Everyone has heard the old cliche, "Offense wins games, defense wins championships."
As overused as that phrase is, it wouldn't be a cliche if it weren't true. More often than not you will see that the teams annually vying for a conference championship and BCS appearance have a consistently solid unit keeping the other team out of the end zone.
The bottom line is no matter how good you are on offense, you must have at least a serviceable defense to have a chance. And while you must have a good balance on offense and defense to get over the hump, it's no secret that a dominant defense will get you a long way on its own.
The 2011 college football season will see a lot of great defenses, but only a select few will be considered the nation's best. Here is a list of one team from each BCS AQ conference whose defense will dominate the rest of its respective conference—and maybe even the rest of the country.
Note: Independents not included; defensive rankings based on national "points against" ranking.
Sources: ESPN.com, NationalChamps.net
In a very close call between Pittsburgh and Louisville, the Cardinals get the nod over Pitt.
While Pitt had the better ranking (15th vs. 18th in scoring defense) and has more starters returning (eight vs seven), Louisville's advantage is its head coach, Charlie Strong.
A defensive wizard, Strong vastly improved the Louisville defense in just his first year on the job. Although they lose star cornerback Johnny Patrick, the Cardinals will be aided by a lot of returning contributors and will again make a big jump defensively.
Pitt, on the other hand, will be dealing with the loss of three of their best players in defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus and cornerback Dom DeCicco, not to mention a coaching switch.
The Louisville Cardinals will be in the thick of the Big East race with the conference's best defense.
In a conference packed with solid, but unspectacular defenses, the Florida State Seminoles will possess the ACC's best defense in 2011.
While North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson and Boston College could all make good arguments, none of these teams has the proven talent the Seminoles have.
The Tar Heels return a whopping 10 starters, including Quinton Coples, Donte Paige-Moss and Zach Brown, but were ranked just 45th in scoring defense in 2010.
The Hokies return star cornerback Jayron Hosley to a defense that was ranked 26th in the country, but have little proven talent around him.
The Hurricanes return Sean Spence and Marcus Forston to the 27th ranked defense, but will be breaking in new coaches.
The Tigers had the 13th-ranked defense in the nation in 2010, but lose Da'Quan Bowers and return just two well-known difference-makers in Rashard Hall and Andre Branch.
The Eagles, led by tackling machine Luke Keuchly, fielded the 19th-ranked defense in 2010, but lose key starter Mark Herzlich.
The Seminoles, on the other hand, landed at 20th in scoring defense in 2010 and return playmakers Brandon Jenkins, Xavier Rhodes, Nigel Bradham and Greg Reid. These players will combine to be the ACC's best unit.
A very close call between the Sooners, the Missouri Tigers and the Texas Longhorns; it was very tempting to go with both the 'Horns and the Kitties—er, my bad, Tigers—here.
New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz must be delighted with all the talent he has to work with. Emmanuel Acho, Keenan Robinson and Blake Gideon headline a defense that severely underachieved in 2010 with a ranking of 49 in scoring defense, but looks to rapidly rebound in 2011.
Texas' recruiting alone will give them a good shot at having the best Big 12 defense, but 2011 might be a bit of a transition year for Diaz and the Longhorn defense.
Missouri, who boasted the nation's sixth-ranked scoring defense in 2011, figures to be good once again with Jacquies Smith leading the way. But losing Aldon Smith, Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis will be too much not to experience a drop-off.
Instead, I believe 2011 will be OU's year through and through, at least within the Big 12.
With seniors Travis Lewis and Jamell Fleming leading a very talented group that also includes Tom Wort and Ronnell Lewis, defensive coordinator Brent Venables may field his best unit in several years—and the best unit the Big 12 has to offer.
In another conference littered with decent, but not elite defenses, the best defense will belong to the Arizona State Sun Devils despite Oregon, USC, and Stanford pushing for the top spot.
The Ducks ranked 12th in the nation in scoring defense last season and are led by star cornerback Cliff Harris, but return just five starters to that unit.
The Trojans' defense was ranked a disappointing 63rd, and although they return seven starters—including T.J. McDonald and Chris Galippo—they still won't be good enough to hold the top spot.
The Cardinal defense is led by Shayne Skov and was the nation's 10th best defense in 2010, but will see a decline with just five starters returning.
The Sun Devils ranked just 55th in the nation last season, but the difference here is that they return nine starters, including two star defenders in Vontaze Burfict and Omar Bolden. The two all-conference players will lead the Pac-12's top defense.
Although the Big Ten is stacked with strong defenses, the best defense will coincidentally be the newest one—Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers will be followed closely by Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Illinois is a dark horse candidate under defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, but won't have the talent to keep up with the rest of these teams.
Ohio State's defense ranked an impressive fifth in the nation in 2011, but losing Cameron Heyward, Chimdi Chekwa, Brian Rolle, Devon Torrence, Ross Homan and Jermale Hines will be too much for a team already hindered by a brewing controversy.
Iowa was impressive as well, ranking seventh in scoring defense, but the losses of Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug, Christian Ballard and Tyler Sash will be hard on the Hawkeyes.
Wisconsin returns six starters to a defense that ranked 25th in 2010, but the Badgers won't have enough defensive strength to earn the top spot.
Nebraska, led by defensive mastermind Bo Pelini, returns seven starters to a defense that was ranked ninth in the country last season. Highlighting the Blackshirts will be three All-American candidates in Alfonzo Dennard, Lavonte David and Jared Crick.
Despite the loss of starters Prince Amukamara, Dejon Gomes, Eric Hagg and Pierre Allen, the Huskers will prove that they are in reloading mode on defense.
Normally more teams from the SEC would be heavily competing for the top defensive spot, but for 2011, the Alabama Crimson Tide looks like a potential shoo-in.
While they could get some pressure from LSU—2010's 11th-ranked defense led by Morris Claiborne—and Florida—led by former Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp—Alabama has all the tools to excel defensively in 2011.
The Crimson Tide returns 10 starters from the third-ranked 2010 unit, the only loss being Marcell Dareus. The 2011 unit will be loaded with playmakers like Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron and Dre' Kirkpatrick.
That bodes very well for 'Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, and the Tide could have not only the SEC's best defense, but the NCAA's best defense.