Ranking college football’s 25 best defenses over the next three seasons

NCAA Football

The contrast between the LSU and Alabama teams that played for the national championship in January 2012 and those that captured the past two national titles isn’t lost on anyone who studies college football.

Offense and quarterback play drive championship teams more than ever. But defense isn’t an afterthought. While the 2020 Alabama offense and the 2019 LSU offense are among the best in college football history, the defenses ranked No. 7 and No. 11 in efficiency, respectively, in those years. Clemson’s two recent championship teams ranked first (2018) and eighth (2016) in defensive efficiency. A degree of balance is needed, which offense-leaning title hopefuls like Oklahoma are aiming to achieve.

The future power rankings return with a look at the 25 best defenses over the next three seasons: 2021, 2022 and 2023. These rankings feature some of the teams that appear in the quarterback and offense lists, although there’s not as much overlap.

A reminder: The list considers current rosters, future recruiting, potential NFL departures, non-senior depth and unit trajectory. The NCAA’s blanket waiver is also factored in, which allows players to not count the 2020 season against their overall eligibility, as well as the one-time transfer policy.

Finally, coaching and trends factor into the rundown. Programs that traditionally excel on defense — Georgia, Clemson, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Northwestern, Utah — almost always will find a place on this list, even after significant personnel turnover.

2020 future defense ranking: 2

Scouting the Tigers: Clemson’s defense wasn’t quite as dominant in 2020, but the unit sets up well to meet the elite standard displayed throughout coordinator Brent Venables’ tenure. Defensive line has become one of Clemson’s signature position groups and will remain so as Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee log at least two more seasons in Death Valley. The two five-star recruits from 2020 looked the part as freshmen, combining for eight sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. Both will be on preseason All-America lists for 2021, but tackle Tyler Davis could be Clemson’s top lineman after an injury-plagued 2020 season. In 2019, Davis became Clemson’s first true freshman defensive lineman to start 13 games, and he earned second-team All-ACC honors. There’s depth at both line spots as end Xavier Thomas (freshman All-America in 2018) returns, along with junior tackle Darnell Jefferies and young players such as Ruke Orhorhoro and DeMonte Capehart. Veteran linebackers James Skalski (210 tackles, 25 starts) and Baylon Spector (125 tackles) lead a linebacker group that saw Mike Jones Jr. transfer but still has enough depth, especially with how often Clemson plays nickel.

A veteran secondary seeks an upgrade after struggling in the CFP semifinal loss to Ohio State. Like Skalski, safety Nolan Turner is back for a sixth season to lead the group (190 tackles, six interceptions in 55 games) and forms a solid tandem with Lannden Zanders. Clemson loses top cornerback Derion Kendrick, but Andrew Booth Jr., Sheridan Jones and Mario Goodrich all started games in 2020. Five-star linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. headlines Clemson’s 2021 recruiting class, which also includes two other top-100 prospect defenders (tackles Payton Page, end Cade Denhoff) and seven total ESPN 300 defenders.

2020 future defense ranking: 1

Scouting the Bulldogs: Georgia knows it needs to end its 41-year national title drought, and perhaps quarterback JT Daniels and offensive playcaller Todd Monken will crack the code. But Georgia’s forecast on defense remains excellent and seems to be getting better each year. There are some short-term concerns in the secondary, although the addition of West Virginia safety Tykee Smith, an All-America selection in 2020, certainly will help. Georgia’s front seven looks strong in 2021 and will continue to reload even after players like tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, end Julian Rochester and linebackers Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker move on. There are four- and five-star prospects everywhere, including third-year linebacker Nolan Smith (ESPN’s No. 2 overall recruit in 2019), tackle Jalen Carter and young linebackers MJ Sherman, Smael Mondon and Xavian Sorey — all top-25 overall recruits in their respective classes.

The immediate questions are replacing production from outside linebackers Azeez Ojulari and Jermaine Johnson, cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell and veteran safety Richard LeCounte. The addition of Smith alongside junior Lewis Cine (52 tackles in 2020) stabilizes the safety group for at least a year. Cornerback Kelee Ringo, Georgia’s top 2020 recruit and ESPN’s No. 8 overall player, steps into a featured role at a position that is creating angst but usually works out well under head coach Kirby Smart. Georgia’s recruiting continues to roll with Deyon Bouie, Malaki Starks and five other ESPN 300 defenders already committed for 2022.

2020 future defense ranking: 5

Scouting the Tide: Nick Saban’s defense is no longer the featured attraction in Tuscaloosa, but remains packed with talent and depth at most spots. Alabama’s linebacking corps will likely be the nation’s best in 2021, as Christian Miller leads the group alongside Christopher Allen and Will Anderson Jr. They combined for 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss last season. Anderson, who led Alabama with seven sacks as a true freshman, will also play in 2022. The long-term goal will be building around him with Drew Sanders and others. Alabama undoubtedly will miss lockdown cornerback Patrick Surtain II, but the position projects well with senior Josh Jobe, sophomore Malachi Moore and Ga’Quincy McKinstry, ESPN’s No. 40 recruit in the 2021 class. The safety spot is extremely deep with Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams and Daniel Wright, each of whom had 60 or more tackles last season. Sophomore Brian Branch and Wright both had two interceptions.

