Defense wins championships; the adage is proven true every year.
This year, the top two defenses in the country will square off in the National Championship. Two more great units will face each other in the Fiesta Bowl.
And arguably, the Florida Gators are where they are because of the letdown on defense in the SEC Championship Game. Getting stops consistently is the most crucial part of the game.
Who will field the top defenses next year? I've weighed returning starters, recruiting classes, and strengths or weaknesses in the coaching game to project who the top 25 will be in 2010.
There were some surprises, but I'm confident that if all the right guys return, this list won't be too far off 365 days from now.
*Note: Depth charts just list seniors without indicating whether they still have a remaining year of eligibility. If my numbers sound off, leave it in the comments, and I will make corrections as necessary.
The Scarlet Knights got lit up for 70 points by Cincinnati, and they lose three of their top four leading tacklers, including MLB Damaso Munoz.
But I'll go out on a limb and say that Greg Schiano, a stalwart defensive coach, has a plan for replacing those stops, possibly with some stepped-up play from DT Eric LeGrand.
They also were top 10 in the nation in takeaways (32), and though that aggression won't necessarily remain constant across years, if they can stay close to that number, they'll be in good shape.
It was a real down year for the Hokies, who finished 54th overall in rushing defense, a spot practically unprecedented for a squad under defensive coordinator Bud Foster. The Hokies are used to being top ten in nearly every statistical category under Foster.
I'll assume the seniors the VT defense is graduating—six in all—were part of the problem rather than of the solution. Defenses that far out of line have to be an aberration, right?
Maybe their graduations will make room for some players from VT's top 15 recruiting class of 2007. A few good four-star DTs make their way to Blacksburg, as well. I'll stake a tentative claim that the Hokies will be back next year.
One more year of porousness, however, and all fingers will be pointing at the coach, not the players.
No coordinator? Consecutive years of early departures along the defensive line? Losing your middle linebacker and your best corner?
I'm sorry, I know you're used to hearing about how great Florida is on defense, but this unit is gutted without Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, Joe Haden, and any other player that takes off early.
The talent at Florida is beyond argument, but the writing is on the wall—the Gators are going to struggle on defense next year. Until they hire a DC that can hold a candle to Strong, I probably shouldn't put them on this list at all.
The 'Canes are fielding better and better defenses as their recruiting improves, but they could have trouble replacing the two starters they lose—LB Darryl Sharpton (their leading tackler, and arguably their best player) and safety Randy Phillips.
Still, a host of young incoming talent bolsters the linebacking corps—Javarie Johnson and Travis Williams are both four-star LBs that will add depth and help with the loss of Sharpton.
The unit as a whole is very speedy and great at shedding blocks, so with another year of coaching they'll make improvements in tackling and, hopefully, continue doing everything else they do right.
The Mountaineers had a so-so year on defense, finishing behind Rutgers and Pittsburgh, but they will bid farewell to only one player: linebacker Reed Williams.
I'm also a big believer in DC Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 system after seeing what it could do to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl a few years back.
With that much returning talent in a trusted scheme, next year is the last year I can see the 'Eers getting by on momentum before their lackluster recruiting the past few seasons catches up to them.
Mark, the lost Stoops brother, inherits the worst Seminoles defense in Mickey Andrews' long tenure. Six starters depart to boot, including senior LB Dekoda Watson.
But the infusion of young blood—particularly five-star MLB Jeff Luc, ATH/S Matt Elam, and DB LaMarcus Joyner, all three of whom could start immediately—makes this Florida State squad like a defensive Fab-Five.
Exciting young talent all around plus a hot new coordinator could be the boost this defense needed to get it back to elite status.
The Sooners will close the recruiting season with a top five class, and it's a darn good thing, because early departures might really start to hurt them.
Besides OL Trent Williams, they'll lose DT Gerald McCoy, starting linebacker Ryan Reynolds and cornerback Brian Jackson, as well as LB Keenan Clayton to graduation or early entry.
But leading tackler Travis Lewis returns, and incoming stud safety Tony Jefferson could roll up to linebacker or play in nickel packages.
DC Brent Venables is one of the best in the business, and Stoops is a savvy defensive mind to begin with. At 27 commitments, one would hope there's enough talent to rebuild and minimize the impact of losing McCoy.
Clemson looked fast and fierce in their final game against Clemson, but I'm withholding a lot of hype until I'm certain safety DeAndre McDaniel is returning.
He's got the skills for an early entry into the NFL, and with him would go all-ACC DE Ricky Sapp and starting linebacker Kavell Conner, who led the team in tackles.
If McDaniel returns—and it looks like he will—he and Marcus Gilchrist will form an intimidating defensive backfield that will be very difficult to get any kind of yards against.
They've got backups, too. Four-star Desmond Brown, Garry Peters, and Darius Robinson provide immediate depth in Clemson's ho-hum recruiting class.
I'm not convinced Ndamukong Suh wasn't the Nebraska defense. The AP Player of the Year dominated offensive lines, broke up passes, forced fumbles, put games on his back without fail, and won the Heisman in a more logical universe running parallel to our own.
