LSU has what should easily be considered the nation's best DST heading into 2012. The Tigers have everything – low points allowed, strong special teams, pass rush and coverage. Even with names like Morris Claiborne, Michael Brockers, Brandon Taylor and Ron Brooks gone from last year's team, players like Barkevious Mingo, Tyrann Mathieu and Sam Montgomery will keep LSU on top.
2. Florida State
Florida State should make a push for the top five among DSTs this season. Defensive backs Greg Reid and Lamarcus Joyner are major threats to score on both defense and special teams, and Brandon Jenkins, Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine make a dangerous trio on the defensive line. Look for the Seminoles to do something similar to last year, when they allowed 15.1 points per game.
3. Michigan State
Even with stars like Jerel Worthy and Trenton Robinson gone to the NFL, the Michigan State defense still looks loaded headed into this season. Marcus Rush, William Gholston, Isaiah Lewis and Denicos Allen stand out, and the Spartans know how to do all the important things: keep the score low, sack the quarterback and intercept the ball. They could be a top-5 defense, at least.
4. Ohio State
The Ohio State defense should improve with Urban Meyer's arrival. The team brings back quite a bit of talent, with eight of the top nine tacklers from a year ago returning and with leader Jon Simon due for a signature season on the defensive line. Look for Ohio State to easily be the best defense in the Big Ten and re-establish itself as one of the nation's best
If Texas' defense isn't among the nation's best this season, Mack Brown just might start to feel some heat. Robert Griffin, Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are no longer on the schedule, and the Longhorns have reaped much top talent in recent recruiting classes, including two of the nation's best linemen in Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor. Aided by what should be a strong ball-control rushing game on offense, the Longhorns should get off the field and stay off most games.
6. Virginia Tech
7. South Carolina
South Carolina has the nation's most intimidating defender in Jadaveon Clowney, and there are a number of other talented players joining him in what should be a disruptive defense by any measure this season. It definitely hurts to lose stars like Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram and Antonio Allen, but with LSU and Georgia as the toughest on-paper opponents, South Carolina should be able to adjust and remain one of the better DSTs in 2012.
Georgia will almost certainly have one of the nation's better DSTs in 2012, even with the loss of star cornerback Brandon Boykin. The team allowed 20.6 points per game playing in the SEC last year, and returning players like Bacarri Rambo (eight interceptions in 2011) and Jarvis Jones (13.5 sacks in 2011) provide a great deal of upside, and the vast majority of the rest of 2011's defense is back for this year.
Yes, Alabama gets a lot of four- and five-star recruits every year, but there still has to be a big decline awaiting in 2012. They still will be a top DST, but the Crimson Tide from last year was one of the best defenses in some time, and the loss of players like Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Josh Chapman and DeQuan Menzie will really hurt.
The Gators did fairly well in allowing 20.3 points per game last year, but they can and should do better. Everyone who intercepted a pass last year is back, and top pass rusher Ronald Powell also returns. Andre Debose is one of the nation's best touchdown threats on returns, too.
11. North Carolina State
North Carolina State was one of the nation's most exciting defenses last year, intercepting 27 passes. The loss of top linebackers/pass rushers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning is a concern, but even without them, the Wolfpack still have a talented secondary that should result in a DST fantasy production.
The Ducks give up quite a few points most of the time since their offense scores so comically fast, but they've been really piling up the turnovers and special teams touchdowns in receny years. De'Anthony Thomas could go down as one of the most dangerous returners ever, and the team has 38 interceptions the last two years.
14. Florida International
15. South Florida
South Florida isn't likely to make a big impact on special teams and will probably allow more than 20 points per game, but its swarming pass rush from a year ago (38 sacks by 15 different players) indicates there's a good amount of disruptive potential here. The team also brings back most of its interceptors, and the Big East isn't exactly loaded with quarterback talent.
Oklahoma is due for a nice year from its defense after two down years, but it's tough to tell where the production will come from. The team lost its two best pass rushers in Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, and Jamell Fleming and Travis Lewis are two other important losses. Still, the Sooners are always reeling in top recruits, so the losses shouldn't be too painful. Oklahoma should be one of the best defenses in the Big 12.
18. Mississippi State
Mississippi State could be more shootout-prone with Tyler Russell at quarterback, and the loss of Fletcher Cox is devastating on the defensive line, but the Bulldogs should still have some DST usefulness. Standout defensive backs Johnthan Banks and Nickoe Whitley are both back, and Josh Boyd should emerge as the team's next star on the defensive line. A punt return touchdown or two between Banks and/or Chad Bumphis also looks likely.
USC has to deal with the loss of its arguably best defender in end Nick Perry, and another important lineman in DaJohn Harris, but this is a school that's constantly catching four- and five-star recruits, so just assume some decent replacements are waiting to jump in on a defense that allowed 23.6 points per game last year. USC should battle with Oregon and Utah to be the Pac-12's top DST.
20. Kent State