It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams bulletin board material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2020, Athlon asked coaches in the Big Ten to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Ten canceled its 2020 college football fall season. While the teams are sidelined for now and hope to try and play in the spring, here's some interesting information Athlon Sports was provided by the coaches earlier this offseason.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2020
"Lovie (Smith) had a breakthrough in 2019. They got a lot better last season."
"We saw a big jump in their overall talent level. In general, they looked a lot more like a team."
"I think you look at a game like Wisconsin, and they're winning on emotion and buy-in, and those are the moments you have to get to turn the corner at these jobs."
"Defensively, they looked a little bit like Iowa, getting really fundamental and executing on it."
"Offensively, they ran the ball a lot better. They really balanced bringing in the right kind of grad transfers to add to the nucleus they've built. That is not an easy thing to do."
"Brandon Peters has worked out really well for them. His health is a huge concern. Without him, they were pretty bad. I don't think they have a real second option."
"They're still thin, and they're still capable of falling apart if the right injuries hit them."
"Recruiting-wise, they're really pushing hard. They're selling the new facility; they're pushing Lovie's NFL experience."
"Last season has really changed how they're being received by the kids. He bought himself some time, and that's something that recruits really pick up on. This isn't an experiment anymore."
"With their depth, it's hard to see them making a huge jump up."
"This year needs to be about consecutive winning seasons. There's still a lot left to work on here."
"They've done a really good job of building, and then they finally got over that hump."
"(Michael) Penix is a really good player, but he's got to prove he can get through a full season to break through. A lot of that comes down to how he's used. (Peyton) Ramsey wasn't really a backup, it was more like a rotation, but they're a much better and more dynamic team when Penix is in there."
"(Nick) Sheridan is a really experienced guy, but this is his biggest play-calling job; it will be interesting to see how much they move away from a system that worked."
"When you lose your strength and conditioning staff to Alabama, you're really doing something right. That's a big hole to fill because this has never been a team with a killer two-deep. Health is huge for them."
"The next step for them is to be competitive against the better teams. They've made a living scheduling easy wins, which is the right thing to do, but now that they're over the hump and went to a bowl, you'd like to see them compete and win those bigger conference games."
"They've done a really nice job recruiting in the state, and they pulled a defensive lineman away from the SEC."
"A six-win season should be considered a huge achievement, but if Penix stays healthy and the OC replacement works out, they could ride the offense to something bigger."
"They're as fundamentally sound and disciplined a team as you'll ever see. They're never going to overwhelm you or confuse you. They've got a signature style they won't ever stray from. That sounds like they're predictable, but that doesn't mean they're ever easy."
"Defensively they'll bring the same base to every game, Ohio State or homecoming, then add a few wrinkles. It's really simple, basic stuff like packing the middle of the field and making you beat them outside."
"Offensively, they love their two-back and multiple tight ends and playing around with those combinations. They've been more run-centric in recent years, but last season you saw them open it up more."
"Will it be (Spencer) Petras this year? They've got some talented guys behind him. I think they'll have a really strong battle through camp."
"They have to get better at tight end; the production wasn't there like it was in 2018. They didn't target them near as much, and they really lean on that position. It looks like they didn't really trust (Sam) LaPorta as a receiver early on. They've signed a couple good prospects there, but it's a development thing with that program. It takes time."
"They don't really get enough credit nationally for the talent they turn out on defense. That's all development, especially all those corners they put in the NFL."
"You got the sense they were willing to go out there and take their lumps last year, especially early. They tried a lot of stuff out, it was obviously a rebuild mode, and they wanted to push culture and not chase immediate results."
"They really want to play their guys, the young guys, so they took it on the chin last year. When you see a staff do that these days, it means they've got long-term support."
"Offensively, we saw a lot of Alabama's stuff in there. Quarterback run game, RPOs. They were very different to scout on offense last year, maybe more than anyone in the league."
"Right now I wouldn't freak out about the number of guys going into the portal. The names we've seen in the portal are the previous staff's guys. It might be an internal push, too, trying to change the culture rapidly. I do think you pay a price for that; obviously it's going to hurt their depth."
"Signing the (Rakim) Jarrett kid was huge for them, you can play that up big. The downside is that was probably the best recruiting class in that area in a decade and most of them left for other schools."
"It's going to take a while there. They run an attractive offense, and they're a better recruiting staff because they have SEC ties."
"They're still a season away from needing to prove it on the field, especially as young as they are."
"It's crazy to think they're judged on Ohio State, because they've done a really fantastic job with the program and developing guys and recruiting, but it is what it is."
"Defensively you know what you're getting, and it's hell. They're going to have a bunch of team speed on that side, they're going to bring a lot of pressures from strange places and play man."
"It's a high-pressure defense built on getting athletes to the quarterback as fast as possible. That's great when it works, and it does, but once in a while it burns them. That's why you see them shut teams down for a month in a row and then give up 40. When you have that much NFL talent you can take risks."