Alabama’s defensive line hasn’t jumped out as much lately and loses top pass rusher Christian Barmore. The nose guard spot looks solid with junior DJ Dale, emerging sophomore Tim Smith and incoming freshman Damon Payne, ESPN’s No. 26 recruit in the 2021 class. Senior Phidarian Mathis will provide leadership and experience this fall. Alabama needs more production from ends like LaBryan Ray, Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe, and could soon turn to younger players such as Dallas Turner, Alabama’s top-rated defensive recruit for 2021 and ESPN’s No. 12 overall prospect in the class.

2020 future defense ranking: 20

Scouting the Aggies: Things are really coming together for coach Jimbo Fisher, coordinator Mike Elko and the Aggies following a top-five finish in 2020. The defense finished second nationally against the run and allowed more than 27 points only once in the final seven games. Texas A&M’s defensive line is a major strength, especially in the short term as ends DeMarvin Leal, Micheal Clemons and Tyree Johnson and tackle Jayden Peevy all are back for the 2021 season. Johnson and Clemons both had four sacks last season, while Leal had a team-high eight quarterback pressures. The development of younger players like sophomore tackles McKinnley Jackson and Isaiah Raikes, five-star recruit Shemar Turner and top-50 national prospect Tunmise Adeleye will stabilize the line through 2023.

Senior Aaron Hansford, the team’s No. 2 tackler in 2020, will lead a linebacker group that features junior Andre White Jr. and a host of gifted younger players, including Edgerrin Cooper and Antonio Doyle Jr. The Aggies’ secondary could be the unit’s strength as veteran safeties Leon O’Neal Jr. and Demani Richardson return, alongside fifth-year cornerback Myles Jones and second-year cornerback Jaylon Jones, ESPN’s No. 35 recruit for 2020, who had 30 tackles and a team-high six pass breakups as a freshman. Fisher’s recruiting continues to excel, as Texas A&M has loaded up on linemen and defensive backs, and it has a top-50 player (end Malick Sylla) committed for 2022.

2020 future defense ranking: 3

Scouting the Buckeyes: After an undeniably bad season on defense (2018) followed by an excellent one (2019), Ohio State backslid last year. The Buckeyes struggled against Indiana and Alabama and finished 122nd nationally in pass yards allowed, 43rd in points allowed and 107th in red zone touchdown percentage allowed. The recruiting seems too strong for the unit to slip back to 2018, but Ohio State needs clear upgrades under coordinator Kerry Coombs. Who will be the next elite lineman in Columbus? Perhaps ends Tyreke Smith or Zach Harrison, ESPN’s No. 10 overall recruit in 2019, break out this season. Ohio State will miss Tommy Togiai, the Buckeyes lineman Big Ten coaches feared most in 2020, but Haskell Garrett returns for a fifth year. The arrival of end Jack Sawyer, ESPN’s No. 1 overall 2021 recruit, elevates excitement for the future, but Ohio State will need other young linemen to emerge this fall.

Ohio State seeks more athleticism at linebacker, where playing time opens up for seniors Dallas Gant and Teradja Mitchell, but also younger players like Tommy Eichenberg, Kourt Williams, Mitchell Melton and Cody Simon. The secondary is another area with enough experienced players — safeties Josh Proctor and Marcus Hooker and cornerbacks Sevyn Banks, Cameron Brown and Marcus Williamson — but no guaranteed stars. Like linebacker, Ohio State could go younger with Lathan Ransom, Ryan Watts and others. The Buckeyes signed two of ESPN’s top five cornerback recruits for 2021 (Jakailin Johnson and Jordan Hancock), and will add Jaheim Singletary, ESPN’s No. 34 overall recruit for 2022.

2020 future defense ranking: 6

Scouting the Ducks: Oregon became a national program largely because of exciting offenses, especially during the Chip Kelly era. But coach Mario Cristobal is making defense the program’s signature. Although the Ducks allowed more than 28 points per game in 2020 then lost coordinator Andy Avalos, they project as one of the more talented units in the country. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is a top 2022 NFL draft prospect, after earning Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Year honors. Oregon must build around him, starting with players like tackles Brandon Dorlus, Kristian Williams and Popo Aumavae, all of whom have multiple years of eligibility left. The Ducks need more pass-rushing prowess and could look to younger ends like sophomore Bradyn Swinson.

Inside linebacker should be the defense’s strength through 2021 and possibly 2022, thanks to sophomore Noah Sewell and junior Isaac Slade-Matautia. They tied for the team tackles lead last fall, and Sewell had 6.5 tackles for loss and an interception. Outside linebacker Mase Funa is another key part of the future, along with Justin Flowe, ESPN’s No. 10 overall recruit in 2020. The preseason opt-outs in the secondary allowed players like cornerbacks Mykael Wright and DJ James, safety Verone McKinley III and nickel Jamal Hill to gain more experience. All four have only sophomore eligibility. Oregon is stocked with young talent in the back end, from second-year cornerback Dontae Manning (ESPN’s No. 24 overall recruit in 2020) to incoming freshman Avante Dickerson, ESPN’s No. 2 cornerback and No. 49 overall recruit for 2021. The Ducks already have four ESPN 300 defenders committed in the 2022 class.

