2011 College Football Predictions: The 25 Best Returning Defenses

Tyler DewdneyCorrespondent IJanuary 26, 2011

2011 College Football Predictions: The 25 Best Returning Defenses

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    The most talked about players in college football are most often offensive players.  Since it's inception, the Heisman trophy has been given to only one defensive player.  That was Charles Woodson in 1997, and he was the rare two-way player. 

    The two 2010 national title contenders were easily the two most prolific offenses in the country.  However, the game saw only a total of 41 points, much lower than the predicted 75.

    This only goes to prove the old adage that defense wins championships.  

    While most people talked about the impressive offenses of the 2010 season, they probably should have been focused on the other side of the ball.

    In fact, the first three selections of the 2011 NFL Draft are predicted to be defenders.  The majority of the other picks are set to be defenders as well. 

    A lot of defensive talent will be graduating from the top schools this year, so incoming recruits are going to be critical for success in 2011.

    Here I will give some early predictions for who will be the top 25 defenses of 2011.

    *Note: all recruit rankings are from Yahoo's rivals.com

25. Penn State

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    Penn State has always been known as a defensive team.  Maybe that is the only reason they make this list at No. 25. 

    The 2010 campaign was a disappointing season for the Nittany Lions on the win front, going only 7-6, but they were stout defensively.

    They gave up fewer than 24 points a game and only 181 passing yards per game.  They struggled slightly in their run defense, but they are making up for it in recruiting. 

    Joe Pa's commits include four defensive ends, three of which are 4-star recruits, and the other a 3-star.  They should mesh well with the nine returning starters.

    While they weren't in the Top 25 in 2010, the fresh faces stopping the run might help them break in in 2011.

24. Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame gave up a lot of yards in 2010.  However, they gave up the 23rd fewest points per game.

    They would consistently bend, but not break. 

    Notre Dame's recruiting class is currently ranked seventh with a number of highly-touted defensive commits. Look for these freshmen to have a large impact right away. 

    Nine defensive starters are returning, four of which are seniors.  Look for the senior leadership to turn Notre Dame back into a defensive powerhouse. 

23. Arkansas

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    Arkansas had a very respectable defense in 2010, considering that the Razorbacks play in the SEC. 

    They gave up just 162 yards on the ground and 185 through the air per game while only giving up a staunch 23 points a game against the nation's top offenses.

    Bobby Petrino finally has the Razorbacks in a position to challenge the top of the SEC. 

    DE Jake Bequette, MLB Jerry Franklin and S Tramain Thomas were all-conference selections who will be returning for their senior seasons.  With questions at quarterback, these three, along with four other returning starters, will have to step it up for Arkansas if they hope to live up to expectations.

22. Florida

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    Florida will need some younger players to step up if they hope to stop high-powered SEC offenses. 

    Losing FS Will Hill is sure to be a blow, but a strong recruiting class and younger players rising into starting roles will allow the Gators to build on their 2010 defense that allowed just 306 yards per game.

    The 2011 Florida defense will look a lot different than the 2010 squad, but they should be able to help Florida get back into the top 25.

21. South Carolina

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    DE Devin Taylor and CB Stephon Gilmore will need to improve on their all-conference seasons if the Gamecocks hope to be as strong defensively. 

    With only six returning starters and gaping holes at the MLB position, younger players will have to step into a front seven that is considered weak by SEC standards.

    Steve Spurrier has managed to bring in a good recruiting class that is defensively heavy. These players should fit in nicely to a defense that let up only 23 points a game to some of the toughest competition.

20. Michigan State

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    Michigan State's defense will rely heavily on the core of returning defensive linemen: Tyler Hoover, Jerel Worthey, and Kevin Pickleman. 

    While there are only two returning starting seniors in the defensive unit, leadership will come from other players such as junior all-Big Ten CB Johnny Adams.

    The defense will be an integral part of Michigan State following up their 11-2 2010 record with a solid 2011 performance.

