Coaches give anonymous breakdowns of top 25 teams
On Wednesday we unveiled the SI preseason Top 25 rankings, complete with a comprehensive breakdown of each of the 25 teams. But don't just take our word for it. To give you an accurate sense of where every team stands heading into the 2016 season, we asked opposing coaches to size up our ranked teams, giving them anonymity for their candor.
So what do you really need to know about each of the top 25 teams in the country? We'll let the coaches tell you.
No. 1 Alabama
"[Offensive coordinator] Lane Kiffin brings some flavor. He changes it up. It makes it hard to focus on one thing. You used to just worry about stopping the run. Now they spread you out. They'll use jet motions and sweeps. And they can still line up and run between the tackles. They're going to miss Ryan Kelly tremendously at center. He was the quarterback of their line. They always have backs. They'll do what they do on the ground. But with [sophomore receiver] Calvin Ridley and [senior tight end] O.J. Howard, they may go deep more and be more creative with formations.
Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt learned from Nick Saban when he was at Alabama earlier, so the defense shouldn't look much different without Kirby Smart [now the head coach at Georgia]. When you turn on the tape, you see the speed and athleticism—it looks like an all-star team. Another thing that makes it difficult is the depth they have. They're able to roll a lot more guys in and keep the fatigue factor from taking over. They make you earn every yard on the ground, and they make you earn every yard through the air. As a play-caller, they make you feel like you've got to be absolutely perfect.
[Senior outside linebacker] Tim Williams has a great combination of speed and power. He's what everybody's looking for as a pass rusher. Even though he only played about 30 snaps a game last year, we made a tape of him for our offensive line to study. [Cornerback] Minkah Fitzpatrick was great as a freshman. He's only going to get better."
No. 2 Clemson
"It starts and ends with [junior] Deshaun Watson. You have to limit his explosive plays by eliminating the run-pass options they use off the inside zone by being firm inside. You want Watson to carry the ball—then you've got to hit him. Passing-wise, you've got to force him to play into the pocket because when he gets outside, he's going to create big plays with his feet. You must do a great job with your rush-contain lanes and try to alter his sight angles.
Watson's got game-breaking weapons with [junior] running back Wayne Gallman and [junior] receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams. [Senior tight end] Jordan Leggett won't block anybody, but he can catch. The offensive line isn't going to knock anybody off the ball.
They've always been stout on the defensive front, highlighted this year by [senior] tackle Carlos Watkins. Cordrea Tankersley is probably better than departed cornerback Mackensie Alexander, a second-round pick.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables does a great job, but he's late getting his calls in. That's because they're probably as good as anybody at stealing signals, and Venables is waiting to see your offensive call. [Clemson declined to comment.] And because they're so multiple on defense, they're prone to being out of position. They'll line up late, and you can get a guy running free."'
Roundtable: Who's too high, too low in preseason Top 25?
No. 3 Florida State
"With [5' 11", 213-pound running back] Dalvin Cook, you try to slow him down. You can't stop him. You've got to limit him to singles and doubles, because if he gets going, he's going to get home runs. He's great at finding the crease and exploding through the hole. And on those mid-zone or wide-zone toss plays, he has a lot of freedom to find that crease. Because of the unsettled quarterback situation—it's between senior Sean Maguire and redshirt freshman Deondre Francois this year—they've had to run the ball a little bit more. They didn't have anybody that scared us last year at wideout—they were just good college receivers. But the Cook effect can help that. Teams have to worry about him so much that they may not worry about those receivers.
They're getting back to having the speed on the edge, like the old Florida State defenses used to have. They've got some of those bodies now on their team. Having [sophomore defensive back] Derwin James means there's another guy that the offensive coordinator and the quarterback have to be aware of on every play. He's one of those dynamic playmakers who can completely disrupt a play. They're going to miss [cornerback] Jalen Ramsey [first round, Jaguars]. He made a bunch of big plays on the boundary.
They're sound and they're physical up front. They'll make it a fistfight even if you want to play basketball on grass."
