With less than 50 days until the start of the College Football season, the Lineups team has you covered with a breakdown of the 10 best defenses in college football heading into the 2023-24 season. Rankings are determined using a combination of stats from last season and projections for the season ahead.
Top Ten College Football Defenses 2023
The old adage goes “defense wins championships.” Well, that’s certainly true for the Georgia Bulldogs, who have had the best defense in the country over the past two years and are currently working on a three-peat.
In this article, I’ll break down what I see as the best defenses in the country. Writing articles like this is always fun because it’s impossible to make everyone happy. I invite you to direct any and all frustrations to my Twitter account @wayne_sports_. In the meantime, let’s get to work.
#1: Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia had arguably the best defense in college football history in 2021. As a result, they lost eight starters to the NFL, five in the first round, and saw their defensive coordinator Dan Lanning get hired as the head coach at Oregon. Despite all of that turnover, Kirby Smart’s team still had the second-best scoring defense in the country and best by FEI. Ho hum.
The Bulldogs lost more players to the NFL draft once again, including Jalen Carter, Nolan Smith, Christopher Smith, and Kelee Ringo. However, in typical Georgia fashion, there are plenty more elite talents ready to lead the next iteration of this dynastic defense. On the defensive line, look for five-star sophomores Mykel Williams and Marvin Jones Jr. to lead the way.
With Carter out the door, Nazir Stackhouse will take on even more responsibility in his senior season – he was seventh among qualified interior defensive linemen in PFF run defense grades last year. Additionally, look for Smael Mondon Jr. and Jamon Dumas-Johnson, the top two tacklers from last year, to excel at linebacker.
The secondary needs to replace a couple of starters, but Kamari Lassiter, Malaki Starks, and Javon Bullard all return while Tykee Smith had a tremendous spring and could be ready to break out. Georgia is a well-oiled machine in every aspect on defense, and we should expect another handful of NFL products from this year’s lineup.
#2: Michigan Wolverines
The defense has been crucial in Michigan’s recent ascension in the college football landscape, and last year’s iteration was excellent as they ranked fifth in points per game allowed and third in EPA per play allowed. Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter was a Broyles Award finalist in his first year at the helm and could oversee an even better group this year.
Michigan returns seven starters from last year’s unit, including sophomore cornerback Will Johnson who ranked fifth among P5 cornerbacks in PFF coverage grades as a true freshman. The secondary also boasts Mike Sainristil, a feisty slot corner who converted from wide receiver last year, and a standout safety duo in Rod Moore and Makari Paige.
While the defensive line said goodbye to stalwarts Mazi Smith and Mike Morris, the unit could be even better this year. Sophomore Mason Graham and Derrick Moore are expected to make a big impact while veteran Kris Jenkins has packed on muscle this offseason. Look for Coastal Carolina transfer Josiah Stewart to give the pass rush a big boost, as well.
Finally, Michigan’s biggest defensive strength might be in a linebacker room that stacks up against any in the country. Junior Colson and Michael Barrett already combined for 173 tackles last year, but as if that weren’t enough, Ernest Hausmann transferred from Nebraska after registering 54 tackles as a true freshman.
#3: Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin Steele is back at Alabama for the third time under Nick Saban, and he’ll bring plenty of stability to a defense that needs it after losing its best two players, edge Will Anderson Jr. and safety Brian Branch, to the NFL. Veteran Dallas Turner will take on a greater burden without Anderson, and his 14 sacks over the last two seasons are tied for the second-most among returning Power Five edge defenders.
Turner will be supported by a stout interior of the defensive line. Jaheim Oatis is in the best shape of his career after reportedly losing about 100 pounds since joining the program. Justin Eboigbe is poised to produce after missing all but four games last year with a neck injury. Five star true freshman Keon Keeley could also boost the pass rush.
Fellow five-star true freshman Caleb Downs could be the opening day starter for the Tide at safety, and he’s been turning heads all offseason. Junior Kool-Aid McKinstry also returns at cornerback with potential NFL first-round appeal. Look for Deontae Lawson to lead this defense in tackles after a strong true freshman campaign.
#4: Penn State Nittany Lions
In the first season with Manny Diaz as the new defensive coordinator, Penn State improved from 22nd in EPA per play allowed to 5th. The Nittany Lions had an especially elite pass rush, leading the Big Ten in sacks and ranking first in the country with a 38.9% pressure rate on opponent dropbacks.
That pass rush is led by Chop Robinson whose 92.4 PFF pass rush grade led Power Five edge defenders. Dani Dennis-Sutton is a breakout candidate after ranking second in the same group with a 22.6% pass-rush win rate. Adisa Isaac and Amin Vanover round out what could be the best edge group in the country.
The Lions lost starting corner Joey Porter Jr. and safety Ji’Ayir Brown to the NFL, but Kalen King paces all cornerbacks returning to the FBS in PFF coverage grades. Linebackers Abdul Carter and Curtis Jacobs, who were second and third on the team in tackles, also return for another season.
#5: Iowa Hawkeyes
No defense on this list carries as big of a burden as Iowa’s. The Hawkeyes fielded the second-worst offense in the Power Five by EPA per play, and yet their defense was second in the country in points per game allowed. Phil Parker remains the best defensive coordinator in the country as he’s led a top 15 defense by EPA in each of the last five years.
