Opposing coaches break down teams in SI's preseason Top 25 rankings
Sports Illustrated unveiled its 2015 preseason college football Top 25 on Wednesday. To scout those teams, SI reached out to opposing coaches, granting them anonymity to get their honest opinions of the squads. What are their greatest strengths and weaknesses? How do they beat you? How can you beat them? Here's what the coaches had to say about the top teams in the country:
1. Ohio State
They lived off their defensive line last season—they could rush four and still pressure the quarterback. That helped prevent deep throws against a susceptible secondary with average corners and stiff safeties. … They aren’t that complicated on defense, where they let their playmakers be playmakers. To attack them you have to be physical up front, protect the quarterback and take chunks of yards. … Joey Bosa is a headache when he flips from left to right end, especially with Darron Lee rushing from the opposite side. Lee may be the best rush linebacker in the country, and they move them around to create mismatches. … It’ll be interesting how Urban Meyer handles the quarterbacks, because he wants everyone to be happy. I think J.T. Barrett is more well-rounded. … Of course when you have the offensive line they have, you don’t need a great thrower. You just need someone to hand it off.
They’ve got the best offensive line in the SEC. They’re big, they’re physical, they move people, they do a good job on double teams ... With Jeremy Johnson at quarterback, there may not be as many quarterback runs, but from a formation standpoint, it’ll be the same thing. You’ll still have to play your eight-man fronts to stop the running game ... Jeremy is a bit more of a quarterback. They’re going to probably have more of a passing game, with play-action off the running game. That will end up bringing a different dimension to their offense ... Obviously their No. 1 receiver, Duke Williams, is going to have some big gains because you have to bring eight guys up ... They have a talented group of backs. They’re really a two-back offense that likes to run and throw it deep ... They do have issues in the secondary, but Will [Muschamp] makes an offense beat him lefthanded—he takes away the things an O does well and makes it hard to score.
They’re as explosive and aggressive on offense as any team in the country. You’re more likely to beat them in a shootout, the way Baylor did last season, than you are to shut them down ... The key—obviously—is slowing down Trevone Boykin. You’ve got to keep him off-balance and put him in predictable situations like second-and-11 and third-and-six. You let him get ahead of the chains with all the weapons he has at his disposal, and good luck, especially with their play-calling creativity ... When you’ve got the ball, you have to be just as aggressive as they are. Gary Patterson’s smart about his 4-2-5 defense, but he has to rebuild this season’s unit, particularly in the back seven. When you get in the red zone, you better score touchdowns because their offense certainly will ... Remember, their last loss was in early October [to Baylor], so they’ve got a ton of momentum. They’ve always played with a lot of energy, and to a certain degree they’re fearless.
4. Notre Dame
If quarterback Malik Zaire is accepted by teammates, and there isn’t any lingering effect from Everett Golson’s leaving, that will be key. Golson was probably a better runner, but Malik is a better passer ... Ronnie Stanley is a legitimate pass protector at left tackle. He’s a long-armed guy, he’s got good knee bend, and he’s the best athlete on that front group ... At some points running backTarean Folstonwas able to get his pads down and become a difficult target at the second and third level. I don’t know that he’s a home run hitter, but he should be a 1,000-yard rusher ... Receiver Will Fuller runs good routes; he’s got good hands. He will attempt to block ... Cornerback KeiVarae Russell has good hips, good feet. He’s got explosive movement and good body control. My biggest concern would be the safeties. They played a good amount, but they weren’t particularly good.
Their front seven is, hands down, the best in the country. You have to get creative against them, because they’re so hard to move. … They were young last year on the back end. That’s where you could take advantage. But look at [cornerback] Tony Brown—they were playing him as a true freshman. With the coaching he’ll get, you know he’s going to be good. … They’ve done a good job of recruiting to defend every type of offense. If you want to put 10 tight ends in the game, they can match that. If you want to spread it out, they can match that. … You don’t know who the quarterback is going to be or how they will replace Amari Cooper, but what gets overlooked is that offensive line. That line means they’re going to have great backs.
