- How do you beat the 25 best teams in college football? We asked coaches of rival teams who spend all year trying to solve that problem for their unfiltered opinion of each team in SI's preseason rankings. One overarching conclusion: It's easier said than done.
As part of Sports Illustrated’s preseason Top 25, we set out to learn as much as we could about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s best teams heading into 2017. Who better to ask than the opposing coaches who spend all year scheming to knock these teams off?
The coaches quoted below were granted anonymity in exchange for their candor in assessing teams that could loom large on the upcoming season’s schedule. What follows is the result of that candor: unfiltered takes on the national title contenders, superstars and coaches everyone will be talking about when the season kicks off at the end of August.
Reporting by Bruce Feldman, Andy Staples, Joan Niesen, Chris Johnson, Colin Becht and Eric Single.
We were really concerned about [6' 2", 218-pound] Jalen Hurts running the ball against us. They do a good job not asking him to do too much in the passing game. The hard part is even on third-and-long, he can still run and get a first down. We wanted Hurts to beat us throwing the football. He has a strong arm and he can get hot, but he isn’t consistent. But he drove them down the field to win the national championship. It just so happens [Deshaun Watson] drove his team to win the national championship right after that. They have huge guys everywhere, but Bo Scarbrough [a 6' 2", 235-pound junior] is a really big back who can move. So is the freshman [6' 2", 227 Najee Harris]. Calvin Ridley [a 6' 1", 190-pound junior receiver] is always a threat.
They’ve got some cats to replace up front on defense. Talent is not the issue. Experience matters. Number 94 [6' 2", 308 junior tackle Da’Ron] Payne is a load, but we’ll see how the new guys do. They’re going to be well prepared. They’re not exotic, but they play with great fundamentals. You don’t have to be talented to be a technician, but when you add the talent to being a technician, that’s when you get elite. You beat them by making contested catches one-on-one against those long corners. [Minkah] Fitzpatrick (left) can play any position in the secondary, and that gives them options.
Jimbo Fisher does a good job of making sure the quarterback [Deondre Francois, a 6' 1", 205‑pound sophomore] makes the right reads and gets the ball to the right guys. Francois got beat up pretty good last year and still kept going. It’s tough to replace a guy like Dalvin Cook. He was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. The freshman back [5' 11", 213-pound Cam Akers] was a five-star recruit who can give them some of what Cook gave them. The little receiver Nyqwan Murray [a 5' 11", 176-pound junior] can fly.
We have to wait and see what [6' 3", 211-pound sophomore safety] Derwin James looks like coming back from the [torn meniscus in his left knee]. In the past you always had to know where he was on the field. You don’t have to change your game plan, but you have to be sure your quarterback knows where he is. The last couple of years, they’ve recruited some leaner pass rushers. Those ends [Josh Sweat, a 6' 5", 250-pound junior, and Brian Burns, a 6' 5", 218-pound sophomore] are a little bit quicker off the ball. They’ve been down at linebacker the last couple of years. Not bad but not as good compared to their normal standard. But their secondary and defensive line are as good as ever.
To stop their offense you’ve got to stop the run, then limit their explosive plays in the passing game. [Quarterback] J.T. Barrett took a beating [as a junior]. If he gets back to where he was two years ago he could win the Heisman Trophy. He’s that talented.
Their scheme is a bit of a mystery: Are they going to run packages that they’ve run before, or are they going to go all-in on [new coordinator] Kevin Wilson’s offense? The [5' 10", 214-pound sophomore] running back Mike Weber is really a good player. No disrespect to the guys that matriculated out, but Ohio State’s going to be fine. I’m not going to have a sympathy card sent to Urban [Meyer].
It’s coordinator Greg Schiano’s defense: They do a great job taking the ball away. They’re going to play man coverage with a free safety and plus-one you in the box. He was a little more multiple coverage-wise last year than I thought he would be, because he had the cats to play just man if he wanted to. Defensive end Sam Hubbard [a 6' 5", 265-pound junior] is a high-motor, high-energy guy. He’s got a great first step and really uses his hands well.
