Predicting the Top 25 Defenses of 2013 College Football Season

Randy ChambersAnalyst IJanuary 15, 2013

Predicting the Top 25 Defenses of 2013 College Football Season

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    There are a lot of formulas for winning in college football, but success is ultimately determined by your defense.

    Alabama had the best defense in the country and won the national championship. Teams like Florida State, Notre Dame and Florida had top-10 defenses and appeared in BCS bowls.

    If you want your program to win on a national stage, its defense must become one of the best in the country.

    As players declare early for the NFL draft, we are getting a better idea of what each defense will be working with in 2013. Several teams will continue to have top-rated defenses, but a few others may surprise you.

    We may be months away from the new college football season, but here are the early predictions for the top 25 defenses in the country in 2013.

    Note: Rankings are based on last year’s performance and the number of returning starters. All stats come from cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

25. Fresno State

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 22 (338.5)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 37 (23.8)

    Key Players Returning: defensive back Derron Smith, nose guard Andy Jennings, nose guard Tyeler Davison

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: The 2,173 passing yards Fresno State allowed were the fewest of any defense in the country in 2012. The good news for Bulldogs fans is that eight starters return, including three players who were given 2012 All-Mountain West honors.

    Fresno State forced 35 turnovers and sacked opposing quarterbacks 38 times. With much of the same defense intact, another solid performance should be expected.

24. Oregon

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 44 (374.2)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 25 (21.6)

    Key Players Returning: defensive tackle Taylor Hart, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, defensive back Brian Jackson

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Most wouldn't consider Oregon to have one of the top defenses in the country, but its 4.94 yards-per-play average was 23rd best in college football last season.

    When you consider the 985 plays its defense was on the field, compared with the 837 played by the Alabama defense, that number is even more impressive.

    The Ducks return seven starters, including every starter in the secondary. The defensive front will need to be retooled a bit, but with sack leader Taylor Hart still at defensive tackle, this is a defense that should be able to get by.

23. Clemson

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 65 (396.2)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 46 (24.8)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Spencer Shuey, defensive end Vic Beasley, linebacker Stephone Anthony

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Maybe I'm crazy, but I think Clemson has the talent to be one of the better defenses in the country, which it demonstrated by holding LSU to 219 yards in its 25-24 win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Clemson returns seven of 11 starters. And with another year under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, this could be a big year for a team known more for its offense. 

22. Georgia

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 32 (357.8)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 18 (19.6)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Amarlo Herrera, defensive end Garrison Smith, linebacker Jordan Jenkins

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: This defense is going to look a lot different with guys such as Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Kwame Geathers leaving early. But this is Georgia, where the recruits line up at the door and the cupboard is never completely empty.

    There is still leadership with Garrison Smith at defensive end, and Jordan Jenkins should soften the blow of losing Jones at linebacker. Most teams would fold after losing so much talent. But the Bulldogs still have the young pieces in place to be a good defense.

21. Washington

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 31 (357.4)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 39 (24.2)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker John Timu, safety Sean Parker, defensive end Andrew Hudson

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Washington finished second in the Pac-12 last season with 33 forced turnovers, and the defense allowed teams to only convert on 37 percent of third-down attempts. The Huskies will return eight starters, including five members of the front seven.

    This is one of the younger and more athletic defenses in the country and should provide a stiff test for the high-flying offenses in the Pac-12.

20. North Carolina

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 57 (389.6)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 53 (25.7)

    Key Players Returning: defensive end Kareem Martin, safety Tre Boston, cornerback Jabari Price

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: North Carolina flashed its potential in 2012, holding Miami to 14 points and 235 total yards. The defense also finished with 16 interceptions, which was tied for the 20th most in college football.

    The Tar Heels return their entire secondary and All-ACC defensive end Kareem Martin. With the bowl ban behind them and more experience on this side of the ball, North Carolina should have a motivated defense to help lead the way in 2013.

19. Louisville

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 23 (340.3)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 36 (23.8)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Preston Brown, safety Calvin Pryor, safety Hakeem Smith

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Louisville finished 16th in the country in pass defense and returns two All-Big East safeties. Even more important, the Cardinals return 10 starters from the same defense that held Florida to 175 yards in their Sugar Bowl victory.

18. Michigan

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 13 (320.0)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 19 (19.8)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Jake Ryan, linebacker Desmond Morgan, safety Thomas Gordon

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Michigan will have to reload in the secondary with J.T. Floyd and Jordan Kovacs no longer on the roster, but the linebacker position will be good enough to carry this defense in 2013. Jake Ryan was a 2012 All-Big Ten player, and Desmond Morgan was fourth on the team in tackles and solid in pass coverage.

