Grading the Top 10 College Football Defenses Heading into Week 14
Week 14 in college football is all about defense.
We've got Alabama and Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, each with several dominant defensive performances already under their belt. Stanford, who slayed the mighty Oregon Ducks' high-powered offense just two weeks ago, takes on UCLA for the Pac-12 Championship.
Notre Dame, who will meet the winner between the Tide and Bulldogs in the BCS National Championship Game, rose to the top of the college football world behind All-American linebacker Manti Te'o and its relentless defensive unit.
Yes, my friends, defense in college football is alive and well.
As we approach conference championship week, let us look back at the 2012 regular season by grading the top 10 defenses in college football.
Note: All Grades are scaled to 100 in order to provide a more accurate rating. All statistics used came from the official NCAA website.
Michigan State Spartans
Best Game: 16-13 OT win at Wisconsin - Worst Game: 31-27 win at Indiana - Scoring: 16.3 PPG (10th in FBS) - Yards Allowed: 273.25 YPG (4th in FBS)
Many of you may be wondering why this spot isn't reserved for a fellow Big Ten team, the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes. Simply put, the Spartans would likely be undefeated with OSU's schedule and Braxton Miller on offense as well.
Outside of a 20-3 loss to Notre Dame, every one of Michigan State's five losses came by four points or less.
Only Florida State (3.83) and Alabama (3.90) held the opposition to less yards per play than the Spartans (4.33). Michigan State's D was not particularly adept at forcing turnovers (18), but arguably received less help from its offense than any of the nation's top defenses.
There were some late-game struggles, but the Spartans held Boise State, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin all to 17 points or less in their meetings. A 31-27 nail-biter at Indiana was the D's most forgettable performance, though they used a fourth-quarter comeback to top the Hoosiers anyway.
Overall Grade: 87/100
Best Game: 17-9 win vs. Florida - Worst Game: 35-7 loss at South Carolina - Scoring: 17.67 PPG (16th) - Yards Allowed: 337.83 YPG (22nd)
The Bulldogs struggled defensively throughout the early parts of their schedule, particularly during a two-week stretch in which they narrowly defeated Tennessee 51-44 and were dominated by the Gamecocks 35-7.
That didn't stop Georgia from squashing then-undefeated Florida 17-9 at home in Week 9. From that spectacular showing on, the Bulldogs have allowed only 43 points in five games.
Aaron Murray and the offense have benefited from 25 takeaways, including six in the win over Florida alone. Safety Bacarri Rambo has led the charge after missing the first four games of the season. The senior has three interceptions and 34 tackles from Week 9 on.
The upcoming battle for the SEC title will be the ultimate test for Georgia's increasingly effective defense.
Overall Grade: 87/100
Florida State Seminoles
Best Game: 52-0 win vs. Wake Forest - Worst Game: 37-26 loss vs. Florida - Scoring: 15.08 PPG (7th) - Yards Allowed: 249.42 YPG (2nd)
If there was ever a case to be made about a defense on this list being overrated, it's with Florida State's.
Regardless of the level of competition, however, there's no denying the impacting of outscoring the first three opponents of the season 176-3. Simply stating the obvious, two of those three wins featured shutouts—one over Wake Forest.
The numbers are truly tough to deny. No. 1 in the country in yards allowed per play (3.83) and No. 2 in total yards allowed and opponent third-down conversion percentage.
Junior defensive end Bjoern Werner leads the ACC with 13 sacks, and the Seminoles have 32 in all. Unless your name is Tajh Boyd, passing against this team hasn't come with much success in 2012.
Overall Grade: 88/100
Best Game: 45-0 win vs. Illinois - Worst Game: 41-14 loss vs. Alabama - Scoring: 18.75 PPG (20th) - Yards Allowed: 311.2 YPG (12th)
The Wolverines got off to a horrible start after being throttled by the Tide in Texas for the season opener.
Defensively, they weren't much better against Air Force the following week. Over the next four games, though, which included rivals Notre Dame and Michigan State, the Maize and Blue D held opponents to a combined total of 36 points.
The defense played excellent on the road against Nebraska as well, but three interceptions from backup QB Russell Bellomy turned a 7-6 halftime deficit into a 23-9 loss.
Michigan faced a daunting schedule, but its defense, led by breakout sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan, passed the majority of its tests with flying colors. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has done a marvelous job turning this unit around in less than two full seasons.
Overall Grade: 89/100
South Carolina Gamecocks
Best Game: 35-7 win vs. Georgia - Worst Game: 44-11 loss at Florida - Scoring: 17.42 PPG (14th) - Yards Allowed: 312.25 YPG (13th)
The Gamecocks are coming off yet another stout defensive performance, shutting down a Clemson team scoring 42.3 PPG in a convincing 27-17 road win.
Like Georgia, South Carolina nearly got bit by Tennessee, but pulled out a 38-35 thriller at home over the Vols. Other than that near-loss and the flop against Florida, it's tough to find any complaints regarding this defense.
One could point to the 23-21 loss to LSU, but that falls on Connor Shaw, Marcus Lattimore and the offense more than anyone.