The third phase is their secret sauce—they play really hard in the kicking game. I don’t think they get enough credit for that.
They’ve gotten more multiple on defense over the years; the quarterbacks and the offenses in the Big 12 are too good for anyone to do only one thing. They used to be a strictly four-man front, two safeties. Now they’re moving to a three-man front. Most teams have a weakness somewhere on the defensive line. They really don’t. They do some stunting, and they add some blitzes that give you trouble at times, but nothing too complicated. The key is, they play hard. It’s a tough conference, and there are so many great offenses, but they’re one of the tougher defenses to play against and prepare for. The safety, Za’Carrius Green, looks like a guy who can give teams trouble. And [corner turned safety] Ramon Richards is probably one of their better players.
With [6' 5", 235-pound senior] quarterback Mason Rudolph, they’re obviously explosive, with really good receivers. Last year Rudolph threw for more than 4,000 yards, with 28 TDs and only four picks. They started running the ball better toward the end of the year. They weren’t great on the ground the past couple of seasons, but they’ve gotten better and that’s going to make them more dangerous. The receiver, [6' 1", 205-pound senior] James Washington—he’s tough to handle. He stands out.
I think the [52–6 Week 1 loss to Alabama] from last year was kinda good for them—obviously not how the game turned out, but it probably gave them the evidence of how they need to play.
On defense, they’ve got good players up front, like [Rasheem] Green [a 6' 5", 280-pound junior tackle] and [6' 5", 260-pound end Porter] Gustin. I thought they would be better at linebacker. [Cameron] Smith [6' 2", 245] is back and they’ve got big-time players in some positions, but their depth isn’t there. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was tremendous, but he’s not there anymore, and when I watched the Rose Bowl, I thought what they needed was more players like him in their secondary. Iman Marshall [6' 1", 200] and Marvell Tell III [6' 3", 190] can play, and they’re juniors now and have a year in the system, so that should help.
I think [sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold] is excellent. He’s got a good arm. He’s accurate. That’s the biggest thing: Sometimes guys that have the good arm don’t have the accuracy that he has. The quarterback from UCLA that everybody talks about [junior Josh Rosen] took a step backward last year. If Darnold doesn’t take that type of step back, I would anticipate him dominating because they coach ’em pretty well on offense at USC.
They have the best O-line in our conference, and it’s not close. It’s big, physical and tough. They keep [senior quarterback] Baker Mayfield from being hit and allow the receivers to isolate defenders one-on-one. They can do so much with Mark Andrews [a 6' 5", 254-pound junior]. He can be an in-line tight end or flex out, and he’s a great red zone target. He’s good enough in routes that you can’t use a linebacker on him. Mayfield is emotional, but now he’s more levelheaded with his decisions. He throws the deep ball really well. His accuracy on midrange and intermediate throws has improved. He’s perfect for what they do. I give [former OC and new coach] Lincoln Riley credit. Lincoln’s different from the other Mike Leach guys, because he’ll run the ball so much. Their counter plays and how they block you is different.
[DC] Mike Stoops gets waaaay too emotional as a play-caller. His team gives up a big play, and you know he’s gonna come after you, and you can burn him again. They don’t have the same caliber of talent on the front seven. Their secondary, though, is really good. Jordan Thomas [a 6-foot, 185-pound senior corner] gets his hands on a lot of passes. He or [6' 1", 204-pound senior safety] Steven Parker is the best guy on that defense. Jordan Parker [a 5' 11", 188-pound sophomore], the other corner, made them better.
What sticks out to me with Clemson is that the number of dynamic playmakers seems to recycle over time. The team will lose [quarterback] Deshaun Watson [first-round pick of the Texans], and whether it’s this year or next year, someone else almost as good will come up through. [Junior] Kelly Bryant may start this year, but the younger guys [four-star recruit Zerrick Cooper and five-star Hunter Johnson] will put the pressure on. They turn over receivers every year, and the next guy is every bit as good as the guy that they lost. [Junior] Deon Cain will be the next guy. When I watch them I don’t sit there and say, Boy they’ve got all the answers and everything covered. A lot of times the players cover it more than the scheme does.