19. Miami (FL)

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    The 2010 Hurricanes defense let up only an average of 20 points per game.  While they struggled with stopping the run (172 yards per game), they were a fairly successful pass defense, allowing 150 yards per game. 

    With seven returning starters, three of which are from the defensive line, Miami should be much stronger against the run in 2011. 

    Experience will be a key factor in Miami's defensive success next season.  All but one or two starters will either be returning juniors or seniors.

18. Pittsburgh

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    Pittsburgh will be have eight starters return to a defensive side that was ranked 15th in all of college football in 2010. 

    Giving up only 305 yards and 19 points a game allowed a team without serious offensive threats to win in what was admittedly a weak Big East conference.

    The only reason the Panthers aren't higher on this list is because the defense hasn't been tested by a serious offensive threat.  They will be facing the same offenses next year, so look for them to put up impressive numbers again.

17. Auburn

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    The defending national champions will have to cope with the loss of DT Nick Fairley who, besides Cam Newton, was arguably the Tigers' best player.

    With only four starters returning to the defensive side of the ball, CB Neiko Thorpe will have to step up into a leadership role if Auburn hopes to defend the title. 

    Coach Chizik's 2011 defense will have a new look to it, but he is hoping that players will grow into their new starting roles and continue to shut down high powered SEC offenses.

16. Clemson

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    Clemson comes in at 16 on the list based on their ability to hold teams to low scoring games in 2010.  The ACC had some impressive scoring offenses and Clemson held them to just under 19 points a game.

    Returning will be seven defensive starters, including the entire linebacking core.

    The Tigers will be hoping that the likes of Malliciah Goodman and Kourtnel Brown can fill the void left by potential top three pick Da'Quan Bowers.

15. Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin is pegged as an early, early season Top 25 team and their defense is a big part of the reason.

    A total of six starters will be returning to a squad that held Big Ten opponents to just 20 points per game. 

    While there are some questions with the linebacking core, the defensive front and secondary should be very strong. 

    Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus will build off their all-Big Ten seasons and continue to shut down opposing receivers.  As juniors, they helped the Badgers defense hold opponents to under 200 yards per game through the air.

14. UCF

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    Maybe a surprise at No. 14, the UCF defense was very impressive in 2010.  Opponents averaged just over 300 yards of offense a game while scoring just over 17 points per game. 

    No matter the conference, that is a tough feat.

    Although they are only returning four starters, UCF is committed to defensive football, so look for the new players to fill the shoes of the graduating seniors and keep the UCF defense a powerful force.

13. Oregon

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    Graduation hit Oregon hard, especially on the defensive front.  With only five starters returning, the Ducks will be looking for players to step up into a defensive role that is consistently overshadowed by the offense.

    Luckily the Ducks have the sixth-ranked incoming class.

    While the offense ruled Oregon in 2010, the defense did well for itself.  Finishing as the 12th-ranked defense in the nation, they held a high-powered Cam Newton-led offense to just 22 points, a feat not many other defenses can claim.

12. Stanford

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    New coach David Shaw is not known for his commitment to defense, but don't let that fool you on how good the Cardinals' defense will be next year. 

    Six returning starters will bring experience to a team that will need it while facing off against the best the Pac-12 has to offer.

    The secondary for Stanford will be the strongest, having three starters return for their senior seasons.  They will only improve on their performance of last year when they limited teams to just over 200 yards of passing per game. 

    Look for DB Delano Howell to lead a Stanford defense that only let up 17 points per game in 2010.

11. Boston College

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    Boston College is one of the few teams on this list that may not break into the Top 25 all season. 

    However, it is this Boston College team that was the best against the run in all of college football, allowing only 82 yards a game on the ground.

    With seven returning starters, highlighted by Max Halloway and Kaleb Ramsey on the front line, the Eagles should be just as hard to score against as they were in 2010 (19 points per game). 

10. West Virginia

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    West Virgina finished the 2010 season as the third-ranked defense in college football and the stats speak for themselves: 86 rushing yards allowed per game, 175 through the air and a staunch 13 points per game allowed.

    While they are only returning four defensive starters, the Mountaineers were too good last year to discount in 2011.