2020 future defense ranking: 19

Scouting the Bearcats: Cincinnati continues to surge under coach Luke Fickell and will be favored to reach another New Year’s Six bowl in 2021. Fickell’s signature defense returns seven starters and adds some impact newcomers. While coordinator Marcus Freeman will be missed, Mike Tressel is an experienced and capable replacement. Veterans fill the two-deep, especially up front but also in the secondary, where cornerback Coby Bryant will be one of the nation’s most experienced defenders. An all-senior line of ends Myjai Sanders and Malik Vann, and tackles Curtis Brooks and Marcus Brown, will anchor the unit in 2021. Sanders had seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season. Virginia transfer Jowon Briggs, who started 14 games the past two seasons and has sophomore eligibility, helps the long-term outlook at tackle along with sophomore Eric Phillips and others. The post-2021 forecast hinges on the development of underclassmen such as sophomore Sterling Miles and incoming freshman Zeiqui Lawton.

Bryant and Ahmad Gardner, both first-team All-AAC selections in 2020, and junior Arquon Bush form an elite cornerback group. If Gardner departs for the NFL after this season, Cincinnati will need juniors Justin Harris and Taj Ward, plus an intriguing group of sophomores, to step up. Safeties Bryan Cook and Ja’Von Hicks, who combined for 39 tackles in 2020, get their chance in the spotlight, with junior Jacob Dingle as a No. 3 option. The linebackers also project well for 2021 with Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko, who combined for 109 tackles last year. Cincinnati should turn to Brody Ingle, Daved Jones Jr. and Jaheim Thomas for 2022 and beyond. This is a top-five defense in 2021 that will remain elite if Fickell continues to stick around.

2020 future defense ranking: 4

Scouting the Tigers: The hope around Baton Rouge is that LSU’s defense, like the entire program, can reset in 2021 after struggling for most of last fall. LSU plummeted to 126th in yards-per-play allowed and 98th in points allowed, forcing a coordinator change from Bo Pelini to Daronte Jones. Like all things LSU, talent isn’t in short supply, and a veteran line should help shape coach Ed Orgeron’s vision for the unit. There are short-term answers up front, such as senior tackles Glen Logan and Neil Farrell Jr., senior end Ali Gaye (team-high 9.5 tackles for loss in 2020) and senior edge rusher Andre Anthony (team-high 5.5 sacks in 2020). Then, there’s the group that will carry the line through 2023, which includes sophomores Jaquelin Roy and B.J. Ojulari and incoming freshmen Maason Smith (ESPN’s No. 57 overall recruit), Bryce Langston (No. 65 overall) and Landon Jackson (No. 78 overall).

LSU is loaded at cornerback with Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks. Stingley will be gone in 2022 but Ricks, who led the team with four interceptions last season, is just a true sophomore, and Ward and Cordale Flott are juniors. After a tough season at nickel, junior Jay Ward moved to safety and should start there next to junior Todd Harris Jr. in 2021. LSU also adds ESPN’s top-rated safety and No. 28 overall recruit in Derrick Davis Jr., as well as No. 64 overall prospect Sage Ryan. Linebacker is the big question, although leading tackler Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville both return, and LSU adds instant-impact players such as Clemson transfer Mike Jones Jr. and junior college transfer Navonteque Strong. Second-year linebacker Antoine Sampah was ESPN’s No. 55 overall recruit in 2020.

2020 future defense ranking: 12

Scouting the Badgers: The biggest and best development is the return of coordinator Jim Leonhard. The former Badger and NFL defensive back from Tony, Wisconsin, turned down the Green Bay Packers to remain at his alma mater, where he continues to upgrade an already-elite defense. This spring, Leonhard talked about “unfinished business” at Wisconsin, and while he may be gone by 2023, every year the Badgers keep him is huge. He oversees a unit led by an excellent linebacker group and an emerging secondary that has benefited from improved recruiting. Inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal lead the unit after combining for 10 tackles for loss and 12 quarterback hurries in the abridged 2020 season. Both have multiple years of eligibility left, as does outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who tied for the team lead with six tackles for loss as a true freshman. Other outside linebacker options including C.J. Goetz, Aaron Witt and Spencer Lytle, who are all young.

Leonhard’s influence on the secondary is clear, and Wisconsin projects well there through 2023. Veterans Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams lead a very deep cornerback group, which should turn to players like Donte Burton and Semar Melvin after the 2021 season. Safety Scott Nelson‘s solid performance in 2020 sets him up for a potentially huge fourth season, and senior Collin Wilder also has starting experience at safety. Wisconsin also signed two ESPN 300 safeties in the 2021 class in Braelon Allen and Hunter Wohler. The big questions with the unit are up front, although Keeanu Benton should occupy the nose guard spot at least through 2022. Senior end Matt Henningsen (16 starts, five sacks) and junior end Isaiah Mullens both return, but Wisconsin will look for a lift from younger players like James Thompson Jr. or perhaps incoming freshman T.J. Bollers, Wisconsin’s highest-rated 2021 defensive recruit.