These guys are well-coached and very good fundamentally within what they do. There’s a reason that they’ve hung [75 points] on Alabama the last two years. It’s that they have what we call multiples; they don’t have one guy that has 90 catches and everybody else is at 20 or something like that. It’s spread out.
Hunter Renfrow [5' 11", 180-pound junior receiver] is fast and tough and runs good routes. Dexter Lawrence [a 6' 5", 340-pound sophomore DT] is dominant. You can see his explosion and get-off. Up front, they don’t ask those [D-linemen] to do too much; they just go play.
Saquon Barkley is the best back I’ve seen in years. He has great vision, speed and balance. He is so explosive and so great with that jump cut. He’s also not afraid to put his shoulder down and is bigger [5' 11", 223 pounds] than you think. I love the quarterback, [senior Trace McSorley]. He doesn’t look like much in warmups, but he’s a winner. He’s excellent at keeping plays alive. The tight end, [6' 6", 252-pound senior Mike Gesicki] pops on film. He’s so athletic, and you don’t have many answers for him. They’re not great on the O-line, but that back makes them look better. And they’re well-coached. Bringing Joe Moorhead on as the coordinator [before the 2016 season] is the best move James Franklin made. They don’t do a lot formationally, but they’re dangerous because they run their system so well and they can expose you on the perimeter.
They won’t wow you with their talent in the front seven, but they’re aggressive and [DC Brent] Pry will come after you. Curtis Cothran [a 6' 5", 280-pound senior defensive tackle] could play for anyone. He moves well for an inside guy. They were banged up at linebacker, and it showed, but I like [6' 1", 232-pound senior Jason] Cabinda. He jumps out. Christian Campbell [a 6' 1", 194-pound senior] has impressed us. He’s a long corner who can run and tackle.
Washington’s defensive scheme gives people problems because they attack. If your team can’t beat man-to-man coverage, you’re going to have problems. But they lost some top players to the NFL in their secondary. That’s a concern: With all of the man-to-man they play, they ask a lot of their corners in coverage. Their front seven controls the line of scrimmage, and they run a lot of stunts with their tackles and ends. Their defensive coordinator, Pete Kwiatkowski, does a really good job scheming and making you make mistakes.
What makes [junior quarterback] Jake Browning special is his ability to hit [receivers in the] hands, and he doesn’t make mental mistakes. He has an incredibly high football IQ. As a defense you always hope the other team is going to throw a few bad balls, and he doesn’t do that. And then you put him with [junior running back] Myles Gaskin, who has a great ability to make you miss. He’s a smaller back [5' 10", 191 pounds], but the guy’s a real dude. They have a great tandem of running backs with Gaskin and [5' 11", 223-pound senior] Lavon Coleman.
Washington may have lost John Ross at receiver, but [coach] Chris Petersen has built that program up and they bring back an elite quarterback, so they’ll be better than they were last year.
The offense has a chance to be good if [Jarrett] Stidham, [a 6' 3", 214-pound sophomore transfer quarterback] is as good as advertised. When he played at Baylor, he could sling it. The question is, will they run him as much as they ran Nick Marshall? They may not have to with those backs [juniors Kamryn Pettway, 6-foot, 235, and Kerryon Johnson 6-foot, 212]. It was clear what they could do when Pettway was healthy last year. Gus Malzahn does a good job of making mismatches with formations, and they keep you off guard because you can’t just load up to stop the run. If you dedicate too much to it, they’ll burn you over the top. They like to get the ball to the perimeter a lot too. So you’ve got to tackle in space.
They’ve got a really good defensive front. They play physical. They play with their hands. They play low. They lost some good players on the interior line, but I know they have some guys they feel good about. [Defensive end] Marlon Davidson was a big-time recruit, and he started as a freshman last year. At 6' 3", 282, he’s only going to get better. We’ll see if [former No. 1 recruit] Byron Cowart can give them anything as a [6' 3", 283-pound junior] defensive end. They’re very athletic in the secondary. There are not a lot of favorable matchups. Tray Matthews, the [6' 1", 209-pound senior] safety is everywhere.
[Junior] Wilton Speight isn’t a great quarterback, but he’s solid. He’s efficient. He’s not a great runner, though he does have surprising escapability for someone who’s 6' 6", 243 pounds. He manages the game well. [Coach Jim] Harbaugh wants to beat you into the ground, and he’s got a big, physical team. All 22 guys, the backups, special teams—they look the way they’re supposed to look.
They’re so aggressive on defense, whether they’re playing man coverage or in their zone packages and third-down stuff. Don Brown is the most aggressive defensive coordinator I’ve seen in a long time. That system has worked for him for 25 years and he keeps tweaking. Now he’s got a lot of high-level talent and depth. You can get some chunk plays against them because of all the man coverage, but you’ve got to finish drives. They’re stingy in the red zone.
They’ve lost a lot of guys to the NFL, but many of these new starters have played and they’re talented. We loved [sophomore] defensive tackle Rashan Gary. To be that big [6' 5", 287 pounds] and move like he can is rare. He’s gonna be an All-America either this year or next. I like [6' 2", 282-pound senior defensive tackle] Mo Hurst. He’s a powerful dude with good feet. Mike McCray [a 6' 4" senior linebacker] is rangy and does a lot for them. He’s 245 and moves like he’s 220.
They’re really, really good up front on both sides of the ball. There’s going to be a change on defense, with new coordinator Jim Leonhard taking over after a year as the defensive backs coach. He played at Wisconsin and has been through the NFL, so there will be a couple tweaks to the defense, but I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of change. They’ve done a good job defensively, and they have a lot of guys back. Up front there are four that have started and played a lot. Inside linebackers [6' 2", 233-pound senior] Jack Cichy and [6' 1", 246-pound junior] T.J. Edwards are good players. And inside linebacker Chris Orr [a 6-foot, 226-pound junior] was hurt a year ago. I think they’ll be good at outside linebacker, but not as good without Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt [both drafted].
On O, they’re always going to run the football. In the passing game they’re going to try to get some big plays down the field. They’ve got a new quarterback in [6' 4", 213-pound sophomore] Alex Hornibrook, and he’s been in the mold of some of their previous guys—he’s a game manager who can run and throw some. Watching them toward the end of last year, they had some guys outside that could make some big plays.
And most of the time, the well-coached, fundamental teams are good at special teams. Wisconsin fits that mold.
[Sophomore Derrius] Guice is a beast. He might be a better back than Leonard Fournette. He’s smaller [5' 11", 212 pounds], but harder to tackle because he runs with so much juice guys can’t corral him. I love him.
People talk about how their O-line is supposed to be so good. I don’t see it. They’re pretty average, and I don’t see any early-round NFL talent. Their wideouts look good, but they’re inconsistent, and they don’t have a No. 1 guy. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada is creative and good at finding ways to run the ball even when the box is loaded, and he is a great play-caller. He’ll be 10 plays ahead and put plays together that look alike but are very different. But those receivers better get in shape because of all the motioning and shifts he’ll do; their legs will be gone by October.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda does a really good job. He’s aggressive with his safeties, and he stunts and moves his fronts. He did a lot more of that at Wisconsin than at LSU, but it was only his first season there. They’re just so talented. Arden Key [a 6' 6", 238-pound junior linebacker] is as good as any player in the SEC. He’s long and has a great first step. He’s not as big as most of the edge guys in the conference, but he’s quicker and slipperier.
That guy [6' 3", 211-pound junior quarterback] Lamar Jackson is a stud. I like him better than I liked [Clemson’s] Deshaun Watson last year. Jackson has a stronger arm. He’s not as steady a guy as Watson was, but it’s not even close athletically. Watson could get 20 yards on a run; with Jackson, he’s gone. You can have him penned in, and he’ll make three guys miss, outrun your whole defense and pick up the first down. He needs to run well because their O-line is below average.
