Predicting the Top 10 Defenses in College Football for 2019
Alabama's 2018 defense wasn't as much of an 11-headed monster as it had been in recent years, but the Crimson Tide should be back to their dominant selves in 2019. SEC brethren LSU and Georgia join Alabama in our projection of the top 10 defenses for the rapidly approaching college football season.
If you choose to grade these predictions at the end of the season, the stat we're aiming for is yards per play. Points per game can be skewed by touchdowns on defense or special teams, and yards per game is dependent upon field position and how many snaps a team is able to take. Thus, yards per play is the best "basic" statistic for comparing defenses.
With one big exception (Ohio State), each team in our top 10 ranked in the top 25 in yards allowed per play in 2018. In several cases, the team has been in the top 25 in at least five consecutive years, as some programs just keep churning out great defenses regardless of roster attrition.
For each of these teams, we'll take a look at the star players as well as the potential weaknesses the should-be-great defenses will need to avoid/address.
Noteworthy Teams Destined for Negative Regression
Mississippi State Bulldogs: 4.13 YPP (1st), 263.1 YPG (1st), 13.2 PPG (2nd)
Mississippi State came out of nowhere last year, leading the nation in yards per play after six consecutive seasons ranked 40th or worse. A return to mediocrity is likely in the Bulldogs' future after they lost three first-round draft picks (Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat and Johnathan Abram) to the NFL.
Michigan State Spartans: 4.54 YPP (5th), 303.2 YPG (10th), 17.2 PPG (8th)
Getting Joe Bachie and Kenny Willekes back as senior leaders—provided Willekes can return to full strength after breaking his leg in Michigan State's bowl game—is huge for the Spartans, but there are some major question marks in the secondary with Khari Willis and Justin Layne out of the picture. Although, if safety David Dowell looks more like he did in 2017 than he did in 2018, Michigan State could be in business.
Washington Huskies: 4.67 YPP (11th), 306.2 YPG (12th), 16.4 PPG (5th)
Washington's defense has been sensational, anchoring three consecutive years with a double-digit number in the wins column. However, the Huskies lost just about every key player except for DB Myles Bryant. It was a testament to this program's strength in recent seasons that five defenders were selected in the first five rounds of the 2019 NFL draft. They'll likely drop outside the top 10 while trying to replace all those stars, though.
Miami Hurricanes: 4.30 YPP (3rd), 278.9 YPG (4th), 19.5 PPG (18th)
Manny Diaz had an incredible run as Miami's defensive coordinator for the past three seasons, leading a unit that ranked top 12 in yards per play in each year. But now he's the head coach, and six of last year's top 10 tacklers are gone. Similar to Washington, we're not expecting a full-blown collapse from elite to awful. But there's enough attrition/change that a drop into the teens or twenties seems likely.
Iowa Hawkeyes: 4.56 YPP (6th), 293.6 YPG (7th), 17.8 PPG (11th)
Iowa has possibly the best individual defender in the country in A.J. Epenesa but also lost all four of last year's leading tacklers as well as Epenesa's pass-rushing partner in crime, Anthony Nelson. Could be similar to Jadeveon Clowney's final two seasons at South Carolina, when the Gamecocks had one of the best players in the world and still couldn't rank top 10 in yards allowed per play.
10. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
2018 Rankings: 4.56 YPP (6th), 278.4 YPG (3rd), 19.8 PPG (19th)
Key Players: Southern Miss lost six of its 11 leading tacklers from last season, but it should still have one of the best secondaries in the nation. Ky'el Hemby, Ty Williams and Rachuan Mitchell combined for 12 interceptions in 2018, and they all return for the Golden Eagles. They only allowed one opponent (North Texas, 292 yards) to throw for more than 245 yards against them last year, and it's reasonable to expect more of the same.
Potential Weakness: The linebacker corps was gutted. Aside from Racheem Boothe—a fine holdover with 126 tackles and 19 tackles for loss over the past two years—Southern Miss is just about starting over from scratch. The Golden Eagles ranked sixth in rushing yards allowed per game last year with a mark of 102.7, but it would be a small miracle if they can repeat that.