Most teams don’t have the secondary to keep up with them, so the key is to not give them a lot of space. Teams that have had success against them have been able to disrupt their receivers’ timing at the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback ... They do a lot of passing off a run game that is very difficult to defend, especially when you’re trying to slow it down with a minimum number of people in the box ... When you attack their defense with the run, they’re going to man you up on the corners and dare you to win one-on-one battles over the top, so you better have guys who can do that. It helps to have a running back with some wiggle who can make them miss, too ... If you get into a shootout with them, you better force some turnovers.
7. Michigan State
Mark Dantonio is Iceman from Top Gun. He’s precise and doesn’t make many mistakes. They don’t necessarily beat you, you beat yourself because they create so many disadvantages ... Connor Cook has so much poise and accuracy. He’s valuable, but [center]Jack Allenis probably more so because he gets everybody where they need to be. They’re not a huge vertical pass attack except on play-action, but they do that a ton because they run the ball so well ... The departure of [defensive coordinator] Pat Narduzzi will bring new wrinkles, but it’s always been Dantonio’s defense. Shilique Calhoun is one of the best. They play a quarters-type coverage to limit the pass, but with time your quarterback can pick them apart. Not many get that opportunity because their front four is ridiculous.
Kessler is probably one of the most underrated players in college football. He throws deep really well and makes great checkdowns. He’s not flashy, but he knows how to manipulate the offense. He might not win the Heisman, but shoot, he’ll win games. He’s a true quarterback. … Sark [Steve Sarkisian] is one of the better coaches in the country at finding weaknesses and exploiting them. Why attack 11 defenders when you can attack one or two? And it doesn’t matter who’s running or catching: If that experienced line gives Kessler time, you’re in trouble. … Defensively, they’ve applied a lot of pressure the last couple of years. So when you’re on offense, it doesn’t matter if you’re athletic; you have to play smashmouth. If you drop back every snap and give them time to come at you, they’re going to cause a lot of problems.
9. Florida State
They’re so strong on the back end of their defense. They’re not quite as strong as they used to be on the front, especially at the defensive end position, but those back four or five guys are elite. … They go by the principle that the more talented you are, the less you have to do on defense. They’re going to have more talent than 10 of the 12 teams they play every year, so they don’t make it too complicated. … They probably play a little bit more man than other teams we face because they have the guys who can do that. … You’ve got to be able to run the ball, because you’re not going to be able to drive by throwing exclusively. … Their offense got better last year when they moved Cam Erving to center and started Rod Johnson at left tackle, but Erving is gone now. … Their backs are great at breaking tackles.
It’s crazy that defenses are sitting around right now hoping the next Oregon quarterback is good. Because if he’s just good, not great like Marcus Mariota, it gives teams a chance. … Royce Freeman had a monster freshman season, and it was just a feeler year. … Mark Helfrich is so good at finding what works, and then gashing you. You don’t have time to adjust until the series is over, and the majority of times, they’ve scored. They have so many ways of attacking you; you have to be aware of everyone on the field. … Their pace isn’t so foreign anymore. The teams that beat them get on the board early, find a way to possess the ball and make them play from behind. … We’re going to find out how much of what they did was Mariota and how much was the system.
Brian Schottenheimer is going to be great for them. There’s no substitute for coaching pro football and having to deal with young quarterbacks, and they have to find and develop a quarterback this season ... They’re going to have two of the top five running backs [Chubb and Michel] when they both come out in the draft. I’m not sure Chubb has the same home run speed that Todd Gurley had, but he’s so hard to wrap up and tackle ... They play two-back or three-wide, so they’re pretty vanilla. They just rely on the talent to make plays ... They’re going to miss David Andrews at center. In fact, they’re probably concerned about their depth at offensive line. But Chubb makes them a good line anyway, because he doesn’t force them to hold their blocks that long.
Deshaun Watson is going to be the guy who makes the offense go. The added dimension he brings is his accuracy, especially down the field. … The key is keeping him healthy. They ask the quarterback to run, but how much risk are they willing to take? It might be one of those things where you see Watson run more in the red zone or in short-yardage situations, as opposed to general play. … The defense was really good and fun to watch. It was multiple, hard to block and athletic. Coordinator Brent Venables has done a great job. … I don’t want to use the word rebuilding, but they lost some guys, and I’m not sure they’ll be quite like they were last year. They don’t have the experience, but do they have enough players to be a dominant defense in the ACC?
