Ranking the Best Secondaries for the 2017 College Football Season
With Derwin James returning from injury for Florida State, the Seminoles should have the best secondary in the 2017 college football season. But watch out for Virginia Tech potentially keeping FSU from even having the best defensive backfield in the ACC.
To select and rank these defensive units, we looked at five key statistics from last season—passing yards per attempt, passing yards per game, completion percentage, QB rating and TD/INT ratio—to determine where each team ranked nationally in each category.
Teams that scored well in at least four of the five categories and have a strong contingent of returning defensive backs were among the top candidates for the list.
There wasn't any sort of mathematical formula used to rank them, though, and star power (like James and Tarvarus McFadden for Florida State) played a crucial part in the decision-making process.
Basically, the ranking boiled down to one question: Which secondary would a quarterback least want to face if down by one-possession late in the fourth quarter and forced to run the two-minute drill starting from his own 10-yard line?
Arguably the best secondary in the nation in 2016, a repeat performance seems a bit unlikely from a team that lost 10 of 11 starters, including everyone in the defensive backfield.
Clemson was one of just four teams (along with Michigan, Florida and Ohio State) to rank in the top 14 in all five passing defense categories that we examined, but losing both Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson in just a bit too much to overcome. Having said that, it wouldn't be a surprise if this defensive line gets so much pressure on opposing quarterbacks that the secondary ends up putting up great numbers once again.
Normally one of the better passing defenses in the country, LSU might be taking a bit of a step backward after losing first-round picks Jamal Adams and Tre'Davious White, as well as senior Dwayne Thomas and transfer Saivion Smith. Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver should be great along the sidelines, but we'll see how the Tigers fare at the safeties and nickel positions.
Georgia State Panthers
GSU likely would have been No. 10 had we ranked that many teams, as it ranked top 10 in four of the five categories. However, with a 3-9 record against a weak schedule and with opponents averaging 48 carries for 206.8 yards per game, there's a case to be made that this passing defense wasn't anywhere near as good as the numbers would have you believe.
Appalachian State Mountaineers
Another Sun Belt team that was tempting to put in the top 10, Appalachian State has several key returnees from a 20-interception team that put up strong numbers for most of the season. But the combination of losing Mondo Williams (four picks, six passes defended) and allowing three opponents to complete at least 72 percent of pass attempts last season was enough to relegate the Mountaineers to the honorable mentions.
9. Wisconsin Badgers
2016 stats: 6.5 YPA (23rd), 202.6 YPG (30th), 52.5 completion percentage (11th), 106.91 QB rating (10th), 0.59 TD/INT ratio (3rd)
Key players: CB Derrick Tindal, S D'Cota Dixon, CB Nick Nelson, S Natrell Jamerson, CB Lubern Figaro, S Arrington Farrar, S Patrick Johnson, S Joe Ferguson, CB Dontye Carriere-Williams
Wisconsin's secondary suffered some major losses this offseason. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton and safety Leo Musso both started all 14 games last year as seniors, combining for nine interceptions and 13 passes defended. And though T.J. Watt wasn't a defensive back, the secondary will be forced to work harder and longer without the benefit of that stud pressuring the quarterback on a regular basis.
But this program has reached a point where we're almost forced to just assume the pass defense will be stingy. As far as the 2010s are concerned, 2016 was actually one of Wisconsin's worst years in the secondary, as the Badgers had ranked top 20 in the nation in passing yards allowed per game each year 2011-15.
Despite losing the aforementioned three key pieces, the Badgers are still in great hands. Derrick Tindal broke up 10 passes and had three interceptions last year. The senior cornerback should be the leader in the secondary, but they are loaded with experienced options. D'Cota Dixon, Natrell Jamerson and Lubern Figaro might all be starters as seniors.
Don't sleep on Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson, though. He had 15 passes defended as a sophomore in 2015 and might be the immediate answer for replacing Shelton.
8. Florida Gators
2016 stats: 5.9 YPA (7th), 148.5 YPG (2nd), 45.1 completion percentage (2nd), 92.86 QB rating (1st), 0.50 TD/INT ratio (1st)
Key players: CB Duke Dawson, S Marcell Harris, CB/S Chauncey Gardner Jr., S Nick Washington, CB Marco Wilson, S Quincy Lenton, S Jeawon Taylor, CB Brad Stewart
Three teams had a compelling argument for best secondary in the nation in 2016: Florida, Michigan and Ohio State. All three were subsequently gutted by graduation or early draft declarations.