The defense, led by DE Jadeveon Clowney absolutely dominated Georgia and Clemson, with Clowney recording 4.5 sacks alone in the victory over the Tigers. SC's 40 sacks rank fifth in the country, and they're allowing just 4.68 yards per play.
Overall Grade: 90/100
Best Game: 24-19 win at Texas A&M - Worst Game: 41-35 win vs. Ole Miss - Scoring: 16.92 PPG (T-11th) - Yards Allowed: 296.17 YPG (9th)
The main reason LSU fields one of college football's top defenses is because of their miraculous level of consistency from week to week. The only real slip-up came against Ole Miss in a 41-35 shootout.
LSU's 31 takeaways in 2012 rank seventh in the country. It also racked up 30 sacks in 12 games.
When the Tigers have lost, their D has not been to blame. The defense held Florida to 237 yards of offense, yet LSU lost 14-6. The unit played out of its mind against Alabama until the very end of the game—which is of course the worst time to collapse.
Nonetheless, LSU went toe-to-toe with all of the SEC's top teams and nearly came out unscathed. Hell, they even dropped Johnny Football and the Aggies, forcing five turnovers in a 24-19 road win.
As we've come to learn, that is by no means an easy feat.
Overall Grade: 92/100
Best Game: 17-14 OT win vs. Oregon - Worst Game: 54-48 OT win vs. Arizona - Scoring: 16.92 PPG (T-11th) - Yards Allowed: 328.75 YPG (19th)
If not for a dismal defensive performance against Arizona early in the year, one in which both teams allowed 617 yards of offense, the Cardinal D would be ranked even higher.
Any team that holds Oregon to 14 points on the road must be doing something right defensively.
Stanford's D was also impressive in big games against USC (21-14 win), Notre Dame (20-13 OT loss), Oregon State (27-23 win) and UCLA (35-17 win last week).
One particular stat that stands out is Stanford's 94 solo tackles for loss, the highest total in the nation. The Cardinal D is also a stickler on third downs, ranking eighth in opponent third-down percentage (29.53).
Looking at how many tough offenses it has faced combined with the impressive numbers, there's no doubt this is one of the top defensive units in college football.
Overall Grade: 94/100
Best Game: 14-6 win vs. LSU - Worst Game: None - Scoring: 12.92 PPG (3rd) - Yards Allowed: 282.58 YPG (5th)
Go ahead, try and find a single game in 2012 where Florida's defense disappointed. Last week's 37-26 win over the in-state rival Seminoles sound like a high-scoring affair? The Gators forced five turnovers and allowed only 300 yards on the road against a very powerful offense.
Florida's only loss of the season, a 17-9 defeat to Georgia, was a clear result of six turnovers from QB Jeff Driskel and the offense. The Gators' D had still held the Bulldogs to 10 points before a 45-yard TD pass midway through the final quarter made it an eight-point game.
Florida completely shut down LSU and South Carolina. The defense has 29 takeaways this year and is holding opponents to a 28.32 conversion percentage on third down, the fifth-best total in the country.
The Gators must settle for a chance to play in a BCS bowl as an at-large team. Regardless, the offense of whatever team they do face is in for quite a nightmare.
Overall Grade: 95/100
Alabama Crimson Tide
Best Game: 38-7 win vs. Miss. State - Worst Game: 29-24 loss vs. Texas A&M - Scoring: 9.25 PPG (1st) - Yards Allowed: 233.67 YPG (1st)
Aside from falling victim to "Johnny Football," the Crimson Tide defense proved to be a dominant force every single week. Believe me, no one in their right mind will tell you they expected 'Bama to fall at home against the Aggies.
But it did happen, and it is purely the reason the Tide are second on this list to the Irish, and not first.
Four shutouts—two of them against SEC foes—and 9.3 PPG allowed through 12 games. That's less than a point off from the defending champ's 2011 total of 8.8 PPG (postseason included). The numbers are simply mind-boggling. 30 sacks, 46 passes defensed, 16 interceptions, 56 tackles for loss—the Tide can do it all.
With the amount of talent that ranges across the entire team, though, they should be doing it all.
Overall Grade: 96/100
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Best Game: 30-13 win at Oklahoma - Worst Game: 29-26 OT win vs. Pittsburgh - Scoring: 10.33 PPG (2nd) - Yards Allowed: 287.25 YPG (6th)
Here it is, the No. 1 defense in all of college football. Without it, the Irish wouldn't be playing for a National Championship. Because of it, they have re-emerged as one of country's elite forces.
The only time all year Notre Dame allowed more than 17 points was a triple-OT thriller against Pittsburgh that ended in a 29-26 win. Losing to Pitt would have been laughable given the mission this team is on, but, luckily for the Irish, it never came to fruition.
Crushing Landry Jones and the Sooners 30-13 on the road serves as arguably ND's biggest win so far. A national title will obviously trump that, but dominating performances against Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford and USC won't be forgotten.
With the best defensive player in all of football, Mant Te'o, the Irish have a legitimate chance to be crowned National Champs come January.
Overall Grade: 98/100