Obviously, the Gators have a great deal of work to do for the defense to pick up where it left off in 2009. The list of those departed is quite long: Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Cunningham, Major Wright, Ryan Stamper and Dustin Doe. The thing is, we just can’t bet against a recruiting powerhouse like Florida. Former top recruits like Ahmad Black, Will Hill and Janoris Jenkins return in the secondary, making the loss of Haden and Wright appear manageable. Similarly, A.J. Jones, Brandon Hicks, Jelani Jenkins and Jonathan Bostic appear poised to provide the next wave of terror in the Florida linebacking crew. The defensive line also features plenty of big-time recruits waiting to step in. The final reason to like Florida's defense is the special teams component. Somebody out of the group of Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and T.J. Lawrence should emerge as a dangerous returner, adding the probability of at least one touchdown on a return.
Can TCU keep applying the pressure on opposing offenses without defensive end Jerry Hughes around? You have to like their chances. In fact, you have to like their chances of applying even more pressure in 2010. TCU totaled 33 sacks last year, but the team sacked opposing quarterbacks more than 40 times in each of the two years prior. They forced 36 and 41 sacks in the two respective years before that. Similarly, TCU has allowed fewer than 20 points per game in the last five years, three of those years featuring totals less than 15 points per game. This is a program that has completely perfected its craft, and history says there’s just no reason to expect a drop-off. The Horned Frogs scored four times on turnovers last year, and three more on special teams returns. Expect similar performances in 2010.
3. North Carolina
The Tarheels might have the country’s most talented defense. If the defense were supported by a better offense and wasn’t left on the field so much, we’d probably have it at No. 1. Every line of the defense is loaded with star talent. Defensive end Robert Quinn might be the best pass-rusher in the nation, and he should be among the country’s tackles-for-loss leaders after totaling 19 as a sophomore last year. He’s complemented by the underachieving but still extremely talented Marvin Austin at the defensive tackle spot, and the two are sure to spend a great deal of time in opposing backfields. Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter, Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick provide a ridiculous linebacker unit, while the backfield is led by playmakers Deunta Williams and Cedric Burney. In addition, Da'Norris Searcy provides a bit of a touchdown threat as a returner. Keep an eye on Sturdivant’s situation, as he was arrested on marijuana possession charges in July. If he misses any time, it could be a significant loss for the defense, though it has plenty of linebacker depth.
Iowa will need to replace a few important players in cornerback Amari Spievey and linebackers Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds, but the return of defensive end Adrian Clayborn and safety Tyler Sash means this defense will remain dangerous. The vast majority of Iowa's defensive line and secondary, in fact, return in shape. With that, the framework for a ton of disruptiveness and turnover potential remains intact. The milestone of 30 sacks and 30 turnovers is within reach for Iowa, as it posted 30 and 29, respectively, in 13 games last year.
Florida certainly lost many of its most valuable players from 2009, but Alabama might have won the competition to be the school that lost the most defensive talent this offseason. The team lost three of its top linemen in Terrence Cody, Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Deaderick, leaving Josh Chapman and the very promising Marcell Dareus as the only returning big men with any meaningful experience. Star linebacker Rolando McClain left school early to be a top-10 NFL pick, while the dominant cornerback duo of Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson were both high NFL selections, as well. The good news is, like Florida, Alabama’s successful recruiting has brought in tons of replacement talent. Nico Johnson, last year's five-star linebacker recruit, should team with Dont’a Hightower to make the loss of McClain barely noticeable, and the wealth of big names brought in for the defensive line and secondary should pick up not too far from where the previous group left off.
6. Ohio State
One could easily argue that the Ohio State defense will outdo Iowa’s this year. We think the line is a blurry one, and our projections only slightly place Iowa and Alabama ahead of the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes lost a few important players from the 2009 squad, such as star safety Kurt Coleman, top linebacker Thaddeus Gibson and a slew of depth players on the line, but the most important players from a year ago return. The top name is definitely Cameron Heyward, a monstrous interior lineman who totaled 10 tackles for loss and led the team with 6.5 sacks last year. Heyward’s presence frees up other players, such as emerging star linebacker Ross Homan and defensive end Nathan Williams. Ohio State has held opposing teams to fewer than 15.3 points per game in each of the past five years, so you obviously can’t go wrong with this team. In any case, we think our top-six defenses comprise the top tier of college fantasy football defenses, and any one of these six should prove to be an elite unit.
