The phrase “offense wins championships” applies to nearly every season in the modern era of college football. The 2021 season, however, is one of the rare exceptions. There’s a defense lurking in the SEC that is proving to be one of, if not, the best college football has ever seen.
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This isn’t to say that any team can get by with a scrub defensive unit and coast to a College Football Playoff (CFP) berth, as strong defenses still matter in college football. Therefore, without further ado, these are the best defenses heading into Week 12 of the 2021 college football season.
Georgia’s defense is on the precipice of making history.
Each week it takes the field, the Georgia defense looks like one of the best in the history of college football. Georgia ranks first in nearly every team defensive metric one could possibly think of ahead of Week 12, including the three most important categories:
Georgia Defense in 2021 with FBS ranks (removing garbage time)
|PFF Team Defense Grade||96.2 (1st)|
|EPA Per Play Allowed||-0.33 (1st)|
|Success Rate Against||31.4% (1st)|
Nakobe Dean is the best off-ball linebacker in college football. He is tied for the highest PFF grade at the position through Week 11, and his blitzing prowess is the biggest reason why. Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt make up the highest-graded interior defensive line in college football. All three of those players own a PFF grade north of 80.0 for the season — something only four SEC interior defensive linemen can say right now. Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith Jr. are the first and third highest-graded safeties in the SEC while Derion Kendrick and Kelee Ringo make up the third highest-graded outside cornerback tandem in the Power Five.
At every position group, Georgia is in the conversation for best in the country. Only the 2016 Alabama defense, which featured six first-round picks, comes close to Georgia this season. The Bulldogs defense is just a different animal.
Jim Leonhard has proven to be one of the top defensive coordinators in all of college football. The way he dials up pressure, in particular, has made his Badgers defense so special this year. The Badgers have allowed a 17.7% successful pass rate when they get pressure on the quarterback, which is the best in the FBS. Wisconsin blitzes at a top-15 rate in the Power Five this season at just over 36% of the time. When they don’t blitz, Leonhard still tries to wreak havoc with a healthy dosage of stunts. On non-blitzes, the Badgers have used a stunt 49.5% of the time — the highest rate in the Power Five.
Off-ball linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn have generated pressure when blitzed, as they rank second and eighth respectively among Power Five off-ball linebackers in pass-rush grade. Both Chenal and Sanborn have also been stout run defenders, ranking top five in run-defense grade in the Power Five. The Badgers have allowed just a 5.2% explosive run rate this year as a team — the best in the Power Five by over three percentage points.
Cincinnati hasn’t deviated from Marcus Freeman’s single-high structure that isolates their outside corners in one-on-one single coverage under new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel in 2021. And that’s a very good thing considering the Bearcats owned one of the top defenses in college football under Freeman — who is now the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame — in 2020.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Cincinnati owns the fourth-highest-graded coverage unit in college football ahead of Week 12. Cornerback Sauce Gardner has been the star of the group for the third consecutive season, as the true junior is in the midst of one of the best seasons from an outside corner in the PFF College era (2014-present). Gardner has allowed just 87 yards and zero touchdowns across 10 starts this season while picking off three passes and breaking up another. He allows just 0.27 yards per coverage snap — the lowest in the FBS among outside cornerbacks.
Cincinnati CB Sauce Gardner allowed 0 yards last night vs USF while picking off a pass. Has allowed just 87 yards (and 0 TDs) in 10 starts in 2021.
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) November 13, 2021
The stars of the Michigan defense reside on the edge. The Wolverines own the highest-graded edge pass-rushing tandem in college football with Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who are among the 11 edge defenders nationally with a pass-rush grade at or above 91.0 for the 2021 season. They’ve combined for 83 total pressures, 20 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. Because of Hutchinson and Ojabo’s impact, the Wolverines lead the Power Five in pressure rate generated so far this season (38.8%).
Pass-rush matters at the Power Five level, as the pass rush can explain what happened on a given pass play just as much as coverage. This certainly applies to Michigan, which ranks top five in the Power Five in defensive successful play rate against the pass.
Oklahoma State’s defense is one of the best all-around units in college football. The Pokes join Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan as the only Power Five defenses with a grade above 80.0 as a team against the run, rushing the passer and in coverage. Against Power Five offenses, in particular, Oklahoma State actually jumps Georgia in EPA per pass allowed this season (garbage time excluded). Off-ball linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez has been the top performer from the group. Rodriguez — who was a state champion wrestler and three-time state champion quarterback in high school — has a nose for the ball. He has 48 defensive stops this season, which is tied for the most among Power Five off-ball linebackers.
Related content for you: Highest-graded players at every position through Week 11 of the 2021 college football season via Seth Galina
Despite a hiccup against the Purdue Boilermakers in Week 7, the Hawkeyes still are one of the three highest-graded teams in coverage in the Power Five. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s zone defense has been highly effective, leading to a multitude of turnovers. In zone, Iowa jumps to No. 1 in the Power Five in coverage grade and successful pass play rate allowed. They’ve given up only four touchdowns while picking off 18 passes in zone coverage this season. The latter is six more than any other Power Five defense.
San Diego State is essentially West Coast Iowa, as it struggles on offense while the defense shuts down the opposition on a weekly basis. Opposing offenses have produced a 34.3% success rate this season — the third-best mark allowed by an FBS defense. Cornerback Tayler Hawkins leads SDSU secondary, as he owns an 89.9 coverage grade for the season with only 146 yards allowed across 348 coverage snaps. The versatile Cameron Thomas anchors the trenches and has truly been one of the most impressive defensive linemen in college football. He has earned a grade north of 86.0 against the run to go with a 90.5 grade as a pass rusher. Thomas has racked up 26 combined sacks and quarterback hits while playing anywhere from nose tackle to edge defender.
N.C. State has one of the most underrated defenses in college football, as the Wolfpack have been one of college football's top defenses on a down-for-down basis so far this season. The Wolfpack rank fourth among Power Five programs in success rate allowed (35.6%) through Week 11. Against Power Five offenses, in particular, the Wolfpack jump to third behind only Georgia and Wisconsin. Off-ball linebacker Drake Thomas is the team’s top defensive player this season, as he’s earned a team-leading 80.4 PFF grade in 2021, which ranks seventh among Power Five off-ball linebackers. Thomas has been an all-around great player, but his impact has been most notable against the run, where he ranks second in the Power Five in grade (89.3).
Clemson has been arguably the most disappointing team of the 2021 college football season, but Brent Venables’ defense isn't the reason why. Clemson's defense ranks inside the top 10 in success rate allowed versus Power Five offenses this season. The Tigers have allowed a mere 4.9 yards per play against Power Five competition, ranking seventh. Venables is one of the best in the business when it comes to scheming pressure, which has continued this season. Clemson is generating pressure at the seventh-highest rate in the Power Five this year. In the secondary, outside cornerback Mario Goodrich has broken out after flashing early on in his collegiate career. He has allowed under 20 yards in eight of his nine starts this year (only 135 total yards) while recording an interception and breaking up six passes.
10. HOUSTON COUGARS
The Cougars have one of the best pass-rush units in all of college football, as they actually rank No. 1 nationally in pass-rush grade while generating a pressure rate (47%) that’s nearly four percentage points higher than any other team in college football. With or without a blitz, they’ve been getting after the quarterback. And even on the other half of pass plays where they haven’t applied pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Houston secondary has more than made up for it. The Cougars rank fifth in the FBS in EPA per pass allowed when the opposing quarterback has a clean pocket.