Most of the year, the only way you’ll hear coaches publicly discuss other teams is with glowing praise, as a tactic to keep their own charges focused. But to set the table for the 2018 college football season, we asked opposing coaches most familiar with the top 20 teams in SI’s preseason rankings for a more forthcoming breakdown of what makes each squad so good—and where each might be vulnerable.
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 on Labor Day Weekend. (These scouting reports are listed in alphabetical order; you can explore SI’s complete preseason Top 25 here.)
Reporting by Andy Staples, Ross Dellenger and Joan Niesen.
Let’s remember: They probably shouldn’t have even been in the playoff and won the championship by the skin of their teeth. It wasn’t a totally dominant Nick Saban team. That being said, this team could be better than last year’s. ... Their offense could be as explosive as it’s ever been in the Saban era. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can make plays that you’ve never seen from a QB there before, and the new offensive coordinator, Mike Locksley, is more of a spread guy than his predecessors, so he’ll air things out. Jerry Jeudy is their next great receiver. They are very strong at running back: Damien Harris and Najee Harris are one of the best tandems in the country. ...
There’s more uncertainty on the defense. They lost eight starters to the NFL, but the big question is if they’ll take a step back with [former coordinator] Jeremy Pruitt now at Tennessee. When you have a guy like 6'7", 300-pound end Raekwon Davis, it may not matter. ... As good as they are, nothing will come easy, because the competition in the SEC West is closing in: Auburn is loaded; LSU and Mississippi State will be a handful; and Texas A&M, under Jimbo Fisher, is coming.
Auburn under coach Gus Malzahn is the epitome of SEC football: a great combination of power football combined with gadgets and trickery, simple concepts for explosive athletes. Facing Malzahn, you have to prepare for things that he did 10 years ago as an offensive coordinator, because you never know what he’s going to dig up. It actually waters down what you’re doing in a game because you’re spending time covering your bases and chasing ghosts. ...
There’s still a lot to be desired with quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Facing a rush, his eyes come down: He gets nervous because he doesn’t want to get hit. If you’re bringing pressure—or even if you act like you are—he’s going to see it and it’s going to affect him. People caught onto that at the end of the year. In its Peach Bowl win, UCF did a great job of pressuring him. ... The defense has a chance to be one of the best in the country. It’s very good up front: Middle linebacker Deshaun Davis is the leader of the group and Big Cat [defensive end Markaviest Bryant] really came on toward the end of the season. Even when Stidham and the offense are struggling, the defense will win games for them.
With Khalil Tate under center, they have a running back playing quarterback. His speed in the open field sets him apart—he can turn a five-yard play into a 50-yard gain—and his arm is strong and consistent enough to keep you honest on the back end. This guy is as talented as Johnny Manziel. ... The offense is going to be special, but it’s not a one-man show: Running back J.J. Taylor is a game-breaker too.
Ultimately their success is going to be dictated by their defense. They were so young last year, starting five freshmen, and the unit still has a lot of growing up to do. Getting pressure on the quarterback was something they struggled with, and they’ll need to get better in that regard. Defensive end Kylan Wilborn is the guy to watch—he’s got big upside, and linebackers Tony Fields and Colin Schooler will also be key. ... Overall they don’t have a lot of size, so they’ll have to make do with extra guys in the box, which will put pressure on their secondary. The Pac-12 is a passing league, and they’re going to be vulnerable to big plays. ... There are going to be a lot of shootouts in the desert. If the defense can keep them in games, they’re a real sleeper for the conference title.
This might be the best defensive line we’ve ever seen. Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are all future first-rounders. But they aren’t the only good ones. Everybody in the country wanted Xavier Thomas; he could have started at a lot of places as a freshman and now he’ll have to fight to be in the rotation. So it’s not just the starters you have to worry about. With those guys up front, their linebackers might never get touched. ...