What to Expect: September games against Alabama and Mississippi State are going to hurt, but the subsequent eight games against Conference USA opponents should bring USM's defensive numbers back down to a top-10 range. Throwing against this team will be beyond difficult, and there aren't any elite running backs in this conference.
9. Ohio State Buckeyes
2018 Rankings: 5.77 YPP (72nd), 403.4 YPG (71st), 25.5 PPG (50th)
Key Players: Losing Nick Bosa just three games into the season took Ohio State's defense from bad to worse, but Chase Young stepped up in a big way in Bosa's absence. The rising junior led the Buckeyes in both sacks and tackles for loss, and he even tallied five pass breakups at the line of scrimmage. In addition to Young, the Buckeyes get back all five of last year's leading tacklers and are expecting big things from 2018 5-star recruits Taron Vincent (DT) and Tyreke Johnson (CB).
Potential Weakness: The Buckeyes allowed at least 150 rushing yards in nine of 14 games last season, and they lost the keystone of their front seven in defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones. They should be solid at linebacker with Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison and Pete Werner all back, but will they be able to get penetration up the middle with Davon Hamilton potentially taking Jones' place?
What to Expect: Last year was a nightmare for Ohio State's defense, but the Buckeyes ranked top six in yards allowed per play in each of the three prior seasons. With so many noteworthy returnees, it's more likely that 2018 will go down as an uncharacteristic blip on the radar than a new trajectory for the program. Expect a return to normalcy in which the Buckeyes hold opponents below 20 points per game.
8. Appalachian State Mountaineers
2018 Rankings: 4.43 YPP (4th), 288.0 YPG (6th), 15.5 PPG (4th)
Key Players: Linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Jordan Fehr stepped into starting roles as juniors and became the anchors of a defense that allowed just 3.45 yards per carry. The Mountaineers had problems with Penn State (understandable) and Georgia Southern (triple option), but they were otherwise one of the toughest teams to run against.
Potential Weakness: Between Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes, Appalachian State lost two defensive backs who combined for 20 interceptions and 39 passes broken up over the past three seasons. The Mountaineers do still have Desmond Franklin and Josh Thomas—two fifth-year seniors who each had four interceptions last year—but a defense that had more than twice as many interceptions (17) as passing touchdowns allowed (eight) now has some personnel decisions to make.
What to Expect: Tough to say given the questions in the secondary, but the schedule isn't hurting Appalachian State's cause. Aside from a November nonconference game against South Carolina, the Mountaineers don't face a noteworthy offense/quarterback. So even though this isn't a unit teeming with NFL prospects, playing in the Sun Belt Conference should keep their numbers looking great.
7. LSU Tigers
2018 Rankings: 4.81 YPP (21st), 338.7 YPG (25th), 21.8 PPG (26th)
Key Players: In early April, Athlon Sports rated LSU's Grant Delpit as the eighth-best player and the No. 1 defensive player in the country for this coming season. The Tigers safety did a little bit of everything last season, finishing with 74 tackles, five sacks and five interceptions. If there's a Jabrill Peppers or Derwin James type of defensive star in 2019, you're probably looking at him. Delpit is just one piece of the returning puzzle, though. LSU gets back six of last year's seven leading tacklers.
Potential Weakness: Who replaces Devin White and Greedy Williams? LSU doesn't lose much quantity from last year's roster, but two consensus 2018 All-Americans is significant quality out the door. K'Lavon Chaisson is the presumed successor to White, but how will he look after tearing his ACL in the 2018 season opener? And will true-freshman cornerback Derek Stingley—the No. 3 overall recruit in 2019—be ready for a starting gig right away?