    They are in need of linebackers, as all but one graduated, but players will rise to the challenge and the West Virginia defense will again be a force to be reckoned with in 2011.

9. Iowa

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    Iowa is another team on the list that just didn't give up points in 2010.  Opposing offenses averaged just 17 points per game.

    The loss of SS Tyler Sash to the NFL Draft will definitely hurt the Hawkeye's secondary, but senior CB Shaun Porter will lead the defense in what he hopes will be a second consecutive all-league season for him. 

8. Nebraska

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    Nebraska boasts one of the top defenses of 2010 and with seven returners, it is sure to move up the charts in 2011.  Of those seven returning, four made the All-Big 12 squad.

    Allowing opposing teams to gain just over 150 yards through the air, Nebraska was able to limit them to just over 17 points per game as well. 

    This veteran defense, led by senior DT Jared Crick, will continue their dominance in 2011. 

7. Florida State

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    Coach Jimbo Fisher has brought in the third-ranked recruiting class.  These new studs should mix in well with the eight returning starters on defense. 

    The likes of 5-star recruit DE Cornellius Carradine may be asked to step in to a starter's role right away. 

    CB Xavier Rhodes will lead a secondary that allowed under 20 points per game in 2010. 

    In order for the Seminoles to live up to the early hype, senior linebacker Nigel Bradham, the only returning starting linebacker, will have to mentor the younger players.

6. Louisiana State

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    Playing defense in the SEC is no easy task.  However, LSU managed to do a great job of it in 2010, limiting opponents to 18 points per game. 

    With seven returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, they should maintain such dominance in 2011. 

    The fourth-ranked recruiting class should come in and help to fill out spots that were left vacant due to graduation.

    Look for junior CB Morris Claiborne to lead the LSU defense that should give offenses fits in 2011.

5. Missouri

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    If Missouri hopes to remain in the Top 25, they are going to rely on the defense led by six returning starters.

    Senior all-conference DE Jacquies Smith is the man to watch for.  Look for him and the other two returning defensive linemen to stop the run and get to the quarterback. 

    In 2010, Missouri allowed only 16 points per game, and much of that was because of the front line.  Now that the front line is even more experienced, they will be a greater force in 2011.

4. Boise State

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    The front of Boise State will be the key to their success defensively.  Billy Winn and Shea Mclellin are returning for their senior seasons after being given all-conference honors this past year. 

    They will be hoping to hold down a defense that in 2010 held opponents to just under 13 points a game and 103 yards rushing. 

    The secondary will be the question going into the season as there is only one returning starter.  Assuming that they have talented players waiting in the wings, Boise State will again be one of the top five defenses in 2011.

3. Ohio State

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    Ohio State was the only defense in the Big Ten to limit opponents to under 100 yards rushing.  Two of the four returning starters will be on the front line that did so well in 2010.

    Nathan Williams and John Simon will have to rally the Buckeyes' defense, at least for the first five games, as most of the offensive talent is suspended. 

    If Ohio State hopes to make a run at the national championship next year, they will need the defense to be solid.  If they can mirror last year's performance of 14 points against per game, they should be successful.

2. TCU

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    The TCU Horned Frogs were the top ranked defense in all of college football in 2010.  Opponents gained a measly 228 yards per game, while managing to score fewer than two touchdowns. 

    It's no wonder they didn't lose a game all season.

    While only five starters will be returning, the TCU defense will not miss a beat.  They have hopes of contending for a national title in 2011, and if it happens, it will be on the shoulders of the defense.

    Look for the linebacking core, led by Tank Carder and Tanner Brock, to dominate as they did last season.

1. Alabama

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    As good as the top 10 defenses are, Alabama has to be the unanimous No. 1. 

    They are returning 10, count them, ten, starters to a defense that last year held potent SEC offenses to just 13 points. 

    Take the second half breakdown against Auburn away and the defense was nearly perfect.

    Junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower will lead a star-studded defense that is sure to be the best in the nation for the 2011 season.