Each of college football's offenses is lethal in its own way, but the spread is one of the most dreaded in football. The reason being that every play looks similar from the line of scrimmage, and anything can happen.
The spread depends heavily on opportunity and timing. The best spread offenses are run by quarterbacks with great vision, patience and awareness. The best defenses against the spread excel at pass coverage, rushing the quarterback and covering the gaps against the run.
With that in mind, here are the 20 defenses that spread-runners should watch out for.
Oregon finished 58th against the long play with 176 allowed in 2012. The Ducks proved that they can more than just hang with a Heisman candidate-led offense. The Ducks defense trashed the Wildcats by holding them to a scant 17 points. (That's less than half the Wildcats' 38.8 points-per-game average.)
Oregon's defense has a minor advantage practicing against Marcus Mariota, but he was not the threat that Johnny Manziel was in 2012. A&M still holds the edge defensively.
Oregon's defense is built on speed, which can help them greatly against the spread. What the Ducks really need to do is put an elite pass-rusher on the field. The Ducks finished 44th in the nation last season with 28 sacks.
If Oregon can add backfield disruption to the defensive resume, then Oregon can make that final move from BCS contender to BCS champion. They have the equipment; all they need to do is learn how to use it.
Texas A&M has a trump card to go along with its decent set of stats in 2012: Johnny Manziel. Yes, he is obviously on offense, so what does he have to do with anything?
The Aggies finished the 2012 season ranked 63rd in the nation in allowing opponents' plays over 10 yards. They allowed 179 plays of 10 or more yards all year. That defense isn't exactly stellar, but it was certainly good enough to get them to the Cotton Bowl.
Manziel provides the defense with something nobody else in the nation has this offseason: practice. If you can figure out how to contain Manziel consistently, you can stop the spread.
The spread is about being ready for anything at a moment's notice. Just ask Alabama what happens if you're not ready for Manziel. This defense should look just as good or better in 2013, and the loss of Damontre Moore won't crush the Aggies.
His early departure will certainly sting, but it won't kill the entire defense.
Georgia appears low on this list because they have a serious problem in 2013: loss of players to the NFL draft. Kwame Geathers, Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree all declared for the draft as underclassmen.
Teams plan to lose players as seniors, and may have contingency plans on the roster for a few juniors. Those contingency plans hinge on being able to at least come close to replace the departing player.
This defense finished 56th in long plays allowed with 175 and 29th in sacks with 32. That defense is clearly equipped fairly well to handle a well-rounded spread. The big question is whether the Bulldogs have true replacements for Geathers, Jones and Ogletree.
Georgia will have to answer that question on the field next season.
The other SEC Bulldogs finished 48th in long plays with 172, but faltered in the pass rush. They finished 99th in the country by only managing 18 sacks as a team during the 2012 run.
Mississippi State has the talent to hang with some of the best in the SEC, but the pass rush has to show up in order for that to happen. The Bulldogs have certainly gotten by just fine without it, but this squad is a few sacks and a wide receiver short of contending for an SEC title again.
There is still a lot of work to do, but these guys have the raw materials.
There is an elite defense somewhere in the Texas Tech locker room. The Red Raiders held West Virginia to just 14 points in the middle of the season and proved that much.
Unfortunately for the Red Raiders, every game for the rest of the season proved that they couldn't stop people from scoring. Still, despite the points hemorrhage during the season, Texas Tech ranked 17th in the nation against the pass of 10 yards or longer.
The Red Raiders ranked 48th overall against the long play by allowing only 172 plays of 10 or more yards. Unfortunately, the run defense came in at 103rd (out of 124 teams).
Texas Tech can perform at a high level. The question entering 2013 is for how many games? The 2012 season didn't yield much as far as results were concerned, but the Red Raiders did make it to the Meineke Car Care Bowl and beat Minnesota.
Texas Tech has a wealth of talent at its disposal. As soon as it finds a coach that can utilize that, a Big 12 title will follow not too far after his hire.
Oklahoma's rank against the long play was 41st with 169 allowed. The pass defense came in at 20th in the nation. That's good enough to provide a foundation to build on against the spread.
If you can make a team one-dimensional, it is no longer running the spread. Oklahoma is close to being a national contender again, and other teams need to be aware of that heading into 2013.
Oklahoma does lose two underclassmen to the draft: Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort. However, there is still plenty of talent in Norman to take over with minimal drop off.
Other teams in the Big 12 lose senior quarterbacks, so the learning curve will be less sharp than it could have been in 2013. If this defense can gel early in the season, then an outright Big 12 title could be at the end of the regular season.
Arizona State finished 40th against long plays (allowing 167), but the Sun Devils' most impressive stats came in two other categories. They finished eighth against the long pass (with 85 plays allowed) and second in the nation in sacks (with 51).
Arizona State returns starter Will Sutton, who finished 12th in the nation in individual sacks (with 12). While the Sun Devils do need to figure out how to stop the run, they already have two parts of the anti-spread formula: the incomplete pass and the pass-rush.
You can't argue with the equipment the Devils bring to the field. The coaches just need to help the front seven against the run, and Arizona State is an instant contender in the Pac-12.