"The offense will almost certainly have a program-developed quarterback for the first time."
"They're really good at running back, they're really good on the line. The question on offense is how far Josh Gattis goes with his system. Last year you saw Shea (Patterson) in uncomfortable situations. You got the feeling they didn't know who they wanted to be with that system, or there was a disconnect somewhere."
"When you look across the position groups at the NFL talent, when you look at their development and their schemes, this is as complete a program as you would want. They're just falling short against their rival."
"This is the big unknown in the league. There was a lot of talk about Mark (Dantonio) stepping down after the off-field stuff started to build. I think a lot of us watched the hiring process from the outside, and it showed you this program is desperate, and there's probably more going on there with scandals and the NCAA than we know."
"This is the Big Ten team you would think is most affected by coronavirus. They haven't had any time to install on either side of the ball. Just looking at Colorado from a distance, the base concepts on offense are going to be very different for the kids."
"The offense was a total wreck; they resisted evolving with the times for so long that it was too late by the time they did it. They're going to be Saban-type on defense, and they've got a better chance at installing more of the defense than the offense."
"Because this is an uncharted experience, you would think they're going to be really, really plain on offense to start the year. Go vanilla, try to take it slow and play defense."
"The expectations are the big question here. The amount of money they spent on Mel (Tucker) says they expect to be a Rose Bowl team in the future, but it's just such a different Big Ten than even five or six years ago when they were clicking. They didn't cut that big a check to win seven or eight a year."
"Very efficient at what they do. Offensively they had a great system last season. They tried to make everything look the same up front. A lot of the RPO stuff, they're really deceptive with it."
"A lot of the success they had was confusing you out of a decision. Is it an RPO, is it a protection, is it a called pass? Now, with changing out OCs, you would assume it won't be the same but you also think P.J. (Fleck) isn't going to stray too far from what got them there."
"Because the core is still there, they aren't going to change anything too much. They have a really solid offensive line that does a lot for them."
"They're not necessarily recruiting at a different level in terms of landing big names, they're just expanding out and reaching more places."
"There's a type of player who instantly clicks with a personality like P.J. That's the success they're having. Some more old-school guys go visit there and it isn't for them."
"P.J. has polarized a lot of coaches in the league. No one wants to knock a guy when he's having success, though. If it's successful you can't argue it, but it's a style that a lot of coaches don't like."
"They've found an identity and a style that really fits that division in terms of standing out and competing against the Iowas and Wisconsins."
"It turns out it's harder to fix this program than everyone in the media thinks."
"Going in last year everyone was hyping them up to blow through the West and try to win the league. I'll give (Scott) Frost credit, I think he knew they weren't even close. I think the staff did everything they could to dial all of that down."
"(Adrian) Martinez getting banged up early set the tone. To be blunt, he was a better player in 2018. That's most likely because of the injury."
"They have to improve around Martinez. They need better receivers for what they want to do, but the offense has a lot coming back. It's on Martinez to get back to that level."
"(New offensive coordinator Matt) Lubick will be interesting to watch, he knows Frost really well and knows how to speak that language."
"Defensively they did a whole lot, and maybe it's not the right play for them right now."
"They're giving up a lot of points, to where you think they're gonna go simplify things and see if that works. The 3-4 might help them, but they have to replace the entire front."
"I think the lesson here is that you have to really pay attention to head coaches, to the point where you're reading between the lines. He's never said this was going to be a quick fix. Nobody but that staff knows what they walked into. It's becoming obvious it was probably worse than we knew."
"Last year was a worst-case scenario for them. You can assume it was a one-year problem."
"Obviously it all started on offense. They went through a new quarterback every week it felt like."
"Moving on from (Mick) McCall is a really big deal for them. They've had more staff consistency than anyone in the entire sport. (Mike) Bajakian got the most out of Boston College a lot of the years he was there, and he can adapt this personnel group. Bajakian is going to put them under center, more pro set."
"Defensively, this was the same Northwestern team. They're tough to score on, they're really smart with coverages, they fit well, they make you work for it. That's the good news. Nothing really changed on defense."
"(Paddy) Fisher is their leader, and they have a good nucleus."
"They haven't changed anything in recruiting. It's actually better than it ever has been. They're still a model for how to fit the most talent into their program. The facility [Ryan Fieldhouse] really helped them."
"They have an energy level to their brand just like any other Big Ten program. So that's another reason we think they're going to bounce right back."
"They need to find a quarterback in camp and let him rep with the 1's. Just starting a single quarterback would go a long way to getting them back winning. This isn't a broken program."
"They're a favorite to win the conference and the national title, and it's for a very good reason."
"They're operating at the highest level. They're dominant in every phase of construction. They recruit, develop and coach better than anyone in the conference and as good as an Alabama or Clemson."