Michigan's defense took the biggest hit of the bunch, but the Gators are going to look a lot different, too, after losing defensive backs Marcus Maye, Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor as second-round picks. With a combined 17 passes defended, seven interceptions and 116 total tackles, that trio anchored a defensive unit that allowed less than 17 points per game.
But Jim McElwain might still have enough up his sleeve to continue exasperating opposing quarterbacks. Duke Dawson led the Gators in passes defended last season (seven) and should be the veteran leader, along with senior safety Marcell Harris, who had two interceptions and led the team in tackles (73).
The youth is where things could get exciting, though. Chauncey Gardner Jr. had three interceptions last year as a true freshman—two in the Outback Bowl—and is capable of playing anywhere in the defensive backfield. And incoming freshman Marco Wilson—younger brother of Quincy—might be a starting cornerback from day one.
If both of those young guys live up to the hype, Florida will have the SEC's top passing defense for a second straight year.
7. Troy Trojans
2016 stats: 6.6 YPA (27th), 246.4 YPG (85th), 52.7 completion percentage (14th), 113.08 QB rating (16th), 0.91 TD/INT ratio (13th)
Key players: S Kris Weatherspoon, CB Kamryn Melton, S Cedarius Rookard, CB Blace Brown, S Robert Johnson, CB Jawon McDowell, S Melvin Tyus
Yards allowed per game can be a deceptive statistic when trying to gauge the strength of a secondary.
For example, Nevada ranked fourth in the nation at 158.4 yards per game, but that's because the Wolf Pack gave up nearly 300 rushing yards and only faced an average of 20 passing attempts per game. Troy, on the other hand, was thrown against 37.1 times per game, nearly "leading" the nation in the category.
Because the Trojans had a strong combination of scoring offense and rushing defense, opponents were left with little choice but to air out the ball time and again, which resulted in nearly 250 passing yards per game. In every other category, though, Troy was well above the national average.
Better yet, the Trojans get back just about every key member of their 2016 secondary. Jalen Rountree (four interceptions, three passes defended) is out of the picture, but they still have two cornerbacks and two safeties who combined for 174 tackles, 24 passes defended and 12 interceptions last year.
Blace Brown led the way in the interceptions department with a half dozen of them—four of which came in back-to-back wins over New Mexico State and Idaho. But the most important returnee is Kris Weatherspoon. One of just eight players in the country with at least 7.5 tackles for loss and eight passes defended, Troy's free safety channeled his inner Troy Polamalu to repeatedly break up plays in both the offensive and defensive backfield.
6. Indiana Hoosiers
2016 stats: 6.8 YPA (39th), 219.7 YPG (53rd), 52.5 completion percentage (12th), 117.26 QB rating (23rd), 1.31 TD/INT ratio (35th)
Key players: CB Rashard Fant, S Jonathan Crawford, CB A'Shon Riggins, CB Marcelino Ball, S Tony Fields, CB Tyler Green, S Chase Dutra
What few national conversations there have been about Indiana's defense tend to start and finish with star linebacker Tegray Scales. The will-be senior led the nation in tackles for loss and had five sacks in his final five games. There are a lot of strong candidates for preseason Big Ten Defensive POY, but Scales has to be top five on that list.
As a result, Indiana's entirely intact secondary has gone underappreciated as a potential difference-maker in the Big Ten East. That isn't to say the Hoosiers will finish ahead of Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State, but they just might shut down one of those passing attacks and drastically shake up the conference standings.
(Before you call me crazy, note that their two best performances of last season came against Michigan and Ohio State, in which the title contenders combined for 152 yards while completing just 16-of-37 attempts.)
The leader of this bunch is Rashard Fant, who has ranked second in the nation in back-to-back seasons with a combined 39 passes broken up. He also had three interceptions last year, tying for the team lead in that category.