It’s hard to know how they’ll look on offense because of the uncertainty at QB, but they’ll hang their hat on the short passing game. You really have to challenge their short throws or the chains will keep moving. You also have to tackle well, because they can put the ball where it’s a one-on-one. They may not be as explosive as they’ve been, but they will go on lots of double-digit play drives, and Travis Etienne can always break a big one if you don’t fit the play correctly. ... They still like to beat you over the top, and Tee Higgins can be that guy to make them even more explosive. Higgins is 6'4" and 200 and can run, and they also still have Hunter Renfrow, who looks like a scout-team guy but always seems to be open.
Given he was a true freshman, quarterback James Blackman did a good job last year after the knee injury to Deondre Francois [in Week 1]. You don’t see true freshmen who weren’t the No. 1 guy in camp just pop in there and play. They’ll have Francois back but health will be a big question early on—I’m not so sure he’s recovered from his injury. [New coach] Willie Taggart ran the QB a lot when he was at South Florida, so it will be interesting to see if he still will: Neither Blackman nor Francois are natural runners. ... It’s no secret that their best players are their running backs, Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick. The top priorty of Taggart’s offense is to make space through formation and motion for the backs to operate. ...
At Michigan State [new Florida State defensive coordinator] Harlon Barnett ran press quarters [Cover 4] coverage that keeps two safeties in the box. That puts pressure on your corners to cover one-on-one on the outside. But if you have good corners, that defense can make you miserable, and Levonta Taylor is a great corner. If they have one more—and they might have one in Stanford Samuels III—then they could really be a problem for teams.
Since [coach] Kirby Smart took over two years ago their scheme has looked a lot like Smart’s former team’s—but after a few strong recruiting classes, now their personnel is starting to look like Alabama’s, too. When we studied all our opponents, they were, by far, the most physical team, on both offense and defense. ... Facing their running game is like being in a boxing match with someone who has a big, strong right hand: You know it’s coming and you’ve got to take it. Center Lamont Gaillard is probably the best in college football. They lost two good running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel so D'Andre Swift will have to shoulder the load, but he could be a star. ...
Quarterback Jake Fromm is smart, efficient and doesn’t make mistakes. He’ll be challenged more this season because the run game won’t be quite as dominant, but he’ll have a weapon in wide receiver Riley Ridley. He’s going to get one-on-one coverage because teams will stack the box, so Fromm will have some big-play opportunities. ... They’re sound defensively—they don’t blitz you and do all of that exotic stuff. They just line up and say, Let’s play football. You’ve got to go mix it up to beat them.
I show video of defensive tackle Ed Oliver to my players and shame them for not playing like him. I'm kidding, because nobody has his talent. But I want them to see how he never gives up on a play. There could be a toss play on the other side and five guys have it covered, but he still attacks the ball like if he doesn’t make the play, no one else is going to. ... You have to double-team Oliver, and that leaves everyone up front free to make plays. Outside LB Leroy Godfrey was really good last year even though he wasn't a full-time starter [8 1/2 tackles for loss, second on the team to Oliver’s 16 1/2].
The D-line, led by Jerard Carter, could be dominant with the addition of TCU transfer Isaiah Chambers. ... D’Eriq King is not the best passer in the world, but he’s a phenomenal athlete. Now that the Cougars are running the old Baylor offense, there’s plenty of room for King to run, but he’ll also get a lot of one-on-ones in the passing game. They’ll want it to be a vertical attack, but they lost two reliable receivers, so someone like Terry Mark is going to have to emerge as a playmaker. ... RB Terence Williams is a transfer from Baylor, so he should know that offense really well.
The Miami Way under coach Mark Richt is simple: Our players are faster and bigger and stronger than your players, so we’re going to let our players play. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. With the Hurricanes’ talent at their skill positions, a team like Duke has no business competing against them, but last year the Blue Devils made adjustments and the game was tight until the end. You’d like to see Richt and the staff make more adjustments too. ...
There’s a lot of explosiveness on offense. Quarterback Malik Rosier is not an elite runner, but he’s good and he can hurt you on draws, zone reads and designed quarterback runs. He makes big plays in critical moments. ... They’ve got big-time playmakers on the perimeter. Ahmmon Richards broke Michael Irvin’s freshman receiving record at the school; when he missed the end of last season with a left-knee injury, you saw how important he was. He’s healthy now and easily one of the top receivers in the country. ... Defensively, they’re small, scrappy and they’re going to blitz from all over the field in their 4–3 set. The defense will keep them in games; if their offense puts it together, this team can go far.
