Scariest defenses in college football since 2000

Let's walk through the annals of college football history to resurrect the scariest defenses since 2000.

AnalysisLet’s take a journey through the annals of college football history to resurrect the scariest defenses since 2000. In chronological order, we produced the list with stats, the number of players drafted, and award winners taken into account. While many of the defensive units were easy to include, there were some tough decisions.

Scariest defenses in college football since 2000

Using 2000 as a cutoff allows us to recognize the top defenses of this century without leaving out members from the 1900s. Maybe a list only including teams before 2000 should come next…

Editor’s note: Drafted players only including those on the two-deep depth chart 

Georgia Bulldogs – 2021

Record: 14-1 | Yards Allowed/Game: 279.1 (3rd) | Points Allowed/Game: 10.4 (1st) | Drafted Players: 8 | Shutouts: 3 | Award Winners: Jordan Davis (Outland, Bednarik), Nakobe Dean (Butkus)

It may not be Crystal Lake, but Athens, Georgia, was one of the scariest places to be for opposing offenses last year. By sheer NFL talent, the 2021 iteration of the Bulldogs’ defense was asinine. Travon Walker (No. 1), Jordan Davis (No. 14), Quay Walker (No. 22), Devonte Wyatt (No. 28), Lewis Cine (No. 32), Nakobe Dean (No. 83), Channing Tindall (No. 102), and Derion Kendrick (No. 212) were all selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.

That star-studded crew allowed just 4.1 yards per play (second-fewest) and 15.2 first downs per game (third). They didn’t even average a touchdown allowed per game (0.9), the only unit to do so since 2012. Georgia beat up on the schools they should have, but they also held No. 14 Clemson (3), No. 21 Arkansas (0), No. 18 Kentucky (13), and No. 3 Michigan to under 15 points.

In fact, they only allowed over that twice during the year. The first came in a loss — their only one of the season — to Alabama in the SEC Championship (41-24). The next came in their rematch in the national championship, knocking off Bryce Young and Co. 33-18.

Clemson Tigers – 2018

Record: 15-0 | Yards Allowed/Game: 294.7 (4th) | Points Allowed/Game: 13.6 (1st) | Drafted Players: 8 | Shutouts: 0 | Award Winners: Clelin Ferrell (Ted Hendricks), Isaiah Simmons (Butkus)

The Power Rangers were in full force in 2018. Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins, and Dexter Lawrence made life hell for opposing backfields. While they were tormenting offenses up front, Isaiah Simmons, Trayvon Mullen, A.J. Terrell, and K’Von Wallace were enforcing a no-fly zone. They may not have pitched a shutout, but they allowed over 20 points (four) fewer times than they allowed less than 10 (seven).

Need some more numbers to tickle your fancy? Clemson allowed a 53.4 completion rate (10th lowest) and a 27.9 third-down conversion rate (fifth). Offenses struggled to move the ball down the field. The Tigers took care of business in the playoffs as well, trouncing Notre Dame 30-3 in the semifinal, and unseating Alabama 44-16 in the national championship.

Florida State Seminoles – 2013

Record: 14-0 | Yards Allowed/Game: 270.8 (3rd) | Points Allowed/Game: 11.1 (1st) | Drafted Players: 9 | Shutouts: 1 | Award Winners: None

Everyone remembers the 2013 Florida State Seminoles’ explosive offense with Jameis Winston under center, but the defensive talent wasn’t lacking. The front seven comprised of future NFLers Eddie Goldman, Mario Edwards, Timmy Jernigan, Christian Jones, Terrance Smith, and Telvin Smith. But the secondary was arguably even more impressive with Lamarcus Joyner, Ronald Darby, Terrence Brooks, P.J. Williams, and, of course, a true freshman Jalen Ramsey.

They only conceded over 14 points twice in 14 games. That includes a 51-14 win over seventh-ranked Clemson, a 41-14 victory against third-ranked Miami, and a 63-0 shutout of 25th-ranked Maryland.

The Seminoles cruised to their toughest matchup of the year — a national championship bout against the Auburn Tigers. The defense forfeited 31 points but held on for Florida State’s third national championship in school history.

Alabama Crimson Tide – 2011

Record: 12-1 | Yards Allowed/Game: 177.6 (1st) | Points Allowed/Game: 7.7 (1st) | Drafted Players: 12 | Shutouts: 3 | Award Winners: None

Pick nearly any Alabama defense, and they could make this list. 2009, 2012, 2015, 2016, the list just keeps going. Nick Saban has turned Tuscaloosa into Titletown, and that success has permeated throughout the team’s year-over-year depth chart. But arguably, Alabama’s best defensive unit came in 2011.

Not only were they first in passing yards, rushing yards, total yards, and points allowed per game, but they also owned top marks in yards per play allowed (3.0), opponent first downs per game (10.4), and opponent third-down conversion rate (25%). Truly, name any team defensive statistic, and Alabama was likely first or at least in the top five.

What makes that more impressive is the Crimson Tide did so in an SEC West division that possessed three top-five-ranked programs. Alabama’s only loss came against No. 1 LSU in overtime, but the defense held up its end of the bargain in a 9-6 barnburner. Nevertheless, they got their revenge in the BCS National Championship, dispatching the Tigers 21-0.

