11 College Football Teams That Give Opposing Quarterbacks Nightmares
Even in today’s era of dominant offenses in college football, certain defenses still leave opposing quarterbacks—and offensive coordinators—waking up with night sweats before big games.
Defenses can be dangerous to quarterbacks for several reasons—strong secondary play, takeaway ability, pass rush or ability to turn offenses into single-minded attacks.
Programs like Alabama, Stanford and LSU continue winning in volume with help from dominating defenses and power run games.
It’s no coincidence all three will find their names on this list.
However, the old cliché about defense winning championships no longer holds water.
Virginia Tech, for instance, fielded one of the strongest defenses in the nation this year. Yet the Hokies could never find consistent answers on offense and, therefore, finished the season 8-5.
That Michigan State struggled to a 7-6 campaign in 2012 wasn’t indicative of the team’s strong defensive prowess but rather its offensive ineptitude. The Spartans found a better, more polished attack in 2013. They won the Big Ten—and the Rose Bowl—as a direct result.
In other words, finding dominant defenses is no longer a matter of simply perusing the win-loss records of teams. More complicated factors must be examined instead—such as the ability to get after the passer, ability to create turnovers and a proven knack for holding teams below their season passing averages.
With that in mind, this is a list identifying the 11 defenses most capable of making life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. This list examines teams that will scare quarterbacks in 2014—not which defenses scared them in 2013.
Arizona State and South Carolina would have been ranked highly if this was a 2013 list. Both lost so many players—and so many impact players—that reloading seems like a tremendous challenge.
Here is our list:
All stats courtesy of http://www.cfbstats.com/2013/national/index.html.
Alabama Crimson Tide
What? You didn’t think a list of nightmarish defenses would fail to include the unit led by Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, did you?
The 2013 season wasn’t a banner season for either.
They won’t brag about the year’s accomplishments, especially considering dreadful performances against Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Alabama did not excel in the pass rush (22 sacks, tied for 81st in the nation) or in interceptions (11, tied for 73rd nationally).
Still, the Crimson Tide finished No. 11 nationally in pass defense, giving up 180.3 yards per game.
Oklahoma threw for 348 yards—uncharacteristic compared to its season average of 199.1 yards.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, for a second consecutive season, turned in a tremendous performance against the Tide, throwing for 464 yards (compared to Texas A&M's average of 353.3 yards per game). At least Alabama came away victorious in that one—albeit in a 49-42 shootout.
Seven of Alabama’s other eight full-fledged Division I opponents threw for fewer yards than they averaged. Of that group, only Tennessee, which lost 45-10, surpassed its season average.
Here’s the truly scary part: This defense was among the worst the Crimson Tide has fielded in recent years. Expect a market correction shortly.
Potential impact players are flocking to Tuscaloosa in droves. In the past two recruiting classes, defensive ends A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand, linebackers Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans and cornerbacks Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey have all chosen the Tide.
In other words, Alabama will be scary for years to come.
With Jadeveon Clowney headed to the NFL, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley aims to keep the mantle of “best defensive player in the nation” in the Palmetto State.
Beasley recorded 13 of the Tigers’ 38 sacks (tied for 13th nationally among team totals). The rising senior also racked up six pass break-ups and 12 quarterback hurries.
Clemson’s defense is so much more than just Beasley, though.
The team also tied for 13th in the nation with 18 interceptions—eight of which were accounted by returning defensive backs Bashaud Breeland and Jayron Kearse.
In terms of passing yardage, Clemson ranked 16th nationally with 201 yards per game allowed.
Between quarterback pressure and propensity to create turnovers, Clemson’s defense gives the program a chance to earn a second consecutive high-profile bowl game.
The 2013 season certainly proved the most disappointing in recent history for Florida.
Will Muschamp’s defense didn’t rank especially well in sacks or interceptions, but it still proved elite against the pass. Even with injuries galore, the Gators ranked seventh in the nation, allowing just 171.8 passing yards per game. They were also one of two teams to allow nine touchdown passes or fewer.
Yes, Florida loses several key components of its secondary. Cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins declared for the NFL draft. Safety Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame.
Muschamp has already shown an ability to reload, though.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III enjoyed a spectacular freshman season, intercepting three passes and breaking up 11 more. Look for Hargreaves to be among the most-avoided defensive backs in college football in 2014.
Florida State Seminoles
Jameis Winston gets much of the credit for the 2013 national championship, but Jeremy Pruitt’s dominating defense played a huge role as well.
Florida State led the nation in interceptions (26) and passing yards allowed per game (156.6) on its way to the program’s first national title since 1999. Ten of 13 opponents threw for fewer yards than their season averages, including Clemson. During Florida State’s landscape-shifting win over the Tigers, FSU held Clemson to 203 passing yards. Clemson averaged 333.1 yards per game.
Cornerback Lamarcus Joyner will be a big loss. He was a game-changing presence in the Florida State secondary. Still, a pair of starting corners—Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams—will continue to make passing difficult. So, too, will defensive end Mario Edwards, 247Sports’ No. 1 recruit in 2012.
After Pruitt's departure to Georgia, first-year coordinator Charles Kelly has big shoes to fill. Pruitt did a tremendous job in preparing the Seminoles to play at a championship level. At least Kelly will have talent to maintain the level of play attained by the 2013 squad.
Like Alabama, when LSU’s defense is down, it isn’t down long.
Even in the “down years,” though, programs like LSU shine, as evidenced with the No. 13 pass defense that held opponents to 197.5 yards per game.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis ranks among the most creative blitzers in college football.
