Predicting Each Conference's Top Defensive Line in 2021 College Football Season
Stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback are two of the most important things a college football team can do, so it's hardly a coincidence that the squads with the best defensive lines are generally expected to win their conferences.
Winning the war in the trenches is still the surest way to win a game, so we've decided to start this summer series of projections with a look at defensive lines for the upcoming year.
But rather than our tried-and-true approach of ranking the 10 best (insert position group)s in the country, we wanted to make sure to show some love to more than just the occasional Group of Five team. Thus, we'll be taking a conference-by-conference look at the various position groups for the 2021 season.
Within each conference, we'll highlight which team should reign supreme at that position, pinpoint the one team most likely to make a serious push for that title and mention another squad worth monitoring. That third "Keep an Eye on" group isn't necessarily expected to be third-best in the conference, but it's an intriguing team for a reason of the author's choosing.
Conferences are listed in alphabetical order.
American Athletic Conference
Best of the Bunch: Cincinnati Bearcats
Cincinnati has had the best front seven in the AAC for the past few years, and it should have one of the five best defensive lines in the country in 2021.
Myjai Sanders, Curtis Brooks, Malik Vann and Marcus Brown each had at least 2.0 sacks this past season and will each return as either fourth-year or fifth-year players. In particular, Sanders' decision to put off the NFL for one more season was huge for the Bearcats. Their star edge-rusher had seven sacks and broke up five passes in 2020. With Tulane's Patrick Johnson now in the NFL, Sanders is clearly the AAC's most noteworthy defensive lineman.
As if that returning experience wasn't enough, head coach Luke Fickell also dipped into the transfer portal to bring Jowon Briggs back home. The 310-pound Cincinnati native was the No. 75 overall recruit in the 2019 class when he chose the Virginia Cavaliers, but now he may become the linchpin of Cincinnati's run D.
Top Challenger: Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Zaven Collins, a star linebacker and the 16th overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, was the heart and soul of Tulsa's defense. He's probably the most talented player this program has ever produced, and replacing him will be an impossible challenge. But all of the other defensive starters are slated to return, which includes linemen Anthony Goodlow, Cullen Wick and Jaxon Player. Along with Cincinnati's Sanders, Player figures to be a unanimous pick for the preseason AAC All-Conference team.
Keep an Eye on: UCF Knights
Auburn had nine defensive linemen selected in the past nine NFL drafts, and UCF is hoping head coach Gus Malzahn brings some of that magic with him to his new post. The pass rush should be solid with three returning linemen (Tre'Mon Morris-Brash, Landon Woodson and Cam Goode) who had at least 3.0 sacks each last season, but we'll see if the run defense gets any better. The Knights have struggled mightily in that department for much of the past four seasons.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Best of the Bunch: Clemson Tigers
When Clemson went 15-0 in 2018, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant made up one of the best defensive lines in college football history. The Tigers might not be quite that good up front this year, but you're out of your mind if you expect any ACC team to have a better defensive line in 2021.
They held opponents to 3.1 yards per carry and racked up an FBS-leading 46 sacks in 2020, and with the exception of Nyles Pinckney transferring to Minnesota, just about the entire defensive line will be back in the fall.
Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy were every bit as good as advertised (both top 10 overall recruits) as true freshmen last season, combining for 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks. If they can avoid a sophomore slump and if veterans Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas are both able to return to form after 2020 seasons lost to injury/illness, goodness gracious. Even if neither of those guys is available, though, Clemson still has Tyler Davis and KJ Henry. Just an embarrassment of riches here.
Top Challenger: Miami Hurricanes
Yes, they lost Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips (and 2020 opt-out Gregory Rousseau) to the NFL, but the Hurricanes always (at least in the past five years) seem to have a rock-solid defensive line. They have Nesta Jade Silvera and Jonathan Ford as returning starters at defensive tackle, they added Deandre Johnson as a graduate transfer from Tennessee and LB-turned-DE Zach McCloud is back for a sixth season. Miami's defensive line won't challenge Clemson's, but it also won't be awful.
Keep an Eye on: Virginia Tech Hokies
Just like Miami, Virginia Tech's line was gutted by departures. Justus Reed and Jarrod Hewitt combined for 12 sacks in 2020 and now need to be replaced. But the Hokies still have Amare Barno and Emmanuel Belmar to man the edges, as well as a recent history (aside from 2018) of well-above-average defensive lines. Watch out for Norell Pollard too. He started all 11 games as a true sophomore in 2020 and could break out even further with Reed and Hewitt gone.