There's no question that they are great on defense, where they have everybody back. The Wolverines play tight man-to-man coverage most of the time. You’re going to have to be extremely accurate [on offense]. To beat them you have to find windows, but they are very, very small windows. You get the ball underneath. You get some space between some of those defenders [such as 6'5" junior defensive tackle Rashan Gary and 5'11" junior linebacker Devin Bush] on your slots, and you make plays that way. They’re going to give you a lot of looks. They’re going to get you [at the line of scrimmage]. But you can take advantage of some of that to get some positive runs. When you look at them on paper you think, Man, how are we going to run the ball on these guys? ...
It’s kind of scary, really, that they have 6'2" junior quarterback Shea Patterson. They were already a great football team, and they’re going to be a lot better. I came to a staff that recruited [Patterson], and I know all about him. The bottom line is, he’s a special player, for sure, and he’ll make them a different football team.
Don't sleep on the Spartans. They finished strong with a 42–17 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl and had big wins over Michigan and Penn State. ... After a 3–9 season [in 2016], they went back to their bread and butter: defense and ball control. Their turnaround last year wasn’t a fluke—they’re one of the better teams in their division, and this season it will be all about the defense, which was top 10 last year and has a chance to be better.
These guys are very well coached under Mark Dantonio. They mix it up without doing too much at the same time. The key last year was that the unit took a big jump from 11 sacks in 2016 to 28 a year ago. Middle linebacker Joe Bachie is the leader, but the biggest thing was improvement in the secondary: free safety David Dowell, who took over as a starter during the season, was key. ... Whatever issues they have on the passing side, they’ll be able to rely on a good running game. LJ Scott and Connor Heyward are fast but also physical, Michigan State–style rushers: quick on their feet but can also bring some physicality to their runs. ... There’s nothing really sexy about these guys, but they are rock solid.
Senior Brandon Wimbush is one of the best running quarterbacks in the country, and it all starts with him. Defenses are going to have trouble containing him. They’ve got the big receiver [6'4" junior Chase Claypool] who’s a mismatch when he gets in the red zone. ... Overall there’s more consistency on the offense. The line was outstanding last year, and the guys they’ve got coming in are really good too. I’m impressed with their receivers. Defending them comes down to limiting the big play. Tackling in the open field, not allowing for big plays—those are things to focus on. ...
Safety Nick Coleman anchors the defense, and the unit as a whole can take a big step forward this year. Clark Lea [the defensive coordinator, who was promoted from LBs coach] is a great defensive mind. He’ll do a fine job. I think anytime you can have continuity, it helps the players. They don’t have to learn a new language. ... Special teams coordinator Brian Polian is one of the best. They’ve won games based on special teams alone, and this year they’ve got a great kicker in Justin Yoon too. ... They surprised people last year, and I don’t think it was a fluke. There’s a sneaky upside with this team.
The program is in turmoil entering the season because it’s unclear whether Urban Meyer will remain as coach, but talentwise, this team is stacked.... The biggest question is at quarterback, where they have to replace J.T. Barrett. In relief last year, Dwayne Haskins made some good throws, and he was athletic getting out of the pocket. He’s not as good as Barrett, but he’s not going to hurt the team. ... He will have some big-time weapons. J.K. Dobbins is one of the best running backs in the country, and they’re loaded at wideout. Austin Mack was Ohio State’s best offensive player against USC in the Cotton Bowl, and he has the physical ability to win one-on-one battles. Johnnie Dixon isn't a high volume guy, but he has big-play potential. ...
There are blue-chippers everywhere on this defense. Safety Jordan Fuller emerged as a star last year. He anchors what should be a shutdown secondary. ... You could make an argument that this defensive line is just as good as Clemson’s. Nick Bosa and Chase Young are headed for the NFL. ... I have some concern because of inexperience at linebacker, but otherwise the defense is one of the best in the country.