South Carolina proved how close it is to national contention with its 11-2 performance ending with a win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. The Gamecocks' only losses came to a No. 2 Florida squad and a No. 9 LSU squad immediately following a 35-7 rout of the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs.
South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney announced himself to the world against Michigan. Well, maybe not the world, but college football fans nationwide, for sure.
South Carolina finished 29th nationally against the long play (with 158) and sixth in the country with 43 sacks. Clowney returns for the 2013 season, and with him comes the ability to disrupt any offense, not just the spread.
The Gamecocks will be vying for the SEC title against Florida, Georgia and the SEC West champion in 2013. If South Carolina plays like it did against Michigan and Georgia in 2013, there may not be a team in the country that can deny this defense a shot at a national title.
South Carolina may have finished the season with a win over Michigan, but the Wolverines finished ahead of the Gamecocks statistically. Brady Hoke really has something special brewing in Ann Arbor, and the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry is about to mean something again on the national scale.
Michigan finished the season ranked 21st against the 10-yard play (with 152) but 77th in sacks (with 22). The Wolverines field a great defense that has all the ingredients to contend for a Big Ten title in 2013.
If the Wolverines can simply raise up one major pass-rusher, they will be a nasty team to contend with next year. Michigan fans are waiting, and they are hoping that Sugar Bowl appearance back in 2011 isn't the best that Brady Hoke can do.
The defense had plenty of opportunity to practice against Denard Robinson. Can the defensive coaching staff take these guys the rest of the way?
Nebraska came in 20th against the long play (allowing only 151 such plays on the season), and the Cornhuskers did that despite a soul-crushing defeat at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten title game. Even with that one bad game, the 'Huskers did wonderfully this past season.
Even the Capital One Bowl against Georgia wasn't a mismatch. Georgia outplayed the 'Huskers in the fourth quarter, but the first three quarters proved that Nebraska is a short step away from contending for a national title.
Nebraska finished fifth in the nation against the 10-plus-yard pass by allowing only 83 such plays in 2012. The 'Huskers are going to need to repeat that performance in 2013, as Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes are lying in wait.
Nebraska needs to strengthen the front seven, but the secondary is already ready to take on the Buckeyes.
TCU's first season in the Big 12 was kind to it, and the Horned Frogs finished 15th against the big play (allowing only 147) in 2012. The Frogs finished sixth in the nation against the long run (with only 35 such plays allowed), and 41st in sacks (with 29).
Yes, the Frogs could certainly use some improvement in disrupting the enemy quarterback, but that run-stuffing game is lethal. If the Horned Frogs secondary tightens up a bit, TCU can rise quickly up the Big 12 ranks in 2013.
TCU's defense will continue to grow as it reaps the benefits of the shift to the Big 12. If the other teams don't realize that soon, it may be too late...for everyone else. TCU fans would be just fine with that arrangement.
Minnesota may have made it through a weakened Big Ten, but they made it through with a defense that ranked 15th against the long play (with 147 allowed). While the Gophers' scoring defense finished a disappointing 45th in the nation, the long-play mark was admirable.
Stopping yourself from getting gashed at every turn is the first step to being prepared for anything. Minnesota may not seem like a team to worry about, but that's what the Big Ten thought in 2012.
Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten Legends division, but the tools of the trade are all there. The Gophers finished fifth in the nation against the long pass, allowing only 83 plays on the season.
The biggest reason the Gophers suffered losses in 2012 was the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota only racked up 26 sacks on the season, which was only good for 56th in the nation in that category.
The linebackers coach and the defensive line coach need to do some serious work during the offseason. Without some serious work there, Minnesota could find itself fighting a major uphill battle in 2013.
Washington showed its ability to contend in the Pac-12 by upsetting the eventual conference champion in Week 4 of the 2012 season. Stanford fell victim to the Huskies 17-13, and Washington proved that it could repeat that type of performance by holding the USC Trojans to only 24 points just a few weeks later.
Washington finished the season ranked 12th in the country against the instant first-down play (with only 144 allowed), and the Huskies also finished fourth in the Pac-12 North. While there is a big difference between fourth and first, the Huskies have a strong core of defenders to help pull out some of the closer wins next season.
Washington lost the last two games of the season by a combined five points, and the Huskies will be carrying that fire into the 2013 season opener against the Boise State Broncos.
If Washington can improve on 2012's 51st-ranked sack total, the Huskies can contend with anyone in the Pac-12. Especially if they can put some of the more lethal quarterbacks on the ground, like Marcus Mariota.
Will Muschamp made a quick turnaround with the Florida Gators, and he had them in the Sugar Bowl in his second season at the helm. The Gators accomplished all this with the nation's 118th-best passing attack.
The defense did all the heavy lifting, and the offense didn't have to do much to be successful. The Gators finished 10th in the nation in long plays allowed with 143, but the Gators have a major hurdle to overcome in 2013.
While the coaches are clearly capable of raising a stifling defense, they will have to overcome the loss of three underclassmen to the NFL draft: Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd and Jelani Jenkins. Those three players would be difficult to replace even with all years of eligibility to find the recruits to take their places.