What to Expect: LSU is one of five power-conference teams to rank in the top 33 nationally in yards allowed per play in each of the past five seasons. The others are Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Penn State. That's good company if you're looking for good defense, and the Tigers should easily finish in the top 33 again this season. If Delpit stays healthy and if Stingley is even half as good as advertised, this might be the best defense in the SEC.
6. Georgia Bulldogs
2018 Rankings: 4.94 YPP (25th), 314.3 YPG (13th), 19.2 PPG (14th)
Key Players: Despite losing 2018 Thorpe Award winner Deandre Baker, Georgia should be loaded in the secondary. Richard LeCounte and J.R. Reed both return after leading the Bulldogs in tackling last season, Tyson Campbell is ready to build on a strong freshman campaign, and Eric Stokes (nine pass breakups) had an unexpected breakout year in 2018. That quartet won't be picked apart often, if at all.
Potential Weakness: Where will the pass rush come from? D'Andre Walker had 7.5 sacks last season, and the current Tennessee Titan was the only Bulldog to record more than two sacks in 2018. Opposing quarterbacks completed 61.0 percent of pass attempts and only threw eight interceptions in the entire season, and that's largely due to the lack of pressure.
What to Expect: Georgia has now had five consecutive recruiting classes ranked sixth or better by 247Sports, which means the Bulldogs have an embarrassment of riches on their depth chart. Just between the 2018 and 2019 classes, they have signed nine defensive players rated No. 45 overall or better, including the No. 1 overall recruit in this year's class, Nolan Smith. Spoiler alert: Georgia will be tough to score against.
5. California Golden Bears
2018 Rankings: 4.59 YPP (9th), 317.2 YPG (15th), 20.4 PPG (22nd)
Key Players: Linebacker Evan Weaver ranked second in the nation with 158 tackles in 2018. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins was tied for third in interceptions with six picks. And cornerback Camryn Bynum has recorded four interceptions and 17 passes defended over the past two years. All three are back for a California defense with eight returning starters.
Potential Weakness: Cal doesn't lose much from last season, but it did take a serious hit at linebacker with the departures of Jordan Kunaszyk and Alex Funches. Kunaszyk had 143 tackles and forced five fumbles last year. Funches wasn't quite that impactful, but he did tie for the team lead with 5.0 sacks. Can redshirt freshman Evan Tattersall and sophomore Joseph Ogunbanjo fill those holes after barely seeing the field in 2018?
What to Expect: After six straight seasons with a defense that was nowhere close to ranking in the top 50 percent nationally, California unexpectedly blossomed into one of the stingiest defenses in 2018. And the Golden Bears might be even better in 2019. Eight of the 10 leading tacklers return, including the entire secondary primarily responsible for the one-shy-of-nation-best 21 interceptions.
4. Michigan Wolverines
2018 Rankings: 4.58 YPP (8th), 275.2 YPG (2nd), 19.4 PPG (16th)
Key Players: Prior to completely imploding against Dwayne Haskins in the regular-season finale, Michigan had the clear-cut best secondary in the nation last season. Most of those defensive backs are gone, but the Wolverines do still have Josh Metellus and Lavert Hill to serve as the senior leaders of an otherwise young unit. And watch out for Daxton Hill. The true-freshman safety is the crown jewel of Michigan's 2019 class, and there's a good chance he starts from day one—despite not being an early enrollee this spring.
Potential Weakness: Michigan's run defense was already a little bit worse than usual last season, and now it needs to replace both Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. If 2017 top-60 recruits Aubrey Solomon and Luiji Vilain had panned out in the slightest, the Wolverines would be all right. Instead, Solomon struggled for two years and transferred to Tennessee and Vilain has yet to play due to injuries. As a result, this defensive line is a hodgepodge of question marks.
What to Expect: At this point, we simply have to expect greatness. Michigan has ranked in the top eight in yards allowed per play in four consecutive seasons—the only program to rank in the top 16 in all four years. Yes, the Wolverines lost a handful of crucial cogs to the NFL, most notably Devin Bush and Winovich. But Jim Harbaugh kept this machine running smoothly even after losing basically every starter from the 2016 team. They'll be excellent, per usual.