No. 4 Michigan
"Everyone wants to know who's going to start at quarterback. Junior John O'Korn has the experience from two seasons at Houston, but [sophomore] Wilton Speight has the measurables [6'6", 239 pounds]. Whoever it is, he's going to spend a lot of time handing it off to their stable of running backs, led by [5'11", 228-pound senior] De'Veon Smith. Jim Harbaugh & Co. depend on the power run game to set up the pass. Their best player just might be [senior] tight end Jake Butt. He's a nightmare one-on-one because he can go up and get the ball, plus run after the catch. They're stockpiled with big, explosive receivers, especially [6'3", 200-pound senior] Jehu Chesson, who's frightening down the field. The line is an above-average group that's embraced Harbaugh's physicality. Your best chance is to make them a passing team, which could backfire.
New DC Don Brown is an aggressive blitzer, and when he gets frustrated, he goes all out. Even though they were top five in total defense a year ago, they didn't have many takeaways, which I'm sure will be an emphasis. A good chunk of their front seven is gone, but they'll be fine with [sophomore] freak Jabrill Peppers moving from safety to linebacker. Their secondary is about the nation's best with a true lockdown guy in [senior cornerback] Jourdan Lewis.
This is a national championship contender."
No. 5 LSU
"New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is renowned for using multiple looks, but he's got so much talent that he could just play base defense if he wanted. A hulking line will once again rotate plenty of fresh bodies. Their linebackers are solid and have lots of speed. The secondary is as talented as it gets with future NFL picks in [senior] cornerback Tre'Davious White and [junior] strong safety Jamal Adams. Hopefully you can find a way to run the ball against them, but their front seven is so good that's a tough task.
[Junior] Leonard Fournette isn't just the best running back in the country—he's the best to play the position in years. But they're not only a run-the-ball-down-your-throat offense. They do a really nice job with the play-action pass, which is hard to defend when Fournette is always one broken tackle away from the end zone. They've got a talented receiving corps to go along with a massive, physical offensive line, but the biggest question is quarterback Brandon Harris [54% completions, 13 TDs, six INTs]. He's a capable passer, and now that he's got a year of experience as a starter, he should be better. From the start to the end of last season, he made a lot of progress.
I don't see a lot of weaknesses in this team. They've got the talent to not only win the SEC, but also the national championship."
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
No. 6 Oklahoma
"Defensively, they're good. [Coordinator Mike] Stoops brings different looks, schemes and surprise blitzes each week. It keeps play-callers off balance. It helps to have good players, obviously, but they're good at changing up fronts and mixing in pressures, too. They'll be good defending the passing game because they bring back three guys in the secondary. Jordan Thomas, their [junior] corner, is so good, he can occupy your best guy, and they'll just do whatever they want to your other receivers.
Baker Mayfield fits perfectly with what they want to do. It's a similar scheme to the one he ran in high school and at Texas Tech—an Air Raid–based attack—so he knows where to get the ball, how to get the ball out quick and how to get out of a bad play. He can hurt you running, too.
Those two stud running backs [junior Samaje Perine and sophomore Joe Mixon] really complement each other. I'm not sure which one is better; they're both first-round-type players. They're physical and fast, and the coaches utilize them really well. With their receivers, they may not have one star, but as a group they may have more depth. [Senior] Dede Westbrook made some nice plays last year, and [sophomore] Mark Andrews can hurt you.
[Coach Bob] Stoops walks and talks with a lot of swagger, and his guys feed off it. They think they're the best, and they play like it."
No. 7 Washington
"They are incredible on defense. They've got good players, like [junior safety] Budda Baker, but more than that Chris Petersen and Pete Kwiatkowski, his defensive coordinator, are really good teachers. It's not surprising, because it was the same at Boise State. Their players are technically sound, and they play hard. You never really see them have a down game. They're multiple with their fronts, and they're so good on the back end that they can get away with bringing a lot of pressure. Oh, yeah, and the guys you're trying to block are often first-rounders.
They're going to win games because of their defense, but I think their quarterback [Jake Browning] has matured a lot, and it was obvious at the end of last season that he was comfortable in the scheme. They did a nice job running the ball last year with Myles Gaskintoo. They're not flashy, but they do all the stuff in football that wins—block, tackle and catch the ball. They're creative with their sub packages and formations too.