2020 future defense ranking: 9

Scouting the Tigers: Auburn didn’t fire head coach Gus Malzahn because of the defense, a unit that should continue to thrive under new coordinator Derek Mason. The Tigers lose some key parts — do-it-all safety Christian Tutt and linemen DaQuan Newkirk and Big Kat Bryant — but bring back one of the nation’s top linebacker groups and more than enough talent elsewhere. Junior Owen Pappoe and senior Zakoby McClain will lead the unit in 2021 after combining for 206 tackles, including seven sacks, last fall. Senior Chandler Wooten, who opted out in 2020, is back, and linebackers such as Cam Riley and Wesley Steiner should take over in 2022, along with sophomore edge rusher Derick Hall (3.5 sacks in 2020). Senior cornerback Roger McCreary (three interceptions, seven tackles for loss in 2020) is a nationally elite player and could pair with West Virginia transfer Dreshun Miller. Veteran safety Smoke Monday also returns. The long-term outlook is solid at cornerback (junior Nehemiah Pritchett, sophomore Jaylin Simpson) and at safety (sophomores Ladarius Tennison and Chris Thompson Jr.).

Mason’s development of the line is worth watching. Auburn will miss its departing players but returns sophomore end Colby Wooden, who earned SEC All-Freshman honors after recording 9.5 tackles for loss (four sacks) in 2020. Zykeivous Walker also saw playing time as a freshman end, and Auburn adds Dylan Brooks, ESPN’s No. 5 end and No. 18 overall recruit for 2021. The Tigers also pick up two coveted interior line recruits in Lee Hunter, a top-60 overall prospect, and Marquis Robinson. They join tackles such as senior Marquis Burks, junior Dre Butler and sophomore Jay Hardy. Auburn’s overall line depth looks very good through 2023.

2020 future defense ranking: 13

Scouting the Irish: Notre Dame’s defense enters a new phase. There’s a coordinator transition from Clark Lea to Marcus Freeman, and the departures of standouts such as linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the 2020 Butkus Award winner. The key remains consistency, as Notre Dame ranks 10th nationally in points allowed since 2017. Junior safety Kyle Hamilton and a potentially elite line could carry the group through 2021. Hamilton comes off an All-America season in which he had 16 tackles for loss and an interception. He’ll play alongside senior Houston Griffith, who briefly entered the transfer portal this winter, and possibly junior DJ Brown and sophomore KJ Wallace. Sophomore Clarence Lewis and senior TaRiq Bracy both started six games at cornerback in 2020, but Freeman must find some depth there, especially beyond 2021. Notre Dame replaces a superstar at linebacker, but it returns experience in seniors Drew White, Bo Bauer and Shayne Simon. Sophomores Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser, who both started games last fall, should help stabilize the position beyond 2021.

The Irish boast one of the nation’s top tackle tandems in fifth-year seniors Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who combined for 13 tackles for loss last season. There’s good depth behind them, and players such as Rylie Mills and Howard Cross III can play beyond 2021. Junior end Isaiah Foskey had 4.5 sacks in a reserve role last season and could play through 2022. Sophomore Jordan Botelho should see increased playing time, but Notre Dame needs a few more punishing pass-rushers. Freeman is already boosting the team’s recruiting efforts: Three ESPN 300 defenders for 2022 have committed since his hiring.

2020 future defense ranking: 7

Scouting the Gators: Florida falls out of the top 10 after a historically poor performance on defense in 2020, and lingering questions about coordinator Todd Grantham’s leadership remain. But the Gators could soon rise up again. There are enough playmakers in the front seven, especially after adding transfers Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and DaQuan Newkirk (Auburn), to carry the unit in 2021 and potentially cover up back-end concerns. Shelton and Newkirk join veterans Zachary Carter (team-high 5.5 sacks last season), Houston Griffith (9.5 tackles for loss, team-high 18 quarterback hurries) and Jeremiah Moon. Their goal is to stabilize the line through 2021 and allow standout 2020 and 2021 recruits like Gervon Dexter, Antwaun Powell and Tyreak Sapp time to develop. Top tackler Ventrell Miller will lead the linebackers for at least one more season, alongside junior Mohamoud Diabate, who had 67 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2020. Senior Amari Burney (seven career starts) helps the rotation and sophomore Ty’Ron Hopper is a factor in the long-term outlook.

The secondary needs a significant boost, especially at safety. Senior Trey Dean III must translate experience into consistency, while Rashad Torrence II could be a long-term answer after starting three games as a true freshman in 2020. Grantham likely needs early contributions from Corey Collier, ESPN’s No. 3 safety and No. 93 overall recruit in 2021. Cornerback looks more promising with Kaiir Elam, a first-team All-SEC selection last fall, for at least another year. Junior Jaydon Hill made five starts last year, and Florida has intriguing young options such as Jason Marshall, ESPN’s top cornerback and No. 44 overall recruit for 2021.