3. Clemson Tigers
2018 Rankings: 4.19 YPP (2nd), 285.9 YPG (5th), 13.1 PPG (1st)
Key Players: Clemson had some issues in the secondary last year, particularly in the games against Texas A&M and South Carolina. However, with cornerback A.J. Terrell and safeties Tanner Muse and K'Von Wallace on the short list of returning starters for the Tigers, the secondary should become the strength of this defense. At any rate, there will be significant regression if those three upperclassmen fail to become the leaders.
Potential Weakness: Defensive line isn't likely to be much of a weakness. Not with Xavier Thomas, K.J. Henry and Nyles Pinckney more than capable of stepping into starting roles. But Clemson did lose its entire starting line from last year, so a decrease in sheer dominance in the trenches is inevitable. This run defense will be good, but don't expect another year of leading the nation at a clip of 2.51 yards allowed per carry.
What to Expect: Not many programs could maintain excellence while losing the likes of Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence, but Clemson has ranked top five in yards allowed per play in four of the past five seasons. As with Michigan, we're almost obligated to keep putting this team in the top five until it proves it no longer belongs.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions
2018 Rankings: 4.72 YPP (14th), 350.5 YPG (34th), 20.5 PPG (23rd)
Key Players: You don't often see a true freshman lead a team in tackles, but that's what Micah Parsons did for Penn State last season. The defensive end-turned-linebacker will be the anchor of this unit once again in 2019. (And almost certainly in 2020, too.) The Nittany Lions also bring back backfield menace Yetur Gross-Matos. The then-sophomore defensive end had 20 tackles for loss last season.
Potential Weakness: Without safety Nick Scott and cornerback Amani Oruwariye, Penn State has some holes to plug in the secondary. In particular, Oruwariye had seven interceptions and 18 pass breakups over the past two seasons. So it's time to find out if 2017 top-50 recruit Lamont Wade is finally ready to make an impact in State College. The safety has a total of three pass breakups and no interceptions in the past two years, and he flirted with skipping town via the transfer portal. For Penn State's sake, here's hoping he stuck around to prove something.
What to Expect: Penn State's offense might be a bit of a mess as life after Trace McSorley begins, but the defense should be top-notch. The Nittany Lions are stacked at linebacker and have three returning defensive linemen (YGM, Shaka Toney and Robert Windsor) who had at least five sacks last year. If they get that cornerback vacancy figured out, they'll be almost impenetrable.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
2018 Rankings: 4.89 YPP (24th), 319.5 YPG (16th), 18.1 PPG (12th)
Key Players: To the surprise of no one, Alabama has star players at all three levels. Raekwon Davis and LaBryan Ray are back to clamp down from the defensive ends. Dylan Moses and Anfernee Jennings return at linebacker after a combined 136 tackles and 23 tackles for loss last year. And a secondary anchored by Xavier McKinney and Patrick Surtain Jr. is bound to cause problems for opposing quarterbacks. Even if they get next to nothing this season out of the 15 4-star or 5-star defensive recruits in this year's class, the Crimson Tide will be stout.
Potential Weakness: It has been a while since defensive tackle was of any concern for Alabama. In A'Shawn Robinson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Daron Payne and Quinnen Williams, the Crimson Tide have had four consecutive first- or second-round draft picks holding down that spot over the last four years. But it's unclear who fills that role this year. It might be redshirt sophomore Phidarian Mathis, or it might be true freshman DJ Dale. Neither one is a sure thing to dominate.
What to Expect: An off year for Alabama was still damn good. It felt like the Crimson Tide had a major deficiency on defense after three straight seasons ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in yards allowed per play, but they were still top 25 in all three categories, despite replacing their entire starting secondary from 2017. There are holes to fill—most notably DT Quinnen Williams and S Deionte Thompson—but more playing time for guys like Eyabi Anoma and Trevon Diggs won't be a bad thing.
Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite.