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Three-Point Stance: Top defenses, best big men, Pac-12

Rivals National Columnist Mike Farrell is here with the five best defenses in college football, some massive defenders and five-year projections for certain Pac-12 teams.


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Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis (USA Today Sports Images)

OK, we all know Georgia has the best defense in the country but what about after the Bulldogs? Here’s my top five and why.

1. Georgia - The 2021 Dawgs defense isn't just the best in the country this season, it's one of the best we've ever seen in college football. The 2001 Miami Hurricanes and the 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide, widely considered the two best defenses of this century, allowed 9.8 and 8.2 points per game respectively. Through nine games this season, UGA is allowing 6.6 and Kirby Smart's team has already pitched two shutouts in SEC play. At the moment, the Bulldogs rank first in scoring defense and red zone defense, and second in total defense, rushing defense, passing yards allowed, passing efficiency defense, and fewest first downs allowed. They've got playmakers at every level of the defense, and are going to go down as one of the best units in the history of the game. Why? It’s a combination is size and speed as Jordan Davis and others take up space and the linebackers are free to run to the football — and they are ridiculously fast. And remember when the secondary was a question mark heading into the season? Even with some injures they have size, speed and depth at corner and safety. It’s almost unfair.

2. Wisconsin - The Badgers currently rank fourth in scoring defense at 15.5 points per game, but once you take away the five touchdowns they've given up on offense and special teams, that number drops to 11.6, good for second in the country. Some of the numbers that they have put up are absolutely silly - they lead the nation in total defense, rushing defense, third down conversion defense, and first downs allowed, and are top ten in passing yards and pass efficiency allowed as well. Too bad their offense was abysmal to start the year, otherwise we would be talking about them as a top ten team in the country. Linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn get a lot of the attention but Nick Herbig is an elite pass rusher from his linebacker position and Caesar Williams and others do a great job in the secondary.

3. Texas A&M - Despite giving up 38 points in their stunning upset of Alabama, the Aggies still rank second in the country in scoring defense, allowing 14.7 points per game and are led by a top-10 passing efficiency defense. They don't really stand out in any particular category, which makes their ability to routinely keep opponents under 20 points even more impressive. They're in the top 30 nationally in both rushing and passing yards allowed, as well as third down conversion percentage and red zone defense, all of which adds up to 16th nationally in yards allowed. Yes we know about future NFL players like DeMarvin Leal and Antonio Johnson but what about guys like Aaron Hansford who are lighting it up?

4. Iowa - Much like Wisconsin, Iowa's success this season has been almost exclusively on the defensive side of the ball, as their ball-hawking unit is second in the nation in turnover margin at plus-12. The Hawkeyes are sitting in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense (fourth), scoring defense (fifth), rushing defense (eighth), and total defense (10th). Coordinator Phil Parker has been at this a long time and continues to get the most out of his unit year in and year out. The secondary has led the way with Riley Moss and Matt Hankins making headlines but end Zach VanValkenberg leads a strong unit up front as well.

5. Clemson - The Tigers may be having their worst season in nearly a decade, but that is almost exclusively the fault of the offense, as they've simply not held up their end of the bargain. Brent Venables' unit is eighth in the country in scoring defense at 16.2 points per game, and that's even more impressive considering the fact that their offense can't move the ball at all so they're on the field a ton (Clemson is 117th in time of possession). They're third in the nation in red-zone defense, which has helped keep their points again numbers down, and are top-40 in passing efficiency defense, rushing defense, passing yards allowed, total defense, and first downs allowed. Players like Myles Murphy, James Skalski and Andrew Booth lead the way and they’re doing this without stars like Bryan Bresee while Tyler Davis recently returned.


Ahmad Gardner
Ahmad Gardner (USA Today Sports Images)

Last week I highlighted some smaller defenders who deserve praise but this week in breaking down the best defense, it's the massive men making my list. Here are five you should know.

1. DT Jordan Davis, Georgia (6-6, 340 pounds) - The mammoth interior lineman returned for his senior season, and the results have been phenomenal for both him and the UGA defense. While he doesn't necessarily show up on the stat sheet in a huge way, anyone who watches even one series of the Dawgs defense knows that he's the biggest (literally and figuratively) reason that they are the dominant unit that they are. He is double and even triple-teamed on every single play, yet still manages to get in the backfield with ease. He moves so well for a man of his size and has moved into the top-10 conversation for the upcoming NFL Draft. Oh, and he’s probably closer to 360 pounds.

2. ILB Leo Chenal, Wisconsin (6-2, 261 pounds) - After missing the Badgers' first two games of the season due to COVID-19, he has been the best linebacker in the country according to PFF and the eye test tends to agree with that. He has the best run defense grade among all players at any position and the second-best pass-rush grade of all off-ball linebackers. Against Army's triple-option attack, Chenal lined up in the A-gap and was jumping the snap so fast that he was hitting the QB before he could even hand the ball off. He finished that game with 17 tackles and 2.5 TFLs. During Wisconsin's current five-game winning streak, he has 49 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 11.5 TFL's. Anyone listing him as a mid-round steal for the NFL Draft is fooling themselves. He’s going to get first or second round buzz.

3. CB Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M (6-3, 200 pounds) - One of the tallest corners in FBS, Johnson is also PFF's No. 1 corner in the country. He leads their rankings in both defensive rating and cover rating among all corners, is third in run defense, and in the top 20 of tackling and pass-rush grade. Johnson has allowed only one touchdown all season on 47 targets, is only allowing 5.6 yards per reception against, third-best in the nation, and is first in yards allowed per target. A lockdown corner if there ever was one, Johnson was discussed as a potential five-star safety coming out of high school?

4. S Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame (6-4, 220 pounds) - One of the top NFL draft prospects for the upcoming year, Hamilton does it all for Notre Dame. He covers a ton of ground for a player his size and is asked to do more than almost any player in the country. He's intercepted three passes in only seven games and has allowed completions on only 50 percent of targets when he is the nearest defender. He and DJ Brown make arguably the top safety pairing in the entire country and he’s a surefire top-10 NFL Draft pick.

5. CB Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati (6-3, 200 pounds) - Another tall and rangy cornerback, Gardner has the unenviable task of taking on the opposing team's number one receiver every week. And despite that assignment, he has yet to allow a touchdown this season while only allowing 6.7 yards per reception. Another guy who's in the first round discussion for the upcoming draft, he's one of the biggest reasons that Cincinnati ranks third in the nation in scoring defense.



Mario Cristobal
Mario Cristobal (USA Today Sports Images)

Finally, I’ll continue my five year look ahead by Power Five conference with some key Pac-12 comparisons.

USC vs. Oregon — USC should always rule the Pac-12 but the Trojans simply haven’t done so consistently since Pete Carroll was coach. We don’t know who the new coach will be or if Mario Cristobal will still be at Oregon but the Ducks appear to be in better shape for 2026.

Utah vs. Washington — Why did I choose these to compare? They are pretty much expected to be the No. 2 team in their respective leagues. The stability at Utah has me believing in them much more than what we are seeing at Washington right now.

Stanford vs. Cal — An old rivalry for sure and two academic programs having awful seasons. I expect David Shaw to be at Stanford for a long time and the way he navigates recruiting and the academic restrictions gives them the short and long term edge.

Arizona State vs. UCLA — Will either Herm Edwards or Chip Kelly be at their respective programs in 2026? I don’t think so and UCLA just has that natural recruiting advantage that should put them in better position to succeed.