The Tigers usually don’t need the imagination Chavis brings to the table. This year proved to be an exception. LSU ranked in the middle of the nation with 27 sacks in part because it has graduated so many talented underclassmen over the past two seasons.
Defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson decided to leave early for the NFL, leaving a void in the middle of the line.
The ends, though, should be as dynamic a group as exists in the SEC. Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco will give LSU a top-notch pass rush. Chavis’ creativity and disguising of blitzes will make the Tigers downright dangerous.
A young defensive backfield gained valuable experience in an up-and-down campaign. Jalen Mills and Tre’Davious White, in particular, seem capable of turning in spectacular seasons in 2014. LSU showed signs of progress toward the end of the season, particularly when it held Texas A&M and quarterback Johnny Manziel to 224 passing yards.
Look for LSU’s defense to be back in a big way in 2014.
Michigan State Spartans
Pat Narduzzi continues his ascent to superstardom as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator.
His defense helped carry the Spartans to the 2013 Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford. Narduzzi’s unit also did something that seemingly no team had done over the past two years—shut down Urban Meyer’s Ohio State offense. The Buckeyes threw for just 101 yards during the Big Ten championship game.
Ten of Michigan State’s 13 Division I opponents failed to meet their season passing yardage averages. No team threw for 260 yards against the Spartans.
Of course, having Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard helps tremendously. Dennard is gone, ticketed for the NFL.
Then again, Narduzzi lost superstar defensive end William Gholston a year ago and fielded another top-notch defense.
Anything less would be a surprise at this point from one of the nation’s most consistent defenses.
There were times during the 2013 season when Oklahoma’s defense appeared far more ordinary than outstanding.
Then the Sooners ended the season with impressive performances against Oklahoma State and Alabama. Ask AJ McCarron if he’s still suffering through nightmares featuring Oklahoma.
Oklahoma won the Battle of Bedlam by holding the rival Cowboys to 200 passing yards. Oklahoma State averaged 276.8 yards per game.
Though Oklahoma gave up 378 passing yards to Alabama, the defense made life very difficult for McCarron, sacking him six times. Returning defensive end Eric Striker registered three of his 6.5 sacks during the Sugar Bowl.
Bob Stoops’ team finished the year ranked 30th in passing defense, limiting opponents to just 212.5 yards per game.
Replacing cornerback Aaron Colvin is no simple task, but a stout defensive line should make life easier for whoever replaces him.
Stanford has emerged as the new king of the Pac-12 in part because its defense has allowed the ascent.
Last year the Cardinal led the nation with 44 sacks. Much of the talent that helped the program to that total leaves, but Stanford looks to be loaded again in 2014.
It won’t just be the players on the field coach David Shaw must replace. Former defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to become the next head coach at Vanderbilt. Successor Lance Anderson seems ready to fill the void.
Stanford played a number of offenses predicated on the pass last year. None of the top-five passing teams it faced—Oregon State, Washington State, San Jose State, California or Oregon—equaled its season average in passing yards.
Add to it that the Cardinal averaged more than three sacks per game and it’s easy to see why quarterbacks don’t look forward to taking on Stanford.
Of all the teams on this list, Texas might seem to be the greatest stretch. After all, the Longhorns were hardly great—or even consistent—on defense in 2013.
However, first-year coach Charlie Strong brings a sterling defensive reputation that he built during Florida’s championship run under Urban Meyer.
Strong further enhanced his resume while at Louisville. Last season the Cardinals finished No. 5 in passing yards allowed and gave up just eight passing touchdowns all season—a number that led the nation. Louisville also finished second in the nation with 43 sacks.
Now Strong brings his defensive system to Austin, where the Longhorns seemingly never lack for talent.
It’s not as though Louisville suited up scrubs and hobos, but the 4- and 5-star recruits Mack Brown signed at Texas should be a tremendous step up in potential.
Strong seems to be off to a great start in getting his team’s attention—as he did at Florida and Louisville.
If he succeeds in that mission, the defensive results could be staggering in 2014.
Since Jim Mora Jr. arrived at UCLA, the program has risen toward the top of the Pac-12.
An infusion of young, talented linebackers should give quarterbacks plenty to think about when they prepare to take snaps against the Bruins in 2014.
At least opponents will no longer have to concern themselves with linebacker Anthony Barr, who quietly emerged as one of the nation’s top players.
Linebacker Myles Jack, however, highlights a dynamic group that can make big plays in the passing game both in pass coverage and as pass rushers.
Nine of UCLA’s 13 opponents passed for fewer yards than their season average last year. Utah, one of the four teams to surpass its average, threw six interceptions in a home loss.
Despite playing in the pass-happy Pac-12, UCLA allowed 300 passing yards just once.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech’s dominant defense couldn’t elevate the Hokies into relevance in 2013.
The offense never found enough consistency—especially in the run game—to alleviate pressure from the defense. That doesn’t change the fundamental fact that Virginia Tech fielded one of the nation's top units last season.
The Hokies finished tied for eighth in the nation with 39 sacks (3.0 per game) and tied for sixth in the nation with 19 interceptions.
Bud Foster’s defense also ranked in the top 10 in passing yards allowed per game, ranking eighth at 172.7. Eight of Virginia Tech’s 12 Division I opponents passed for fewer than 200 yards. That list included East Carolina, which threw for 158 yards against the Hokies en route to an average of 328.1 yards per game.
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