7. Boise State
Although we don’t consider Boise State a top-tier fantasy defense, you should certainly feel confident if you draft it. The Broncos don’t show a ton of pass-rushing ability, but they’re just disruptive enough to force a great deal of turnovers. The team forced 35 turnovers in 14 games last year, and it turned four of those turnovers into touchdowns. The Broncos will have to overcome the loss of top cornerback and a dynamic returner in Kyle Wilson, but four of Boise State’s returning defensive backs in Brandyn Thompson, Jeron Johnson, Winston Venable and George Iloka intercepted 13 passes last year, so there's no shortage of playmaking ability among the returning lineup. Another perk to owning the Broncos is the potential for special teams touchdowns, as Titus Young, Doug Martin and Chris Potter should combine to total at least two touchdowns on returns.
Pittsburgh is one of a few intimidating defenses in the Big East (see: Rutgers, West Virginia), but we are led to believe the Panthers are capable of assembling the conference’s best this year. We say this despite the departure of defensive tackle Mick Williams, the heart of the Pittsburgh defense and perhaps its best player from 2009. The reason why the Panthers should overcome the loss of Williams is because the team returns a great deal of developing talent on the defensive line, including star defensive end Greg Romeus. There’s also a good amount of young talent among the linebackers and secondary, so all parts of the Pittsburgh defense should be effective.
The Tigers allowed a very respectable 20.4 points per game last year, and each of the four years before it they allowed less than 20 per game. This is a program that knows how to field defenses. A few players need to be replaced from last year, but the most talented players from a year ago are back. The secondary might be the strength of the unit, headlined by star safeties DeAndre McDaniel and Rashard Hall, who combined for 14 interceptions last year. It would nice to see someone step up as a pass rusher for Clemson this year, however, because it took 16 players to account for 33 sacks in 14 games last year.
10. Penn State
After Alabama and Florida, Penn State probably lost the most talent this offseason. What was almost surely the country’s best group of linebackers in Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull needs to be rebuilt entirely, and the loss of defensive tackle and first-round NFL pick Jared Odrick is also huge. But like most other teams in our top 10, Penn State has a history of fielding top defenses despite the yearly loss of NFL talent. Not since 2003 has the program allowed more than 20 points per game in a season, and it only allowed 21.2 points per game in that year. The 2010 defense should be able to carry on the Penn State tradition of great defenses, because the program has pulled in a great deal of talented recruits in recent years.
11. West Virginia
We don’t have West Virginia ranked far behind Pittsburgh, and really, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Mountaineers ended up fielding the best Big East defense. Defensive end Julian Miller should be one of the conference’s best defensive players after totaling 14.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2009, while safety Robert Sands returns after intercepting five passes and breaking up eight more last year. The team also will hopefully have an instant impact at the defensive end position with the recruit of JUCO prospect Bruce Irvin, a top tier talent in the 2010 recruiting class. If Irvin could turn out to be 2010’s Jason Pierre-Paul, the Mountaineer defense could be dominant.
The Longhorns return seven starters to a unit that ranked third in the nation last season in yards allowed per game. The Texas defense forced 37 turnovers last season, but they'll have to replace some big playmakers in Sergio Kindle and Earl Thomas. Still, there is enough talent on the roster for the Longhorns to be among the nation's top defenses again. The team has three of the top defensive recruits of the 2010 class in linebacker Jordan Hicks and defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Reggie Wilson, while players like cornerback Aaron Williams and defensive end Alex Okafor are good bets to be the defense’s next big names.
Rutgers' was the Big East's best last year, allowing just 17.9 points per game and generally terrorizing offenses. Lots of talent returns in the secondary despite the loss of cornerback Devin McCourty, who ended up being a first-round NFL Draft pick. Top pass-rusher Jonathan Freeny is back along with disruptive linebacker Steve Beauharnais, so the Scarlet Knights should be able to raid opposing backfields successfully again this year. If it weren’t for the departure of the team’s top four tacklers from last year, we’d have Rutgers ranked ahead of Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
UCLA lost a great deal of talent this offseason; enough to rival that lost by teams like Florida, Alabama and Penn State. Defensive tackle Brian Price was one of the nation’s best, totaling 23.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. The Bosworth twins made 21.5 tackles for loss and added three more sacks. Cornerback Alterraun Verner leaves and 13 career interceptions go with him. The loss of players like Jerzy Siewierski and Reggie Carter will be tough, too. But with the return of linebacker Akeem Ayers and safety Rahim Moore, two of the 2009 squad’s three best players return this year. The two combined for 14 interceptions and three defensive touchdowns last year, and they were only sophomores. In addition to those two, UCLA has top-tier talent coming in from recent recruiting classes. The Bruins hauled in eight four-star defenders from 2010 alone, and that’s not to mention five-star defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa. The 2008 and 2009 classes were similarly impressive. If these new recruits perform at the level they’re expected to, UCLA finishing among the top-10 defenses wouldn’t be at all surprising.