They're replacing one of the best special teams coaches in the country [Jeff Choate, who went to Montana State], but they've got explosive returners in Dante Pettis and John Ross. And that stadium—it's an advantage. When it's rolling, it's one of the hardest places to play. All that 12th man stuff with the Seahawks was going on at UW way before Seattle claimed it."
No. 8 Houston
"UConn dealt Houston its only loss last year by playing smashmouth football. That's the game plan to beat the Cougars. They didn't have quarterback Greg Ward Jr. for most of that game, which didn't help, but UConn still limited their possessions and pushed them around.
Ward is a dynamic runner; his acceleration and change of direction are among the best in college football. The strategy against them is to make him beat you by throwing it, gang-tackle him and do what you can to slow their tempo. Ward isn't very thick, but he can take a hit.
Defensively, the Cougars led the nation in takeaways , and they're a quintessential feast-or-famine team. Even Navy threw for more than 300 yards against them because they gamble and blitz so much. You have to take advantage with big plays. Last year they left their corners out on islands a lot, which made them susceptible to double moves. They run a ton of exotic blitzes, so you have to be ready for a safety or corner coming on third down.
Corner William Jackson led the nation with 23 pass deflections last year. He was so good, it allowed them to ignore his side of the field and concentrate on stopping what you did best. If they wanted to stop the run, they played five defensive linemen. They played with so much swagger on defense. Will they be able to maintain that without Jackson [first round, Bengals] and leading tackler Elandon Roberts [sixth round, Patriots]?"
No. 9 Ohio State
"I know this is going to sound weird because they finished No. 2 nationally in scoring defense, but new co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano will make them much better. His specialty at Rutgers were his third down pressure packages on defense, as he was great at finding creative ways to get to the quarterback. Ohio State will force a lot more turnovers because of what he'll be able to do on third down.
Ohio State's identity will be completely different on defense, as last year you strategized around Joey Bosa not wrecking the game and neutralizing Darron Lee at linebacker. I thought Gareon Conley, who returns at corner, and Eli Apple (the No. 10 pick in the NFL Draft) were similar talents. You actually saw a lot of teams throw at Apple because he committed pass interference a lot. One way teams took advantage of them last year was taking the slot receiver, running him 10 or 12 yards downfield and then to the sideline. Ohio State's safeties struggled to cover and people hit it on them. I thought middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan was overrated. He was athletic and pretty looking but lacked great instincts. They don't return any guys who are first rounders on their defensive line, so they'll be an adjustment there.
With J.T. Barrett entrenched as the starter, Urban Meyer can get back in his comfort zone. Just like with Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Tebow at Florida, he's going to challenge defenses by forcing you to defend the quarterback run. They're really going to miss the experience of Ezekiel Elliott, especially in pass protection. I wonder how talented their offensive line will be. Last year, Taylor Decker was the guy our staff really liked. Other than him, no one really scared you. They'll miss Mike Thomas at receiver, but they have quality depth. That group was raw and young, but they can play."
No. 10 Tennessee
"They've got two monsters in junior running backs Jalen Hurd (6' 4", 240 pounds) and Alvin Kamara (5' 10", 215). Hurd looks like a defensive end and Kamara is about as explosive as anyone in the country. And they've got an experienced offensive line. If I'm them, I'm going to rely heavily on the run because I can control the game that way. [Senior] quarterback Joshua Dobbs has plenty of experience, but he's more likely to beat you with his legs than his arm. You want to keep him in the pocket and make him throw. One of their best plays last season was running Dobbs, especially in the red zone. It's hard to defend that.
The defense has playmakers at every level. Outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin would have been selected in the first few rounds of this past NFL draft if he hadn't stayed for his senior year. Expect new coordinator Bob Shoop to bring some pressure, especially out of zone coverage. He certainly wants to load up the box and stop the run, which you better be able to do in the SEC.
Special teams–wise, they're one of the best in the country. [Senior cornerback] Cameron Sutton was first in the FBS in punt-return average last year, and [junior safety] Evan Berry led the country in kick-return average.
This is one of the most complete teams I've seen. They're the team to beat in SEC East."