13. Ole Miss
Their front four has got speed, and they’re just all over the place. Robert Nkemdiche can be anything from a noseguard to a defensive end—he’s that big and that athletic ... They know how to defend the spread because they see it every day at practice. It’s a unique defense versus the spread. They get that rover safety playing seven yards deep as an addition to the run defense. [Mike Hiltonhas moved there from cornerback.] You’ve got to be a physical cat to play that spot ... If you get on the edge, they’re going to run you down, but if you run downhill on them, you can open things up and move the ball ... Their receivers are tall and rangy, and they come down with a lot of jump balls. If you pack a lot of guys up front to stop the run, they can go deep ... They also use a lot of motion, which forces you to be very disciplined.
The thing that stands out with the Bruins is their athleticism and speed across the board. They’re efficient offensively and really balanced, so you don’t get any keys on what they’re going to do in certain situations. They spread you out and make you defend all 11 guys and every inch of the field . . . Paul Perkins is an outstanding back with good vision, and they’ve got some wide receivers that I think are bigger than our defensive linemen . . . Their defense doesn’t allow you a lot of easy throws because the corners come up and press you. You have to try to beat them downfield to keep them honest. Their linebackers cover a lot of ground and close well, so your underneath passing windows are smaller . . . Last year they were effective at changing their front from snap to snap and did a nice job of confusing our guys.
The Wildcats are right on the edge of becoming a power. … Anu Solomon has skills. He’s an excellent passer, makes good decisions, gets the ball where it needs to be. For him, the refinement will be what he does to basically own that team. … Nick Wilson is very explosive. He can make cuts and get into creases. It’s a bit of a sixth sense. … Scooby Wright’s drive and desire to dominate—those are the things that stand out most about him.… You don’t see the 3-3-5 defense that much. They try to create some blocking problems. … If they’re going to win the Pac-12, they have to step it up on defense. It’s hard to beat the really good teams by saying, Hey, we’re going to outscore everybody.
16. Boise State
On defense, I don’t know if they have a weakness. Their biggest strength has always been their front seven. Running the ball against them is a challenge. Kamalei Correa has developed into probably the best defensive player in the Mountain West, and I’m sure he’s only gotten stronger. … They’re able to disguise coverages extremely well, but they’re a high-risk, high-reward type deal. When you get a chance to crease ’em, you have to take advantage. … It will be interesting to see how things work with a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback. The running back question isn’t as vital—they have plenty of those. … I would guess they’re going to lean heavily on the run, especially early, until they get their quarterback situation settled.
17. Arizona State
Mike Bercovici has a big arm and can make all the throws. They’ll take a lot of shots downfield ... They’ve got really good skill players. Guys who are explosive and can play in space ... Even though D.J. Foster is playing in the slot, I’m sure he’ll get just as many touches ... Defensively, they’re blitz-oriented. Todd Graham loves taking chances, but they’re calculated. They get to you so quickly that they create a lot of negative-yardage plays. They thrive on pick-sixes and fumble recoveries ... They’re not as deep as other teams in the Pac-12, particularly on defense. They’re not very big on that side either. But their staff is very good at figuring out your play, then blitzing into it. The times they’re wrong, though, they give up big plays.
Their strength will be at linebacker; expect senior Blake Martinez to blast through the A and B gaps in their 4–3 scheme to disrupt things. … They have to be nervous about losing their whole secondary. There’s talent back there—the defense looked ahead of the offense in the spring game—but not experience. They’ll lack little things, like the ability to tell routes based on the wideouts’ splits. … In past years they had a running back who could fall forward and gain four or five yards on first down. They were always ahead of the game, with second-and-five and then third-and-two. Without that last year, Kevin Hogan couldn’t compensate in second or third-and-long. He just doesn’t have the arm to get them out of those situations.