It's not often that a team can lose a defensive tackle like Gerald McCoy and its two starting cornerbacks and still maintain a high level of play, but Oklahoma always has more talent waiting to take a shot. The team returns Jeremy Beal, one of the nation's most effective defensive ends, and he’ll be joined by as many as four recent five-star recruits in cornerback Gabe Lynn, defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland and linebackers Corey Nelson and Ronnell Lewis. Another thing the Oklahoma defense/special teams has going for it is Ryan Broyles, a superb punt returner who figures to score at least once in 2010.
UCF's defenses have improved steadily over the past four years, but they might have reached their plateau last year as the team allowed 22.5 points per game. Josh Robinson is a star in the secondary after intercepting six passes as a freshman, and the secondary as a whole will be extremely experienced in 2010. The defense allowed a fantastic 2.59 yards per carry last year, and the team returns its top disruptor in defensive end Bruce Miller. The bad news for the run defense is that the superb run stopper Torrell Troup is headed to the NFL and will leave a major gap on the interior, and the team's second-best disruptor in end Jarvis Geathers is also gone. Expect the UCF defense to be similar to last year's as a whole, but to give up a bit in run defense and improve a bit in pass defense.
17. Virginia Tech
The 2009 Virginia Tech defense dominated the ACC, as the team allowed just 15.6 points per game. Furthermore, the special teams unit and defense allowed a touchdown total lower than the number of turnovers it forced (24 to 19). Unfortunately, it stands to reason that the defense will regress at least slightly in 2010. The team lost its top two pass-rushers in linemen Nekos Brown and Jason Worilds, as well as its top linebacker in Cody Grimm. Losing safety Kam Chancellor hurts, too. In total, the Hokies lost nine players to graduation or the NFL Draft. The pass-rush is a major worry heading into this year, as Brown, Worilds and Grimm provided 15 of the team's 36 sacks. The team returns a good amount of talent at linebacker and the secondary, but look for North Carolina and Clemson to provide the best ACC defenses.
Oregon ranked fourth in the Pac-10 with a good average of 23.8 points allowed per game total. That won't be as easy this year with two excellent players in T.J. Ward and Walter Thurmond leaving the secondary, but top pass-rushers Kenny Rowe, Eddie Pleasant and Terrell Turner return, so this defense is well-built for the transition. The defense should be among the best in the Pac-10, and Oregon almost always has explosive special teams returners. Kenjon Barner is a very good option at the kickoff return spot, and history says they’ll be able to find someone to replace Thurmond as the next punt returner.
Temple’s defense probably isn’t capable of stopping the BCS-type offenses it faces, but it should look relatively high-powered against its in-conference competition. The main reason to like Temple’s defense this year, in any case, is its ability to disrupt and force turnovers. Defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson and defensive end Adrian Robinson totaled 24.5 tackles for loss and 18.5 sacks last year. That pair should be similarly dominant in 2010, and the pressure they apply on opposing quarterbacks will allow the team’s young secondary to create a good amount of turnovers. In 2009, 12 Owls intercepted passes, and the five of them who graduated totaled just five of the team's 16 interceptions. Players like Marquise Liverpool and Jaiquawn Jarrett, who combined for six interceptions last year, should be able to pick up that slack and create more turnovers this year.
20. Air Force
The Air Force defense was very tough last year, allowing just 15.7 points per game despite an average at best pass-rush (23 sacks). Sophomore defensive back Anthony Wright Jr. is the star of the defense after intercepting seven passes for two touchdowns last year, and he'll be returning for his junior season. It seems like the defense should regress a bit in 2010, however, because three of the team's five most disruptive defenders, two of which were on the defense line, have graduated. Air Force won't be able to create as much pressure this year, it seems. The good news is that the team scored on both kickoff and punt returns, and the special teams evidently remain quite good.
