In coming up with a list of the people most likely to win this season, there were two problems: first, the initial information was sparse, limited to minute CBS bios and short pre-game interviews. No Dalton Ross or Gordon Holmes interrogations for added depth. But with this week's release of Jeff Probst's cast assessment video and the TV Guide Network preview show, we feel a bit more informed. Not enough to make accurate predictions, of course, but whatever.
The second problem, which is not quite what you'd really call a "problem," is that this is a deep, diverse, impressive cast. It sports a wide array of ages, locations, and backgrounds, and an uncharacteristically high number of people who seem to be actual Survivor fans, which is nice, and welcome. But it also means there a lot of good people, but few that easily stand out relative to their castmates as great. Which is a nice problem to have. We will now (as in Philippines) divide this cast up into four categories, in descending order of likelihood of winning: Likely, Possible, Unlikely, and Impossible.
(Contestants most likely to win Survivor: Cagayan)
1. Jefra Bland
Because this is such a deep cast, there are precious few players who are obvious, standout winner candidates. Of all the cast, though, Jefra stands out in the same way Chelsea did pre-One World: while you might initially write her off because she's young and pretty, and make cracks about her pageant background (and unfortunate surname), she seems to have much more going on below the surface. Like Chelsea, Jefra is well-prepared for the outdoors survival aspects. As a bonus, she's relentlessly positive, and seems to have a strong, fighting spirit. Chelsea had a great first episode, then her game (or at least her edit) sort of fell off a cliff, even though she made it all the way to the end. Jefra could conceivably top that, given a solid alliance.
2. Kass McQuillen
If Luzon/Brains can avoid multiple early trips to Tribal Council, Kass has a really solid chance of going deep, and if she can get to that final Tribal Council, her experience as an attorney should allow her to clinch the prize with a knockout performance in front of the jury. With the exceptions of Yul and Cochran, however, lawyers almost never make it far enough to plead their case in front of the jury. Kass plans to hide that fact, however, which is a good approach, although being put on the Brains tribe will probably render that tactic futile. As the oldest woman on her tribe, and as someone who sees herself as the second coming of Sandra Diaz-Twine challenge-wise, she's a huge risk for a pre-merge boot. Once she hits the merge, however, she should have a free pass to at least the final five. Where she goes from there is up to her.
3. Spencer Bledsoe
Yeah, yeah, Probst says he has no chance. He comes across as arrogant and dismissive in his pre-game interviews (Spencer does, not Probst. Well, okay, also Probst.) But Spencer's clearly also a student of the game, and is probably enough of one to know that the "arrogant college student" schtick is a great hook to get you through casting, but one that should be tossed aside the second filming begins (except perhaps in confessionals). In the preview shots of Luzon camp, it's David and J'Tia who seem to be doing all the scowling, whereas Spencer is pleasantly sitting, talking with Tasha. He's not physically intimidating, which should let him blend into the background on Luzon/Brains, and keep the early post-merge targets off of him in a way his tribemate Garrett can't. A post-merge combo of Kass, Tasha,and/or Spencer could steamroll the remaining competition. If they can decide to work together, rather than against each other, of course.
Overall tier synopsis
Are these people clearly better than the rest? Not really. But they all seem to have that extra set of skills or know-how that can help them succeed. Or maybe we just like liking things.
(Contestants who have a decent chance to win Survivor: Cagayan)
1. Garrett Adelstein
We really, really want to root for Garrett. He is, bar none, the most-prepared contestant in a long, long time. He's a huge fan. He's studied strategy and puzzles to an insane degree. As a successful pro poker player, he has the strategic mindset and the people skills to pull off sick moves. But there's one fatal flaw in his preparation: he's spent way too much time working on his physique. Yes, Yul Kwon (whom Garrett lists as his "most like" contestant) was able to escape the traditional early-post-merge boot curse to which most buff guys fall victim, but Yul had (1) a late merge, (2) a super-powerful hidden idol in his pocket, and (3) a slow-witted, overconfident opponent in Adam and the Raros. Garrett seems unlikely to have everything fall into place the way Yul did, and that alone is enough to drop him down into the second tier. Well no, wait... he potentially could have as overpowered an idol as Yul did. Maybe he can just bluff that he has it? He should have practice with that, right?
2. Sarah Lacina
Sarah said it herself: Cops tend not to do well on Survivor (Maralyn Hershey, Jessie Camacho, Amy O'Hara, Cristina Coria, Betsy Bolan, Papa Bear Caruso, Nina Acosta, all pre-merge boots, most very early; Ken Stafford, early post-merge boot). Sarah's tough but friendly, loves the game, and seems to have a good head on her shoulders. Plus she has skills: She correctly flags Tony as a fellow police officer, even before the contestants are allowed to talk to each other. Can she translate that into a winning game? She seems the most likely to do so of any of her badge-wearing predecessors, but it's possible she'll fall into the same trap that ensnared Dawn Meehan in Caramoan: the bigotry of "nice" expectations. Sarah can't play a cutthroat game, because the jurors will resent being betrayed by someone they perceived as nice and/or honest. Still, it could happen, especially if her crime scene skills include keeping the blood off of her hands.