But fellow DT Jared Crick was no slouch in the middle, either, and he'll be joined by four-star DT Chase Rome, the star of Nebraska's small but promising recruiting class.
Big Red will have to replace both safeties and their other leading tackler, Philip Dillard, vacancies that curtail Nebraska to a fringe top 15 defense at best.
Yet the Huskers have two of the country's premier defensive minds in coach Bo Pelini and his brother, Carl. I think the Brothers Pelini are up to any task.
The Falcons had an outstanding season on defense, stifling potent attacks from TCU, Navy, and Utah (though two of those were losses) before giving up an uncharacteristic 38 points to BYU to close the season.
The Falcons lose their top two tacklers, but they're well-coached in the defensive backfield, and if they remain as stingy, they could contend with TCU for the Mountain West title now that Utah and BYU are losing a lot of players to graduation.
With Eric Norwood rushing the bejesus out of opposing quarterbacks, the defense was the most consistent unit for the Gamecocks, finishing fifth in the SEC in total, scoring, and rushing defense.
Norwood and DT Nathan Pepper are gone, but the remainder of the back seven return, and the D-line will get immediate help in the form of DT Kelcy Quarles, whom Rivals ranked the No. 2 tackle in the nation.
An improved, even explosive offense will assist the South Carolina defense, now in its second year under stellar DC Lorenzo Ward. I predict they will continue to rise up the conference ladder, and their play could be the difference if the Gamecocks challenge for the SEC East.
For a team that struggled as much against the pass as USC did, I'm wary to rank them too high, particularly since the entire defensive backfield graduates.
But Pete Carroll's efforts on the recruiting trail have been outstanding this year as in previous ones, and there's plenty of talent waiting in the wings to assist the Trojans in getting back to their dominant ways.
TJ MacDonald will help USC fans forget the name Taylor Mays, and Nick Perry and the rest of the defensive line should improve to help the Trojans bring the kind of pressure that was missing all year.
I didn't catch much of Arizona State's play this year outside of the USC game, but their fight in that loss, along with the numbers, indicates this is a very underrated unit that just needs its offense to score a few more points and take some pressure off.
Freshman standout and recruiting sensation Vontaze Burfict finished the year second on the team in tackles, and returns to his middle linebacker role to help the Sun Devils try and repeat their success at rushing defense. They finished first overall in the Pac-10 in yards allowed.
The Devils don't get a ton of help from their 2010 recruiting class, which is aimed more at running backs and offensive linemen. But that could be a good thing, as far as time of possession is concerned.
They lose a lot of talent on defense—including underrated defensive back Aaron Berry and three of the four DTs in the rotation.
But Dave Wannstedt is confident that all-star DE Greg Romeus will return next season.
Pitt also returns both safeties and leading tackler Max Gruder. Between that and the incoming talents of four-star DEs Bryan Murphy and TJ Clemmings, I'm convinced Pitt's defense will land in the top 15 by year's end.
Their offense will get all the credit, but the Ducks' defense got them through difficult games at UCLA and Oregon, stuffed Cal, and got necessary stops against USC until the game was well out of reach.
They declined as the year went on due to injuries, but that allowed true freshman defensive back Cliff Harris to step in immediately for Walter Thurmond III.
Losing only two starters (albeit on the defensive line) means the Ducks, under longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, will be even better next year.
If they have to win a few games when the offense isn't clicking, they should be ready.
Losing four-year starter and NFL-caliber CB Nick Wilson is costly, but it's the only departure from a talented Boise State defense.
Multiple-year starters dot the defensive line and backfield, and Boise adds two able DBs to compete with Antwon Murray for Wilson's vacated spot.
With Kellen Moore and the Boise offense also returning intact, the last thing the BCS needs is for this defense to shut down Oregon State and Virginia Tech and help the Broncos go undefeated again.
Assuming TCU doesn't gouge them too bad in the Fiesta Bowl, there won't be too much standing between them and the title game next year.
Tennessee is another team for whom I'm not worried about their many departures.
Despite losing the interior of their D-line and, of course, Eric Berry, Lane Kiffin's rejuvenated recruiting efforts and his father Monte's able, time-tested talents as defensive coordinator will keep the Vols defense vicious and in pursuit of an SEC East title.
And after two years of flatlining, the offense might even help out a little.
Every time you think the Buckeyes' defense is set to suffer a down year, some unsung safety or beastly defensive tackle helps his team play way beyond their level.
Next year, both Cameron Heyward and Thaddeus Gibson return to anchor the line, and Ross Homan and Brian Rolle will keep OSU's rush defense top-caliber, at least in the Big Ten.
Plus, if Tyler Moeller plays as hawkishly as he did prior to getting injured, the Bucks could miminize the loss of the two interior tackles and become one of the best rush defenses in the country.
And surely there's some five-star safety waiting to pick off Tate Forcier a bajillion times. What a world.
Eight of this year's starters graduate, and nine total could leave if Rolando McClain enters the draft.