19. Georgia Tech
Game-planning for their offense is totally different. Nothing you do during the course of your season is going to help you. Planning for them can actually put you behind with other teams. ... The biggest thing for them last year was getting a quarterback, Justin Thomas, who could make some plays. Now you’ve got to be able to defend all three phases of the option. ... The way they play, they don’t have to have big guys on the offensive line. They just have to have guys who can position-block. That offense is going to have 12- to 14-play drives. ... The Coastal side of the league isn’t quite as good as the Atlantic, so that’s helped them. They’ve taken advantage of the situation.
Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff should be getting more credit for their tremendous job of player development. … Maty Mauk is a good quarterback, but he can be streaky. You can’t let him find his rhythm or it’ll be a long day. You’ve got to mix it up on him and make sure you get pressure. If you get him off-balance and thinking, especially with his inexperienced receivers, you’ve got a good chance. … Defensively, they’ll gamble more under new coordinator Barry Odom, but he’ll still turn those guys loose up front, which is what lets them play zone coverage. They’ll need to continue that relentlessness because their ends are so young this year. … With the experience they’ve got at linebacker and on the back end, Odom should be able to roll the dice.
It’s going to be a different scenario with Lincoln Riley calling the plays, so they’re a bit of an unknown. I imagine they’ll try to throw it more, but with [running backs] Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, they’ll find a way to get them the ball too. If you look closely at what Riley did at ECU, he’s good at adapting to the personnel he has ... When you’re on offense, Stoops brings pressure from everywhere. Every week it’s new looks, new blitzes. You have to be ready for any and everything. He wants you to make a mistake ... Talent-wise, they’re always going to be right at the top of the conference; overall, they’re just a solid defense. You’ve got to make them pay on some of the aggressiveness they bring each week. When they take a shot defensively, you have to respond immediately.
The offensive line revels in being the strength of the team; they’ll push you until you surrender. To me, they show the value of having an identity and not wavering from it, even when the results aren’t there [such as during their 17-game SEC losing streak]. It will be interesting to see, with Dan Enos calling the plays, how they evolve on offense. … Those two backs [Williams and Collins] are as good as any pair in the country. Brandon Allen is solid, and his best receiving threat is [junior tight end] Hunter Henry, who made ridiculous catches and is perfect for their play-action game. They love to get him lost behind the linebackers in space. … The D struggled against Auburn and A&M’s pass games last year; as the season went on, they played faster and more confidently, but they’re not designed to win shootouts.
The challenge Leonard Fournette presents is that he’s so fast and so physical, he can run inside and out ... LSU’s uncertainty at quarterback was really key last season. Both Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are very talented, so I think they’ll get it figured out. They have a ton of skill on the outside and a formidable running game. The QBs will get some play-action going and not hurt the team by trying to do too much ... They lost some guys in their front seven, but everybody in their back end returns, and they already had an extremely talented secondary. That back four is going to be something to reckon with ... I think you’ll see some stuff that’s similar to what Alabama runs with [defensive coordinator Kevin] Steele arriving. He’s a great defensive mind.
They find ways to run the football, and can control the pace and the flow of the game. They’ve been great at developing offensive linemen, and the number of guys who have gone on to the NFL is a reflection of that. … What they’ve done in the running game—with multiple blocking schemes and the use of multiple tight ends—isn’t something you see every week. … I was impressed with their defense overall. We were high on a couple of the guys in the secondary. Some of their corners were exceptional coverage guys, especially Sojourn Shelton. … [They’re] very physical up front, very fundamentally sound. They really force you to find ways to move the football.
25. Mississippi State
Dak Prescott makes it all go. He’s such a threat to run that you can’t go help out on the 6' 5" receiver [De’Runnya Wilson] or blitz often to create havoc on a young offensive line. To try and stop Prescott, you need to keep him in the pocket, eliminate escape lanes, take away the shorter passes and force him to throw down the field. He could be more of a factor if they go tempo, because one missed alignment or read and he can get them points very quickly ... Defensively, they were as good a front seven as we saw all year. They reminded me a bit of the San Francisco 49ers. Even with what the Bulldogs lost, they’ve still got big, physical guys up front who can run. You need to keep them moving and attack the perimeter; you can’t do a whole lot of straight-ahead running.