3. Tasha Fox
If Tasha impresses Jeff Probst, that's saying something. She is, after all, not a ripped, male, ex-NFL player. In the cast assessment video, she and he both praise her chameleon-like ability to adapt to fit the situation in which she finds herself. That's a valuable skill in Survivor. The downside of this was we couldn't really tell who Tasha is from her bio and pre-game interview. She seems like a legitimate fan of the show, which is a great start, but it was hard to pin down whether she thinks of herself as a former NFL cheerleader, or as an accountant. Maybe she can be both, like the late Earl Warren? The TV Guide Network preview, however, gave a lot more depth, even if Tasha mostly fretted about toning done her leadership tendencies. She ends up doing the puzzle in the first challenge, which is a very leaderly thing to do, but in all the camp scenes, she seems to be getting along with everyone. Her ideal game is probably to get to the end with a couple of fellow Brains who come off as villains (which Kass and Spencer seem eager to do), and win over the jurors with her superior likability. That's not a particularly unlikely scenario.
4. Brice Johnston
The closest analogy for Brice could be the one he came up with himself: Cirie. For her first few days in the game in Panama-Exile Island, Cirie seemed as if she had no business being there. But as soon as that first Tribal Council forced her hand, it became clear that Cirie not only knew what she was doing, but was ruthlessly capable of carrying it out, and nobody saw it coming, thanks to her disarmingly charming nature. Who doesn't like Cirie? Brice has the same tools, and it seems like he's a relatively longtime watcher of the show, too (he's a Taj Johnson-George fan). Can he put those tools to use as effectively as Cirie did, coming within a surprise Final Three IC of the win? We'll see. Can he win? Probably not, but it would be cool if he did. Then again, Cirie never did.
5. Jeremiah Wood
Jeremiah is a study in contrasts. On the surface, a professional model seems like an obvious recruit. But then he lists J.T. as the player he's most like, which is a great omen. (Not only does he watch Survivor, but he's a Tocantins fan?) Like J.T., he has a solid rural/farming background. And a plaid shirt! Unlike J.T., there's no obvious Stephen Fishbach on his tribe. Does Jeremiah have the strategic chops and supernatural challenge aptitude to carry out J.T.'s game, sans Stephen? Probably not. Can he wait until the inevitable swap, and pull in one of the Brains? Maybe. A closer analogy might be Bobby Jon Drinkard: handsome, charming, country, gives 100% effort 100% of the time, but ultimately not cut out for the winner's circle. Then again, Jeremiah has been the most-featured contestant in the rotation of pre-season ads, so maybe we're missing something here.
6. Trish Hegarty
Trish is a longtime applicant who finally made it on, which you can't help but root for. And yet... she's another fan that somehow avoided making a distinct impression in the pre-game interview, apart from really liking the show and displaying irrepressible will and determination. Can determination alone bring you the million dollars? It certainly can't hurt, and combined with her life story, it could make a plausible jury sales pitch. Despite our reservations, though, as long as she can prove herself an asset at camp and in the early challenges, there are far more inviting targets on the Aparri/Brawn tribe. So unless the Brawns get Matsinged, she's well-positioned to last a while.
7. LJ McKanas
Something seems a bit off about LJ, especially when you compare his written bio with the one Google creates. First there's the initials (Leon J., if you're wondering), which suggest he's hiding something. And he is. He's a former star running back (at Northeastern), and the Boston Phoenix's "Boston's Sexiest 2012" issue describes him as a model/actor who is the head bartender at Strega Waterfront in Boston. So where does this "horse trainer" stuff come from? From his pre-game interview, he seems to have a good game plan, if he's on the Brains tribe. Sadly, he's stuck on Beauty, and there's no way he can "dummy down" enough to fade into the background there. Since he's doing the puzzle in the first challenge (one of his self-professed strengths), he's probably that tribe's leader. As such, as long as they don't lose up a storm early, he'll probably stick around, at least until a swap or the merge. But his survival post-merge seems fairly dependent on having the numbers in his favor, and we don't see much that suggests he can change them if he's on the short end. Still, maybe we'll get lucky, and there's at least a Petebro 2.0 in there, somewhere.
Overall tier synopsis
Unlike the first tier, a lot more things have to break the right way for these people to win Survivor. They all could do it, but they face longer odds.
(Contestants who will probably fall short in Survivor: Cagayan)
1. Woo Hwang
Woo seems like a cool guy to hang out with, his tae kwon do background is impressive, and his pre-season ads have been in heavy rotation thus far, which suggests he'll probably end up going far in the game. Even so, there is nothing in any of his interviews that suggests he's even watched Survivor before, let alone has a plan for winning the million. He does cite Ozzy as an inspiration, which seems like both an apt comparison and a red flag - Woo could do well in challenges, and could well make it to the end. But as with Ozzy in Cook Islands, he won't win. Looking back at Philippines, Woo seems very similar to Carter. Who was nice, won a few challenges, and did well enough, but when the numbers turned against him, didn't have much of a plan to save himself.
