The host sounds off on all 20 contestants – and promises a stellar season

By Steve Helling
Updated September 23, 2015 03:40 PM
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

It’s Jeff Probst‘s job to hype Survivor. It comes with the territory.

Sometimes the seasons live up to the hype (Survivor: Cagayan comes to mind). Other times, the season never really gets off the ground.

But this season, everything is different. Probst, 53, talked with PEOPLE after returning from filming Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance – and he seemed genuinely energized about the season. “The contestants were honored that people voted for them, so they felt an obligation to play hard,” Probst tells PEOPLE. “Many of them swing for the fences from the get-go.”

PEOPLE asked Probst about this season’s contestants, even though he knows how each of them placed. There are no spoilers here – although savvy watchers may be able to read between the lines and predict who does well.

Jeff Varner
Jeff’s a smartass. He’s a great storyteller. He always has a smirk on his face. Varner’s game was never based on physical strength; he’s all about the social game. So theoretically, he should be even better in the game. He can say, “No one is going to beat me in any challenge, so I’m not a threat.” But here’s the thing: He is a big threat, and it would be a mistake to keep him around for too long.

Spencer Bledsoe
He’s one of my all-time favorites. Last time, I proved that I often have no idea what I’m talking about. I was glad he came back. This was Spencer’s story from day one until the game was over for him: Can I treat people as people this time? If he’s insufferable, he’ll be gone. That’s his Achilles heel. Spencer has to be likable, vulnerable, relatable, curious, asking questions. That’s the Spencer we need to see.

Terry Deitz
Terry personified the element of Survivor that I most enjoy – he can catch you food, win challenges, build shelter. But you can do all of those things well and if you can’t relate to people, it doesn’t matter. Terry is still in great shape, but what he’s not good at is that he doesn’t know how to build relationships.

Vytas Baskauskas
It haunted Vytas that he couldn’t play his own game the last time he played; he was in his brother’s shadow. No one knew what game he was going to bring. He just wanted everyone to know, “I’m playing my own game. I’m not Aras; I’m Vytas.” And nobody knows his real truth.

Woo Hwang
Woo is so positive. He believes in the good of people, and it cost him a million dollars last time. He wants to go through life and be a good person – but he still wants to win Survivor. So Woo’s story is, “I’m just as likable and athletic, but I need to be less trusting.” That’s hard for him; he’s trying to change something that is fundamentally Woo.

Abi Maria Gomes
She’s so entertaining. But I still have a question about her. Is she just a mean person? Or is her bluntness a result of her culture, and her nuance is lost on us? I still don’t know. She came into this game trying to be nicer; and I can only promise that people will be invested in her story.

Kelly Wiglesworth
She’s my favorite person on the cast. Kelly didn’t have anything to prove to me. She clearly had the skills, her body is still in amazing shape. She’s just as likable. She’s just as quiet. When she played before, Richard Hatch stole the game from her, and she wanted the chance to take it again. She has a story this season that will be very compelling to viewers.

Kelley Wentworth
Kelley had a rough first season because she was playing along with her dad. She felt like she was judged the way her dad played. She came back with an attitude. “Listen, if you think I’m my dad, I will smoke you.” From the get-go, she comes to play, and she plays very hard.

Peih Gee Law
I was surprised that she made the show. She played a good game in China, but she had bad Survivor luck. But here’s the thing about Peih Gee: You have to have kept up with the changes of Survivor to succeed, and it’s not clear if she did that.

Shirin Oskooi
She was a question mark for me because she was so vulnerable when she went out there. Her last season was rough on her, and then we sent her right back. So she was in an interesting place. When the game started, I had no idea what was going to happen with her because she had been so much. She was really emotional.

Andrew Savage

Savage is a friend of mine, but in full disclosure, we don’t see each other very often. I still adore him. He didn’t do anything wrong; the outcast twist screwed him out of the game. It’s reasonable to assume that I’m easier on people who I like, but the real truth is that I’ve only become friends with a few people from the show. But I’m not easier or harder on them because I’m friends with them. So Savage’s performance in the game is all his; I wasn’t easier or harder on him. He was just another contestant.

Jeremy Collins
Jeremy is an interesting contestant. He had a disappointing finish last time because he was one of the few people who really understood the game – and was a threat because of it. This time, he’s playing with experts, so his skills don’t stand out as much, but they’re still there.

Joe Anglim
He represents why Survivor is so difficult. He’s athletic, good-looking, likable. In any other sporting competition, he’d cross the finish line first and they’d put the medal around his neck. But not in Survivor. All his amazing qualities is the reason why he struggles in this game. People love him, which is why he’s a target.

Keith Nale
Keith is savvier than people know. He appears to be harmless. He’s unassuming and spitting out of the side of his mouth, but what people forget is that he almost won when he didn’t know what he was doing. And he comes back to play the same game of, “Aw, gee, heck, I don’t know …” but he does know. He knows how to play this game really well.

Stephen Fishbach
I like Fishbach, and I’ve wanted him back for a long time. He almost won this game because he is really good at reading people. The last time he played, he aligned with the wrong guy. He won’t make that mistake again. He’s a true student of the game, and he was a legitimate threat in this game.

RELATED: Stephen Fishbach’s Survivor Blog: Gearing Up for a Second Chance
Ciera Eastin
She comes into this game with the feeling that “I’m my own woman.” On day one, she can begin to play the same game she was playing when she was voted out last time. Ciera is now a gamer; there’s no doubt that she’s a Survivor player. Given enough time, she’ll make a big move – and you’d better make sure she doesn’t make it at your expense.

Kass McQuillen
She’s a blast to have on the show; I’d spar with Kass at tribal council and come home and think, “Please let her stay in the game. She’s so fun.” She came into the new game with a massive burden, trying to convince people that “Chaos Kass” was a version of herself, but not all that she has to offer. Her obstacle is her first few days. If she can make it past them, then she’ll show that she’s a much better player than everyone thinks.

Tasha Fox
She was burdened by being a Christian last time, and she did not want to do anything that would offend the church. She got home and people said, “What is your problem? Go play Survivor and then ask for forgiveness.” Tasha said it brought her to tears to get that support from her congregation, and it released all her barriers. So she plays a devil’s game this time. It’s very clear from day one that she’s going to play the game hard – and she makes some interesting choices along the way.

Monica Padilla
I don’t want to hurt Monica’s feelings, but I was surprised she got on. I was really curious to see what she brings. If I were on her tribe, I’d be saying, ‘Listen, you got on either because you have a big fan base or because you’re hot. you didn’t get on for gameplay.’ And if she came out thinking she’d get by on charm and looks, that will not work. So Monica had something to prove – she had to show people that she was worth aligning with.

Kimmi Kappenberg
I was so happy she got on. She was an average player from 15 years ago. She represents the purity of Survivor back in the day. But times have changed, and Kimmi came into the game wanting to show how much she’s matured and how she’s different. It was fascinating to see.

Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.