The Hawkeyes have some talent to replace in the front seven after Lukas Van Ness and Jack Campbell were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. However, redshirt junior Deontae Craig is back after leading the team with seven sacks last season and Virginia transfer Nick Jackson likely immediately becomes the team’s best linebacker. In addition, expect defensive tackles Noah Shannon and Logan Lee to produce at a high level again.
Parker should once again coach an elite secondary despite losing Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather to the NFL. Cooper DeJean was the fourth-highest graded cornerback in the country last year per PFF and is an All American caliber talent. Xavier Nwankpa is a potential breakout player to watch after an electric performance in the team’s bowl game.
#6: LSU Tigers
LSU had an uneven defensive season as they were 34th in points per game allowed, but a top 20 ranking in FEI and FPI efficiency indicates room for improvement in the raw results. Matt House, who was the linebackers coach on the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl team, returns for his second season as the LSU defensive coordinator.
The Tigers hope Maason Smith, who tore his ACL in the first game last season, can stay on the field. The former five-star recruit would join Mekhi Wingo, who was sixth among 92 qualified interior defensive linemen in PFF run defense grades last year. With the attention those two would demand up front, Harold Perkins, who led the team with 13 TFLs and 7.5 sacks last year, would have plenty of opportunities to wreak havoc.
LSU went to work in the transfer portal, adding multiple potential starters headlined by Omar Speights, a former Oregon State linebacker who was a First Team All Pac 12 linebacker last year. Former Syracuse cornerback Duce Chestnut should also play a ton as a former freshman All-American with inside-out versatility.
#7: Clemson Tigers
While the transfer portal remains Dabo Swinney’s sworn enemy, Clemson has plenty of pieces in place to field an elite defense in 2023. In Wes Goodwin’s first season as defensive coordinator, the Tigers finished top ten in FEI, FPI, and EPA. Clemson returns eight starters from that talented defense.
The defensive line lost Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, both of whom were first round picks in the NFL, but there’s plenty of returning talent with Xavier Thomas, Tyler Davis, and Ruke Orhorhoro. Thomas missed all but three games last year with a broken bone in his foot. Peter Woods, ESPN’s top rated non quarterback recruit in this year’s class, is also expected to see significant time as a true freshman.
Clemson boasts arguably the best linebacker duo in the country with Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter – they combined for 162 tackles, 23.5 for a loss last year. The secondary also has plenty of proven experience with all four of Sheridan Jones, Nate Wiggins, Jalyn Phillips, and Andrew Mukuba having spent multiple years with the team.
#8: Florida State Seminoles
Florida State has improved on defense each season under Mike Norvell, and they could be poised for another big leap in 2023. While the Seminoles went to work in the transfer portal over the offseason, the biggest win was Jared Verse’s return despite him being a surefire first-round pick in the NFL. He finished last season, his first in the FBS, with 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
Joining Verse on the defensive line will be Patrick Payton, the 2022 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Fabien Lovett, another player who returned despite NFL interest. Western Michigan transfer Braden Fiske rounds out the defensive line after ranking sixth among Group of Five defensive linemen per PFF.
Virginia transfer Fentrell Cypress II was a huge acquisition – he ranked seventh among P5 cornerbacks in PFF coverage grades last year. The Seminoles lost safety Jammie Robinson, their leading tackler, to the NFL, but the rest of the secondary returned after allowing the third-fewest passing yards per game last season.
#9: Illinois Fighting Illini
The 2022 season was phenomenal for the Illinois defense as the Illini led the country in points allowed per opportunity and ranked top six in FEI, FPI, and EPA. That alone would make it difficult to keep this team out of the top ten of these rankings. However, the Illini did have a reckoning of sorts over the offseason, starting with losing defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, the new head coach at Purdue.
New defensive coordinator Aaron Henry, the former defensive backs coach, must work around the loss of starting DBs Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, and Jartavius Martin. I wouldn’t bet against Henry’s developmental ability with three new starting sophomores in Tyler Strain, Matthew Bailey, and Xavier Scott. Louisville transfer Nicario Harper provides veteran leadership to the secondary.
The Illinois defense will lean on an elite front seven led by defensive linemen Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. Newton’s 59 pressures led all P5 interior defensive linemen per PFF and his 91.5 grade was fourth. The Illini also have a rising star in Freshman All American linebacker Gabe Jacas.
#10: Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State isn’t supposed to have an elite defense with how good their offense is every year, but Jim Knowles led them to a top ten ranking in FEI and EPA in his first year as defensive coordinator. In his second season at the helm, it’s reasonable to expect further improvement for the Buckeyes.
All Big Ten talents J.T. Tuimoloau and Tommy Eichenberg lead this defense. Eichenbeg led the team with 120 tackles. Tuimoloau’s historic game against Penn State still steals the headlines, but he had an outstanding season overall. Jack Sawyer and Michael Hall Jr. round out the front seven after combining for nine sacks last year while fifth-year senior linebacker Steele Chambers has all conference upside.
The secondary doesn’t have quite the same level of talent, but transfers Ja’Had Carter (Syracuse) and Davison Igbinosun (Ole Miss) raise the ceiling for the pass defense. Lathan Ransom will be relied on for leadership on the back end with Ronnie Hickman and Tanner McCalister off to the NFL. Denzel Burke is also capable of a breakout as a shutdown corner.