The Gators finished the season ranked 11th against the long run, and even held LSU to a scant 42 yards on the ground in the process. Even some drop-off from numbers like that is going to put them well inside the Top 10 as far as ability to stop the spread is concerned.
BYU fielded one of the nation's top scoring defenses in 2012, and the Cougars came in at an elite third place in that category. Against the long play in general, BYU came in at seventh with 135 plays allowed. That was also the Cougars' rank against the long run with only 37 plays allowed.
Obviously, that means that the other 98 long plays were aerial strikes, which means the Cougars do have a weakness. However, stopping the run will eliminate half of the spread's options from scrimmage.
BYU was 13 points away from being a one-loss team with a great argument for being a second independent in a BCS bowl in 2012, and that defense returns with the ability to build on that performance in 2013.
BYU shut down the Georgia Tech option game to the tune of a 41-17 drubbing near the end of the season. That's solid proof that the Cougars would do well against a spread attack.
Michigan State had a horrible run of bad luck that ended with five losses by less than one touchdown each. The Spartans' defense was not to blame for most of those losses, though, as they finished the season ranked ninth in scoring defense.
The Spartans finished third against the long play and allowed only 124 such strikes on the season. There are two reasons that the Spartans aren't higher on this list:
1. William Gholston departs early for the NFL draft.
2. Michigan State finished 84th in the nation with only 20 sacks on the season.
If the Spartans can figure out how to make up for Gholston and still get many more sacks in 2013, even a spread offense couldn't stop them from contending for the Big Ten.
Boise State lost quarterback Kellen Moore at the end of the 2011 season, and the Broncos offense certainly showed the loss in 2012. Even with the nation's eighth-ranked scoring defense, the Broncos managed to lose two games.
One of the most memorable wins was early in the season against BYU, when the Boise State offense couldn't find the end zone. Late in the game, Boise's defense hauled in a pick-six to win the game 7-6 after BYU's failed two-point conversion.
The Broncos ended up fourth against the long play, and they only allowed 127 plays of 10 or more yards in 2012. The 37-sack total was good enough for the 37th spot nationally. Boise needs to pressure the quarterback more, but the core here is solid.
Boise State was first against the long pass allowing only 78 long plays through the air. That's a great start to crushing a spread team.
Florida State finished second in the nation against the big play, and the Seminoles only allowed 122 long plays in 2012. The Seminoles have hit a speed bump entering the offseason, though.
Bjoern Werner, Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid are all heading to the NFL this draft cycle instead of returning for their senior seasons. That's a lot to overcome, even if you just consider Werner.
The Seminoles have the nation's sixth-best scoring defense to build on, though. Florida State proved that it can shut down a prolific offense in the Orange Bowl against the Northern Illinois Huskies. Their quarterback, Jordan Lynch, was the first quarterback in NCAA history to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,500 yards in the same season.
Florida State can shut down a lethal combination of the pass and the run on every play. That doesn't directly transfer to an FBS-level spread offense, but the experience definitely gives Florida State an advantage coming into 2013.
If the coaches can use that game to train the replacements, then 2013 could see the Seminoles in the national championship game.
Alabama loses Dee Milliner to the NFL draft this spring, and that puts a bit of a speed bump in the path of the defense in 2013. Luckily for Alabama, there are a couple of things working in its favor next year:
1. Coach Nick Saban.
2. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
Alabama finished first in the nation against the long play in 2012 with only 118 given up, and the Tide finished first against the long run. That's the defensive coordinator's job, and he does it extremely well.
Alabama's defense consistently performs at a national-championship level, and the three championships in four seasons is quite enough to prove that claim. Alabama will always return one of the nation's best defenses, even if it's not a national-championship contender, as long as Saban is at the helm.
As far as Saban's performance against the spread goes, his last major encounter with it was in 2009 against Florida. At the time, Urban Meyer was in charge of the Gators, and Tim Tebow was the signal-caller.
Saban whipped up a plan that sent the Gators home with a 32-13 loss in the SEC Championship Game. So why isn't Alabama ranked first on this list? The last slide tells all.
While the 2009 SEC Championship game proved that Saban was capable of beating a team that ran the spread to perfection, the win was due to a giant motivating factor: Urban Meyer had beaten the Tide in 2008's conference title game with that same Tim Tebow-led spread offense.
Meyer's team squashed the Tide 31-20 in that game, and that provided the Tide with the motivation to rip off a 14-0 national championship in 2009. Meyer gets to start 2013 with a team whose defense finished fifth against the long play with only 132 allowed.
While that may not seem all that great, it was Meyer's first season at Ohio State. Also, his team was banned from playing in a bowl or a conference championship. That means he was fighting an uphill battle to motivate the team.
The final trump card that Meyer holds is his ability to run the spread. There isn't a coach in FBS football that can run that offense better than Meyer can. That means his defense will get to practice against the best in the business.
That's an advantage that no other team in the nation has, and that makes the Buckeyes the defense most equipped to stop the spread at least in 2013.