Predicting the Top 10 Defenses in College Football in 2018

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2018

Predicting the Top 10 Defenses in College Football in 2018

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    The best defenses in college football often hail from the same locations every year, and the trend isn't likely to change during the 2018 season.

    Alabama and Wisconsin are mainstays in the top 10, and Georgia figures to remain there as long as Kirby Smart is in charge. Plus, Michigan has been dominant with Don Brown overseeing the defense, and both Clemson and Ohio State are always hovering around the nation's elite.

    Which other programs will join them next year?

    The ACC and Big Ten each have another school, while the Mountain West is poised to showcase a pair of top-tier defenses.

    The following rankings are based on projected yards per play allowed.

10. Wyoming Cowboys

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    Key players: Andrew Wingard, who has three seasons of 114-plus tackles, is a potential All-American at safety. Logan Wilson racked up 119 stops last year, and Youhanna Ghaifan is a quietly outstanding defensive tackle. All six of Wyoming's top tacklers return, including leading sack artist Carl Granderson.

    Potential weakness: Antonio Hull missed a majority of 2017 due to a thigh injury, but he'll retake a starting role at cornerback in 2018. The big question is who lines up opposite Hull. Since Tyler Hall is a nickelback, it could be a freshman.

    What to expect: Granderson and Ghaifan will spearhead a promising defensive line, which has plenty of experience coming back. Wilson and fellow linebacker Cassh Maluia are hugely productivea description fitting Wingard, too. As long as the Pokes are formidable at cornerback, they'll be a force in the Mountain West.

9. Miami Hurricanes

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    Key players: Shaq Quarterman is the undisputed leader of Miami's defense at middle linebacker, and both defensive end Joe Jackson and cornerback Michael Jackson have attracted first-round NFL draft buzz. Jaquan Johnson had All-American-level production at safety in 2017, and Michael Pinckney is a rising star at outside linebacker.

    Potential weakness: What do the 'Canes do at defensive tackle? Gerald Willis III has enormous talent, yet his college career has included a bizarre, winding path to 2018. The arrival of Illinois grad transfer Tito Odenigbo helps the position, but the bigger questions are the development of Pat Bethel and Jonathan Ford and whether true freshman Nesta Silvera can make a positive impact.

    What to expect: The attacking style of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz combined with a veteran linebacking corps should help Miami hide some deficiencies up front and remain stout against the run. It should also incite plenty of "Turnover Chain" sightings, especially with Jackson and Johnson roaming the secondary.

8. Boise State Broncos

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    Key players: Losing tackling machine Leighton Vander Esch stings, but he's the biggest notable departure for Boise State. Curtis Weaver had 13 tackles for loss as a freshman and leads a group of four defensive linemen who earned All-Mountain West honors in 2017. Defensive backs Tyler Horton and Kekoa Nawahine did the same.

    Potential weakness: Given the returning players up front and in the secondary, it's basically linebacker by default. Besides, Vander Esch's 141 stops ranked fifth nationally. That's an absurd amount of production to replace. Fortunately, the Broncos can build around a centerpiece in Tyson Maeva, who notched 84 tackles.

    What to expect: As long as the linebacker unit develops as planned, Boise State should remain a top-15 run defense. The secondarywhich has clear starters in corners Horton and Avery Williams plus safeties Nawahine and DeAndre Pierceshould allow fewer explosive plays and may creep into a top-10 spot nationally.

7. Michigan State Spartans

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    Key players: Joe Bachie tallied exactly 100 tackles last year, and Kenny Willekes posted a team-best seven sacks. They'll highlight a front seven that also includes Raequan Williams and Andrew Dowell. All four regular starters in the 2017 secondaryJustin Layne, Josiah Scott, Khari Willis and David Dowellare back, too.

    Potential weakness: Michigan State knows which four defensive linemen will open games, but the depth at end is slightly concerning. Dillon and Justice Alexander combined for six tackles in 2017, and they're likely the backups for Willekes and Jacub Panasiuk.

    What to expect: Flashy won't describe MSU. The Spartans could struggle to collect sacks, but they figure to be tremendous against the run. The experienced secondary will provide a little extra time for pass-rushers, and that balance will help Michigan State be sneaky competitive in a challenging Big Ten East.

6. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Key players: Olive Sagapolu won't shred the box score, but his presence in the middle of the line is essential. It also helps to have a few reliable inside linebackersT.J. Edwards and Ryan Connellyright behind. Andrew Van Ginkel should be Wisconsin's top pass-rusher, and D'Cota Dixon is a reliable safety.

    Potential weakness: Gone are Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal, so the Badgers are turning to a few new cornerbacks. Dontye Carriere-Williams logged significant time as a freshman, but Madison Cone, Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams only have limited action.

