College News & Analysis

College Football 2023: Ranking the nation's 10 best defensive coordinators

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker watches during the Kids Day at Kinnick NCAA football practice, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. 220813 Ia Kids Day Fb 063 Jpg

  • Iowa’s Phil Parker leads the way: Despite working with one of the worst offenses in the country, Iowa still won eight games in 2022 thanks to Parker’s elite defense.
  • Michigan’s Jesse Minter is a rising star: In his first season as the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator, Minter was a finalist for the Broyles Award for the best assistant coach in college football.
  • Ohio State’s Jim Knowles rounds out the top three: Knowles has coached elite defenses at both Ohio State and Oklahoma State.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

There are 21 Saturdays until meaningful college football returns — and it can't come quickly enough.

As we while away the time before Week 0, we’ve already gone over the top 10 returning players at every position, named our way-too-early 2023 All-America Team and presented the PFF College 101 — our annual ranking of the 101 best players from the past season.

Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the sidelines. We’ve already ranked the nation's top 10 offensive coordinators, so here are the 10 best defensive coordinators in college football going into 2023.

1. Phil Parker, Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa fielded the worst offense in the Power Five and was the second-worst nationally in terms of expected points added (EPA) per play. Among the 12 worst offenses in that department, the Hawkeyes were the only team that made a bowl game and did so pretty comfortably.

That doesn’t happen without an elite defense, and last season, Iowa led the nation in team defense grade (94.3) and paced the Power Five in EPA allowed per play (-0.267).

Parker’s defenses have finished top-15 in the FBS in EPA allowed per play in each of the last five years and have two top-five finishes in that span. He’s been a semifinalist for the Broyles Award in each of the last three years.

2. Jesse Minter, Michigan Wolverines

Minter was a finalist for the Broyles Award this past season in his first year as Michigan’s defensive coordinator. He’s one of two finalists who remain a college coordinator in 2023 — the other being the winner Garrett Riley, who’s our top returning offensive coordinator in college football.

Even after losing stars like Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Daxton Hill, the Wolverines’ 93.7 team defense grade this past season trailed only Iowa. They were also fourth in the Power Five in terms of EPA allowed per play.

Michigan allowed a scoring drive on only 22% of opposing drives, the fourth-lowest rate in the FBS in 2022.

3. Jim Knowles, Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State made a drastic improvement on defense from 2021 to 2022, going from 56th to seventh in EPA allowed per play. It’s no coincidence that this past season was Knowles’ first as the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator.

Before taking over in Columbus, Knowles was a finalist for the Broyles Award in 2021 for his work as Oklahoma State’s defensive coordinator. That year, the Cowboys were third in the country in EPA allowed per play.

4. Glenn Schumann/Will Muschamp, Georgia Bulldogs

Eight players from Georgia’s historic 2021 defense were selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, five of whom went in the first round. Not only that, but the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator that year, Dan Lanning, was hired as the head coach at Oregon.

Despite that massive turnover, Georgia’s defense was still sixth in the Power Five in EPA allowed per play. Schumann and Muschamp may share the title of defensive coordinator, but it was Schumann who called the plays in 2022, according to ESPN’s Chris Low.

5. Manny Diaz, Penn State Nittany Lions

Diaz returned to a defensive coordinator role this past season after spending three years as Miami’s (FL) head coach.

If his defenses keep performing as they did in 2022, it won’t be long before another program gives him a shot at head coach. Penn State’s defense improved from 22nd in EPA allowed per play in 2021 to fifth this past year. Making that even more impressive is the fact that the Nittany Lions’ coordinator in 2021, Brent Pry, left to become the head coach at Virginia Tech.

6. Matt House, LSU Tigers

House was a semifinalist for the Broyles Award this past season, his first as LSU’s defensive coordinator.

While the Tigers’ defense wasn’t necessarily among the best in the country in 2022, it was their drastic improvement that earned House that honor. LSU went from 74th in the FBS in EPA allowed per play in 2021 to 36th this past season. Before joining the Kansas City Chiefs as their linebackers coach, House also coordinated a Kentucky defense in 2018 that was 17th in the Power Five in EPA allowed per play.

7. Joe Rossi, Minnesota Golden Gophers

Rossi is the fifth and final Big Ten defensive coordinator on this list, showing how dominant the conference is on that side of the ball.

This past season, Minnesota allowed positive EPA on 36.9% of opposing drives, fourth in the Power Five. The Golden Gophers were also fourth in touchdown drive percentage (12.8%). The year before, the Golden Gophers ranked 12th in the Power Five in EPA allowed per play.

8. Tony Gibson, NC State Wolfpack

Gibson was promoted to being the sole defensive coordinator in 2020.

In each of the last two seasons, his defenses have finished among the Power Five’s 10 best in EPA allowed per play. This past season, NC State was sixth in the rate of successful plays allowed (28.5%).

Gibson was nominated for the Broyles Award in 2022 for his efforts.

9. Pete Golding, Ole Miss Rebels

Golding spent the last five seasons as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama but left the Crimson Tide in January for the same job with Ole Miss.

While Alabama’s defenses haven’t been among the best of the best under Golding — as they were under Jeremy Pruitt and Kirby Smart — the Crimson Tide have still finished in the top 20 of FBS teams in EPA allowed per play in each of the last two seasons. Alabama was sixth in the Power Five this past season in the rate of scoring drives allowed (24.7%).

Now under an offensive-minded coach in Lane Kiffin, Golding will be fully running the Rebels’ defense.

10. Bryan Brown, Cincinnati Bearcats

After four years as Louisville’s defensive coordinator, Brown is following head coach Scott Satterfield to Cincinnati for its first season as a member of the Big 12 conference.

His first three years with the Cardinals were less than inspiring, as his defenses finished 105th, 58th and 102nd in the country, respectively, in EPA allowed per play. That all changed this past season, as Louisville improved 90 spots up to 12th this past season.

Time will tell if 2022 was an anomaly or if Brown is just getting started as an elite defensive playcaller.

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