An analysis of strength of schedule, player injuries, home/away matchups, and performance revealed the nation’s top defensive units in college football.
Teams with impressive statistics, but lighter competition were commonly knocked down the list, while teams that fought through brutal schedules and significant injuries were not wholly penalized for their slightly lower numbers.
Separate from the pack, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference squads dominate the rankings, filling eight of the top 10 spots.
In the end, only two teams remain in the conversation for “best defense in college football”.
10) Virginia Tech Hokies
Ranking eighth in the nation in points allowed (17.2 points/game), Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster led his rag tag bunch through an injury-plagued campaign. The Hokies lost multiple players in each level of the defense this season, but somehow managed to net a 11-2 record. Starring on defense, 2010 All-American CB Jayron Hosley registered three interceptions and 59 tackles despite suffering a hamstring injury early this season. He will consider leaping to the NFL in the upcoming draft.
Senior S Eddie Whitley helped hold the secondary together, providing leadership, stability, and 78 tackles. Redshirt sophomore safety Antone Exum filled in more than admirably in his first year as a full-time starter, leading all Hokies with 10 pass break-ups and 85 tackles.
The Hokies landed four players on the All-ACC second team- Hosley, Whitley, CB Kyle Fuller, and DE James Gayle.
9) South Carolina Gamecocks
Freshman sensation Jadeveon Clowney brought a welcomed level of nastiness to the Gamecocks. The 18-year-old defensive end has already met lofty expectations with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Equally impressive, his senior adviser on the defensive line Melvin Ingram led the team in tackles for loss (13.5), sacks (8.5), and defensive touchdowns (2).He also helped secure a win against Georgia by running a fake punt 68 yards for a score.
These two monsters in the middle allowed the Gamecock defense to clamp down opposing wide receivers. South Carolina ranked second nationally in pass defense (133 yards/game), behind only Alabama. They also forced 18 interceptions, fifth in the nation.
Impressively, the Gamecocks held in-state rival and ACC champ Clemson 20 points under their season average in a 34-13 victory November 26.
8) Florida State Seminoles
Florida State excelled against the run. Surrendering under 82 yards/game, only Alabama clogged the middle better than the Seminoles. Void of seniors on the front line, junior Brandon Jenkins, sophomore Bjoern Werner, and junior Cornellius Carradine controlled most games.
But the Seminoles secondary also ranked among the top-20.
In perhaps their most fulfilling victory of the season, FSU strangled in-state rival Florida 21-7. Intercepting the ball three times, they sealed the win in the fourth quarter when senior safety Terrance Parks returned a 29-yard pick for a TD.
Creating clutch turnovers became the norm for Florida State this year. The well-rounded defensive unit helped the Seminoles to an 8-4 record despite the absence of a strong offensive rushing attack.
7) Mississippi State Bulldogs
The best defense you may not have heard about, Mississippi State limited each of the SEC’s top four teams to 24 points or less (Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and South Carolina). Though they fly under the radar because of limited national exposure and a shinier cast of competition, their stinginess against league opponents would be matched by few NCAA teams.
Sophomore safety Nickoe Whitley established himself as a live torpedo on the gridiron. Possibly the most feared man on the field, he picked off four passes when he wasn’t delivering serious body blows.
Alongside Whitley, junior cornerback Johnthan Banks caught five balls from opposing quarterbacks and tallied 64 tackles (42 solo).
Junior Cameron Lawrence developed into a more-than-adequate replacement for KJ Wright, last year’s 99th overall NFL selection. Third-year defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are also sure to get looks from the NFL next year.
6) Georgia Bulldogs
SEC East champion Georgia got off to a tough start in 2011.
After giving up 35 points to Boise State and 45 points to South Carolina in two losses to start the season, the Dawgs removed the road signs to their endzone until the SEC title game.
Climbing back up the defensive ladder, opposing offensive coordinators altered their game plan to avoid the stout run stoppers of Georgia. The Dawgs chokeheld tailbacks, allowing a miniscule 103 yards/game on the ground (3.2 yards/attempt). One behind Division I sack leader Whitney Mercilus (Illinois), sophomore linebacker Jarvis Jones registered 13.5 sacks.
Baccari Fudge became Baccari Rambo. Then Baccari Rambo became a Bulldog.