Big 12 Conference
Best of the Bunch: Oklahoma Sooners
Replacing Ronnie Perkins is going to be a challenge. No question about that. The star defensive lineman was suspended for the first five games of the 2020 regular season, and Oklahoma's defense was undeniably better after he was reinstated following his appeal. In just six games played, he had 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
But the Sooners do still have Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey for what is arguably the best one-two DL punch the Big 12 has to offer this season. They also picked up coveted JUCO transfer Isaiah Coe from Iowa Western—where they also found Winfrey, for what it's worth. He isn't expected to be anywhere near the pass-rusher Perkins was, but he could be a valuable run-stuffer.
One could also put Nik Bonitto in this conversation. He's technically a linebacker, but he's effectively a second edge-rusher. He had nine sacks last year, and if you consider him part of the defensive line, Oklahoma goes from arguably the best DL in the Big 12 to indisputably the best.
Top Challenger: Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State's Will McDonald IV had more sacks in 2020 (10.5) than any other returning player in the country, and the Cyclones led the Big 12 in rushing yards allowed per game last year (103.1). However, two of the most noteworthy departures from this defense both played defensive line. JaQuan Bailey took his 25.0 career sacks to the NFL, while Latrell Bankston (3.5 sacks in 2020) transferred to Houston.
Iowa State will likely still have the best overall defense in the Big 12, but the D line won't be its biggest strength.
Keep an Eye on: West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia had one of the better defenses in the country last year, allowing just 291.4 total yards per game (fourth-fewest in the FBS). With star linebacker Tony Fields II and key safety Tykee Smith out of the picture, the defense will likely regress to the mean. But the defensive line should still be in respectable shape, led by Dante Stills and Akheem Mesidor. If the Mountaineers hadn't lost both Darius Stills (NFL) and Jeffery Pooler Jr. (transfer), they'd be neck-and-neck with Oklahoma for the top spot.
Big Ten Conference
Best of the Bunch: Ohio State Buckeyes
Most of the Big Ten's usual suspects for proficient defensive line play (Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin) have colossal unknowns/question marks in the trenches, but not Ohio State.
The Buckeyes did lose Tommy Togiai and Jonathon Cooper to the NFL, but head coach Ryan Day's cupboards are still well-stocked.
Haskell Garrett is returning as a fifth-year senior and will be the keystone of the run defense. He'll likely be flanked by defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith—two upperclassmen poised for breakout seasons. Taron Vincent and Antwuan Jackson will battle for the other starting defensive tackle gig. And don't be surprised if and when true freshman Jack Sawyer hits the ground running as the best edge-rusher on the roster.
It would be shocking if Ohio State fails to finish top three in the Big Ten in both sacks and rushing yards allowed.
Top Challenger: Michigan Wolverines
The 2020 season was one for Michigan to forget for many reasons, but it was a particularly awful year for what is usually a great defensive line. After six consecutive seasons of averaging at least 2.4 sacks and holding opponents below 130 rushing yards per game, those numbers were 1.5 and 178.8, respectively. But at least with Aidan Hutchinson back for a senior year, the Wolverines have a solid building block for a potential bounce back.
Keep an Eye on: Iowa Hawkeyes
Beyond fifth-year senior Zach VanValkenburg, this defensive line is a bunch of mostly unfamiliar faces, as the Hawkeyes lost Daviyon Nixon and Chauncey Golston to the NFL. But they have held opponents below 150 rushing yards per game in each of the past six seasons, despite losing a star lineman or two seemingly every year. Trust the process and assume Iowa will end up with one of the better defensive lines in the Big Ten.
Best of the Bunch: Marshall Thundering Herd
Marshall led the nation in points allowed per game (13.0), ranked second in total yards allowed per game (279.4) and ranked fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (95.5) in 2020.
However, the Thundering Herd figure to take a step back toward the pack after losing star linebacker Tavante Beckett and top edge-rusher Darius Hodge. The latter had 13.5 sacks over the past two seasons and was the team's third-leading tackler in 2020.
Though, at least with Jamare Edwards and Koby Cumberlander back, the Thundering Herd will have a respectable returning nucleus in the trenches. And they were so much better than the rest of the league last year that they can slip a bit and stay at No. 1.
Top Challenger: Florida Atlantic Owls
FAU lost one of the conference's best pass-rushers in defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Leighton McCarthy, but the Owls should still be in good shape along the D-line with redshirt sophomore Jaylen Joyner and freshman Evan Anderson leading the way. After barely seeing the field in 2018 or 2019, Joyner had six sacks last year and will likely be a preseason C-USA All-American.