David Madison/Getty Images
No. 11 Stanford
"People try to make a big deal about them breaking in a new quarterback, but even with the new guy, likely Keller Chryst, they're going to be damn good. With young QBs you don't know what you're going to get until they start playing—but you could have also said that before Andrew Luck took over. Chryst has such a big, strong arm, and he's really athletic, too. They've got a great offensive line and a great back in Christian McCaffrey, so they're not going to have to rely on Chryst to sling it. He'll have time to get adjusted.
McCaffrey, he's just awesome. He has everything: really good change of direction, good speed; he's a complete football player. It doesn't matter that everyone knows he's going to get the ball. Really, it makes the play-action game so much scarier because if they can run, that's when you see those big throws go over the top. And as a returner he solves a lot of problems. You can pretty much count on him bringing back a kick for a touchdown every few tries, and it's like, Oh, crap, can we at least try to not kick it toward him?
Defensively, it's wrong to say that they don't have talent. Those dudes play so, so hard, and they're so well-coached. They've been outstanding over the last four to five years because they're so big and physical. Really, they're the only ones who have solved the Oregon riddle consistently. They're a nightmare because they're not going to beat themselves."
No. 12 Notre Dame
"I'm curious about their starting quarterback. DeShone Kizer obviously led them to the Fiesta Bowl last year after Malik Zaire's early season-ending broken [right] ankle, but I think Zaire's the better runner and can really hurt you. They're really going to feel the losses of [left tackle] Ronnie Stanley and [receiver] Will Fuller, both first-round picks. I'm not sure who their game-breaking receiver is now.
Let's not kid ourselves: They're still Notre Dame. [Senior left tackle] Mike McGlinchey is good, but they're transitioning on the offensive line. Who's the running back going to be? They've got a lot of questions to answer. The influence of offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. is apparent in the passing concepts they use, with the high crosses and shots down the field, as well as in the formations and motions. Yet there are still the staples of coach Brian Kelly's running game and quick passing game.
Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is like everybody else on first and second down, but he's more exotic than almost anybody on third down. He's got different fronts, and they blitz from everywhere. You have to get out in space and make them miss or max-protect and beat them one-on-one down the field.
Could they have a 10–2 record this season? Sure, but they could just as easily be 8–4."
No. 13 Michigan State
"You hear it all the time, but Mark Dantonio is a heck of a coach. As usual, he's got a very physical team. They take care of the football and aren't greedy. They're not worried about tempo and all the flash. They just kind of beat you into submission and get you to surrender as fast as they can. They do a great job of personnel groupings and mixing their plays. They use their personnel about as well as anybody I've ever seen.
That will help take some of the pressure off the new quarterback. [Senior] Tyler O'Connor started the Spartans' upset of Ohio State on the road last season. He's a solid passer who can run some, but no matter who starts, I'm sure Dantonio will play to his team's strengths, which means running the ball. They've got three very capable backs in [sophomore] LJ Scott, [junior] Gerald Holmes and [sophomore] Madre London, but I imagine the bruising [6-foot, 238-pound] Scott will be an even bigger force this season. With their experience on the interior offensive line, it'll be tough slowing down their ground attack.
On defense their first priority remains stopping the run. [Junior] Malik McDowell is a monster who'll be playing on Sundays next season. [Senior] linebacker Riley Bullough is a tackling machine, and having back [linebacker] Ed Davis will help. The secondary could be the best the Spartans have had since 2013."
No. 14 Iowa
"In his first year as a starter, [senior quarterback] C.J. Beathard surprised last season when he opened with 12 straight wins. He's a pretty accurate passer who makes his receivers better. He's also got an unreal ability to keep plays alive with his feet. He's just dangerous enough to scare you. I saw recently that offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Beathard could be the best quarterback he's ever coached. That's something, considering Davis had Vince Young and Colt McCoy at Texas.
As usual, they'll have one of the nation's best offensive lines. It doesn't matter who they lose there, because they just plug in guys. The same applies to running back because of their run-first scheme and how good they are up-front.
I like their linebackers—they were a little young last year, but they've got good length and are more athletic than you think. They also do a good job rerouting receivers and are sure tacklers. They're very fortunate Desmond King didn't leave after last season for the NFL. He's a real playmaker, not just in coverage but also as a returner.
