Predicting the Top 25 Defenses in College Football for 2017

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 23, 2017

Predicting the Top 25 Defenses in College Football for 2017

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    Nick Saban knows a thing or two about defense.
    Nick Saban knows a thing or two about defense.Associated Press

    It will come as no surprise that Alabama is No. 1 on our list of the top defenses for the 2017 college football season, but it may be shocking that there are only two other SEC teams in the top 25 with the Crimson Tide. Rather, the ACC dominated the metrics with eight teams making the cut.

    Based on where each team ranked nationally in 2016, it received a score ranging from 0-10 in three categories: yards allowed per play, points allowed per game and turnovers forced. Those three scores were summed and then multiplied by a factor determined by the number of returning defensive starters. Hat tip to Phil Steele for projecting all those numbers in February.

    The idea was to then sort the resultant total from top to bottom and list the top 25 defenses from there, but it ended up being more of a rough guide than a concrete hierarchy. After all, we had to also take into consideration players returning from injury and how difficult it will be for each team to replace the starters it lost.

    In the end, all four teams from last year's College Football Playoff landed in the top 10 as they attempt to defend their way back to another national semifinal.

Honorable Mentions

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    With only one returning starter, Michigan's defense could be facing a rebuilding year.
    With only one returning starter, Michigan's defense could be facing a rebuilding year.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    As if ranking roughly 20 percent of the nation's defenses wasn't enough, here are a few more teams that could be stingy, despite missing the cut.

                

    Michigan Wolverines

    Michigan has ranked top seven in the nation in yards allowed per game in three straight seasons, but replacing 10 starters is no small hurdle. Though defensive lineman and 2016 No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary should spend a fair amount of time in the national spotlight, this team has a ton of question marks elsewhere, particularly in the secondary.

        

    LSU Tigers

    The most surprising omission of the bunch, LSU came up just short due to a combination of too much roster turnover and not enough turnovers forced. The five team leaders in total tackles from last season are gone, and star player Arden Key sat out spring practices for personal reasons, per The Advocate's Ross Dellenger.

             

    Kansas State Wildcats

    With yards allowed per play and points allowed per game accounting for more than half of each team's score, it won't come as any surprise that the Big 12 is absent from the top 25. One team from the gun-slinging conference that came close was Kansas State. But after losing Elijah Lee and Jordan Willis to the NFL, the Wildcats likely won't be quite as strong on D as they were last year.

        

    Syracuse Orange

    After giving up more than 500 yards and nearly 40 points per game, Syracuse wasn't anywhere close to the top 25. Heck, the Orange wouldn't have even cracked the top 100 if this list went that deep. But as the only program in the country returning all 11 of its starters from last season, improvement is inevitable, right?

25. Appalachian State Mountaineers

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    Outside of a Miami blowout, Appalachian State had one of the stingiest defenses in the nation last year.
    Outside of a Miami blowout, Appalachian State had one of the stingiest defenses in the nation last year.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Appalachian State's secondary was a major problem for most opponents in 2016. Though the Mountaineers allowed QBs to complete more than 57 percent of pass attempts, they took a "bend, don't break" approach and knew where to pick their spots. They finished the season with 20 interceptions against just 12 passing touchdowns allowed, and they get back four of the five team leaders in interceptions.

              

    Room for Improvement

    A fair amount of luck goes into fumble recoveries. App State didn't have any of that luck last year, finishing dead last in the nation with one measly fumble recovery. Only forcing two fumbles had a lot to do with that. It has been a weakness of this team since it joined the FBS ranks, as the Mountaineers forced just four fumbles in 2015 and six in 2014.

               

    2017 Projection

    They will immediately be put to a major test in the season opener against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium, but look for them to gradually claw their way back up the national rankings after that one. Facing Savannah State and dodging both Arkansas State and Troy in the Sun Belt schedule ought to help ensure they win at least nine games in the process.

24. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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    Duke Ejiofor is a force on Wake Forest's defensive line
    Duke Ejiofor is a force on Wake Forest's defensive lineJoshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Wake Forest had one of the most anemic offenses in the country last season, but it finished above .500 for the first time since 2008 thanks to a staunch defense. As a team, the Demon Deacons averaged more than three sacks per game (a top-15 mark). They recorded five sacks five times, and they get back the team leader in that category, Duke Ejiofor. The big man was responsible for 10.5 sacks, including 3.0 in one game against (coincidentally) Duke.

                

    Room for Improvement

    When they weren't bringing down the quarterback, their pass defense was only so-so. Games against Delaware, Boston College and Army helped pad their stats, but the Demon Deacons allowed at least 300 passing yards in five games, including nearly letting Indiana gain 500 yards through the air. They averaged less than one interception per game.

          

    2017 Projection

    The first three and last three games of the season might be enough to get Wake Forest back to another bowl, but the six-game stretch of Appalachian State, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Notre Dame could be brutal. The Florida State and Louisville games will likely end any hope of having the No. 1 defense in the ACC.

23. Western Michigan Broncos

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    Western Michigan celebrates a safety against Kent State.
    Western Michigan celebrates a safety against Kent State.David Dermer/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Less than two months after requesting his release to transfer, Robert Spillane changed his mind and will return to Kalamazoo to anchor Western Michigan's defense for one more year. Spillane had 111 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, two passes defended and an unconfirmed partridge in a pear tree as a junior. He and fellow senior Caleb Bailey will give the Broncos one of the nation's best one-two punches at linebacker.

         

    Room for Improvement

    More often than not, Western Michigan jumped out to an early lead and mitigated the opposition's ability to establish a rushing attack. But when teams got the chance to run against the Broncos, they fared well, averaging 4.73 yards per carry. Despite winning every regular-season game, they gave up at least 200 rushing yards on five occasions.

                

    2017 Projection

    After season-opening road games against USC and Michigan State that will all but certainly extinguish any dream of another undefeated season, Western Michigan should reprise its role as the team to beat in the MAC. The offense won't be nearly as potent without quarterback Zach Terrell, wide receiver Corey Davis or head coach P.J. Fleck, but the defense could pick up the slack with eight returning starters.

22. Indiana Hoosiers

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    Tegray Scales brought down a lot of ball-carriers last year.
    Tegray Scales brought down a lot of ball-carriers last year.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    As Brian Bennett wrote for ESPN.com in March, Indiana's Tegray Scales is one heck of a diamond in the rough. According to Sports Reference, the linebacker led the nation in 2016 in both solo tackles (92) and tackles for loss (24).

    In the Foster Farms Bowl against Utah, he had 10 total tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in what was just another day at the office. Scales is one of nine projected returning starters on defense for the Hoosiers.

               

    Room for Improvement

    One of the reasons Scales did so much is because no one else on the team could stop the opponent's rushing attack. The Hoosiers gave up 20 rushing touchdowns and allowed at least 225 yards on the ground four times. Though they did somehow manage to limit Penn State's Saquon Barkley to 58 yards on 33 carries.

               

    2017 Projection

    No one in his or her right mind is going to pick Indiana to win the Big Ten East, but the Hoosiers might be able to finish above .500 for just the second time in more than 20 years. Though Indiana does have to tussle with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin this year, its defense should guide it well through the other eight games.

21. North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Bradley Chubb spent a lot of time in opposing backfields in 2016.
    Bradley Chubb spent a lot of time in opposing backfields in 2016.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    N.C. State's front seven was among the best in the nation, limiting opponents to 3.33 yards per carry. No opponent ran for more than 168 yards against the Wolfpack last season, including Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. And virtually the entire rush defense is back for another year. Led by Bradley Chubb (21 tackles for loss and 10 sacks), all six of the team's leaders in tackles for loss are returning after accounting for a combined 66 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2016.

                           

    Room for Improvement

    Whether that rush defense resulted in a win was at the mercy of the secondary. On average, in their six losses, the Wolfpack allowed 316.5 passing yards with a QB rating of 138.4this compared to 182.1 yards and a 105.1 QB rating in the seven wins. With starting safety and team leader in total tackles and interceptions Josh Jones leaving for the NFL, their ability to defend the pass might get even worse.

