It’s no coincidence that three of the four teams that reached the College Football Playoff a season ago — Alabama, Clemson and Georgia — ranked first, fourth and sixth in total defense. The other team — Oklahoma — had college football’s best quarterback in Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.
‘Defense wins championships’ is the old adage, and it evidently applies to success in college football in 2017 and looking ahead to the future.
Here are five teams expected to have the best defenses in 2018:
Surprise, surprise — Dabo Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables return one of the nation’s best defenses as they look to win their second title in three years. Most who follow the sport were stunned when defensive end Clelin Ferrell decided to return to the Tigers instead of declaring for the NFL Draft where he absolutely would have gone top-15 in the first round.
Ferrell is a monster and is extremely fast with great technique for someone who is 6-foot-5 and weighs over 260 pounds. He was second in the ACC last year in tackles for loss (18) and sacks (10.0). Lining up next to Ferrell are former 5-star defensive tackle recruits Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. Wilkins had 60 tackles and 5.0 sacks last season. Lawrence had 33 tackles and 2.0 sacks last season. At 6-foot-4 and weighing 350 pounds, Dexter Lawrence looked like an NFL player before he ever stepped foot on campus. At the other defensive end spot is Austin Bryant, a player built like Clelin Ferrell and who recorded 50 tackles and 8.5 sacks last year. This is the best defensive line in college football, and frankly it’s not even close. Expect the four guys listed above — Ferrell, Lawrence, Wilkins and Bryant to be drafted in the first two rounds. Oh yeah, and the top defensive end recruit in 2018 was Xavier Thomas and he’s a freshman at Clemson— he’ll be behind all of those players on the depth chart.
Linebackers Kendall Joseph (97 tackles) returns, as does Tre Lamar (50 tackles, 4.0 sacks). In the secondary, cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and Mark Fields are back. Mullen should be one of the best at his position in the ACC. Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Muse are bigger, tackling type safeties as opposed to ball hawks capable of intercepting the ball. Both are solid, but will need to improve on their coverage skills in 2018.
The U is back, and that happened faster than anyone could have expected under head coach Mark Richt. The ‘Canes went 7-1 in the ACC last season before losing to Clemson in the ACC Title game.
Miami was led by its defense. Remember the Turnover Chain?:
The Canes’ two best returning defensive players are safety Jaquan Johnson and linebacker Shaq Quarterman. Johnson had 96 tackles and four interceptions last season, one of those went for a touchdown in a close game against Virginia. Shaq Quarterman put up 83 tackles including seven for loss. Linebacker Michael Pinckney is another athletic, productive linebacker for the Hurricanes who had a big year in 2017.
Joe Jackson is Miami’s best player on the D-line. Only a junior, he already has 14 sacks to his name and is powerful coming off of the edge. Keep an eye on true freshman Greg Rousseau. The local kid put up some impressive numbers in the Hurricanes’ spring game and should play a big role on Miami’s defense in 2018.
Michigan was a top-three defense all season in 2017, and most of its starters are back for what should be another dominant 2018 campaign under defensive coordinator/guru Don Brown.
Up front, Chase Winovich (senior) and Rashan Gary (junior) make the initial push. Gary, the former top recruit in the nation had 58 total tackles last season, including 5.5 sacks. He’s one of those guys who put up solid stats last year, but has yet to fully break out — usually because he’s often doubled and in some cases triple teamed at the point of attack.
Junior linebackers Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson combined for 172 tackles and 13 sacks in 2018. Behind those two guys are elite junior cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long. Lavert Hill had a 27-yard pick-six versus Cincinnati last season and David Long went 80 yards for his pick-six late in the season against Maryland.
For the Wolverines, it all starts with coaching. Don Brown is as innovative and as good at player development as any defensive coach in the country. Michigan’s offense is a huge question mark, but this team looks like a sure-fire 8-win + team with a defense as good as this one.
For a long time it seemed USC was the cream of the crop in the Pac-12 at producing NFL-quality defenses. USC remains that way, but Washington is right on their heels even after losing defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Along the defensive front, Greg Gaines is big and powerful up the middle. Will he be as effective without Vita Vea next to him drawing double teams? Likely not, but he stands to improve with guys like Jared Pulu and Jaylen Johnson (3.5 sacks in 2017) playing alongside him. True freshman Tuli Letuligasenoa is another highly touted, big-boy recruit from Northern California and should contribute immediately in Vita Vea’s absence.
Where the Huskies really excel is in the defensive backfield. The safety tandem of Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh is by far the best in the Pac-12, and could be the best in the country if they play up to their expectations. Expect both Rapp and McIntosh to be drafted in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft next April.
Cornerback Byron Murphy was showing a ton of promise in 2017 — 16 tackles, one sack and two interceptions before missing six games last season with a broken foot.
Wisconsin is always known as one of the best running teams in the country, but these last couple of years the Badgers have been sensational on defense. The 2018 Badgers are talented and (more than that) experienced at all positions.
Starting linebackers T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Andrew Van Ginkel are terrors in the backfield and have above-average hands. The three combined for seven interceptions and two pick-sixes last season. Van Ginkel in particular is really fast off the edge and is really good in pass protection. T.J. Edwards is the leader of this group and plays well in the biggest of games — including his 11 tackles in the win versus Michigan last season. Connelly led the team in tackles a season ago.
Defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu is BIG at 6-foot-2 and 338 pounds. He had three sacks last year, but his ability to take on offensive linemen frees up the linebackers behind him to make the tackle. Isaiahh Loudermilk is another physical freak along the defensive line poised for a big year.
Safety D’Cota Dixon is a bit undersized, but he’s one of the best in the Big Ten. Dixon is the only defensive starter returning in Wisconsin’s secondary, so he’ll have to continue to lead this unit through a rigorous schedule that includes cross-divisional games at Michigan and at Penn State.