While college football has become more offensive than at any point in history, you still need a semblance of a defense to win a conference title. Here’s what I believe will be the top defensive units in each Power 5 Conference.
They say you need a great defense to win a championship, but I’m not sure that’s 100 percent accurate any longer. OK, maybe a great one to get to the College Football Playoff, but have you seen the three national championship games in that CFP era? Ohio State won the first one 42-20 over Oregon, while Alabama and Clemson split the past two in shootouts. So it’s apparently more important to have a top offense. But here are my projections for the Top 5 defenses in the power leagues.
ACC: Florida State Seminoles
The nation’s best secondary likely resides in Tallahassee. That group is led by sophomore safety Derwin James and junior cornerback Tarvarus McFadden. Both are on the Nagurski Award watch list, which goes to the country’s top defender (among other lists). During FSU’s spring game, analyst Rex Ryan said that James was a far superior player to Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, winner of last year’s Paul Hornung Award. James was a freshman All-American in 2015 when he had 91 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two fumbles forced and two fumble recoveries. James had a monster opening game in 2016 vs. Ole Miss but then suffered a severe injury in the second game and was given a medical redshirt.
McFadden was a Nagurski finalist last year, Jack Tatum Award winner and first-team All-ACC. McFadden finished with eight interceptions on the season, tied for the most in the country and second-most in FSU single-season history. McFadden and James are two of nine defensive starters returning.
Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes ranked fourth in total defense last year, third in scoring defense and sixth against the pass. The secondary is a minor question mark after losing Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, all of whom were NFL first-round draft picks. Plus defensive coordinator Luke Fickell took the Cincinnati head coaching job.
But the front seven of Ohio State’s D is absolutely stacked. Tyquan Lewis is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He had 29 tackles and a team high in tackles-for-loss (10.5 for 61 yards) and sacks (8.0 for 55 yards). Lewis, junior defensive end Sam Hubbard, sophomore end Nick Bosa and junior linebacker Jerome Baker are all on the Nagurski Trophy watch list. Bosa could be further ahead than his big brother Joey was as a sophomore. Joey Bosa was a unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore. Seven defensive starters are back overall.
Big 12: Texas Longhorns
The Big 12 plays very little defense so I had trouble picking the best of the lot here. You know who ruined defense in the Big 12? Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who introduced the conference to the Air Raid offense. The year before Stoops arrived, only Texas and Kansas State ranked in the Top 50 in the country in passing among Big 12 teams. It was still a ball-control, rush-heavy league back then.
I’m going with the Longhorns because they are set to return 10 defensive starters, led by junior linebacker Malik Jefferson. He was a freshman All-American in 2015. He perhaps took a step back in 2016 at middle linebacker, but still finished third on the team with 62 tackles (42 solo), while totaling 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He also added three pass breakups, three quarterback pressures and a forced fumble. New Longhorns coordinator Todd Orlando announced during the spring his plans to move Jefferson back outside. He should be a terror out there.
Pac-12: Washington Huskies
Here’s another league that plays almost no defense, so I’ll go with defending conference champion Washington almost by default. Last year, the Huskies forced 33 turnovers to lead the nation and only allowed 17.7 points per game. The secondary took a big hit this offseason in losing Sidney Jones, Budda Baker and Kevin King – all NFL second-round draft picks.
But the secondary does return Taylor Rapp, who earned Pac-12 defensive freshman of year and freshman All-American honors after recording 53 tackles and a team-high four interceptions in 2016. Byron Murphy redshirted last year and should opposite Rapp. Last year, Murphy was named UW’s defensive scout squad MVP, and then he led the team in picks this spring. He is the nephew of former Arizona star basketball player Mike Bibby. Six starters are back overall on defense.
SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide
Yeah, it’s boring ranking the Tide as the SEC’s top defense every year, but realistically which other club can you choose? Sure, Nick Saban’s team lost the likes of Jonathan Allen, Marlon Humphrey, Dalvin Tomlinson, Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Eddie Jackson off the country’s No. 1 total defense to the NFL. Seven of the first 112 picks in the 2017 NFL draft played defense last season for Alabama.
But Saban simply plugs in another five-star recruit. The secondary should challenge Florida State’s as the country’s best with preseason All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett all returning. Overall, five starters are back on D.
It will be interesting to see the opening total for that Week 1 Alabama-FSU game in Atlanta because both teams bring back great offenses as well. The Tide are currently -7.5 on college football odds.Bet On College Football Futures At SBR’s Top Sportsbooks