Projecting Every Conference's Best Secondary for the 2021 CFB Season
Strong defensive lines have typically been the backbone of elite units, but a top-level secondary can drive success in modern college football.
Looking ahead to the 2021 season, about half of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences have a clear-cut No. 1 defensive backfield. The other leagues have a couple of options that appear poised to emerge as the peskiest pass defense in the conference.
The regular season will certainly tell a different story in some places. However, making these projections is a chance to lay out offseason perceptions and hold ourselves accountable in the fall.
While the choices are subjective, they're based on returning production, past performance and future projection. The list is organized alphabetically by conference.
AAC: Cincinnati Bearcats
Without a doubt, Cincinnati's strength is on the outside.
Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant both earned first-team All-AAC honors last season. They combined for 63 tackles, seven interceptions and 13 pass breakups, guiding a defense that surrendered seven passing scores and snatched 16 picks in 2020.
At nickelback, Arquon Bush added two interceptions with a couple of tackles for loss. His return gives the Bearcats a strong trio of coverage in front of two "new" starters at safety.
Ja'von Hicks picked up honorable mention All-AAC in 2019 before serving as the top rotational backup last year. Bryan Cook, who notched 26 tackles in a reserve role, will complete the lineup.
ACC: Clemson Tigers
Clemson's secondary took a hit when the program dismissed star corner Derion Kendrick. Nevertheless, the unit should be stronger after a 2020 season that markedly improved its depth.
Sheridan Jones and Andrew Booth Jr. both played important roles last year and should be starters in 2021. Mario Goodrich snagged two interceptions as a top backup, while Fred Davis II and Malcolm Greene performed well in rotational spots.
If they develop anywhere near as hoped, the cornerbacks will have a great support system from the safeties.
Nolan Turner landed second-team All-ACC honors in 2020, and Lannden Zanders earned honorable mention All-ACC. Joseph Charleston ranked third on the team in tackles, and both Ray Thornton III and Tyler Venables played regularly as backups.
Experience does not guaranteed future success, but Clemson has earned a hefty benefit of the doubt as the ACC's powerhouse.
Big Ten: Iowa Hawkeyes
Because the Iowa Hawkeyes dropped their first two games in 2020, the secondary flew under the radar. But the unit finished tied with Cincinnati for the fifth-fewest yards allowed (6.0) per pass attempt.
And in 2021, everyone is back.
Along with Dane Belton—the "Cash," a hybrid spot—the corners are Matt Hankins and Riley Moss. Behind them, Iowa returns third-team All-Big Ten safety Jack Koerner and Kaevon Merriweather. The five combined for 17 pass breakups and six interceptions last year.
Indiana should make a strong charge at the best in the Big Ten, but Iowa deserves the nod heading into the fall.
Big 12: Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State's lone departure is a significant loss; four-year starter Rodarius Williams landed second-team All-Big 12 in 2020.
But the rest of the secondary remains intact.
Jarrick Bernard-Converse and Christian Holmes are quality corners who played significant snaps in 2020. Kolby Harvell-Peel garnered second-team All-Big 12 recognition, Tre Sterling was an honorable mention player and Tanner McCalister started 10 games. Thomas Harper and Jason Taylor II are experienced depth pieces as well.
If this unit comes anywhere near its potential, Oklahoma State can finally make the jump needed to compete for a Big 12 crown.
C-USA: Marshall Thundering Herd
Last year, the defense propelled the Marshall Thundering Herd to a 7-0 start. They ended the campaign with the 10th-lowest yards allowed per pass (6.3) in the country.
Derrek Pitts transferred to North Carolina State, and Jaylon McClain-Sapp went to the NFL. But Marshall brings back All-Conference USA safeties Nazeeh Johnson (second team) and Brandon Drayton (honorable mention). They're the last line of defense behind first-team All-C-USA cornerback Steven Gilmore.
Joshua Bowers and Micah Abraham—rotational pieces in 2020—will be stepping into key roles at cornerback this fall. And the safety unit returns second-stringers Naquan Renalds and E.J. Jackson.