"They simplified defensively last year. That was a big change for them, and it paid off. Very simple, single high, cover one, cover three, get a guy in the box to play the run. You can do that with elite defensive backs. They trusted them."
"Also, when you have a Chase Young, you get certain luxuries. They were so talented they had to make it simple. Now they're going to have to adjust. The secondary is turning over, and they're good but not great on the defensive line. One of those units is going to have to lead the defense if they want to keep the momentum going from last season."
"Offensively, Justin Fields is one of the best players in the country. They're going to get another year to tinker and find out what they can exploit with this skill. It's not even fair."
"They might be a step behind on defense, but they should be able to score points and really hurt your feelings with that offense."
"They're still the gold standard on recruiting; nothing has changed there. They're the prohibitive favorite to win it all. It's that or bust."
"They're a contender, but they're not quite Ohio State."
"(James) Franklin is a really smart coach, he knows that they really have to keep pushing offensive innovation to win the big games."
"Defensively they're as talented as anyone in the country now. Brent Pry is back again, he could easily be a head coach somewhere else. That consistency has been really good for them, and he's taken them to that next level."
"There's a really good culture there on defense where they've got the luxury of developing guys and not rushing them in."
"They like to be creative on offense, and hiring (new offensive coordinator) Kirk (Ciarrocca) makes a lot of sense. They have better personnel to run Minnesota's stuff. It wouldn't shock me if he got that job solely off of what they did to Brent Pry's defense last year."
"Expect the tight end (Pat) Freiermuth to play a much bigger role this year with KJ Hamler declaring."
"The offensive line is really good, they've really brought that position group back from the dead from when James got there. They could compete for the conference."
"They don't have the raw talent of an Ohio State, they're probably neck and neck with Michigan. Franklin isn't going to settle, though."
"They could be a surprise team coming off of last year. No one is really paying attention to them, and most of the problems they had last year seemed temporary and not a system failure."
"They were decimated by injuries last year. They lost their best receiver and their quarterback on the same play for the entire season. I'm not sure I've ever seen that happen before."
"When that happens you have to basically hit reset, especially for (Jeff) Brohm's offense. They were built on throwing the ball to guys like (Rondale) Moore. The other problem is that they had success early with Jeff, but that roster was junk. They used a ton of freshmen and young guys last year, and they're still pretty young."
"They have the talent at the skill positions, and they have experience at quarterback. David Bell coming on strong gives them a lot to play with if Moore is healthy." [Editor's note: Rondale Moore has opted out this season and declared early for the 2021 NFL Draft.]
"They really need to run the ball better, and that's not a position where they had a standout guy."
"(New defensive coordinator) Bob Diaco is an interesting choice. He knows the league, but are they going to a 4-2-5 base? How does that fit with their personnel? They were awful on run defense. They have some guys back up front, but no one that blows you away."
"A little bit of reality set in on these guys last year, but Brohm has a lot of respect in this league."
"They're all in on Greg (Schiano), so we'll find out if that works maybe two or three years from now."
"He's a Jersey guy, he has great relationships with the high schools in the state, and the decision-makers and influencers around that program are just eaten up with him. That's the biggest reason he got the job back."
"It's a very different job than when he was there last. It's a Big Ten job on the wrong side of the division split. Judging from the staff makeup, they want to find those moral victories recruiting in state while they work on the roster."
"At Ohio State, he would make you prepare for a lot, and your offense would have to simplify what it did because you're trying to scheme against a lot of looks. They could make you overthink into a mistake. It was a pro-style defense, lots of pressure, lots of single-high safety. That's where he wants them to go, but you can't plug that in and make it work in one offseason."
"It's really early to tell, but you can see them winning on the Jersey kids. Will that hold if they win two games? Will someone like Penn State flip them?"
"It's going to be a long-term process, and it's uncharted territory. They were only ever relevant in the old Big East. This is gonna be way harder. But that's why he's the guy. He'll get a longer runway to get it going than if they had hired any other coach."
"They do what they do, and you know what you're gonna get. How well they execute it year to year usually comes down to how well they're developed at running back and offensive line."
"They lost Jonathan Taylor, and then there's another guy coming in behind him. Everyone in the league assumes they're going to produce a certain quality running back, and we assume there's going to be a big, physical line that plays really well blocking for them. They're losing some studs on that line, but development of their front is a given."
"Defensively, they're solid; they've always benefited from their offense. They play really smart, they keep everything in front and they wait for you to get worn down from their ball control."
"You can measure their success by their secondary. The front is so steady year by year, but if they're athletic in the back end or they're experienced, it allows them to do more."
"(Jack) Coan is a solid guy, your typical Wisconsin quarterback. He's never in situations where he's pressed too much. They work well on getting him play action. They're not looking to do anything different this year; it's really about how well they can execute on their system."
"They're probably the most steady program in the league, them and Iowa. They identify their talent and go out and sell their culture."