2020 future defense ranking: 15

Scouting the Hawkeyes: Iowa is one of the nation’s steadiest programs, largely because of consistent leadership from head coach Kirk Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker. The Hawkeyes have shown under Parker that even significant personnel losses at a position group aren’t enough to knock the defense off track. Defensive line is the short-term area to watch, as Iowa loses Outland Trophy finalist Daviyon Nixon at tackle and talented end Chauncey Golston. Senior end Zach VanValkenburg (8.5 tackles for loss, four fumbles recovered in 2020) will lead the unit this fall, and juniors Noah Shannon, John Waggoner and Joe Evans are all contenders to start alongside him. The post-2021 outlook likely depends on how younger linemen such as second-year tackle Yahya Black develop. Iowa also has a commitment from Aaron Graves, ESPN’s No. 100 prospect for 2022.

Juniors Seth Benson and Jack Campbell are positioned to guide the linebackers through 2022, and junior Dane Belton flashes playmaking skills at the Cash (safety-linebacker) position. Sophomore Jestin Jacobs is expected to be a major factor beginning this season. Iowa’s lone ESPN 300 defender in the 2021 class plays linebacker: Justice Sullivan. Parker’s signature group is the secondary, which should thrive this fall. Seniors Riley Moss (six career interceptions), Matt Hankins (26 career starts) and Jack Koerner (second-team All-Big Ten in 2020) all return, along with experienced safety Kaevon Merriweather. There’s good depth with junior Terry Roberts, sophomores Reggie Bracy and Jermari Harris, and senior Xavior Williams, a transfer from FCS Northern Iowa.

2020 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Wildcats: Northwestern makes a big jump in the rankings after, in hindsight, being unfairly punished for a historically bad offense during the 2019 season. The Wildcats had been good to very good on defense since 2015. Last season, they became elite, finishing in the top five in several key categories. Northwestern is at a point where it can reload at most spots. The question is how the defense will fare without veteran coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who retired after 51 years in coaching. Longtime NFL assistant Jim O’Neil takes over a unit that projects well up front and in the secondary. Northwestern loses cornerback Greg Newsome II, a first-round NFL draft pick, but returns All-America safety Brandon Joseph, only a sophomore. The cornerback position projects well with returning starter A.J. Hampton, a junior, and redshirt sophomore Cam Mitchell, who could be the group’s next star. Building depth alongside Joseph is key, for the short term (senior Bryce Jackson) or the long term (sophomore Coco Azema).

An experienced defensive line will feature seniors Joe Spivak and Trevor Kent at tackle, junior end Adetomiwa Adebawore and senior end Samdup Miller, who opted out in 2020. The Wildcats need more pass-rushing prowess for O’Neil’s scheme, whether it’s from junior Devin O’Rourke or from others, including decorated incoming freshman Najee Story. Sophomore tackle Jordan Butler, who started three games in 2020, helps the long-term outlook there. Fifth-year senior Chris Bergin is the only returning starter at linebacker, but senior Peter McIntyre has waited his turn at the middle spot behind Paddy Fisher. The group’s future comes down to the development of non-seniors such as Khalid Jones, Bryce Gallagher and Jaylen Jones.

2020 future defense ranking: 8

Scouting the Huskies: A four-game 2020 season didn’t reveal too much about Washington’s future, but coach Jimmy Lake always crafts good-to-great defenses in Seattle and should continue to do so. Unfortunately, the unit’s short-term outlook took a major hit when outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui tore his Achilles in spring practice. ZTF recorded seven sacks and three forced fumbles in those four games last fall, earning third-team AP All-America honors. If Tupuola-Fetui cannot play in 2021, Washington will turn to senior Ryan Bowman, juniors Edefuan Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon, sophomores Daniel Heimuli and Alphonzo Tuputala, and redshirt freshman Sav’ell Smalls, who appeared in all four 2020 games. Washington also adds ESPN 300 recruit Will Latu to the mix. The Huskies don’t play many true linemen, but fourth-year juniors Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani anchor a unit with plenty of depth, including sophomores Jacob Bandes and Faatui Tuitele.

The secondary is Lake’s signature unit, and it should continue to thrive despite losing Elijah Molden and others. Junior cornerback Trent McDuffie, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, will lead the unit along with veteran safeties Asa Turner and Alex Cook. There are plenty of non-senior options at safety with the versatile Julius Irvin, Cameron Williams and Dominique Hampton, a former cornerback, and redshirt freshman Jacobe Covington. The short-term intrigue is at nickel and in complementing McDuffie at cornerback. Sophomore Kamren Fabiculanan and Brendan Radley-Hiles, a transfer from Oklahoma, are strong options at nickel.

2020 future defense ranking: 18

Scouting the Utes: Utah’s defense has accomplished enough over time to never slip too far, not even after an expected mini-step back last season. Few units lost more key contributors than the Utes’ defense after reaching the cusp of playoff selection in 2019. Everything flips this season, as Utah returns all but one starter, including All-America linebacker Devin Lloyd and second-team All-Pac-12 defensive end Mika Tafua. Lloyd and Tafua lead a group of non-seniors — linebacker Nephi Sewell, cornerbacks JaTravis Broughton, Clark Phillips III and Malone Mataele — who could propel the defense into 2022 (and beyond). Safety Vonte Davis, who started every game in 2020 and led the team with two interceptions, is the only projected starter in the secondary with senior eligibility. The key will be building a little more safety depth with junior R.J. Hubert and others.