Keep an Eye on: Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Last season was rather awful for the Golden Eagles, but they led Conference USA in rushing defense in each of the previous two years. While expectations aren't high, perhaps they'll be able to re-harness some of that pre-pandemic defensive prowess. JUCO transfer Dominic Quewon had three sacks and three forced fumbles in 2020 and could be the anchor of the line.
Best of the Bunch: Buffalo Bulls
Two seasons ago, Buffalo had one of the more dominant defensive lines in the country. Only three players in the MAC had more than seven sacks that season, and each of them—Malcolm Koonce, Taylor Riggins and Ledarius Mack—was a Bulls defensive linemen.
That line made up one half of one of the most ridiculous rushing splits you'll ever see. The Bulls allowed just 94.2 yards per game while Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks led the offense to 250.5.
They weren't anywhere near as impenetrable during the truncated 2020 campaign, but part of that can be attributed to playing without Riggins, who missed the entire season with an undisclosed injury.
The 2019 All-MAC defensive end will return as a sixth-year senior. He'll join Eric Black, who had three sacks in a more prominent role sans Riggins, as well as tackle George Wolo, who had three sacks and two forced fumbles last year as a true freshman.
Top Challenger: Toledo Rockets
After back-to-back seasons of allowing 31 rushing touchdowns, Toledo allowed just six in its six games played in 2020. The Rockets also held opponents to 129.2 rushing yards per game, which was nearly 90 yards per contest better than the previous season. And it's reasonable to expect further improvement with a line that is returning just about fully intact. Desjuan Johnson, Jamal Hines and Terrance Taylor have combined for 54 tackles for loss and 17.0 sacks since the beginning of 2018.
Keep an Eye on: Western Michigan Broncos
In terms of both sacks and rushing yards allowed, Western Michigan has been consistently in the top half—though never quite at No. 1—of the MAC for the past few years. But the Broncos might finally make that leap into the top spot with Ralph Holley and Ali Fayad each returning for a fifth season. Each of those veterans has racked up at least 29 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks over the past three years.
Mountain West Conference
Best of the Bunch: San Jose State Spartans
For several of these conferences, picking a top defensive line was a significant challenge, either due to a glut or dearth of quality options. But San Jose State's defensive linemen Cade Hall and Viliami "Junior" Fehoko return after ranking first and second, respectively, in the MWC in total sacks in 2020, so this one's pretty cut and dry.
After all, the emergence of that duo was one of the biggest reasons the Spartans carried an undefeated record into bowl season. They had one of the worst rush defenses in the entire country in 2019, allowing 232.1 yards per game while averaging just 1.4 sacks. But thanks to Hall and Fehoko, SJSU slashed the former nearly in half to 120.3 while more than doubling the latter to 3.3.
The supporting cast to that pair also has a lot of experience. Former JUCO transfers Noah Wright and Jay Kakiva each saw a lot of snaps in 2020, as did rising senior E.J. Ane.
Top Challenger: Colorado State Rams
In just four games played in 2020, Scott Patchan racked up 5.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. The former graduate transfer from Miami will return for a seventh season of college football, and he's far from the only key veteran on this defensive line. Toby McBride is back for a sixth year while Manny Jones and Ellison Hubbard each returns for a fifth. And we're talking about an old defense which held opponents to 2.5 yards per carry last year.
Keep an Eye on: Fresno State Bulldogs
Fresno State ranked third in the nation with 4.17 sacks per game last year but also ranked 106th in rushing yards allowed per game (out of 127 teams). The latter says more about the tackling in the secondary, though, as the Bulldogs gave up nine runs of 30 or more yards in just six games. All four defensive linemen who recorded multiple sacks—Kwami Jones, Kevin Atkins, David Perales and Alex Dumais—are still on the roster, so expect a solid pass rush again.
Best of the Bunch: Oregon Ducks
That's it. That's the justification.
The No. 2 overall recruit in the 2019 class has racked up 23.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in his 20-game career and may well be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. No other team in the country—and certainly not in the Pac-12—has a bigger star on the defensive line.
His supporting cast is a bit questionable following the departures of Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu, each of whom was involved in more than 100 tackles over the past four seasons. But their projected replacements (Popo Aumavae and Brandon Dorlus) should both be adequate in their increased roles.