Their tight ends [junior Micky Crum and senior Charles Standberry] are good players, and their receivers [junior Jaylen Smith and sophomore Seth Dawkins] are adequate. They look the part but drop a lot of balls. [Coach Bobby] Petrino calls the plays and he’s good, but when adversity hits, he hurts that team. He’ll add to the problem because he’ll scream at the kids, and their heads will go down.
They were the best defense we faced last year. Very talented. Very aggressive. Sometimes overly aggressive. Last year we tried to throw a lot to the perimeter to get it out of our quarterback’s hands in a hurry. Their DBs are big-time athletes. That’s the one thing that jumps out at you with this defense. Jaire Alexander [a 5' 11", 192-pound junior cornerback] is a great cover guy with great feet. He’s the best corner we saw last year.
Bryce Love [a 5' 10", 196-pound junior running back] has a lot of speed, but he never seems to be healthy. [Trent] Irwin is a good receiver. He’s got nice size [6' 2", 205] and is a great route runner. I don’t know why the coaches didn’t lean on him more. Last year their O-line wasn’t anywhere near as good as it’s been, but I expect them to get a lot better because they’ve been recruiting well up front. They struggled at quarterback. [Senior] Keller Chryst is a huge kid [6' 5", 234], but he struggles seeing coverages.
They’re fundamentally sound on defense and good tacklers. They do a lot and they do it well, which is uncommon. They’re big on movement up front and multiple and disciplined. Usually you can catch a guy out of his gap with teams that have that much movement, but not them. They’re impressive in how well they run to the ball. The guy who doesn’t get enough credit is [6' 3", 241-pound senior outside linebacker] Joey Alfieri. He’s savvy and anticipates well. He makes a lot of plays for them. Their secondary has no weaknesses. They’re more athletic on the back end than people give them credit for. Quenton Meeks [a 6' 2", 197-pound junior] is an excellent corner. I could see him as a first-round guy. Brandon Simmons, the free safety [who’s 6 feet, 199], is a really good player too.
Jacob Eason [sophomore quarterback] is a young guy, still developing. He’s got a chance to be a good one. He was a freshman who started 12 games in the SEC. Just to get on the field at that age against that level of competition, physically and mentally—that’s impressive. He’s a big kid [6' 5", 235 pounds], so he’s got good strength, and he’s only going to get stronger. He can take the hits.
I think seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are both quality SEC backs. They’re not the premier backs in the league, but they’re good players. They have a big offensive line as always; I didn’t think they were overly tough last year.
On defense they’re solid. I didn’t think their corners were very impressive—they weren’t dynamic physically or with playmaking ability. Pretty solid guys, but they didn’t seem to be those big corners you see at LSU and some other schools in the conference.
They are a well-coached, disciplined team. Putting your stamp on a program, coaching the guys and training the guys and developing the guys—that takes a while. That transition can’t take place in six months, and that’s basically what [second-year head coach Kirby Smart] had last year before his first game. I think this year’s team will be a much better indication of what you’re going to see in the future from Smart.
The motor of the whole team is [6‑foot, 210-pound senior quarterback] Quinton Flowers. There were a lot of times last year when schematically they were not quite together, and Quinton could erase some of those issues. Even when you assign a spy to him, he can make that one guy miss. There are not many teams in this league that have somebody that can get him on the ground when it’s one-on-one and he’s flushed out of the pocket. He needs to be treated like a running back in the run game, and in the passing game, he’s going to make his plays. D’Ernest Johnson [a 5' 10", 208-pound senior running back] will be as good in the running game as Marlon Mack was last year because Johnson won’t miss a read. He’ll make the offensive line better.
They force a lot of fumbles, and they recover just about all of them [11 of 14 in ’16] because of their team speed. [Senior] Deatrick Nichols was the hardest cornerback for us to get open on in the league last year. Overall, the pass defense wasn’t as bad as people think. They’re a big-play offense, and because they scored so fast, their defense played more plays than the offense.
Under coach Charlie Strong, you’re probably going to see more penalty discipline and a little more physicality at the line of scrimmage.