    Michigan has developed great depth on defense. That will be on display this coming season.

17. Northwestern

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 47 (378.2)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 29 (22.5)

    Key Players Returning: defensive end Tyler Scott, linebacker Damien Proby, cornerback Nick VanHoose

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: The good thing about not having ridiculous talent is that even your most productive players aren't likely to leave early for the next level. An above-average Northwestern defense from a year ago will return seven starters, including its leading sack leader, tackler and cornerback, Nick VanHoose, who proved to be a solid player as a freshman.

    The Wildcats should be able to take that next step on defense next year.

16. Virginia Tech

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 18 (333.2)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 31 (22.8)

    Key Players Returning: defensive tackle Luther Maddy, linebacker Jack Tyler, cornerback Antone Exum

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: For a Virginia Tech team with a less-than-stellar record, you would think that the defense would have been horrible. But it was able to hold its own, finishing in the top 25 in the country and No. 2 in the ACC.

    A good portion of the same guys are returning, including cornerback Antone Exum, who was tied for first in the conference with five interceptions. Head coach Frank Beamer usually has a great defense. Next year will be no different.

15. Ohio State

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 34 (359.6)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 31 (22.8)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby, safety C.J. Barnett

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: It is no secret that the Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them on defense this coming season. With defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins declaring early, only a few starters are returning, and that includes only one starter on the front seven.

    However, the secondary will be loaded, and Urban Meyer has done a great job recruiting on defense. We will finally get a chance to see guys such as Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington get after it. And besides, how many offenses in the Big Ten are actually going to do much damage?

14. Ole Miss

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 46 (375.8)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 59 (27.6)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, defensive end C.J. Johnson, safety Cody Prewitt

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Ole Miss has just been full of surprises ever since Hugh Freeze has taken over as head coach. It almost doesn't even seem real how fast this program has turned around and how positive things are looking.

    The defense should take a step forward next season, as every starter is returning. This was a group that was respectable a year ago, but should improve greatly. It isn't very often that a defense returns intact. The Rebels should be able to take advantage of that.

13. Texas

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 69 (404.2)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 74 (29.2)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Steve Edmond, safety Adrian Phillips, linebacker Kendall Thompson

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Want to know the best thing about a new season? You get another chance to prove yourself. The Texas defense was not what we were used to seeing last season. 

    However, everybody knows there is talent on this unit. Nine starters return, and that doesn't even include defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat once he recovers from last year’s injury. Expect a significant improvement from a year ago.

12. Vanderbilt

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 19 (333.9)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 15 (18.7)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Chase Garnham, safety Kenny Ladler, safety Javon Marshall

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Vanderbilt has already shown consistent success with James Franklin as head coach. The defense has been a big reason why, and it returns a unit that should be able to compete with the rest of the SEC.

    The secondary is full of experienced upperclassmen, and the defensive line is bulking up to conference standards. If you expect 2013 to be the year that Vandy comes back down to earth, think again.

11. Wisconsin

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 15 (322.6)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 17 (19.1)

    Key Players Returning: defensive lineman Tyler Dippel, linebacker Chris Borland, linebacker Ethan Armstrong

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: The front seven of the Badgers helped produce 31 sacks, which was good for second in the Big Ten. Six of those players return, which is the recipe of success in the Big Ten.

    The secondary has lost a lot of experience, but as long as the pass-rush and linebacker play remain at a high level, the Badgers should again have one of the better defenses in the country.

10. Oregon State

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 30 (354.0)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 22 (20.6)

    Key Players Returning: defensive end Scott Crichton, linebacker Michael Doctor, cornerback Rashaad Reynolds

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: The Oregon State defense was one of the most surprising units in the country last season and will remain intact heading into 2013. The secondary returns three of four starters, and Rashaad Reynolds should quickly become a household name as one of the best cornerbacks in the country.

    There are issues at defensive tackle, but that is about the only concern.

9. TCU

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 16 (323.9)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 30 (22.6)

    Key Players Returning: defensive end Devonte Fields, safety Sam Carter

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Despite having a young team in its first season in the explosive Big 12, TCU was able to hold its own on defense. You can expect an even better showing next season, as nine of the 11 starters return, including defensive end Devonte Fields, who finished with 10 sacks as a freshman.

    The Horned Frogs simply get after it on defense.

8. LSU

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 8 (307.6)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 12 (17.5)

    Key Players Returning: cornerback Jalen Mills, safety Ronald Martin, safety Craig Loston

    Why This Ranking Is Deserved: Even with oodles of guys declaring early for the NFL draft or graduating, it would be foolish to leave an LSU defense off a top-25 list. The more players who leave, the more young guys who will be NFL stars step in. Players such as linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and linebacker Deion Jones all have a chance to prove their worth.

    Look, it won't be easy for the Tigers in 2013, but if there is any defense that has enough talent to replace everybody, it would be this one.

7. Florida

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 5 (286.7)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 5 (14.5)

    Key Players Returning: cornerback Marcus Roberson, cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, defensive back Jaylen Watkins

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Florida had the potential to have the best defense in college football in 2013—before guys such as Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd and Jelani Jenkins declared themselves eligible for the NFL draft.

    Still, Florida has had a top recruiting class the last couple of years under Will Muschamp, and a lot of those  players are on the defensive side of the ball. Guys such as defensive end Johnathan Bullard and cornerback Brian Poole will soon have a chance to prove themselves.

6. Florida State

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 2 (253.8)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 6 (14.7)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Christian Jones, safety Lamarcus Joyner, safety Terrence Brooks

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: It won't get much better than the secondary for Florida State next season. The Seminoles' pass defense was ranked first in the country last year, allowing only 161.9 yards a game. Three of the starters in the defensive backfield return, including Joyner, who could have been a top pick in the NFL draft.

    The front seven took a major hit, losing nearly every starter. But with the way recruiting has gone in Tallahassee, you know Jimbo Fisher and company will have replacements ready.

5. South Carolina

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 11 (315.5)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 13 (18.2)

    Key Players Returning: defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, safety Brison Williams

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: A secondary that ranked fifth in the SEC in 2012 in pass defense (only two yards behind Florida) returns three starters. The linebacker position took a major hit, but young guys will get help from a relentless pass rush provided by Clowney and Quarles.

    The defense isn't as loaded as it was a season ago, but there is enough talent to make it a top unit in the SEC once again. If Clowney can have that Heisman season he is hoping for, this is a defense that could even be bumped up a couple of notches.

4. Michigan State

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 4 (274.4)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 9 (16.3)

    Key Players Returning: linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqeuze Dennard, defensive end Marcus Rush

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Michigan State will return eight starters from a defense that was ranked near the top of the Big Ten in every major statistical category. Besides William Gholston, who declared early for the NFL draft, the Spartans have every key starter returning.

    This defense allowed more than 21 points only three times all season. Five of the front seven who helped dominate the Big Ten return.

    With the way this defense played last year and all of the experience coming back, this is a group that should be respected.

3. Notre Dame

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 7 (305.5)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 2 (12.8)

    Key Players Returning: defensive end Stephon Tuitt, nose guard Louis Nix, cornerback Bennett Jackson

    Why this Ranking is Deserved: Yes, the Irish are losing Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o at linebacker, but with Tuitt and Nix running the show, the defensive line should remain one of the best in the country. We are talking about two possible 2014 first-round picks teaming up front.

    The secondary should also be improved, with many of the young guys picking up playing time due to injuries that rattled the defensive backfield in 2012.

    The leadership is gone in South Bend, but the talent is extremely deep.

2. Stanford

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 20 (336.2)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 11 (17.2)

    Key Players Returning: defensive end Henry Anderson, defensive end Ben Gardner, linebacker Shayne Skov

    Why This Ranking Is Deserved: Stanford led the country last year in sacks with 57 and is returning two of the three starters on the defensive line. Senior linebacker Shayne Skov is also returning and should provide leadership. 

    This is a feisty group of guys that gets after it up front and should help keep Stanford in the national-title conversation throughout the year.

1. Alabama

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    2012 Ranking in Total Defense: No. 1 (250.0)

    2012 Ranking in Points Allowed: No. 1 (10.9)

    Key Players Returning: defensive end Ed Stinson, linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix 

    Why This Ranking Is Deserved: Alabama has had the top defense in the country the last two years. There are issues in the secondary and questions on the defensive line. But with Kirby Smart and Nick Saban teaming up, would you really bet against the Crimson Tide being No. 1 on defense again?

    There just isn't another group that has proven as much as this unit, and that alone makes it hard to bet against it. With the talent and track record of this group, you can expect Alabama to once again have the best defense in college football.