After changing his last name in grade school, Rambo became a game changer for Georgia. In his third year, he came up with seven interceptions and leads a cast of performers that give up 165 yards/game in the air- seventh-best in the nation.
5) Penn State Nittany Lions
“Linebacker U” assembled another dominant unit in Happy Valley.
Tackling machine Gerald Hodges man-handled Northwestern on October 22 (14 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 1 interception) and limited maximum plays all season. After breaking his leg on the opening kickoff against Alabama in 2010, he returned to lead the Nittany Lions with 97 tackles this year.
Alongside Hodges, sophomore Glenn Carson (74) and senior Nathan Stupar (68) racked up bunches of tackles.
Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still registered 17 stops for a loss and his partner on the inside, Jordan Hill, was Still’s right-hand man in pursuit of opposing passers. Between the two of them, they accounted for eight sacks.
Fifth in the nation in pass defense (162 yards/ game), the largely senior secondary held wide receivers at bay.
4) Michigan State Spartans
Placing fifth in total defense (272 yards/game) despite a grueling schedule, this edition of Michigan State resembled the “Mean Green” Spartans of the 1960’s.
Built around youth, MSU fielded only two seniors defensive starters- S Trenton Robinson and DL Kevin Pickleman.
Sophomore DE William Gholston (11 tackles for loss) developed into one of the most dominant defensive players in the Big Ten and junior DT Jerel Worthy (8.5 tackles for loss) is regarded by many as a top-20 NFL pick if he leaves the Spartans early.
But perhaps no one surprised more than sophomore LB Dencios Allen (17 tackles for loss and 10 sacks). He posted four and-a-half sacks in two games against Big Ten champ Wisconsin.
Ranking twelfth in rushing defense (104 yards/game) and eleventh in passing defense (168 yards/game), defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is emerging as a head coach candidate. Last week he interviewed for the vacant Illinois position.
3) Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin largely avoided powerful offenses this season, but in 13 games they allowed more than 17 points just three times. Linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland finished first and second in tackles in the Big Ten (Taylor- 137 and Borland- 131). Borland, last year’s Big Ten freshman of the year, is regarded as a “throwback to a different era” by head coach Bret Bielema- a salute to his persistent motor. Quarterbacks struggled to throw the ball against the nation’s third-best pass defense. Yielding 155 yards/game, the Badgers allowed 12 TDs through the air. On the ground Wisconsin is a bit more susceptible, but by the time opposing tailbacks establish a running game the Badgers often hold a multiple score advantage.
When Oregon takes on Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl January 2, they will face the best defense since their first game of the season against LSU.
2) Louisiana State Tigers
LSU’s defense, ranked second-best in the nation, is studded with sophomore standouts.
Sophomore sack leaders Sam Montgomery (9 sacks) and Barkevious Mingo (7 sacks) anchored the defensive line, while second-year athletes Tyrann Matheiu (70 tackles), Eric Reid (65 tackles), and Tharold Simon (40 tackles) shone in the secondary.
Mathieu’s play was so impressive, he earned a spot on the Heisman Trophy stage. The second defensive player in three years to be invited to the ceremony (Ndamukong Suh- 2009), he forced five fumbles, picked off two passes, and scored four touchdowns.
The Tigers surrendered 137 points this year- an average of 10.5 points per game. Handcuffing opponents, they allowed seven TDs through the air and six on the ground.
Only giving up more than 11 points three times this season, they will face the stiffest of challenges in their upcoming Alabama rematch.
1) Alabama Crimson Tide
Though the Crimson Tide lost the #1 versus #2 showdown against LSU earlier in the year, there is little question they fielded the most dominant defense in NCAA football. Alabama topped the nation in most major categories– passing defense, rushing defense, and total defense. Holding the opposition to 8.8 points per game, Nick Saban assembled one of the better defenses of this generation.
One hundred and three teams gave up more passing yards per game than the Tide allowed total yards per game (195.9 yards/game).
Unlike LSU, Alabama’s top performers were primarily upperclassmen. Junior LBs Dont’a Hightower and Nico Johnson and senior LB Courtney Upshaw locked down the middle and edges, accounting for 32 tackles for loss.
But perhaps the Crimson Tide’s most impressive statistic: they gave up three rushing touchdowns all year.
Five ‘Bama defenders were named to either the first or second All-SEC team.
Guest Writer: Johnny Lawrence