The Hoosiers had four other players with at least seven passes defended—A'Shon Riggins (nine), Marcelino Ball (eight), Jonathan Crawford (seven) and Tony Fields (seven)—each of which is also back for another season. Throw in Chase Dutra and Tyler Green, and the Hoosiers are getting back every single defensive back who recorded at least 10 tackles in 2016.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
2016 stats: 5.6 YPA (2nd), 172.2 YPG (7th), 48.9 completion percentage (3rd), 94.37 QB rating (3rd), 0.52 TD/INT ratio (2nd)
Key players: CB Denzel Ward, S Damon Webb, CB Kendall Sheffield, CB Damon Arnette, S Erick Smith, S Jordan Fuller, CB Jeffrey Okudah, CB Joshua Norwood
Ranking seventh or better in all five categories last season, there's a nearly indisputable case to be made that Ohio State had the best secondary in the nation. If that's not enough evidence to support the Buckeyes' claim to that throne, the fact they had three defensive backs taken in the first 24 picks of the draft should be.
Unfortunately, that made Ohio State the toughest team to rank.
The Buckeyes still have starting safety Damon Webb, who had 57 tackles, three passes defended and a pick six last season. There's also Denzel Ward, who led the team in passes defended (nine) despite not starting a single game—probably because opposing quarterbacks were desperate to throw the ball in his direction to get a break from Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley.
Beyond that duo, though, are a lot of unknowns. Damon Arnette had 21 tackles and one interception last year as a redshirt freshman, but it's likely going to be either him or Kendall Sheffield—incoming transfer and former 5-star recruit at Alabama who played one year at Blinn College—starting at one cornerback spot. And the second safety spot is an even bigger question mark, where Erick Smith's 33 career tackles in three seasons probably makes him the front-runner for the job.
Here's the thing, though: Ohio State's secondary is always strong. Three years ago, the Buckeyes nearly led the nation in interceptions, and not a single one of those picks came from Conley, Hooker or Lattimore. That trio just happened to thrive in a great system, and it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if Ohio State continues to defend the pass at a high level without them.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
2016 stats: 7.0 YPA (44th), 183.8 YPG (16th), 59.0 completion percentage (72nd), 122.97 QB rating (37th), 0.93 TD/INT ratio (15th)
Key players: CB Malkom Parrish, S Dominick Sanders, CB Deandre Baker, S Aaron Davis, CB Mecole Hardman, S Deangelo Gibbs, S Richard LeCounte III, CB Tray Bishop
There aren't many teams with a more cohesive secondary from last year than the one Georgia has.
Though the Bulldogs did lose starting defensive back Maurice Smith (50 tackles, three passes defended, two interceptions), every other starter on defense is back, including secondary stars Malkom Parrish, Dominick Sanders and Deandre Baker. That trifecta combined for 20 passes defended and seven interceptions last year.
Thanks to them, Georgia finished the season with more interceptions (15) than touchdowns allowed (14) for a third straight year.
Based on some of the high school studs they've added in recent years, that trend shows no signs of stopping, either. Mecole Hardman Jr. was a 5-star athlete in the 2016 recruiting class who appears to be headed for a job at wide receiver, but he could be a two-way star or just a great cornerback by the end of the year. Top-50 recruits Deangelo Gibbs and Richard LeCounte III could also be key pieces as true freshmen.
Even if those young guys don't line up for a single snap in the secondary in 2017, the Dawgs should be in great shape and might even challenge Alabama for the title of "SEC's top defense."
But they desperately need to improve their completion percentage in order to get there. Holding just two out of 13 opponents below 52 percent was a bad look last season, but the additional year of working together should be just what the doctor ordered.
3. Virginia Tech Hokies
2016 stats: 6.5 YPA (21st), 200.2 YPG (27th), 50.1 completion percentage (5th), 111.1 QB rating (15th), 1.125 TD/INT ratio (23rd)
Key players: CB Brandon Facyson, S Adonis Alexander, CB Greg Stroman, LB/DB Terrell Edmunds, LB/DB Mook Reynolds, CB Reggie Floyd, CB Jovonn Quillen, CB Tyree Rodgers, S Divine Deablo
Five times last season, Virginia Tech held an opponent under 40.0 completion percentage, including the eventual No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft, North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky. Granted, that particular game was played in a hurricane and neither team threw for more than 75 yards, but it was still business as usual for one of the better defensive backfields in the country.