It’s going to be tough to replace linebacker Obo Okoronkwo. He was a freak. Still, junior outside linebacker Caleb Kelly is one of those guys who could dominate. Defensive end Amani Bledsoe does a terrific job in their four-technique stuff [lined up across from the offensive tackle], and guys like that are hard to find. ... On offense, they lost quarterback Baker Mayfield, but they've got 6'1" junior tailback Rodney Anderson, who is up there with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. Quarterback Kyler Murray is a great runner, and you've still got to worry about his arm. They're so consistent because of what they’ve got up front. ...
Murray will have weapons around him. At receiver, junior Marquise Brown is dangerous. As soon as you think you’ve broken Oklahoma's momentum, that dude goes over the top on a post or on a vertical. You’ve got to commit a lot of guys to the box to stop that good run game, so you get left in one-on-ones a lot. That's not a good business with Brown out there. ... I’ll be interested to see how they replace [Mackey Award winner] Mark Andrews at tight end. Grant Calcaterra played a lot of snaps, so they might not have much drop-off.
Trace McSorley is a terrific quarterback. The thing that makes him so effective and difficult to defend is his savvy—he makes great decisions. But he’s also so tough. You can hit him over and over, and he just keeps getting up. His backup, Tommy Stevens, is terrific, too. Not many teams have one quarterback they should feel this good about, and these guys have two. ... They’ve turned the offensive line from a weakness into a strength. A couple of years ago they had big guys who were stiff, but each year they get more developed. ... Obviously running back Saquon Barkley is a big loss, but Miles Sanders would come in games last year and there would be no drop-off. Losing tight end Mike Gesicki is different; it’s tough to find another one like him, but Juwan Johnson could emerge as a playmaker. ...
Defensively, they do a good job of mixing up fronts and pressures and keeping you off balance with their safeties. And if you ask our kids, they'll say they're the most physical team we face. Their D-line is not the most talented, but guys like Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller play harder than anyone else we play. [Coordinator Brent] Pry makes it tough to make big plays.
I love this offense. I love how creative they are with play-calling, but I especially love their physicality—their line is by far the most physical in the league, and it would be one of the more physical lines in the SEC too.... Running back Bryce Love is one of the best players in the country, period. If he gets through to the second level, your defensive backs have to get an almost perfect angle or he’ll turn it into a home run. He’s got the speed. He'’s so patient and waits for a little crease to open up, and then boom—he’s gone. ...
Receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a game-breaker—he’s a big receiver who had a huge bowl game [three TD receptions against TCU in the Alamo Bowl], showing what he’s capable of. ... One thing you can usually count on is for [head coach] David Shaw and defensive coordinator Lance Anderson to put out a strong D, but there’s no question it was a down year on that side last season. They did not have the pass rush and the playmaking linebackers you normally see from them. They lost two key defensive linemen after last season and the unit needs to turn it around to make a run at the playoff.
They get so much mileage out of guys most people have never heard of. That’s how they recruit. They’re great at seeing what a guy could be instead of what a guy is. Ty Summers was a QB in high school, and now he morphed into an All–Big 12 linebacker. ... On offense, you can see [coordinator] Sonny Cumbie's personality no matter who is at quarterback, but he’ll make adjustments to play to his guy’s strengths. Sophomore Shawn Robinson looked like he’s a better runner than the guys they have had in the past, so they may shift the offense so that it’s better suited to him. ...
They’re still really fast at receiver, and they know how to utilize that; they’ll always try to attack people deep. The guy who scares me the most is KaVontae Turpin. He’s good as a receiver, but he’s a nightmare returning kicks. He's tiny [5'9" and 157 pounds] but strong. ... The quality of their talent fluctuates but their coaching is so good, you never count them out. Coach Gary Patterson gets the most out of his players but he also makes quick adjustments in a game. And he’s as good at getting inside the head of the opposing offensive coordinator as anybody you'll ever see.