They're tough because they'll shorten the game and just beat you up physically. You've got to force their offense into passing situations. That gets them out of their rhythm. And you better attack their defense in space to see if you've got any advantages speedwise—that's how Stanford routed them in the Rose Bowl. I just don't know if anyone in the Big Ten West can do that."
No. 15 Louisville
"If you're going to win a championship, you'd better have a good quarterback. And they do in Lamar Jackson, one of 18 starters back from a year ago. He can throw it, and he can beat you with his feet. He's dangerous because he creates so many issues for opposing defenses, especially when he gets out of the pocket. You've always got to account for him with an extra defender in the box, which puts even more pressure on your secondary. Bobby Petrino's a great offensive coach, and while you may think he's going to throw it all over the place, he's got a very physical team, one that's going to run the ball first.
They've got tons of athletes defensively. Their team speed is tremendous, and they're very physical up front. Their secondary does a really good job in coverage and in taking away the easy-access throws. [Senior] safety Josh Harvey-Clemons is so big at 6' 5" that he looks like he should be lining up at end. Their defensive backs dare you to beat them one-on-one.
That's just the nature of coordinator Todd Grantham. He's an aggressive guy who likes to blitz. But it's imperative that you don't let his high-pressure tactics make you one-dimensional offensively. That's what he wants."
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
No. 16 Georgia
"The defense shouldn't have much of a learning curve because [former coordinator] Jeremy Pruitt ran a very similar scheme to what Kirby Smart is bringing from Alabama. Kirby's defenses at Alabama were so well-coached. And because you know where they're going to be, you've got to find a way to use that against them. You have to find ways to exploit that and make some plays where they're not expecting them to come from. Smart won't have the depth upfront that he had at Alabama. He's not going to be able to roll in fresh guys without a drop-off, and he's got a lot of questions to answer on the line. What he does have is guys in the secondary who have played a lot of football. They had the top defense against the pass last year. It's a good bunch, especially [junior] safety Dominick Sanders.
[Coordinator] Jim Chaney is going to make that offense tougher, and they're going to have more of an identity. They're going to run the ball. They'll use formations to create mismatches and some shifts to make you move. And when they have [running backs] Nick Chubb [747 yards in six games] and Sony Michel [1,161] back there, they're scary. Chubb may take a few games to regain his form [left knee], but he'll get there. It's hard to know what they're going to do at quarterback. [Freshman] Jacob Eason is talented, but [senior] Greyson Lambert is steady."
No. 17 Oklahoma State
"I think they will be one of the top teams in the conference, depending on what they do with the defense. If you have one elite pass rusher, like they had last year in [Emmanuel] Ogbah [second round, Browns], then you can disrupt any offense. Ogbah was getting so much attention that it freed up other guys to make plays. It will be interesting to see how they get pressure this season. Their scheme is good. It's smart, it stresses you and it makes you earn your yards. You have to play really well to move the ball.
They have three or four outstanding wideouts, which is the strength of their team. I thought [junior] James Washington was one of their most improved players, and he hurt our team on deep balls last year. The big question is how will they replace [slot receiver] David Glidden [57 catches, 866 yards], who signed with the Falcons. [Junior quarterback] Mason Rudolph is an NFL-caliber talent. He stands in the pocket well, is accurate as all get-out and [at 6' 5" and 235 pounds] has a physical presence. If their line improves and they can improve their ability to run the football, they will be a dangerous offensive team.
Coach Mike Gundy has got a really good program, and I don't see a reason why they won't be there at the end. They always surprise people."
No. 18 Washington State
"It's the same pass-happy, Air Raid offense that coach Mike Leach has always run. He's all about leverage of the defenders. He's going to run his spacing routes and then his crossing routes. He puts a lot in the receivers' hands—they have to read the leverage of the guys covering them. They do a damn good job and the quarterback knows exactly where to throw it.
[Junior] Luke Falk is probably more talented than some of Leach's past signal-callers, but it's hard to know because he doesn't read anything, he just runs through progressions. Falk took way too many hits last year, and I'm sure he will again this season, but protection has always been a huge issue for Leach's quarterbacks.
Falk and his receivers are so quick throwing the ball that it talks you out of blitzing them a lot. The teams that hit Falk the most last season did it using three-man rushes and dropping eight in coverage, which made him hold the ball longer. [Senior wide receiver] Gabe Marks is dangerous outside, and their inside possession receivers do exactly what's expected: catch the ball, get whacked and carry on.