Defensive line undoubtedly will be a strength, at least in the short term, with Tafua returning alongside senior end JaTravis Broughton and senior tackle Viane Moala. Senior tackle Hauati Pututau is another experienced option (42 career games), although Tennessee Pututau started twice as a true freshman and looks like the future at interior line. Freshmen Van Fillinger and freshman Miki Suguturaga also should be factors. Lloyd and Sewell have 44 career FBS starts between them, and last fall combined for 88 tackles, including 16 for loss, and two forced fumbles in only five games. The key will be building depth with sophomore Andrew Mata’afa and other young players, including incoming ESPN 300 recruits Ethan Calvert and Mason Tufaga.

2020 future defense ranking: 10

Scouting the Nittany Lions: There’s significant personnel turnover at PSU, which loses first-round draft picks Micah Parsons (opted out of 2020) and Jayson Oweh, along with productive linemen Shaka Toney (NFL) and Antonio Shelton (transfer to Florida). But coordinator Brent Pry remains, along with veteran defensive backs Tariq Castro-Fields and Jaquan Brisker and several emerging talents. The back seven should be strong, although Penn State is looking for more consistency from returning linebackers Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa and Brandon Smith, none of whom has senior eligibility. Curtis Jacobs, who appeared in eight games as a true freshman, will solidify the long-term outlook, along with Charlie Katshir and others. Castro-Fields, Brisker and cornerback Keaton Ellis all boast ample starting experience, and three other lettermen at cornerback return, including Joey Porter Jr. (33 tackles, four pass breakups in 2020). Freshman Kalen King impressed during spring practice. PSU needs more depth at safety alongside Brisker, a senior in 2021. Juniors Jonathan Sutherland and Ji’Ayir Brown both saw the field last fall, but the Lions also could look to younger options such as Jaylen Reed, their top-rated 2021 defensive recruit.

The short-term questions are up front and building around junior tackle PJ Mustipher. Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie (second-team All-AAC in 2020) will help at end for at least a year, and PSU hopes sophomore Adisa Isaac will become a mainstay pass-rusher. The key is building a rotation with sophomore Nick Tarburton or others. Graduate transfer Derrick Tangelo, who started 27 games at Duke, could be the short-term answer alongside Mustipher. Third-year tackle Hakeem Beamon and an unproven group of freshmen likely must carry the position through 2023. PSU also seeks recruiting upgrades after a down year in 2021.

2020 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Cyclones: In hindsight, I was too harsh dropping ISU out of the previous rankings. The unit’s trajectory throughout coordinator Jon Heacock’s tenure is strong. The temptation is to overcorrect, and if this were a one-year projection, Iowa State would be in the top 10. There are some questions after 2021, but ISU’s defense is a big reason the team will enter the fall as a legitimate CFP contender. The Cyclones return Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Mike Rose, who anchors an excellent linebacking group that also features fellow seniors O’Rien Vance and Jake Hummel. Along with Rose, safety Greg Eisworth II will be a centerpiece of the 2021 defense. A three-time first-team All-Big 12 selection, Eisworth leads a secondary also featuring senior cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young, Villanova transfer Jaquan Amos at safety and safety Isheem Young, the 2020 Big 12 co-Freshman of the Year. Isheem Young is vital for the back seven’s outlook beyond this coming season, along with other non-seniors such as linebackers Gerry Vaughn (junior) and Aric Horne (sophomore). Adding to the mix are junior Tayvonn Kyle, an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection, junior Kym-Mani King and T.J. Tampa, who appeared in nine games as a true freshman in 2020.

ISU’s defensive line resets the most in 2021 after losing standout JaQuan Bailey and others. But the group retains junior Will McDonald, who led the team in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (13.5) last fall. The Cyclones get ends Eyioma Uwazurike (22.5 career tackles for loss) and Zach Petersen for one more year. They’re a bit thin inside aside from junior Isaiah Lee. Overall, ISU will be fun to watch in 2021, but it must address questions in the years ahead.

2020 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Sooners: After three straight CFP semifinal losses, Oklahoma knew that without a better defense, the program would never take the next step. The Sooners missed the playoff in 2020, but they improved on defense and should remain on track under third-year coordinator Alex Grinch. Last fall, OU finished in the top 10 nationally in sacks, third-down defense and run defense. The biggest development is depth and versatility, especially in the front seven. Leading tackler Brian Asamoah returns at linebacker, along with dynamic pass-rusher Nik Bonitto (eight sacks, 10 quarterback hurries in 2020), No. 5 tackler DaShaun White, and Caleb Kelly, a sixth-year player coming off of an ACL tear. There’s also junior David Ugwoegbu, top 2020 defensive recruit Reggie Grimes and incoming freshman Clayton Smith, ESPN’s No. 84 recruit in the 2021 class.