2. J'Tia Taylor
We don't get J'Tia. As a Ph.D. engineer, she's clearly smart, but the "I (heart) Nerds" shirt seems pretty off-putting on a tribe full of smart people. It's a bit condescending, and that shows a lack of social awareness. And it's not something that was forced on her by wardrobe, she picked it out herself! Also, while she seems to be aware of the basics of Survivor gameplay, and knows what to expect with respect to building shelter and going to Tribal Council, she spends the first half of her pre-game interview talking about sororities and modeling (fashion, not mathematical or molecular). There's precious little strategy talk there, which is alarming. Can she figure it out on the fly? Probably. Will she? Who knows? We really want to root for her, but J'Tia isn't giving us much to work with here.
3. Tony Vlachos
Again, as Sarah pointed out, cops tend not to do well on Survivor, and Tony is a cop. From the in-game snippets in the previews, his chances of actually winning appear to be lower than Sarah's. Almost every shot of him from the first challenge shows him arguing about something, and pointing. Which is a shame, because he seems like a solid guy who's also a true fan of the show. While he's delightfully blunt and candid on twitter, freely sharing his opinion about how things should may play less well amidst the heat of a challenge. In his pre-game interview, he seems impressively gung-ho, already antsy to get out there and start playing the game. He even has a set plan to get to the end. And... that's also where everything begins to fall apart: His pre-game plan is to emulate Russell Hantz? Oh dear.
4. Lindsey Ogle
With her colorful dreads and tattoos, Lindsey is easy to pick out in group shots. Even so, after watching her interviews, we have no idea who Lindsey is. Her comments seem like fairly generic reality-competition casting fare, and there's nothing there or in her bio to indicate she even watches Survivor. Yet she comes from Kokomo, Indiana, which is not exactly reality TV casting central. She's an enigma. Are we sure she didn't just move to Kokomo from Santa Monica? Worse yet, on her player card on CBS.com, she lists "Abi-Maria and Phillip" as the players to whom she's most similar. Huh? Okay, Lindsey. We'll buy that you watch Survivor, at least you saw the last two seasons that aired before filming began on Cagayan. But can you pull off a win? That seems improbable.
5. Alexis Maxwell
We want to like Alexis, because she seems smarter than your average "Beauty" tribe member, but she just seems really, really young. Perhaps because, as a 21-year-old college student, she is. She seems like a fan, but not a superfan, which is fine, but not great. She may be able to figure things out, but "may" is a long way from "definitely will." Still, when Alexis discusses her psychology background in her pre-game interview, she comes across as much deeper than the generic, Parvati-citing, big-haired sorority girl her written bio would suggest. Does she have the game knowledge, and life experience to manipulate and ruthlessly dispatch 17 people who probably have more of those things than she does? We have our doubts.
6. David Samson
Before CBS published the pre-game interviews, we would have put David down as the least likely to win. But the things he said there about picking hobbies that anyone can do, but few choose to (the Ironman triathlon, in this case) came across as smart, sincere, and incredibly self-aware. From his bio as the Marlins President who hoodwinked Miami taxpayers into building him a stadium, we were expecting an arrogant windbag, but instead, David seems surprisingly centered, and well-placed on the Brains tribe. And he actually knows Survivor, too! Then again, he didn't really articulate how he would convince a jury to give him the million, when he's probably worth several times that. Unless he finds two goats to join him (on a cast in which obvious ones seem pretty sparse), that seems like a tall order.
Overall tier synopsis
This tier has a much stronger set of players than it did in Philippines. But still, there can only be one winner, and we have to make shallow, snap judgments based on limited information somehow. So these ones probably won't win. Unless we're wrong.
(Contestants who have no chance to win Survivor: Cagayan)
1. Cliff Robinson
Interesting guy, and if Survivor had to cast an ex-NBA player, we're pleased that it was a key member of the Portland Trail Blazers. But Cliff made a lot of money in the NBA, or at least will be perceived as having done so. He wants to hide his NBA career, which is... an idea, but one with about as much chance of succeeding as Leif pretending to be Hodor. His tribe is full of blue-collar people (Sarah, Tony, Lindsey, Trish). If there's conflict between Cliff and one of his tribemates, unless that tribemate also rubs all the others the wrong way, more than likely the tall, wealthy former pro athlete will be the one who comes up short on the numbers. (Sorry, we had to get that one in before it's too late.)
2. Morgan McLeod
Morgan has one plan heading into Survivor: Cagayan, and that's to flirt. We're guessing she watched the first couple of episodes on the Micronesia DVD that casting gave her, figured that looked easy enough, and headed out to the Philippines, as prepared as she'll ever be. Yes, Parvati managed to turn flirting into a win way back in S16. Yes, just about every under-25 woman since then has cited Parvati as the player they're most like. No, none of them have replicated Parvati's million-dollar feat. No, Morgan won't, either. Sadly, even Probst admits she has no chance. As always, why cast someone you know can't win, Mr. Executive Producer? It's your show, dude. Run it.
Overall tier synopsis
To be honest, on a cast with 18 new players, if there are only two with no chance of winning, that's pretty good, right? We'll take it.