The unit sported three first-round defenders in the 2012 NFL Draft (Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Dont’a Hightower), as well as another in 2013 (Dee Milliner) and 2014 (C.J. Mosley). Any way you slice it, Alabama’s 2011 defense was one of the scariest in college football history.

Nebraska Cornhuskers – 2009

Record: 10-4 | Yards Allowed/Game: 271.7 (7th) | Points Allowed/Game: 10.4 (1st) | Drafted Players: 8 | Shutouts: 2 | Award Winners: Ndamukong Suh (Bednarik, Nagurski, Outland, Lombardi)

There are multiple players from the 2009 Nebraska defense to highlight, but Ndamukong Suh likely sends chills up even Jason Voorhees’ spine. The 6’4″, 300-pound DT routinely penetrated backfields, racking up 24 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. He was as close to unstoppable as you can get, ragdolling offensive linemen en route to one of the most decorated seasons in CFB history.

The Cornhuskers’ defense may have revolved around a single player, but the rest of the unit stood tall. A secondary led by Prince Amukamara, Larry Asante, and Alfonzo Dennard were able to play free with Suh and Co. wreaking havoc up front. A 10-4 record isn’t all that impressive, but the offense was mediocre. Still, Nebraska dominated Arizona 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl and nearly beat the national champion runner-up Texas 13-12 in the Big 12 title match.

USC Trojans – 2008

Record: 12-1 | Yards Allowed/Game: 221.8 (2nd) | Points Allowed/Game: 9 (1st) | Drafted Players: 13 | Shutouts: 3 | Award Winners: Rey Maualuga (Bednarik)

Under Pete Carroll’s tutelage, USC thrived in the mid-2000s. Yet, 2008 saw the Trojans deploy one of the scariest defenses in college football history. With three linebackers selected in the top 40 picks (Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, and Rey Maualuga), it’s safe to say the second level of the defense was as good as it gets. USC’s lone defeat came at the hands of Oregon State early in the year. In total, the Trojans gave up 10+ points just three times across 13 contests.

With Fili Moala, Everson Griffin, and Kyle Moore rushing the passers, the aforementioned three-headed dragon patrolling the middle of the field, and Shareece Wright, Cary Harris, Kevin Ellison, and hard-hitting safety Taylor Mays laying the wood at the catch point, it’s no wonder USC conceded just 134.4 passing yards per game — 20 fewer than the next closest team.

LSU Tigers – 2003

Record: 13-1 | Yards Allowed/Game: 255.4 (1st) | Points Allowed/Game: 11 (1st) | Drafted Players: 8 | Shutouts: 0 | Award Winners: None

Were it not for that 2011 Alabama squad, LSU’s defense would’ve been the peak of the mountain that year. Tyrann Mathieu, Mo Claiborne, and Eric Reid made throwing the ball a chore. Regardless, the 2003 version of the Tigers (yet another Nick Saban-led team) rivaled that success. They may not have held a team to zero points, but they allowed over 14 just once.

With five soon-to-be drafted starters, the Tigers posted a completion percentage against of 44.7 (second), an average yards per play of 4 (first), and forfeited just 13.6 first downs per contest (tied first).

LSU plowed to a 12-1 regular-season record, joining Oklahoma and USC as the only one-loss programs that year. The coaches and AP polls had USC and LSU as the top-ranked teams, but the BCS system placed the Tigers and Oklahoma in the national title bout. Will Muschamp’s defense was prepared for Bob Stoops and Jason White’s high-flying offense. They held the Sooners to 14 points, with Marcus Spears even taking an interception to the house.

Miami Hurricanes – 2001

Record: 12-0 | Yards Allowed/Game: 270.9 (6th) | Points Allowed/Game: 9.4 (1st) | Drafted Players: 14 | Shutouts: 3 | Award Winners: None

Even if this list wasn’t in chronological order, I would have saved the best for last. This Hurricanes defense was so talented that they sent 10 (TEN) players to the NFL via the first round of the draft from 2002-2005. While the “drafted players” section above only includes players on the two-deep depth chart to highlight key contributors, this defense would see a mind-boggling 21 future NFL draftees. Just to name a few of those players: Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Vince Wilfork, and Jonathan Vilma.

En route to the program’s fifth national title, the Hurricanes generated 4.1 turnovers per game. That was just under one turnover more than the second-placed team. Miami would face fourth-ranked Nebraska in the natty. The Cornhuskers averaged 37.4 points (seventh) and 451.2 yards (12th) heading into the contest, but the Hurricanes proved too much to handle. Miami’s defense conceded just 259 yards and 24 points, with James Lewis aiding the offense with a pick-six.

Scariest defenses in CFB since 2000 | Honorable mentions

  • Notre Dame – 2012
  • Florida – 2012 & 2006
  • Virginia Tech – 2006
  • Ohio State – 2002
  • Oklahoma – 2000

James Fragoza is a Writer and News Editor at Pro Football Network. You can read his other work here and follow him on Twitter @JamesFragoza.