    What to expect: If you're seeking a fundamentally sound defense, look no further than Wisconsin. Other than Van Ginkel, the Badgers don't have a truly flashy player. Still, Edwards is a sensational linebacker both in run support and coverage, Dixon has playmaking ability and Connelly is a sound tackler. The Badgers, as always, will be steadily elite on defense.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    Key players: Rashan Gary may be the more recognizable name due to his pre-2017 hype, but Devin Bush Jr. earned third-team Associated Press All-America honors last season. He and hybrid safety Khaleke Hudson starred at the second level. Edge-rusher Chase Winovich is hugely disruptive, and cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long form a true lockdown duo.

    Potential weakness: Michigan is counting on Aubrey Solomon to make a significant leap as a sophomore, largely because the interior of its defense is thin on experienced depth. Bryan Mone hasn't progressed as hoped, and the other options are either young or have struggled to crack the rotation.

    What to expect: The aggressiveness of defensive coordinator Don Brown has consistently resulted in many tackles for loss, though a high number of takeaways remains elusive for the Wolverines. But if a Shea Patterson-led offense can finally take advantage of the field position this defense provides, turnovers ought to be more plentiful this year. Either way, moving the ball on Michigan will be a demanding task.

4. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Key players: Although the 2017 defense was loaded with draft-eligible stars, Georgia has a reliable foundation. J.R. Reed is the top returning tackler, Deandre Baker is one of the country's best cornerbacks, and D'Andre Walker is a nightmare to stop off the edgeespecially with Tyler Clark and Jonathan Ledbetter up front. Natrez Patrick is a great talent if he stays out of trouble off the field.

    Potential weakness: For now, linebacker isn't a major concern. Walker, Patrick and Monty Rice are a promising trio, and Walter Grant is expected to complete the unit. But if anything happens to the starting inside 'backers, depth is shaky unless Juwan Taylor or 4-star 2018 recruit Channing Tindall emerge.

    What to expect: Kirby Smart consistently fields top-10 defenses. Despite substantial losses, he's earned the benefit of the doubt. Besides, the incoming starters logged plenty of snaps during a dominant 2017 campaign, so the transition period shouldn't last long. Reed, Baker and the secondary should be the unit's strength.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Key players: Alabama lost eight draft picks to the NFL. Oh well. The Crimson Tide will bring in a new group of standouts this season, highlighted by linebackers Mack Wilson, Dylan Moses, Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller. Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs are the leading returning tacklers.

    Potential weakness: Though there is no doubting the level of talent in the secondary, there are plenty of questions about experience. Safety Deionte Thompson is the only defensive back who notched 10-plus tackles last season. Trevon Diggs, Saivion Smith, Patrick Surtain Jr. and Jared Mayden are all options at cornerback, while Shyheim Carter should be the nickelback.

    What to expect: The front seven will be powerful, as always. Buggs, Davis and Quinnen Williams will control the interior and create opportunities for Miller, Jennings and Terrell Lewis, who will rotate at the edge-rushing spots. That strength up front will alleviate some of the pressure on the revamped secondary, although the unit shouldn't be much of a concern after September.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Key players: A likely top 2019 NFL draft pick, defensive end Nick Bosa has superstar ability. Dre'Mont Jones is a superb interior player, and Chase Young has showed he's the next standout on the edge. Tuf Borland is the top linebacker, while the secondary is stacked with Jordan Fuller, Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield, among others.

    Potential weakness: Ohio State doesn't have a particularly large area of concern, but linebacker is at least worth mentioning. Two new faces will start, and Borland is recovering from an Achilles injury. Baron Browning's development and Dante Booker's health are keys to eliminating any weakness.

    What to expect: Bosa will garner the most attention, given his NFL future. However, the entire unit should attract plenty of praise due to its ability to create pressure on the quarterback and limit explosive plays. Once the run defense is solidified, the Buckeyes will be a burden to move the ball against.

1. Clemson Tigers

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    Key players: Clemson has two of the nation's premier defensive ends (Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryantand tackles (Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence). That's a recipe for mayhem up front. Throw in leading tackler Kendall Joseph, linebacker Tre Lamar and cornerback Trayvon Mullen, and the Tigers are loaded with All-ACC-caliber players and a handful of potential All-Americans.

    Potential weakness: There aren't enough snaps for everyone? In all seriousness, maybe the cornerbacks have a few rough showings because of the players shifting into lead roles other than Mullen. But Mark Fields had high expectations prior to a foot injury, and A.J. Terrell appeared in 14 games as a freshman.

    What to expect: Barring a string of injuries, not many yards or points allowed. This defense is sensational on paper, and its past performance reinforces the hype. While Clemson's schedule is relatively favorable anyway, its defense will be the backbone of a championship-worthy team.