Grinch also has options on the line. Senior Isaiah Thomas, who led OU in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (13), and second-team All-Big 12 selection Perrion Winfrey lead the group. But junior Marcus Stripling and senior LaRon Stokes are both reliable options, and the Sooners regain Jalen Redmond, their 2019 sacks leader who opted out last season. OU has experience at safety (Pat Fields, Delarrin Turner-Yell) and at cornerback (Woodi Washington, D.J. Graham), although recent recruiting upgrades could shake up the rotation. Freshman Bryson Washington and sophomore Jeremiah Criddell both were ESPN 300 recruits, and Justin Harrington was ESPN’s No. 4 junior college prospect in 2020. OU also adds Tennessee transfer Key Lawrence, who played multiple positions last fall and was ESPN’s No. 102 recruit in 2020.

2020 future defense ranking: 23

Scouting the Mountaineers: Coastal Carolina and Louisiana stole the Sun Belt show last season, while Appalachian State quietly went 9-3 and continued to excel on defense. Since 2016, Appalachian State ranks eighth nationally in points allowed and 13th in yards per play allowed. Despite three different head coaches, the Mountaineers are locking down the opposition. The defense continues to project well, as all but one starter returns for 2021, including super seniors such as ends Demetrius Taylor (six sacks, 13 tackles for loss in 2020) and Caleb Spurlin, safety Kaiden Smith (77 tackles, eight pass breakups) and linebacker Tim Frizzell. D’Marco Jackson, the team’s leading tackler and a second-team all-league honoree, will boost the linebacker group along with fellow senior Trey Cobb (9.5 tackles for loss in 2020). Cornerback Shaun Jolly, a two-time first-team All-Sun Belt performer, will lead the secondary alongside seniors Ryan Huff and Steven Jones.

Appalachian State’s post-2021 personnel losses drag down the unit’s overall ranking, but the Mountaineers should return non-seniors such as outside linebacker Brendan Harrington (four interceptions in 2020) and third-year safety Nick Ross. Junior defensive linemen Hansky Paillant and Jordon Earle will help fortify the front, and sophomore Jalen McLeod is an emerging talent at linebacker. App State also should be an attractive transfer destination for defenders, given its history of producing strong defenses.

2020 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Blazers: UAB’s defense should have been in these rankings earlier, but another year of excellent play, especially against the pass and on third down, pushes the unit into the top 25. Since 2017, UAB trails only Clemson in third-down defense and ranks 13th nationally in yards per play allowed. Coordinator David Reeves has done an outstanding job upgrading the unit. The Blazers again project well for 2021, thanks to a large group of super seniors returning for a final year. Among them is Kristopher Moll, a former linebacker with 219 career tackles and 13 sacks, who will finish his career at safety. Moll will play alongside fellow senior Will Boler, an honorable mention all-league performer in each of the past two seasons. Senior cornerback TD Marshall also returns after earning second-team all-league honors in 2020. Experience carries over to the line, where tackles Tyree Turner, Tony Fair and Mi’Cario Stanley all return. There’s no dominant pass-rusher after Jordan Smith‘s departure, but UAB will be tough to move inside.

The Blazers have a centerpiece at inside linebacker in Noah Wilder, who has 135 tackles (15 for loss) the past two seasons and earned second-team all-league honors in 2020. They lack experience overall at the position but expect big things from junior Deshaun Oliver Jr. Nikia Eason Jr., a junior who had 2.5 sacks in 2020, is among those propelling the outside linebacker spot. UAB will have significant turnover after this season, which brings down the overall ranking a bit, but there’s a lot to like about Reeves and this unit.

2020 future defense ranking: 14

Scouting the Hurricanes: Miami’s meandering quest for a championship depends on improving a defense that struggled in 2020. Head coach Manny Diaz is reclaiming playcalling duties for a unit that loses two NFL-caliber pass-rushers (Jaelan Phillips, Quincy Roche) and several experienced linebackers. Miami’s recruiting suggests it can overcome the personnel losses, but Diaz must engineer immediate improvement. He will lean on players such as junior safety Bubba Bolden, a second-team All-ACC selection, promising linebacker Gilbert Frierson and junior tackle Nesta Silvera, who had eight tackles for loss last season. Bolden leads a secondary that includes experienced players like junior safety Gurvan Hall Jr. and senior safety Amari Carter, but also might trend younger in 2021. Miami retains Avantae Williams, ESPN’s top safety and No. 51 prospect in the 2020 class, and adds James Williams, ESPN’s No. 35 recruit for 2021. There are non-senior options at cornerback in DJ Ivey, Al Blades Jr., Te’Cory Couch and Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson, who started four games for the Bulldogs.

