Alabama – Christopher Walsh, BamaCentral
Nick Saban added another stellar recruiting class, featuring numerous premier defensive front-seven players including Will Anderson and Chris Braswell, and linebacker Drew Sanders, but the player to watch for a breakout season is second-year defensive lineman Christian Barmore. He might not start, as Alabama is incredibly deep up front, but he could be poised for a monster season. He made 26 tackles including six for a loss and two sacks in limited playing time. Part of the reason why is he kept accidentally hitting quarterbacks in the head (usually when bringing his arm down) and getting called for penalties. Despite that he was still named to the Freshman All-SEC Team by league coaches. Two other strong candidates are quarterback Bryce Young (although he still has to win the starting job), and running back Trey Sanders, who missed all of 2019 due to a knee injury.
Florida – Zach Goodall, AllGators
Senior wide receiver Trevon Grimes is the player to watch in the Gators’ passing offense. The 6-5, 214-pound former Rivals five-star, who transferred from Ohio State before his sophomore season, has flashed play-making skills in a crowded pass-catching unit over the past two seasons and looks to benefit from Florida sending four receivers to the NFL this offseason. Grimes hauled in 33 receptions for 491 yards (14.9 yards per catch) and three touchdowns in 2019, turning 23 of those 33 catches into first downs and averaging 8.2 yards after the catch, per Pro Football Focus.
Another two breakout candidates are redshirt junior defensive end Zachary Carter and senior defensive tackle T.J. Slaton. Carter's 20 quarterback pressures (PFF) ranked third on the team in 2019, despite playing in a rotational role that earned him less than half of the team's defensive snaps. He is now expected to start on the strong-side, while Slaton is projected to move to three-technique from nose tackle and take on a full-time role after emerging late last year. The 6-5, 335-pound lineman tallied 13 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss in the final four games of the season.
LSU – Glen West, LSU Country
Fresh off being named the Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year, Arik Gilbert arrived in Baton Rouge with lofty expectation, and not just because he was the highest ever ranked tight end by 247Sports. As a senior, he caught 105 passes for 1,860 yards and 15 touchdowns, helping lead Marietta (Ga.) to its first Class 7A state championship since 1967.
"I'm just speechless, honestly," Gilbert told SI All-American upon being named the 2019-20 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year. "I never imagined I'd win something like this but now that I have it, I'm really thankful and grateful."
LSU will be multiple in the way it uses Gilbert as the Tigers will stock him in the slot, in the dirt and split him out wide as well. Coach Ed Orgeron describes it as the “Calvin Johnson role,” a player new passing game coordinator Scott Linehan is all too familiar with.
“We can use some of the same plays with Arik that Scott ran with Megatron, I'm not saying he's going to be Megatron but he's a good player."
A few other names to watch in 2020 are senior receiver Racey McMath and junior linebacker Damone Clark. McMath has waited his turn and will assume the mantle at slot receiver, where Justin Jefferson made a killing in 2019.
Clark is a prototypical LSU linebacker who plays sideline to sideline. After two years of learning behind Devin White, Patrick Queen and Jacob Phillips, he should be one of the leading tacklers this season.
Mississippi State – Joel Coleman, Cowbell Corner
According to 247Sports, Mississippi State has had just three five-star recruits sign with the school in the last decade. One of them is a strong candidate to start at left tackle for the Bulldogs this season as redshirt freshman Charles Cross could very well be the man called upon to protect the blind side of expected starting quarterback K.J. Costello. This makes Cross perhaps one of the most important Bulldogs on the roster and a potential breakout star in 2020.
Cross was rated a five-star prospect out of high school by both 247Sports and Rivals. He was the second-best tackle prospect in the nation in the Class of 2019 in 247Sports’ rankings.
Cross saw action in three games in 2019 (against Southern Miss, Kansas State and Texas A&M), and now appears set to try and take over the left tackle job full time. Though much of the focus offensively for MSU will be on Costello, running back Kylin Hill and the State receivers in head coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, Cross might end up being as critical as anyone as the Bulldogs try to rack up yards this season.
"I think I know what I’ve got there just because of his work ethic,” MSU offensive line coach Mason Miller said of Cross in an interview last month. "Through what we saw before the coronavirus shutdown, he got after it at midnight maneuvers (workout sessions) and was always competing. He’s tough and works hard and is determined. Obviously, his athletic ability speaks for itself. So I’m pretty sure we know what we’ve got with him. On the flip side of it, he’s young and there’s going to be some growing pains but knowing him, he’s going to work hard and do what he’s got to do to put himself in the best position to be on the football field."
Other potential breakout stars include true freshman running back Jo'Quavious Marks, as well as junior college transfer receiver Malik Heath. Marks has continued to earn praise from the coaching staff since his arrival to campus earlier this year and could end up being second on the depth chart behind Hill. Meanwhile Heath is likely to be a key target for Costello.
Ole Miss – Nate Gabler, The Grove Report
Is it even fair to call running back Jerrion Ealy a breakout candidate? Last year he was on the SEC All-Freshman Team and the Second-Team All-SEC as voted by the coaches. But he can still break out again, and I don't think there would be a lot of people around the conference surprised if he made another leap and became one of the top-two tailbacks in the league. Additional candidates are tight end Kenny Yeboah, linebacker Lakia Henry.
Another should be edge-rusher Sam Williams, only he’s being investigated for sexual assault and was suspended indefinitely. Ole Miss Football Suspends Sam Williams Amid Sexual Battery Charges).
South Carolina – Chaunte'l Powell, Gamecock Digest
Defensively, the Gamecocks saw defensive linemen Javon Kinlaw, Kobe Smith and DJ Wonnum all go pro so their replacements have an opportunity to step up and have a break out year.
Earlier this year after spring practice, defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said he had high expectations for defensive linemen Zacch Pickens and Rick Sandidge.
Pro Football Network released its two-round mock draft of 2021 with cornerback Jaycee Horn projected to be taken in the second round. Look for him to try and improve that position. Junior defensive back Israel Mukuamu was named to the preseason watch list for the Paycom Jim Thorpe Award and should contend.
Offensively, freshman MarShawn Lloyd turned heads during spring practices and has already drawn comparisons to D'Andre Swift. Senior tight end Nick Muse has been named to the 2020 John Mackey Award preseason watch list this year. He hauled in 17 passes for 158 yards in eight games last year before suffering an ACL injury.
Vanderbilt – Greg Arias, Commodore Country
The Commodores have multiple contenders to be the breakout player, and while this player won't be a surprise to Vanderbilt fans he might be others across the conference. Defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo is coming off a solid junior campaign, and at 6-6, 260 pounds will be playing in a new scheme in Ted Roof's defense. He could end up a household name heading into the NFL Draft process.
Other candidates include sophomore wide receiver Cam Johnson (6-0,180) and freshman quarterback Ken Seals (6-3, 205), who will be part of a four-man competition to start and could be the choice to lead the team's offense this season.