Everyone talks about quarterback McKenzie Milton’s arm—and he’s got a big one—but he can also run. He won’t take over a game, but he’s just fast enough to take off and get a first down. The guy threw for 242 yards and two TDs against a good Auburn D in the Peach Bowl. He’s for real.... The line wasn’t great last year, but it’s not like the league is known for offensive line play. ... Adrian Killins is tiny [5'8", 158 pounds], but he is holy s--- fast. If he’s not the fastest player we saw last year, he’s definitely the fastest running back. If he gets the ball in space, it’s a huge problem. ...
We don’t know exactly what the new offense will look like with Scott Frost gone to Nebraska, but we know it won’t look the same, since not many people know that Chip Kelly–tree offense. Josh Heupel had a good offense last year as the coordinator at Missouri, but Milton and [Drew] Lock are different QBs.... The biggest thing is trying to figure out how to replace Shaquem Griffin at LB. He was amazing, could rush the QB and could cover receivers. Pat Jasinski makes a bunch of tackles on the inside, and Titus Davis made plays on the other side of Griffin, but neither one is Griffin.
Quarterback Jake Browning doesn't have a spectacular arm, but what makes him special is his toughness. He is never fazed by the rush—he just stands tall in the pocket and doesn’t get rattled. His numbers declined last season, and there are some who question his upside, but he’s got what it takes to lead a national championship team. ... There’s a lot of talent around him. Running back Myles Gaskin could have gone to the NFL, but he’s back. They need to give him the ball more. In a loss to Stanford, the Huskies stopped giving him the ball late—that just can’t happen. They also need to keep him in the game in passing situations. He’s shown playmaking ability as a receiver out of the backfield and can add an extra dimension; I don’t understand why he had fewer than 20 receptions each of the last two seasons. ...
The defense reminds me of the Seahawks’ D: They play five defensive backs, and they play three deep on every down. Everyone knows what they’re going to do and they still beat you. They lost their star nosetackle, Vita Vea, to the draft, but this unit is so well-coached I’m not sure that they will miss a beat.
Will Grier is a little bit more of a prototype NFL quarterback than Baker Mayfield or Johnny Manziel, but his mobility in the pocket makes him so dangerous. He negotiates the pocket so well and keeps his eyes downfield. His release is ridiculous. You talk about freakish arm talent, he’s got it. ... People don’t realize how good their O-line is. Right tackle Colton McKivitz, you can’t get around. He blocked our best pass rusher last year and shut him down. Left tackle Yodny Cajuste is an NFL guy. ... They’ve got a stable of wideouts. David Sills is terrific, especially considering he had never really played wide receiver until last year. You think you’re not going to have much problem with him so you focus on the other guys, and he destroys you. ...
They’ve always run the ball well under Dana Holgorsen. It’ll be interesting to see if they use the tight end more, which they’ve said they would. They’ve got one who could be a weapon in Trevon Wesco and a transfer from Miami, Jovani Haskins. ... They should be better on defense; they were really young last year. Tony Gibson plays that 3-3-5, and it’s a good scheme for the pass-heavy Big 12. But when you don't have much experience, it can get ugly.
Running back Jonathan Taylor gives them a home run threat. He's one of the most explosive players in the country. ... Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is better than people think. He has made mistakes of inexperience, but for all the attention on Taylor and the run, Hornibrook still made them go. They were outstanding on third-and-long all year. In those situations he made very accurate throws against man coverage from some of the best Big Ten defenses. ...
That offense will have to give them more because they lost a lot on defense. It’s amazing that they had three coordinators in three years [Dave Aranda, Justin Wilcox and now Jim Leonhard] and stayed just as good. No matter who’s in the game, you always expect them to be where they’re supposed to be because they’re well coached. ... Leonhard will mix up pressure without necessarily blitzing, which is easier to do from a 3–4. He’ll bring four with the three down guys and an LB, or the fourth might be a safety or a corner. They’ll try to confuse your quarterback while still staying sound in coverage. Leonhard’s also going to attack your weakest blocker and try to get him into a one-on-one situation.