Defensively, their strength has always been their big linemen, and they've got another budding star in [sophomore] end Hercules Mata'afa. Senior safety Shalom Luani isn't great in coverage, so you want to attack him, but he's a sure-tackling, heavy hitter. If you can run and make them pack the box, I'd take matchups all day against their corners in man coverage, which they don't play much.
They went 9–4 last season but I thought the whole Pac-12 was down, so I'm not sure they were much better than when they went 3–9 in 2014. This year they might be an even better team, but they might not have as good a record."
No. 19 Ole Miss
"They try to spread you out to make you think pass, pass, pass, but they're a run-first team—it's all smoke and mirrors. You want to hit [senior] Chad Kelly because he's not just a running quarterback; as he's running, he's always looking downfield. And he's got good receivers—Laquon Treadwell wasn't the only guy they had. Damore'ea Stringfellow is big and physical. Evan Engram is a tight end, but he'd be a receiver at a lot of other places. That makes him tough to cover. So when Kelly is running around behind the line of scrimmage, your cover guys have got to keep covering. Your linemen have to keep their feet on the ground and not go for the pump fake. If you get a chance to hit him, you've got to make him think about running again.
On defense they'll get after your ass. They're faster than Alabama. Where Bama will just play you straight up, Ole Miss will run a lot of stunts and twists on their line because those guys move so well. Their rotation guys at tackle were pretty good last year, but this year they'll have to make up for not having Robert Nkemdiche. [Junior end] Marquis Haynes is really fast off the edge. And getting [senior] safety Tony Conner back [from a right meniscus tear] is huge. He makes plays everywhere."
No. 20 TCU
"Trevone Boykin was absolutely tremendous at getting out of bad plays, and they won't have that dynamic anymore. Same with Josh Doctson, who could catch everything. It's going to be really interesting to see how they replace those guys … I like (receiver) KaVontae Turpin a lot. He's explosive, and they use him well on some speed sweeps and reverses. He can be a big-time guy for them. They have a lot of new faces, but I don't think they'll change their scheme much at all. Meacham and Cumbie are good at throwing new wrinkles into game plans each week, and they'll keep that up. They play at a fast pace, which is always an advantage because it stretches the defense. And since Meacham and Cumbie got there, that whole offense plays with confidence. A lot of kids have played the last couple seasons so even though they lost a lot, those returning guys will be comfortable.
Defense, that's their bread and butter. When you're playing TCU, you better have some new stuff, and you better be able to execute it. If you just try to run what you ran the week before without any adjustments, Patterson will know exactly what's coming and you will have problems. They have a couple of blitzes but for the most part, they just do what they do so well. They consistently don't give you anything. … One of the guys they get back is (Ranthony) Texada. He's the type of corner who's so good, they stick him on your best guy then roll coverage the other way. Patterson and his staff don't get enough credit for developing talent.
On special teams, you do not want to kick the ball to Turpin. He's dangerous on every return."
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
No. 21 Oregon
"They'll be interesting because they hinge on an unknown at quarterback [fifth-year senior Dakota Prukop], but the last time that happened [with Vernon Adams in 2015], it turned out pretty well. Their tailback, Royce Freeman, is special and underappreciated. He's that unique combination of size, strength and speed, and he's just a flat-out stud. Their wideouts are good too, but Oregon wants to run the ball first; that's always been their M.O. Their tempo is an advantage too. When they first started playing with it, no one knew it or understood how to replicate it. Now eight teams in the conference run it, but Oregon is still going faster than everybody else.
New DC Brady Hoke is a big personality and a good coach. He'll be good for them. They're changing their scheme to a 4–3, but that staff has done a good job recruiting—kids still love the success and the uniforms—so they'll be able to figure out what their personnel is and use it to their advantage. But the first few games, no one can be sure what to expect. The secondary was young last year, so they should be better, but without [2015 Pac-12 defensive player of the year] DeForest Buckner, no one on the defense is scary."