Top Challenger: Arizona State Sun Devils
In Tyler Johnson and Jermayne Lole, Arizona State has a tandem that should at least give Thibodeaux and Co. a run for their money. Each has accumulated at least 20 tackles for loss and at least 11 sacks since the beginning of the 2018 campaign. Johnson was particularly imposing last year, finishing the Sun Devils' four-game season with five sacks. ASU also picked up LSU transfer Travez Moore, who could factor into the pass-rushing plan after three years of barely seeing the field for the Tigers.
Keep an Eye on: Utah Utes
Utah has led the Pac-12 in rushing defense in each of the past three seasons, and Mika Tafua and Maxs Tupai will lead a defensive line with quite a bit of experience. We'll see if the Utes have figured out how to replace Bradlee Anae, though. He had 29.5 sacks from 2016 to '19, and their pass rush wasn't quite the same in the first truncated season without him.
Best of the Bunch: Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia led the nation in rushing yards allowed per game in both 2019 and 2020, and it has a lot of familiar faces up front. Defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt and nose tackle Jordan Davis are both back for another year of clogging up the trenches.
The Bulldogs lost Malik Herring at defensive end, but that just means it's time for 2019 5-star recruit Travon Walker to step into the spotlight. They also have Jalen Carter (three tackles for loss as a true freshman in 2020) to bolster the depth chart.
Don't forget about 2019's No. 1 overall recruit either. Nolan Smith is technically a linebacker. But he was a defensive end in high school, and he figures to replace Azeez Ojulari as the starting Jack LB—where head coach Kirby Smart typically puts his best pass-rusher.
With all of the changes in the secondary, Georgia's rate of "coverage sacks" will likely decrease. Still, this is going to be a more-than-formidable defensive line that may flirt with a third consecutive season of holding opponents below 75 rushing yards per game.
Top Challenger: Texas A&M Aggies
While Georgia led the nation in rushing defense in 2020, Texas A&M ranked second. The Aggies lost one of the biggest (literal and figurative) pieces of that defensive line with 6'4", 321-pound DT Bobby Brown III leaving for the NFL draft, but they still have a strong nucleus led by DeMarvin Leal and Jayden Peevy. There's also a lot of young potential between McKinnley Jackson and true freshmen Shemar Turner and Tunmise Adeleye.
Keep an Eye on: South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina's defense was all sorts of awful last year and frankly hasn't been worth mentioning since Jadeveon Clowney left after the 2013 season. But there's serious potential here with 2019 No. 8 overall recruit Zacch Pickens and 2020 No. 8 overall recruit Jordan Burch both headed for bigger roles with Keir Thomas out of the picture. The Gamecocks also still have Kingsley Enagbare (six sacks in 2020) and added Georgia State transfer Jordan Strachan to be a pass-rushing linebacker.
(To be clear, we're not expecting South Carolina's defensive line to outperform Alabama's. The Crimson Tide would be No. 3 if we were strictly ranking the SEC's top defensive lines. Just wanted to point out one area where South Carolina should be above-average in this conference.)
Sun Belt Conference
Best of the Bunch: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Coastal Carolina brings back 10 of the 11 defensive starters from an 11-win season, though the one exception is a big one here with edge-rusher Tarron Jackson (8.5 sacks, four forced fumbles in 2020) now in the NFL. Whether Georgia Tech transfer Emmanuel Johnson or Oklahoma State transfer Amadou Fofana gets the nod, the Chanticleers will likely be replacing Jackson with a lineman who was scarcely used at his former Power Five program.
And yet, they retain two of the best pass-rushers in the Sun Belt Conference in C.J. Brewer and Jeffrey Gunter, each of whom had 6.5 sacks last year.
We can argue over whether Gunter should count in this discussion. He plays bandit, which is part defensive lineman, part linebacker. But in his last two seasons, he's recorded 26.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles. Since he does so much work in the offense's backfield, we're calling him part of the defensive line.
Top Challenger: Georgia State Panthers
Like Coastal Carolina, Georgia State lost its best sack artist, with Jordan Strachan transferring to South Carolina. He was a linebacker, though, and the Panthers are getting back all of the key linemen from a team that tallied 35 sacks in 10 games. Hardrick Willis has 10.5 sacks over the last two years. Jeffery Clark had 3.5 sacks and 26 total tackles last year as a freshman.
Keep an Eye on: Appalachian State Mountaineers
App State has averaged better than two sacks per game in each season since making the leap to FBS in 2014, and it still has a star fifth-year senior in Demetrius Taylor. He has 26 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, eight passes defended and five forced fumbles over the past two seasons and is probably the best individual defensive lineman in the conference. Whether he'll get much help is the big question.