                   

    2017 Projection

    We're not saying N.C. State is going to necessarily sneak into the CFP picture, but this could be its best season since going 11-3 in 2002. The Wolfpack bring back a ton of starters on both sides of the ball from a team that was only badly beaten once last year. If they patch up their passing defense a bit, they could be a legitimate factor in the ACC Atlantic race.

20. Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Andrew Motuapuaka will lead Virginia Tech's defense once again.
    Andrew Motuapuaka will lead Virginia Tech's defense once again.Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Perhaps this doesn't technically qualify as defense, but one of the big things to know when facing Virginia Tech is that you won't be doing much against its special teams. Opponents averaged 17.9 yards per kick return, averaged 4.36 yards per punt return and had four punts or kicks blocked last year. In all three categories, the Hokies ranked in the top 20 nationally. Also, Andrew Motuapuaka is a Swiss army knife of a linebacker who should be preseason first team all-ACC as a senior.

        

    Room for Improvement

    The Hokies get seven of their starters back, but losing both Ken Ekanem and Woody Baron could be a drain on the defensive line. Virginia Tech already had a mediocre pass rush, and that duo led the team in sacks. Can Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota pick up the slack?

         

    2017 Projection

    The defense should be about as solid as last year, if not better, but losing starting QB Jerod Evans and leading WR Isaiah Ford could be a major problem for Virginia Tech's offense. The schedule is relatively forgiving, though, so the Hokies should extend their streak of consecutive seasons in a bowl game to 25, perhaps even winning the ACC Coastal Division again.

19. Army Black Knights

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    Alex Aukerman tackling Duke's Daniel Jones
    Alex Aukerman tackling Duke's Daniel JonesLance King/Getty Images

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Even though the Black Knights only averaged 57.2 defensive snaps per game—a direct benefit of running the ball more than 60 times per gamethey ranked among the national leaders in interceptions with 17 picks. And allowing only 170.2 passing yards per game, they had one of the stingiest secondaries in the country, most of which is back for another year. Elsewhere, look for primary pass-rusher Alex Aukerman to become the star of the defense as a senior.

                                 

    Room for Improvement

    Take out the two games against FCS schools Lafayette and Morgan State, and Army allowed 4.33 yards per carry last season. From that already-shaky run defense, the Black Knights lost Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King, their top two linebackers. It wouldn't be shocking if they reverted to 2015 numbers, when they allowed at least 100 rushing yards in every game.

                           

    2017 Projection

    The attrition at linebacker is going to be an issue, but Army gets back all nine guys who rushed for at least 100 yards last season. Keeping the offense on the field and running like a well-oiled machine should give the Black Knights a boost on defense too. Outside of the road game against Ohio State, there's not a guaranteed loss on the schedule. Look for Army to be comfortably back in a bowl game for a second straight year.

18. Utah Utes

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    Several of Utah's many forced turnovers were converted into instant points.
    Several of Utah's many forced turnovers were converted into instant points.Matt York/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Over the past two seasons, Utah has thrived on takeaways, leading the nation in turnovers per game each year. And, as it turns out, getting at least two turnovers in a game is critical to this team's success. The Utes have gone 1-5 when forcing one or zero turnovers since the start of 2015.

    Force two or more, however, and they have gone 18-2. Getting Chase Hansen back for at least one more season should help keep that trend going. The team's leading tackler had three interceptions, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries last year.

          

    Room for Improvement

    Aside from the turnovers, Utah's defense wasn't anything special, allowing more than 5.5 yards per play. There was a stretch of eight games in the middle of last season in which the Utes either gave up at least 195 rushing yards or 305 passing yards. Losing both Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu as graduates won't help matters either. Those linemen combined for 22.5 of the team's 43.0 sacks.

          

    2017 Projection

    Both in yards per play and yards per game, Utah's 2016 numbers rank 24th among the teams in this top 25. Whether the Utes continue their three-year streak of winning at least nine games will depend on turnoversboth forced and committed. They didn't lose a single game by more than a one-possession margin in 2016 and might have made a solid run at an undefeated season were it not for the 25 turnovers they committed on offense. If quarterback Troy Williams and Company can hang on to the ball when they have it, Utah could challenge USC for the Pac-12 South crown.

17. Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Blake Cashman wraps up an Illinois ball-carrier.
    Blake Cashman wraps up an Illinois ball-carrier.BRADLEY LEEB/Associated Press/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Minnesota's rush defense was one of the best in the nation prior to allowing 210 yards and four touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin. Even with that outlier, the Golden Gophers allowed just 117.8 yards and 0.92 rushing touchdowns per game. While wrapping up those tacklers, they also did a fantastic job of stripping the ball. They led the nation with 16 fumble recoveries.

                

    Room for Improvement

    They stuff the run and rush the passer well, but their secondary leaves much to be desired. Opposing teams threw for 22 TDs against just nine interceptions while averaging better than 230 passing yards per game. Even FCS school Indiana State threw for four scores against Minnesota without a pick. Worse yet, the two best defensive backs on the team (Jalen Myrick and Damarius Travis) both graduated, so 2017 could be even worse.

                         

    2017 Projection

    Led by Blake Cashman and Steven Richardson, Minnesota should remain a force in the defensive trenches. Under new head coach P.J. Fleck, it won't be long before the offense is firing on all cylinders. As long as the secondary can avoid becoming a major liability, Minnesota might be the top challenger to Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. 

16. Boston College Eagles

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    If nothing else, Boston College gets to the opposing quarterback often.
    If nothing else, Boston College gets to the opposing quarterback often.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Earlier this summer, we tabbed Boston College's Harold Landry as a guy who could put up ridiculous numbers in 2017. The edge-rusher led the nation with 16.5 sacks last season, pacing the Eagles to an average of 3.6 sacks per game. Only Alabama had more sack yards than BC, and the Crimson Tide had two extra games to get there. With all those sacks came a lot of fumbles, and the Eagles recovered 15 of them.

         

    Room for Improvement

    Much like Minnesota on the previous slide, Boston College's lackluster secondary repeatedly let down its strong front seven. Opposing quarterbacks had an average QB rating of 132.79, good for 75th in the nation. Against ranked opponents, the Eagles were even more hapless. Virginia Tech, Clemson, Louisville and Florida State combined for 18 passing touchdowns, two interceptions and an average of 50.5 points per game against BC.

         

    2017 Projection

    Led by Landry, Zach Allen, Wyatt Ray and Connor Strachan, Boston College should continue to get sacks in bunches. But will that be enough to make up for an offense that averaged 20.4 points per game before losing its starting quarterback this offseason? They'll stifle most offenses they face, but the Eagles might be lucky to win an ACC game in 2017.

15. Northwestern Wildcats

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    Montre Hartage stole a few balls from receivers.
    Montre Hartage stole a few balls from receivers.Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Despite allowing more than 265 passing yards per game with an opposing completion percentage that barely ranked in the top 100 nationally, Northwestern had a knack for extinguishing drives via its secondary. The Wildcats had 16 interceptions last year and get all but one of those back in 2017. Montre Hartage leads the way with five picks and nine passes defended.

        

    Room for Improvement

    In addition to not giving up so many passing yards, the Wildcats need to do a better job of pressuring the quarterback. They had a total of nine sacks in their final six games, and they lost the player (Ifeadi Odenigbo) who finished the year with more than twice as many sacks as any teammate.

         

    2017 Projection

    With eight returning starters on each side of the ball, Northwestern ought to be in great shape. It doesn't face Michigan or Ohio State, and it has a light nonconference slate. If the Wildcats are able to defend the pass as well as they did in the second half of 2016, a third 10-win season in six years is a real possibility.

14. BYU Cougars

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    Fred Warner will lead a talented group of linebackers at BYU.
    Fred Warner will lead a talented group of linebackers at BYU.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    BYU had one of the best turnover-forcing defenses in the country, finishing with a total of 31 takeaways. It wasn't just one or two star individuals in on the action, either. There were 10 different Cougars with at least one interception and 10 different Cougars with at least one fumble recovery. Linebackers Fred Warner, Francis Bernard and Butch Pau'u led the defensive assault and will all return for another year.

         

    Room for Improvement

    Though they had a total of 21 interceptions with at least one in each game, passing defense was a significant issue for the Cougars. Boise State and Toledo had field days against this secondary, each averaging at least 11 yards per attempt and combining for 947 yards through the air. 

          

    2017 Projection

    The three returning linebackers is a great starting point, but BYU loses a lot elsewhere. All three of the team leaders in sacks are gone, as is the best defensive back, Kai Nacua. With games against LSU and Wisconsin in the first month of the season, the defense is going to be put to the test early and often. But there are enough returning defensive pieces and more than enough winnable games on the schedule for BYU to compete in a 13th consecutive bowl game. 

13. Tulane Green Wave

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    Parry Nickerson picks off a pass against Connecticut
    Parry Nickerson picks off a pass against ConnecticutMary Schwalm/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Tulane's passing defense was only moderately above average last season, but it gets back all four starters from the secondary, including shutdown corner Parry Nickerson. Over the past three seasons, Nickerson has 10 interceptions and 23 passes defended. It has gotten to the point where opposing quarterbacks barely throw the ball to the half of the field he's defending. 

         

    Room for Improvement

    The Green Wave allowed at least 130 rushing yards in nine of their final 10 games, including a 330-yard, 50-point disaster against Tulsa. And the top two backfield-penetrators from that team (Tanzel Smart and Nico Marley) both graduated, leaving even more holes in the front seven. Moreover, when Tulane is able to force a third-down situation, it struggles to get off the field. Opponents converted 42.9 percent of third-down tries against the Green Wave last year and 46.4 percent in 2015.

         

    2017 Projection

    For a team with questions about its rush defense, four games against South Florida, Navy, Army and Oklahoma will be a major problem. Having an offense that ranked dead last in the nation in completion percentage last season won't help matters. But Tulane might have the stingiest secondary in the AAC, which could be worth a few wins.

12. Florida Gators

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    Duke Dawson should be the star of Florida's secondary.
    Duke Dawson should be the star of Florida's secondary.Samantha Baker/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Save for one dud against Tennessee, Florida's pass defense was second to none. Take out the 319 yards and four touchdowns that Joshua Dobbs threw against the Gators and they didn't allow an opposing team to throw for 250 yards or two scores in any game. Three of the key pieces of that secondary were second-round draft picks last month, but they still have Duke Dawson, Marcell Harris and several other guys ready to make the leap.

          

    Room for Improvement

    The rush defense was either a brick wall or Swiss cheese. In four of 13 games, the Gators held the opposition below 50 yards; but in seven of the other nine games, they gave up at least 170 rushing yards, including five games over 200 yards. Both in terms of sacks and tackles for loss, they were nationally in the middle of the pack.

         

    2017 Projection

    The Gators lost seven defenders to the NFL draft, leaving some serious questions at linebacker. But the biggest concern for this team's defense might be its own quarterback. Florida's anemic offense enabled its opposition to remain committed to the run. If redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks can lead the offense more efficiently than Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio did in 2016, there's more than enough quality defense for the Gators to win the SEC East once again.

11. Miami Hurricanes

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    Chad Thomas will lead an elite run-stopping defense for Miami.
    Chad Thomas will lead an elite run-stopping defense for Miami.John Raoux/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Breaking up plays in the backfield was Miami's specialty, and it should be even better at it in 2017. The Hurricanes averaged 8.31 tackles for loss per game, good for fifth-best in the nation. And each of the nine guys who recorded at least five tackles behind the line of scrimmage is back for another season. Led by Joe Jackson and Chad Thomas, Miami could have the fiercest front seven in the country.

         

    Room for Improvement

    Miami's secondary was good, not great, and it's going to get worse. The Hurricanes finished the year with more than twice as many touchdowns allowed as interceptions stolen, and their three best defensive backs (Corn Elder, Rayshawn Jenkins and Jamal Carter) all graduated. Unless Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine become stars, it might be a long year of trying to defend the pass.

         

    2017 Projection

    With the exception of consecutive contests against Florida State and Toledo, Miami doesn't have any games against upper-echelon quarterbacks. The 'Canes might take some lumps from the Seminoles and the Rockets, but their defense should prevail every other weekprovided the offense is able to hold its own while replacing QB Brad Kaaya.

10. Louisville Cardinals

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    Chucky Williams led Louisville in tackles in 2016 and should do so again in 2017.
    Chucky Williams led Louisville in tackles in 2016 and should do so again in 2017.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Few teams were better than Louisville at stuffing the run. The Cardinals held the opposition to just 3.1 yards per carry and a total of seven rushing touchdowns for the season. Fifth-year seniors Chucky Williams, James Hearns, Stacy Thomas and Kyle Shortridge will all play an important part as grown men trying to replicate that success.

        

    Room for Improvement

    Despite that ability to frustrate running backs, Louisville's red-zone defense was awful. Opponents came away with points on 88.6 percent of red-zone possessions and scored touchdowns on 62.9 percent of their trips inside the 20. In both regards, the Cardinals ranked outside the top 80 nationally.

         

    2017 Projection

    The team leader in almost every defensive category returns for another year, so the Cardinals should be an improved unit. And they'll still have Lamar Jackson putting up ridiculous numbers at quarterback, so they barely need to be average on defense to win most games. How well they're able to slow down the offenses of Clemson and Florida State will determine who wins the ACC's Atlantic division.

9. Washington Huskies

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    Taylor Rapp could be one of the best defenders in the Pac-12
    Taylor Rapp could be one of the best defenders in the Pac-12Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    High-octane offense was Washington's calling card en route to the College Football Playoff, but the Huskies were lethal on defense, too. They forced 33 turnovers to lead the nation in that category, and they only allowed 17.7 points per game. Look for Taylor Rapp to emerge as a defensive star. He had four interceptions last year as a true freshman.

         

    Room for Improvement

    Aside from Rapp, questions abound in the secondary. Sidney Jones, Budda Baker and Kevin King combined for six interceptions and 24 passes defended before each getting drafted in the second round last month. As a result, Rapp is the only returning player with more than one interception or more than two passes defended. Limiting opponents to 183 passing yards per game for a second straight season is unlikely.

         

    2017 Projection

    Though the Huskies need to figure out who the new stars are going to be in the secondary, they have quite the cushy start to the season (again) to figure it out. By the time they've finished beating up on Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State, they'll be well on their way to another quest for an undefeated season. Only this time, there's no regular-season game against USC standing in their way. They won't be quite as stingy on defense, but they'll give Jake Browning enough support for a lot of wins.

8. San Diego State Aztecs

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    San Diego State could be in some trouble without Damontae Kazee
    San Diego State could be in some trouble without Damontae KazeeEric Jamison/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    San Diego State's secondary has intercepted an FBS-best 49 passes over the past two years. Its rushing defense was among the best in the nation in 2016, allowing just 105.8 yards per game. But it's tough to pinpoint where this team will thrive after losing Damontae Kazee, Calvin Munson and Alex Barrettotherwise known as the star linebacker, defensive back and defensive lineman. Kyle Kelly and Ron Smith will be tasked with picking up a lot of slack.

          

    Room for Improvement

    The Aztecs gave up at least 40 points three times, including a 63-point meltdown against Colorado State. They normally fared well on defense. Eight of their 14 opponents scored 16 points or fewer. But when things start going downhill, they don't know how to stop the bleeding.

          

    2017 Projection

    After back-to-back 11-win seasons, San Diego State will likely take a step back in 2017. Losing so many star defenders in addition to FBS all-time leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey is a bit too much. The Aztecs should still put up solid defensive numbers, though, as they remain one of the top-tier teams in the Mountain West Conference.

7. Clemson Tigers

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    It's Kendall Joseph's time to shine in Clemson's defense
    It's Kendall Joseph's time to shine in Clemson's defenseRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    As was the case with San Diego State on the previous slide, Clemson gets a spot in the top 10 because it has been great on defense for the past few years, but it's hard to know what the Tigers will look like after losing so many key weapons.

    Leading tackler Ben Boulware? Gone. Sack leader Carlos Watkins? Gone. The top guys in interceptions and passes defended, Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson, are also out of the equation. But after four consecutive seasons leading the nation in total tackles for loss, let's at least go ahead and assume Clemson will still be good at penetrating the offensive line.

         

    Room for Improvement

    It's tough to nitpick at a team that went 14-1 and shut out Ohio State in the CFP semifinals, but the Tigers did give up at least 31 points in 33 percent of their games. In four of those contests, they allowed at least three rushing touchdowns. In the fifth, they gave up five passing touchdowns without an interception in the loss to Pitt.

         

    2017 Projection

    Great offense was Clemson's best defense last season, but that almost certainly will not be the case after losing Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett to the NFL. At any rate, the Tigers probably won't have the luxury of making up for allowing 30 points by scoring 40 of their own.

    If they're going to remain one of the top teams in the nation, they'll need guys like Kendall Joseph, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence to shoulder a heavy load on D, particularly in the games against Auburn, Louisville and Florida State.

6. Troy Trojans

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    Most of Troy's ball-hawking defense will be back in 2017.
    Most of Troy's ball-hawking defense will be back in 2017.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    With 22 interceptions and another 54 passes broken up, Troy had one of the most aggressive secondaries in the country last year. The Trojans either knocked down or picked off roughly 16 percent of the passes opponents attempted. Four of the five primary members of that secondary are back, including Blace Brown, who tied for the Sun Belt lead in interceptions with six.

         

    Room for Improvement

    That aggressive style of play occasionally burned the Trojans. They allowed 20 passing touchdowns and nearly 13 yards per completed pass. Even with four interceptions and four passes defended against Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl, Troy gave up more than 300 passing yards. It just seems silly to allow nearly 250 yards per game with a secondary this good.

          

    2017 Projection

    With nonconference road games against Boise State and LSU, both the pass and rush defense for Troy are likely headed for at least one rough day at the office. Outside of those two tests, though, Troy should be the team to beat in the Sun Belt thanks to a combined 15 returning starters on offense and defense. A second consecutive 10-win season is in play.

5. Wisconsin Badgers

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    The Badgers are looking to continue their reign as one of the best defenses in the country.
    The Badgers are looking to continue their reign as one of the best defenses in the country.LM Otero/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    At 98.8 yards per game, Wisconsin had the third-stingiest rush defense in the country. But opponents didn't have any better luck throwing the ball against the Badgers, as they tied with Troy for the second-most interceptions (22). No opponent rushed for more than 185 yards against them and only one threw for more than 280. Despite losing four starters, this team doesn't have an obvious weakness.

         

    Room for Improvement

    Even with T.J. Watt recording 11.5 sacks, Wisconsin's pass rush was just marginally above average at 2.4 sacks per game. This is nothing new for the Badgers. They averaged 2.15 sacks in 2015 and led the nation in points allowed per game. But that lack of pressure was a problem in the Big Ten championship game, as Penn State's Trace McSorley had all day to throw for 384 yards and four scores.

         

    2017 Projection

    The offense is a bit of a question mark with Bart Houston and Corey Clement out of the picture, but if Alex Hornibrook can make significant improvements at quarterback as a sophomore, the defense should be able to carry the Badgers to another Big Ten championship game. They held 12 of 14 opponents to 20 points or fewer last season. They might take a small step backward without Watt and defensive back Sojourn Shelton, but don't expect this team to suddenly start hemorrhaging points.

4. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Roquan Smith tops a long list of returning Bulldogs
    Roquan Smith tops a long list of returning BulldogsDavid Stephenson/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    The sheer number of impact defenders that Georgia is bringing back from last season is just plain ridiculous. Of the 16 team leaders in tackles, defensive back Maurice Smith is the only one the Bulldogs lost. They were already 16th in the nation in total yards allowed per game. With an added year of conditioning and experience pretty much across the board, a leap into the top five hardly requires a stretch of the imagination.

         

    Room for Improvement

    It's great that the entire starting front seven is returning, but it was far from dominant last year. No player on the Bulldogs roster had more than 5.0 sacks and they had just 4.8 tackles for loss per game as an entire team. They didn't face LSU or Alabama, but they still gave up 24 rushing touchdowns and just a shade under 4.0 yards per carry.