No. 22 North Carolina
"It's no secret their advantage is having an offense that can score a lot of points. [Junior running back] Elijah Hood's a big, physical type [6-foot, 220], plus their receiving corps is as talented as there is. It's a tall, athletic group complemented nicely by dynamo [senior] Ryan Switzer in the slot.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky [a junior] has valuable experience, and many thought he was going to be the guy last season. Coach Larry Fedora is one of the best offensively, especially with tempo and running the ball. That's a challenge, because they're not just one of those pass-happy spreads.
Credit defensive coordinator Gene Chizik for simplifying what's primarily a 4–3 scheme. The defense was a train wreck in 2014. They gave up tons of big plays and there was a lot of finger-pointing, but Chizik helped change that. There's really nobody that scares you. Cornerbacks M.J. Stewart [a junior] and Des Lawrence [a senior] are pretty good, but their front seven is still developing. They have recruited well, however, so there's definitely some talent. As bad as they were against the run a year ago, you have to think that'll be an emphasis.
Look out on special teams; Switzer is a punt return nightmare."
No. 23 UCLA
"The Bruins lost eight players to the NFL draft, but [sophomore] quarterback Josh Rosen still gives them a chance. He's smart, so when he has a ton of time, he's really good. Bang him up and he tends to force things. New offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu's more pro-style attack should actually suit Rosen better. But it's hard to blend a no-huddle, fast-paced, bubble-screen vertical game with a two-back, power, play-action pass game. It'll be interesting to see how that evolves.
Defensively, they lost special guys but also have special ones back. If [junior] defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes is fully recovered from his [left] ACL injury, he's a huge problem and changes their whole defense. As talented as their D has been, it has kind of reflected their offense the last couple of years: There was a ton of athleticism but not a lot of physicality. Running right at them is a key.
Safeties Randall Goforth [a senior] and Jaleel Wadood [a junior] headline a stacked secondary. I don't know
if you're going to get many big plays because they have such good speed on the back end, but you've got to keep chipping away.
There's times they look like the best team in the country. A week later they don't look interested. If they show up dialed in, good luck."
No. 24 San Diego State
"Think Stanford on offense. What they want to do is bludgeon people; you are going to see a lot of two-tight-end, two-back sets. It's unusual, and teams have a hard time defending it. The passing game [led by sophomore quarterback Christian Chapman] is average at best, but it doesn't need to be great, because the offense is in a lot of third-and-twos. They'll try to con trol the clock and wear you down, so you have to be ready for a bar fight. The problem is running backs Donnel Pumphrey [a senior] and Rashaad Penny [a junior] are so good that they can take it to the house at any time.
Schematically, they are a little bit unusual on defense too with that 3-3-5. [Coach] Rocky Long has been running a version of it forever. The difference is, they are so physical and they play so fast, I don't know if there is a team in America that pursues the ball better. Scheme counts for something, but what makes them great is the effort, the heart and the passion that they play with. There isn't anyone on their defense that's intimidating, but when the ball's snapped, they fly around like you wouldn't believe. I think San Diego State could be the Houston of this year."
No. 25 Boise State
"They've been the standard for the Group of Five, but they're not the same animal they have been. Don't get me wrong, they're still damn good, but last season, for the first time in a while, they lost games they should have won.
They've got new co–offensive coordinators in Scott Huff and Zak Hill, but it doesn't really matter, because coach Bryan Harsin is heavily involved offensively. He wants to throw the ball around out of the shotgun. Their [sophomore] quarterback, Brett Rypien, was impressive last year. He's going to be one heck of a player, but he's not very mobile.
If you decide to pressure Rypien, you better make sure you can cover their receivers one-on-one, a really good group led by crafty [senior] Thomas Sperbeck. They're also a real big deception team, so you've got to be prepared for trick plays.
There's a ton of questions on defense with just five starters back. And there's a new defensive coordinator, Andy Avalos; we expect him to run a 3–4 scheme. Their line has been overhauled, but they'll be fierce in the secondary with ball-hawking safeties Cameron Hartsfield [a junior] and Chanceller James [a senior]. Kicker Tyler Rausa and punter Sean Wale, both seniors, are outstanding, which is a real advantage.
They don't make a lot of mistakes, but they're a beatable team. If they're going to be the Boise of old, it'll depend on their defensive line."