But as long as DC Kirby Smart stays put, the dropoff shouldn't be catastrophic. In addition, Alabama has put together back-to-back recruiting classes that rank as the nation's best, and much of that talent was defensive.
They'll be young and untested, but hopefully their coaching shines through that. If not, it could be a year where controlling the ball for 40 minutes on offense is a necessity rather than a luxury.
Maybe the 2007 defense just set too high a standard, but LSU's defenses the past two years have been disappointing.
Sure, this year gave us the heroic play against Florida and Alabama.
But there were also the struggles against Ole Miss and Washington, and the goal-line stand against Mississippi State, which was either inspiring or questionably necessary, depending on your mood.
I think next year will be a lot better. The entire defensive backfield returns, including the terrifying, suicidal Chad Jones, and recruits Eric Reid and Tyrann Mathieu add depth and talent that is wise beyond their years.
LSU's defensive recruiting has fully recovered from the loss of Bo Pelini. With DC Jon Chavis entering his third year, we can hopefully say the same about its coaching.
The name of that middle linebacker that you're trying to recall is Luke Kuechly. The freshman Defender of the Year for the ACC tallied 158 tackles on the year, including 87 solo tackles, both good for second-most in the nation.
Without a functional quarterback (but with a decent rusher, Montel Harris), the Eagles won eight games and hung with USC in the Emerald Bowl until midway through the fourth quarter, when a Dave Shinskie interception ended BC's hopes as only Dave Shinskie interceptions can.
Kuechly, naturally, is back next year to lead BC's division-leading rush defense. The Eagles could also welcome back Mark Herzlich, CFB's feel-good story who beat cancer and might be cleared to play if he can get his strength back.
If Shinskie can throw in the direction of the right players, BC might be back in the running for the ACC Atlantic sooner than we thought.
Losing five seniors to graduation, including Lombardi Award candidate and all-world DE Jerry Hughes, might ding an ordinary defense.
But the Frogs had to replace seven starters coming into this year, and still fielded the nation's sixth-best scoring unit and third-best rushing unit. This is no ordinary defense.
The loss of Hughes might be significant, but it comes down to consistent, superior coaching at TCU, and Gary Patterson and his staff aren't going anywhere.
Not to mention TCU is putting together a better-than-usual recruiting class.
With the talent level rising while the prep work remains outstanding, I expect the Horned Frogs' D to flirt with a top ten ranking again by year's end, and for years to come.
Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker has been coaching up three-star talent since he took the job, and this year was really the culmination of a lot of brewing talent.
The loss of MLB Pat Angerer as well as OLB A.J. Edds will hurt, but the young and dominant defensive line should return intact (unless Adrian Clayborn or Broderick Binns test their luck in the draft) as well as the entire defensive backfield, including All-Conference ball-hawking safety Tyler Sash.
Assuming redshirt junior Bruce Davis isn't a catastrophic dropoff from Angerer, Iowa could lead the Big Ten in rushing and total defense by the end of the year.
Your standard issue top-flight defense from Texas and DC Will Muschamp.
Five-star DE Alex Okafor steps into the killer pass-rushing role held by Brian Orakpo and Sergio Kindle; Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson bottle up runners on the inside; and shutdown defensive back Earl Thomas fields as many interceptions as you're insane enough to throw (as long as he returns).
Unless Muschamp gets hired elsewhere, the Longhorns will be a brick wall again, and they've got enough mustard in the incoming recruiting class to make sure it remains that way for the foreseeable future.
A year removed from fielding the nation's sixth-best defense on the ground and through the air, the Tar Heels' entire back seven returns, including four seniors in the defensive backfield and their top five leading tacklers.
UNC is building off of a solid defensive recruiting class last year that included four-star LBs Justin Dixon and Hawatha Bell and DB Josh Hunter. Butch Davis is serious about defense, and the Tar Heels have responded by becoming one of the nation's best.
Better than resurrecting LT or Dre Bly, this team plays as well together as any unit in college ball. They will challenge Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Miami for the Coastal title.
It could be the most interesting division to watch next year. May the best defense win.
Penn State: too many seniors departing—including the entire linebacking corps plus the loss of Navorro Bowman could spell a rebuilding year for the Nittany Lions.
They have a great recruiting class coming in, but the impact won't be immediate enough, and I think their coinciding struggles on offense will put pressure on the defense that it's still too young to handle.
Utah: The Utes lose stud free safety Robert Johnson, plus Stevenson Sylvester and a host of other starters. Kyle Whittingham is a terrific defensive coordinator, but they've got some catching up to do in restocking talent.
Arizona: DC Mark Stoops is departing to Florida State at the exact moment the Cats defense needs him most. Seven starters gradaute from the underrated defense, including the entire linebacking corps. Good show in 2009, but coach Mike Stoops can't do everything.
East Carolina: A great outfit this year, but check the depth chart—it's all seniors. Ditto BYU.
Ole Miss: Losing Peria Jerry hurt this year, and they lose his functional equivalent all over again in Greg Hardy. Not the dominant unit it was supposed to be. Young players will stack the D-line next year, so the Rebs could be back in 2011.