The scary thing for the rest of the ACC is just about that entire unit is back for another year.
Safety Chuck Clark was the biggest loss for the Hokies, and he didn't even register an interception or a pass defended in his final 10 games in Blacksburg. In his stead, 2016 rovers Terrell Edmunds and Mook Reynolds will find a more permanent home in the secondary after combining for six interceptions and nine passes defended. Adonis Alexander will also take on a bigger role at safety as a junior, having tallied six picks and 19 passes defended in his first two years.
The best news for VT is that Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson are returning as seniors. Stroman is a return specialist who only had 14 tackles on defense, but that's partially because he did a fantastic job of breaking up plays before a tackle could even happen, finishing the year with three interceptions and 10 passes defended. And Facyson had double-digit passes defended for a second straight year, starting all 14 games at cornerback in 2016.
This offense is riddled with question marks after QB Jerod Evans, WR Isaiah Ford and TE Bucky Hodges all decided to forgo their final year of eligibility and declare for the draft, but the secondary should be enough to keep the Hokies at the top of the ACC's Coastal Division.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
2016 stats: 5.9 YPA (9th), 197.9 YPG (24th), 53.8 completion percentage (19th), 106.47 QB rating (9th), 0.94 TD/INT ratio (16th)
Key players: S Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB Anthony Averett, S Ronnie Harrison, CB Tony Brown, S Laurence "Hootie" Jones, CB Trevon Diggs, CB Shyheim Carter, S Jared Mayden, CB Levi Wallace
Losing first-round pick Marlon Humphrey would be a tough pill to swallow for most secondaries, but when was the last time Alabama wasn't equipped to replace someone?
For starters, the Crimson Tide still have last year's three leaders in passes defended—Anthony Averett (eight), Minkah Fitzpatrick (seven) and Ronnie Harrison (seven). Factor in Fitzpatrick's six picks as well as the two Harrison recorded and it's hard to believe we're talking about a team that lost fourth defensive backs selected in the NFL draft.
And they have plenty of options for filling in the remaining spots. Alabama signed two of the top eight cornerbacks in last year's class (Jared Mayden and Shyheim Carter), as well as athlete Trevon Diggs, who spent most of the spring working out as the No. 2 CB. All three should be primed for bigger roles as sophomores. There's also senior Hootie Jones, who broke up four passes last season in limited reps.
There are a lot of changes to Alabama's front seven after losing Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and three other draft picks, but the secondary should be a big strength for this annually dominant defense.
1. Florida State Seminoles
2016 stats: 7.1 YPA (54th), 221.1 YPG (57th), 55.4 completion percentage (34th), 122.48 QB rating (35th), 1.2 TD/INT ratio (27th)
Key players: S Derwin James, CB Tarvarus McFadden, S Trey Marshall, CB Levonta Taylor, CB Kyle Meyers, S A.J. Westbrook, CB Stanford Samuels, S Ermon Lane
Florida State's secondary was just OK last season, but it's impressive that the Seminoles were even able to remain competent after losing Derwin James in the second game of the year.
Widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the entire country heading into the 2016 campaign, James almost certainly would have made a significant difference in the close losses to North Carolina and Clemson in which the 'Noles allowed a combined 783 passing yards and 74 points.
With James back in the saddle alongside Tarvarus McFadden, entire months should go by where Florida State doesn't allow numbers like those.
It's not crazy to think that duo will become the first two defensive backs drafted in 2018. In fact, Dieter Kurtenbach of Fox Sports has James and McFadden going No. 2 and No. 4 overall, respectively, in next year's draft. Jimbo Fisher could essentially throw a couple of yield signs into the secondary with those guys and this would still be projected as one of the 10 best defensive backfields in the country.
But the rest of this unit isn't too shabby, either. Trey Marshall and A.J. Westbrook combined for 98 tackles and eight passes defended and should play major roles at safety. And while he didn't do much last year as a true freshman, big things are expected from 2016's No. 12 overall recruit, Levonta Taylor.
Barring another catastrophic injury, Florida State should have the stingiest secondary in the country. It's why the 'Noles are such a popular pick for the College Football Playoff, despite losing Dalvin Cook, DeMarcus Walker and Travis Rudolph from last year's roster.