College Football Teams Whose Defense Can Carry Them to the Playoff

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2014

College Football Teams Whose Defense Can Carry Them to the Playoff

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    In the era of uptempo, no-huddle offenses, it may seem like "defense wins championships" is an outdated maxim. 

    Auburn allowed 415 yards nine times, 450 yards seven times and 490 yards four times last season, and it still won the SEC title and came within 20 seconds of beating Florida State for the BCS National Championship. Welcome to 2014!

    Still, although it is easy to forget, we are only three seasons removed from the Alabama-LSU national title game. A rematch of the 9-6 LSU win in the regular season, that game featured a Crimson Tide defense that didn't allow its opponent to cross midfield until midway through the fourth quarter. Defense, it seems, won a championship.

    Alabama and Notre Dame met for the national title the following season after finishing Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in national scoring defense. And Florida State, the team that beat Auburn for the final BCS National Championship, finished with the No. 1 defense in the country according to Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings.

    Defense is still requisite for championships, and the teams on this list could all be proof of that in 2014. This is not a list of the seven best defenses in the country, necessarily, but a list of seven defenses whose teams can realistically hope for a spot in the College Football Playoff. They all have the pedigree and balance to get there.

    But the defense will do the heavy lifting.

Honorable Mention: Mississippi State

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    The other seven teams on this list have a very real chance of making the College Football Playoff. Mississippi State does not.

    But the Bulldogs, while highly unlikely, are not an obscene choice to crash the party. They're a long shot with an actual shot. And if they get there, the defense will have a big say in why.

    It was one of the better units in college football last season, finishing No. 19 on Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ ratings, and it returns a young core, led by linebacker Benardrick McKinney, mostly intact.

    Sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones also has a chance to emerge as a star of the SEC and the nation. If he takes the leap some project in his second season, this unit could be scary.


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    Alabama's defense will continue to be Alabama's defense, even with the loss of players such as C.J. Mosley, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Adrian Hubbard. This team recruits too well to not be.

    But in 2014, unlike in 2013, it will need to be that good. Although the Crimson Tide offense has a powerful running game that should control the clock and rank among the best in the country, the questions at quarterback could hold this unit back all year.

    With A'Shawn Robinson along the defensive line, Trey DePriest at linebacker and Landon Collins at safety, Alabama has a potential All-American at every level of its defense. That is something few (if any) teams in the country can say, and it is why the Tide are on this list.


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    This feels weird to write. But if Clemson is going to make a serious run at the ACC championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff, its defense will have to carry more weight than its offense.


    Sammy Watkins is gone. Tajh Boyd is gone. Martavis Bryant is gone. The offense should remain far above average throughout the season, but it will not be one of the best in the sport as in years past. Chad Morris will earn his paycheck, but he is not a miracle worker.

    But Brent Venables' unit was surprisingly good last season, finishing No. 13 in Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ ratings. End Vic Beasley is one of just two returning defenders from the AP All-American Team, linebacker Stephone Anthony is poised for a breakout, and there are some promising young pieces in the secondary.

    This could easily—and probably should—be a top-10 unit.


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    Don't laugh.

    Florida might have gone 4-8 last season, but Auburn went 3-9 the season before that. And we all saw how the Tigers bounced back.

    Will Muschamp has become a punchline in head coaching conversations, but he is still one of the most reliable defense builders in college football. Last year's unit finished No. 17 on the Football Outsiders defensive F/+ ratings despite the 4-8 record and held tight for the first few possessions against Florida State.

    With Thorpe Award candidate Vernon Hargreaves on the outside, Dante Fowler Jr. expected to make the leap to an All-SEC level and a bunch of young, blue-chip players filling out the roster, it is unlikely but not unfathomable for this defense to lead UF to an SEC East title.

    And from there, it might be one game away from the CFP.

Michigan State

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    If the College Football Playoff existed in 2013, Michigan State likely would have made it. If that were the case, its defense would have carried it there. Like, really carried it there.

    That won't quite be the case in 2014, when Michigan State's offense returns most of its core pieces. It will be able to contribute more than it did in the early part of last season.

    But the defense must still do the heavy lifting.

    That won't be easy given the departure of players such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis and Tyler Hoover. But with stalwarts such as defensive end Shilique Calhoun, safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes all returning, there is still enough talent here to feel good about.

    More important than that, Pat Narduzzi is still calling the shots.


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    Oklahoma finished No. 24 in the Football Outsiders defensive F/+ ratings last season, but it played even better than that down the stretch.

    When it wasn't being made to look like Lego people against Derrick Henry, the Sooners defense stifled Alabama for much of the Sugar Bowl, and linebacker Eric Striker looked unblockable off the edge.

    Nine starters are supposed to return from that unit, which would make it one of the best in college football next year. And although leading tackler Frank Shannon was accused of sexual assault and had to miss the spring game, Guerin Emig of Tulsa World reports that he will not be charged, which might leave the door open for him to rejoin the team before the fall.

    Even without him, though, this defense is good enough to carry the OU offense—which should be good but inconsistent under good-but-inconsistent quarterback Trevor Knight—to a potential Big 12 title.


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    UCLA loses its best defensive player, linebacker Anthony Barr, and two of its most important leaders in Cassius Marsh and Jordan Zumwalt.

    And yet this unit might be even better next season than last.

    Why? Mostly because of projected improvement throughout. Especially along the 3-4 front, young players such as Ellis McCarthy, Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenny Clark, Myles Jack and Kenny Orjioke should combine with top tackler Eric Kendricks to form a formidable group.

    Behind them, a secondary that might have been a weak spot in 2013 should become a strength in 2014, when it returns every meaningful player and introduces some blue-chip freshmen to the mix.

    Brett Hundley is not the only reason people are high on UCLA next season. The defense should be this team's strongest unit.


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    USC finished No. 5 in last year's Football Outsiders F/+ ratings, and although it loses a lot of talent from that team, the youngsters it returns are good enough for it to remain in that spot next season.

    They're good enough to improve upon it, too.

    Defensive lineman Leonard Williams could be this year's Aaron Donald—the dominant lineman who sweeps every major national defensive award—and sophomore safety Su'a Cravens is ready to explode into the national spotlight after a highly successful first year.

    More importantly, the multiple 3-4 front of new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox should allow this athletic unit to be more versatile and make more plays in space. It certainly looked up to the task during USC's spring scrimmage, when it ruled the day and made the Trojans offense look out of sorts.

    "From where we started (the spring) to where we finished, we got exponentially better," said Wilcox, according to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "But really not close to where we need to be."

    That is not welcome news to the rest of the Pac-12.