USC defense lost fewer of its players to the NFL this off-season than it did the year before, but the departures from the 2009 roster leave some concerns, particularly in the secondary. Safety Taylor Mays may have been limited in coverage, but he was a dangerous hitter and was good for shutting down the outside run. Everson Griffen was an underachiever but was still the team's second-best pass-rusher, and the secondary lost three top contributors in Will Harris, Josh Pinkard and Kevin Thomas. Punt returner Damian Williams, who provided two touchdowns last year, is also gone. Still, USC never has any shortage of top-notch recruits waiting among the backups, and the team should be real close to UCLA and Oregon in the competition to field the Pac-10’s best defense.
We have Nebraska’s defense ranked in our top-25, so it’s not as if we don’t expect good things from it in 2010. The issue is that the Cornhuskers were the best defense in the nation in 2009, and we can’t see them getting close to that level this year. The loss of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh can’t be overestimated. The once-in-a-generation destroyer in the trenches led Nebraska with 85 tackles last year, an almost impossible feat for a defensive tackle. He also added 12.5 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss, 19 quarterback hurries and three blocked kicks. It’s true that defensive tackle Jared Crick looked very good last year, but Suh can’t be replaced. It just won’t happen. The loss of top linebacker Phillip Dillard, defensive end Barry Turner and star safeties Larry Asante and Matt O’Hanlon will hurt plenty, too.
23. Boston College
Boston College always has a tough defense, and it's hard to see that changing much in 2010. The team allowed 19.8 points per game, and the team is hopeful that its arguably best player from 2008, linebacker Mark Herzlich, will be able to return to dominance after missing last year with cancer complications. Sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly is the new star of the defense after making 13 tackles for loss and racking up 158 tackles, and the team has a good amount of returning young players. It did lose some senior members of the secondary and the team needs to improve its pass-rush, but the Boston College defense knows how to get off the field. North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Clemson are probably better options, but Boston College should be decent.
Mississippi ranked fourth in the SEC with a total of 17.7 points allowed per game, a reflection of how ridiculously good SEC defenses are. But the unit loses top players like safety Kendrick Lewis and defensive end Greg Hardy, and the secondary in general is going to need rebuilding. Players like defensive tackle Jerrell Powe and defensive end Kentrell Lockett have the potential to be big names on the defensive line, and they’ll need to step up if Mississippi is going to play defense as good as it did last year.
LSU's defense was very tough last year as the team allowed just 16.2 points per game. It was superb against the pass and returns star cornerback Patrick Peterson, but the loss of safety Chad Jones could sting a bit. Still, this is a team that recruits well and will have more players ready to go in 2010. Take Florida and Alabama first in the SEC, but know LSU should do well, too.
Utah's defense was tough in 2009, allowing just 20.2 points per game, forcing 30 sacks and 17 interceptions. Unfortunately, the players who made 12 of those interceptions are gone now, as is top pass-rusher Koa Misi. Expect this unit to take a step back in 2010, but they might be the best option in the MWC after TCU and Air Force. They'll have their work cut out for them against teams like Pittsburgh, TCU, Notre Dame and San Diego State, but the rest of Utah's schedule is pretty favorable.
27. Arizona State
The Sun Devils quietly boasted one of the nation’s toughest defenses in 2009, allowing just 21.1 points per game despite being left on the field often due to a poor supporting offense. Unfortunately, a fair amount of that defense graduated after last year, and it’s not clear that the team has the ability to replace those who left. There are certainly a few good talents returning, namely cornerback Omar Bolden, linebacker Vontaze Burfict (the consensus No. 1 inside linebacker recruit from last year) and defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola. Still, three of the team’s top four defensive backs need to be replaced and, despite his down year last season, defensive end Dexter Davis needs to be replaced as the team’s top edge-rusher. We think Arizona State will allow around 25 points per game this year as the offense will once again be a liability, and just enough talent has left the defense to leave it vulnerable. Still, they should be a good play against teams like Portland State, Washington State and UCLA.
After losing a once in a generation safety like Eric Berry and a defensive tackle like Dan Williams, both of whom were first-round NFL Draft picks, the Tennessee defense is bound to regress in 2010, perhaps significantly. Lane Kiffin isn't around to pull in more recruits in their place, so Tennessee could be heading into a rebuilding phase this year. You can find better defense options in the SEC. Still, opponents like Tennessee-Martin, Memphis and Vanderbilt should make the Volunteers defense look pretty good at times.
Despite playing with a well below average offense, the Army defense played tough last year and the team held opponents to 21.9 points per game. The pass defense was quite stout and the team returns almost all of its young secondary. The most important return for Army is star defensive end Josh McNary, who totaled 22.5 tackles for loss last year and 13.5 sacks. It's hard to endorse Army as a fantasy option, but at least you know they'll play tough.
30. Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois was tough in the MAC last year, allowing just 21.6 points per game. The team has a good amount of experience returning in the secondary and among the linebackers, and top pass-rushers Jake Coffman and Sean Progar return. This defense could wind up the best in the MAC, though we definitely like Temple more.
Ohio ranked second in the MAC last year by allowing 21.3 points per game. It returns its top pass-rusher in defensive end Dak Notestine and is generally young on the defensive line, so it's hard to see a drop-off in disruptiveness. Freshman sensation Gerald Moore also returns in the secondary after intercepting six passes last year. This is a top option in MAC-only leagues and worth watching otherwise.
Cincinnati allowed a decent 23.1 points per game last year and once again was particularly solid in pass defense, forcing as many interceptions (16) as the number of touchdowns it allowed. The team lost a good amount of talent, unfortunately, including top pass-rusher Alex Daniels and top interceptor Aaron Webster. Cincinnati is probably in decent shape as far as recent recruits go, but expect a bit of a regression this year for Cincinnati given the players it lost.
33. Miami (FL)
Miami ranked fifth last year in the ACC by allowing 22.2 points per game, a respectable total. The pass defense was solid and the run defense was very good, allowing just 3.53 yards per carry. The unit has some replacing to do among the linebackers in secondary, but top talents in Allen Bailey and Marcus Robinson return for the defensive line. Target North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Clemson for sure instead of Miami, but the Hurricanes might be able to jump ahead of Boston College in the defense rankings this year.
34. Kent State
Kent State had one of the MAC's toughest defenses last year, allowing just 22.4 points per game. The team loses a bunch of role players on the defensive line, but most of the important players are back, including Brian Lainhart, who forced seven interceptions in the secondary. Kent State looks like a good option particularly in MAC-only leagues.
35. Mississippi State
Mississippi State ranked near the bottom of the SEC by allowing 26.8 points per game last year. The loss of top lineback Jamar Chaney hurts, but the team returns two sophomore defensive backs in Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks who totaled 10 interceptions for four touchdown returns last year. This defense makes turnovers and is therefore a good sleeper to make a jump in the SEC.
The Missouri defense figures to be mostly average in 2010. It finished in the middle of the Big 12 pack in most categories last year, and it's hard to see that changing much this year. Although the team has a potential top-10 NFL Draft pick in defensive end Aldon Smith, losing star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to the NFL will hurt. There's a good amount of talent on this defense, but the Big 12 is full of great offenses, and the high-scoring nature of the Missouri offense will always force other teams to score as much as possible.
Losing two defensive tackles like Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens along with an excellent linebacker like Rennie Curran is always a bummer, but Georgia can usually replace its talent. Unfortunately, the defense didn't play well last year even with those guys (not to mention safety Reshad Jones), so the 2010 defense might not be too great. There is a good amount of returning talent in the secondary, but this unit will probably struggle a bit in 2010, at least relative to its self-standards.
Navy allowed a very respectable 19.4 points per game last year after being tough against both the run and pass. It returns its top players in the secondary but loses its three most disruptive players in its top three linebackers. The defense should take a slight step back in 2010, but they’ll be a sneaky play against teams like Maryland, Georgia Southern, Central Michigan and Arkansas State.
The Northwestern defense arguably lost its two best players when defensive end Corey Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis headed for the NFL, but this is a feisty group that should maintain its acceptable status in 2010. It's unlikely to have much upside, however, so set your sights on the Iowa, Penn State or Ohio State if you're considering a Big Ten defense.
40. South Carolina
South Carolina’s defense will be fairly talented this year, but the issue is that it plays in the SEC. Being “just good” means nothing — you need to be exceptional to survive. The team lost its top pass-rusher in linebacker Eric Norwood, and top run-stuffing lineman Clifton Geathers was a surprise early entrant in the NFL Draft. Players like defensive end Cliff Matthews and defensive back Stephon Gilmore should be stars this year, and there’s a nice group of solid recruits ready to see the field, but we think they might be a bit too green in 2010 to outperform SEC defenses like Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, LSU and maybe even Georgia and Mississippi State.