         

    2017 Projection

    With 10 returning starters on defense as well as Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Jacob Eason on offense, Georgia has a legitimate shot at bouncing back from an 8-5 season to compete in the College Football Playoff. At the very least, the Bulldogs appear to be the team to beat in the SEC East, as they dodge both LSU and Alabama in the cross-over games for a second straight year. Get out to a hot start with wins over Appalachian State and Notre Dame and the sky's the limit.

3. Florida State Seminoles

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    The return of Derwin James will be huge for Florida State
    The return of Derwin James will be huge for Florida StateJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Based on the data, Florida State should have been ranked somewhere around No. 22. But those numbers don't account for the return of Derwin James. The star defensive back only appeared in two games before a season-ending knee injury. Playing that many games without a potential future top-10 pick is inevitably going to hurt a team's numbers.

    Florida State's passing defense was decent without James, but it should be elite with him back in the mix. Also, the Seminoles led the nation in sacks per game last season, and might get even better in that department with James creating problems downfield.

          

    Room for Improvement

    While the overall rush defense was solid, mobile quarterbacks gave Florida State fits last season. Louisville's Lamar Jackson ran for 146 yards and four scores. South Florida's Quinton Flowers rushed for 159 yards. Also, punt coverage was a disaster for the Seminoles. At 18.6 yards per return, they ranked second-to-last in the nation in that category.

         

    2017 Projection

    The Seminoles lost star running Dalvin Cook and star wide receiver Travis Rudolph, but they're still one of the top picks to reach the 2018 College Football Playoff. This defense is a huge reason why. With the exception of Demarcus Walker and Marquez White, everyone who made a significant impact on defense is coming back while re-adding James and working in stud freshmen Marvin Wilson and Joshua Kaindoh.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Tyquan Lewis is back to lead the Buckeyes in sacks again
    Tyquan Lewis is back to lead the Buckeyes in sacks againJay LaPrete/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    Pass defense was Ohio State's specialty last season, but stopping the run will be the forte of the Buckeyes in 2017. They lost three great secondary players to the NFL, but that front seven is going to be nasty with Jerome Baker, Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes, Sam Hubbard, Robert Landers and Nick Bosa leading the charge.

         

    Room for Improvement

    Replacing Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley simply isn't possibleespecially after losing defensive coordinator Luke Fickell to Cincinnati's HC opening. That isn't to say the Buckeyes are going to give up 300 passing yards per game, but we're talking about three first-round draft picks who were arguably the best defensive unit in the nation.

    Even if Damon Webb, Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette step up in a huge way, it'll still be a step down from last year's secondary. Hence, there's room for improvement.

          

    2017 Projection

    Between the combination of their talent at linebacker and defensive line, and the fact that Alabama lost more than half of its starters from last season, it was tempting to put Ohio State at No. 1. That's how strong this defense could be. But if the secondary is the Achilles' heel, games against Oklahoma and Penn State are going to keep the Buckeyes from putting up the best defensive numbers.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    How many balls will Minkah Fitzpatrick intercept this year?
    How many balls will Minkah Fitzpatrick intercept this year?Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    What Makes Them Dangerous

    In 30 games over the past two seasons, Alabama has allowed a total of 2,095 rushing yards. More than half of the teams in the country (74 of 128) gave up at least 2,095 rushing yards in just 12-14 games this past season.

    Most teams would be in dire straits after losing the combined 63.5 tackles for loss that Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams took to the NFL. But at Alabama, it just means former 5-star recruits like Da'Shawn Hand, Daron Payne, Rashaan Evans and redshirt freshman Ben Davis step into the spotlight.

         

    Room for Improvement

    It's almost impossible to find fault in Alabama's defense, but the special teams weren't so special. Despite not allowing a return touchdown, the Crimson Tide ranked 103rd in yards allowed per punt return and 79th in yards allowed per kick return.

         

    2017 Projection

    With Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett all returning, Alabama might have the best secondary in the nation. We'll see how long it takes the Crimson Tide to start firing on all cylinders in the front seven after losing seven of their 14 top tacklers from last season, but there's no doubt they'll rank among the best defenses in the nation, as per usual.

         

    Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Sports Reference and cfbstats.comRecruiting information courtesy of Scout.com.

    Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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