I’m limiting this list to modern defenses after 1970. It’s really hard to compare a defense from 1950 to 1978 because the game has changed so much.
10) Auburn (2004)
The Tigers defense gave up 20+ points twice and then held teams to two touchdowns or less in every other game. Outside of Tennessee’s 28 points in the SEC championship game rematch, the Tigers gave up less than ten points per game to ranked teams (all ranked ten or better).
Gene Chizik’s group won with speed, at nearly every position. Jay Ratliff, a future Pro Bowler, dominated in the middle with a quick first step and upper body strength. Carlos Rogers, another future Pro Bowler, was a first team All-American. The linebackers could all easily have played safety – Travis Williams and Antarrious Williams. We’d know a lot more about this group had it been given the task of shutting down the 2004 USC Trojans in the Orange Bowl. But, it’s a group that still deserves mention.
9) Ohio State (1973)
During the first eight games of the season, the Buckeyes ’73 group gave up two touchdowns. Two. It gave up 20 points total in those eight games and gave up a total of 64 in all 11 games, less than five per game. Four shutouts. Three first-round draft picks – LB Randy Gradishar, LB Rick Middleton and DB Neal Colzie (in 1975 Draft). Gradishar was a two time All-American and was sixth in the Heisman voting in the 1973 season. When Woody Hayes called him the best linebacker he’d ever coached, that was saying something for certain. This was a tough, hard-hitting, stereotypical Big Ten defense that lit fools up, from DL to secondary.
8) Ohio State (2002)
One of the more underrated units over the past 30 to 40 years was this Buckeyes defense. The Buckeyes didn’t shut out any team during the season, but once Chris Gamble was inserted at corner full-time, this defense went to a different level. Over the last seven games of the regular season, including games with Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State, the Buckeye defense held teams to just under nine points per game.
And, the Buckeyes needed it all with an offense that had its challenges scoring points. It held mighty Miami to 14 points until a last-second field goal tied the game and sent it into overtime. Gamble and Will Smith were first-round selections, but 11 players from this defense, that played a key role, were drafted over the next two seasons. Ten starters and Will Allen, a key backup in 2002 who replaced Donnie Nickey full-time in 2003. It wasn’t a star-studded unit and the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
7) Alabama (2009)
The 2009 defense was second in nearly every national team defensive category but gave up a whopping 11.7 points per game (well, in comparison to the others on this list it IS whopping). Terrence “Mt.” Cody was a Rotary Lombardi Award finalist and LB Rolando McClain was the Butkus Award winner that season.
The secondary had a first round pick at one corner Kareem Jackson, a second rounder at the other Javier Arenas and a future first rounder at safety Mark Barron, of course, a leader for both the 2009 and 2011 defenses. All in all, assume Barron is a first rounder, the group had four first-round picks (McClain, Marcell Dareus, Jackson, and Barron) and a second rounder (Cody). If Dont’a Hightower stayed healthy all season, I might move this group up the list. Great Alabama defense, but as you will see they have had better!
6) Oklahoma (1985)
The Sooners lost an early season game to Miami at home, taking away a shot at being undefeated. But, the rest of the season? Wow. The Sooners gave up double-digit points only three times. Against the four ranked teams that Oklahoma faced, the Sooners allowed a total of 24 points – I’ll do the math for you, that’s six points a game, against ranked teams. Other than the 27 that Miami put up on the board in that win, the Sooners allowed a paltry 76 points in the ten other games and had two shutouts.
DT Tony Casillas was the rock in the middle winning the Lombardi Award as the nation’s top defensive lineman, while LB Brian Bosworth won the first Butkus Award winner. Three defensive All-Americans dotted the defensive roster – Casillas, Bosworth and DE Kevin Murphy. This was a nasty group that could flat out fly with a secondary that rarely got tested. The Boz got all the attention, but this was truly a team effort.
5) Miami (1986)
The Penn State defense of 1986 may be upset that this group is mentioned in front of it; however, it’s tough to look past the ’86 Hurricanes. Two first rounders (Jerome Brown and Bennie Blades…and a young Bill Hawkins would be drafted in the first round a couple of years after the fact) and two second rounders (Winston Moss and Daniel Stubbs) highlighted this group that gave up an average of just over 12 points per game. If the Hurricanes defense hadn’t been put on a short field in the Fiesta Bowl after a Vinny Testaverde interception, the Hurricanes would’ve put a single digit capper on one heck of a run. Fast, physical and nasty with a ton of pro talent. This was a violent aggressive defense that would probably rank higher if Vinny doesn’t throw the ball to the other team multiple times in the National Championship game.
4) USC (2008)
Linebackers dominated this roster – Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews. Heard of them? Sure you have. The only hiccup for the Trojans was a Thursday night loss to Oregon State where true freshman RB Jacquizz Rodgers lit them up with 188 yards rushing. But, the Trojans had three shutouts, gave up 10 or fewer points ten times and gave up nine points a game, first in the nation. But, the 27 points it gave up to the Beavers keep me from putting them in the top three on this list.
3) Washington (1991)
Emtman. Everyone’s All-American. The interior star was THE force for this team. Steve Emtman controlled the middle, won nearly every individual honor a man can receive in college football and was drafted #1 in the 1992 NFL Draft. Overall, the unit was abnormal for Pac-10 teams at the time. Fast and nasty. Don James had put together a collection of bad dudes that seemingly never stopped coming after the quarterback. The Huskies shut teams out twice and gave up 115 points on the season.
As with Alabama, in Washington’s marquee matchup of the season – the Rose Bowl vs. Michigan – Washington virtually shut out Michigan’s Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard. This was a Michigan team that beat teams with balance and this physical Washington defense ran it out of the Rose Bowl. Chico Fraley, Dave Hoffman, Tommie Smith, Shane Pahukoa and many others set the tone in the Pac-10 during a national championship run. Emtman and CB Dana Hall were first rounders.
2) Alabama (1992)
All-American DL Eric Curry and John Copeland led the way up front, while George Teague and Antonio Langham were the leaders in the secondary. The Tide pitched three shutouts and gave up just over ten points per game. The ranked teams that the Tide played in the SEC, during the regular season, put up a combined 21 points on the Tide, Mississippi State and Tennessee, but this team’s reputation was made by holding the dominant Miami Hurricanes to 6 points (seven of Miami’s 13 were scored on a punt return).
That game might have been the best defensive performance I’ve seen by a unit, given how good that Miami offense had been through the season. Three players, Curry, Copeland and Teague were selected in the first round, while LB Antonio London was a third rounder in the 1993 NFL Draft and Langham went in the first round in the 1994 Draft.
1) Alabama (1979)
Five. That number resonates with Crimson Tide fans. Five. That’s the number of shutouts that this defense pitched during the 1979 season. In 12 games, only two teams scored in double digits, the two ranked teams Alabama faced in the regular season – Tennessee and Auburn. Take those two games out of the mix and the Tide gave up a total of 32 points in ten games. Put that in perspective? West Virginia scored 49 in a half on Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl. CB Don McNeal was the team’s star, but E.J Junior was a well-rounded outside linebacker who was a Rotary Lombardi Award finalist the following year in 1980. Both would eventually be first round picks in the NFL. Finish up the fact that this defense held an excellent Penn St. team to just seven points in the National Championship game, and on top of that won the game with a goal line stand.