Thanks to this experience plus the linebackers, Marshall should again have one of the best C-USA defenses.
MAC: Central Michigan
The numbers in 2020 don't suggest it, but Central Michigan is built to put together a much stronger year in 2021.
All five starters in the secondary are back, including first-team All-MAC safety Willie Reid and third-teamer Devonni Reed. Brian Edwards and Dishon McNary are the outside cornerbacks, and Richard Bowens III will hold down the inside at nickel. For good measure, top reserve Alonzo McCoy will remain a key contributor.
Yes, this is placing considerable trust in the unit's development; Central ranked 11th in the MAC in yards allowed per pass attempt. However, the defense as a whole finished fifth in yards allowed per play and returns practically every major contributor. A more disruptive pass rush will allow this secondary to shine.
If the Chippewas don't realize this potential, expect one of Ohio, Toledo or Western Michigan to earn the spot.
Mountain West: San Diego State
As enticing as Boise State, Hawai'i or Wyoming are, the safe bet is clear.
San Diego State needs to retool the secondary, which is no easy task. Still, the team has posted the Mountain West's lowest pass efficiency rating allowed in four of the last six seasons.
The key returning players are cornerback Tayler Hawkins and safety Trenton Thompson, who ranked fourth and fifth on the team in tackles last year. Cedarious Barfield and Patrick McMorris are the most likely to join them in the starting lineup, while Dallas Branch or Adonis Brown should slide in at corner.
San Jose State is another one to watch because it has five experienced players in the defensive backfield. Last year, the Spartans tied for fifth in yards allowed per pass in the Mountain West.
Pac-12: Washington Huskies
Given that head coach Jimmy Lake built his profile as the defensive backs coach, it's no surprise Washington has a promising outlook.
Losing third-round draft pick Elijah Molden to the NFL stings, but Trent McDuffie is an elite corner. He'll headline a group with safety Asa Turner and Oklahoma transfer Brendan Radley-Hiles, who's expected to slot in as the nickelback.
Kyler Gordon and Alex Cook both had encouraging years in a small sample size and are likely to complete the first-string unit. Dominique Hampton could beat out either Turner or Cook too.
Among Pac-12 teams, Washington has ended with the fewest yards allowed per pass in four of the last five seasons.
Led by the trio of Chase Lucas, Jack Jones and Evan Fields, Arizona State should be very, very close behind Washington as one of the Pac-12's strongest units.
SEC: Alabama Crimson Tide
On individual talent alone, LSU cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks are unquestionably top players. As a collective unit, however, the Tigers lag behind their bitter rival.
Alabama lost cornerback Patrick Surtain II to the NFL but is never short on highly recruited talent ready to join the first-string group. The next in line is probably Jalyn Armour-Davis, who would start opposite Josh Jobe and nickelback Malachi Moore. Brian Branch and 5-star freshman Ga'Quincy McKinstry fill out the depth.
Hard-hitting Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams and Daniel Wright basically played every snap at safety in 2020. They helped the Tide finish as the SEC's top pass defense.
Factor in what should be a more disruptive pass rush, and Alabama is seemingly destined for another elite defense.
Sun Belt: Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Appalachian State annually puts a feisty secondary on the field, and star corner Shaun Jolly is back. It's fair to expect another good season from the Mountaineers.
Louisiana-Lafayette, though, is absolutely stacked.
Outside cornerbacks Eric Garror and Mekhi Garner and slot guys Kam Pedescleaux and Ja'len Johnson all held substantial roles in 2020. Second-team All-Sun Belt honoree Bralen Trahan, Percy Butler and Cameron Solomon did the same at safety.
Not only is this rotation loaded with experience, but the unit also thrived last season. Louisiana ranked fourth nationally with 5.8 yards allowed per pass attempt and grabbed 16 interceptions (third-most in the FBS).
Between this defense and the offense led by quarterback Levi Lewis, the Ragin' Cajuns can compete for a New Year's Six bowl berth.