was a former 4-star recruit, so perhaps that was a sign he’s ready to play up to his potential.
Also considered: The Tigers lost their entire front four, opening room for talented ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter to play. Both are players who fit the “could step up in a big way” profile.
Mississippi State defensive tackle P.J. Jones
The 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive tackle drew a lot of praise from coach Dan Mullen as the season wound down. He’ll be a first-year starter on a defense that needs a lot of help: MSU gave up at least 34 points in five of its last six games. The inability to stop the run — 166 yards per game — was the biggest problem, and that’s where he should help.
Also considered: MSU lost a pair of defensive backs to the draft, opening up room for junior Jamerson Love to start. The Bulldogs think he’s a star in the making.
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace
There’s little question that Wallace holds the key to Ole Miss potentially being a Top 25 team last year. Wallace had a nice first season, accounting for 30 touchdowns passing and rushing, but also led the nation with 17 interceptions, so consistency’s what’s needed here.
One complication: Wallace is recovering from shoulder surgery. He’s been making some throws this summer and is supposedly ahead of schedule, but the health of his right arm bears watching. If something goes wrong, it could be disastrous, because senior backup Barry Brunetti has not proven he can handle the job.
Also considered: Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s top freshman recruit, should be able to help an Ole Miss defense that gave up 27.6 points per contest last season. Barring a major surprise, he’ll figure in the rotation at defensive end immediately.
Texas A&M kicker Taylor Bertolet
There’s missing the occasional kick, and then there’s what happened with the Aggies’ Taylor Bertolet last year. The then-freshman missed seven (of 74) extra points and hit just 13-of-22 field goals, mis-firing on an astonishing 5-of-6 from 30 to 39 yards. The Aggies may well be a top-10 club, but they probably won’t be without better kicking.
Also considered: Defensive end Julien Obioha needs to recover from back problems, and had just one sack a year ago as a starter. But Obioha was the rare player who started as a true freshman, which speaks to his ability. With some health and the normal freshman-to-sophomore improvement, he’s got a chance to be a real factor.