The Hurricanes boast good interior line depth with Silvera, fifth-year senior Jonathan Ford and Jared Harrison-Hunte, who recorded six tackles for loss and three sacks in 2020. Harrison-Hunte and incoming freshman Leonard Taylor, ESPN’s No. 6 overall recruit in the 2021 class, fortify the position beyond this season. Miami hopes to reload at end with Jahfari Harvey, who had five sacks and five hurries last fall. Harvey and third-year end Cameron Williams boost the long-term forecast, and Miami gets Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson and converted linebacker Zach McCloud, a sixth-year player, at end in 2021. Frierson leads a linebacker group seeking more from the interior. Second-year player Corey Flagg Jr. stood out this spring, and other young players such as redshirt freshman Avery Huff are helping. Veteran Bradley Jennings Jr. will try to rebound from a down season.

2020 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Mountaineers: WVU led the Big 12 in both scoring defense and total defense in 2020, and would rank higher here if defensive backs Tykee Smith and Dreshun Miller had not transferred. There’s still a lot left over for Jordan Lesley, officially WVU’s defensive coordinator after handling much of the duties last fall. Despite losing consensus All-America tackle Darius Stills, WVU’s line looks promising. Another Stills remains in tackle Dante Stills, who led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss in 2020. Fellow senior Jeffery Pooler Jr. is also back at nose tackle, and 2020 sacks leader Akheem Mesidor is just a sophomore. Redshirt sophomore Jalen Thornton also should help boost the line beyond 2021. The linebackers also lose a key piece (Tony Fields II), but No. 3 tackler Josh Chandler-Semedo returns in the middle, while seniors Exree Loe and VanDarius Cowan and sophomore Jared Bartlett will attack from the outside. Bartlett, just a redshirt sophomore, tied for second on the team with 3.5 sacks in 2020.

Although the secondary took the transfer hits, it also returns proven players such as safeties Alonzo Addae, a second-team All-Big 12 selection, and Sean Mahone. Sophomore Kerry Martin Jr., who started four games in 2019 before opting out last season, also is back at a spot with strong depth. Cornerback Nicktroy Fortune is a proven option with three years of eligibility left, and senior Jackie Matthews is ready for a bigger role. Daryl Porter Jr. could be the long-term option opposite Fortune.

2020 future defense ranking: 11

Scouting the Wolverines: I debated whether to include Michigan, a top-five defense from 2015 to 2018 that fell off in 2019 and even more sharply last fall, leading to veteran coordinator Don Brown leaving Ann Arbor for Arizona. Coach Jim Harbaugh enters a pivotal season and reshaped the defensive staff, going younger with coordinator Mike Macdonald (33) and others. I like the new additions and especially their immediate impact on recruiting, but if a defense that ranked 95th in points allowed last season doesn’t improve, more changes are coming. Michigan has building blocks at all three levels in end Aidan Hutchinson, linebacker Josh Ross and safety Daxton Hill. The new staff must develop others and add players to bolster the unit through 2023. After recording only two interceptions, Michigan needs more playmaking from a secondary that returns fifth-year safety Brad Hawkins and senior cornerbacks Vincent Gray and Gemon Green, as well as younger players like Makari Paige and second-year players Andre Seldon and Jordan Morant, both ESPN 300 recruits in 2020. Cornerback William Johnson, ESPN’s No. 18 junior recruit, could be the centerpiece of Michigan’s 2022 class.

A healthy Hutchinson will help up front, but Michigan seeks more pass-rush threat from senior Taylor Upshaw and young players such as Braiden McGregor, ESPN’s No. 32 overall prospect in 2020, who missed last season with a knee injury. Interior line should be solid with veterans Donovan Jeter and Christopher Hinton, as well as junior Mazi Smith and incoming freshman Rayshaun Benny. Ross and senior Michael Barrett lead the linebacking corps, which could feature junior David Ojabo in Macdonald’s scheme. Junior Anthony Solomon will be in the rotation, but Michigan also adds two ESPN 300 recruits in Junior Colson and Jaydon Hood.

2020 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Trojans: The last spot is always a tough decision, and other teams were considered (TCU, Texas, San Diego State, Cal, Kentucky). But I like the trajectory at USC under veteran coordinator Todd Orlando. There’s risk in projecting anything at USC beyond a critical 2021 season, but a recent uptick in recruiting should solidify the unit even if the school makes a coaching change. The Trojans’ most promising defenders are non-seniors, from outside linebacker Drake Jackson to cornerback Chris Steele to safety Isaiah Pola-Mao to incoming freshman defensive end Korey Foreman, ESPN’s No. 3 overall prospect in the 2021 class. Others such as defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu, and inside linebackers Kana’i Mauga and Ralen Goforth, all can play at least two more seasons for USC. There are several experienced seniors, too, such as defensive end Nick Figueroa (team-high seven tackles for loss and three sacks in 2020), safety Greg Johnson and linebackers Kana’i Mauga and Jordan Iosefa.

The players should be even more comfortable in Year 2 of Orlando’s high-risk, high-reward scheme. But the unit could really be special in 2022 and 2023. In addition to Foreman, USC’s 2021 class includes another top-50 national prospect in linebacker Raesjon Davis, as well as cornerback Ceyair Wright (ESPN’s No. 110 overall player), ESPN 300 Julien Simon and others. USC already has 2022 commitments from cornerback Domani Jackson, ESPN’s No. 5 junior prospect, as well as ESPN 300 cornerback Fabian Ross.

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