It seems like each year is the most points ever scored in college football. Speed, yards, and points keep going up, making it harder to judge defenses.
In the 1950s, for example, defense in the top 20 might give up 10 points per game. This number was closer to 20 in 2015.
At one time, giving up five yards per play was usually seen as a sign of weakness. Now, that number would put a team in the top 30.
Here is another place where statistics can be helpful. Stats can’t tell us everything. But they can help us find a starting point and put a team’s achievements in the right light.
Interested in the 15 best defenses in college football history? These defenses would shock you and get you feeling like trying them out. Keep reading.
Table of Contents
- How do Zones in Defenses in College Football History Work?
- What is Covering a Man in the Top Defenses in College Football?
- What are the Types of Base Defense in Best Defenses in College Football History?
- 15 Best Defenses in College Football History
- What are the Types of Covers in the Best Defenses in College Football History?
- What is the Nickel Formation in the Top Defenses in College Football History?
- Frequently Asked Questions
How do Zones in Defenses in College Football History Work?
It’s easy to understand how the Zone Zone works. Imagine that the field is mostly made up of bubbles, and each defender plays inside his bubble.
If a receiver’s route goes outside of his zone, he follows it. When he gets to his marker, he starts the play over. If the play becomes a run, the defender goes after the ball.
The fact that players always face the offense is a good thing about the zone. This is a defense that looks ahead and depends on the defender’s ability to read and react.
The safety is getting out of the way of the play to get ready for the throw. A lot of fast defenses use zone to stop people from running and stop short passes. In almost every defensive call, at least one player, usually the safety, is in zone coverage.
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What is Covering a Man in the Top Defenses in College Football?
The term “man coverage” refers to the relationship between the secondary and linebackers and receivers. That’s why, the description of the coverage is as simple as the name.
The defender can only focus on one offensive player for the whole play. The defender stays close to the ball, breaks up the pass, or makes the tackle if it gets caught. He should try to put the other player in trouble.
Linebackers play tight ends, H-backs, and running backs one-on-one. In man coverage, corners have a lot of ways to play, and there are a lot of corner blitzes that go with the scheme.
When a cornerback steps in to play press-man or bump coverage, which means he engages the receiver in the first five yards past the line of scrimmage. He is trying to stop the receiver from taking the inside position on a slant route.
Cornerbacks will also play man coverage and play off the ball. When a linebacker comes into blitz, the safeties get locked in against running backs or slot receivers. If not, security guards will be roaming a zone.
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What are the Types of Base Defense in Best Defenses in College Football History?
There are three main base defenses in college football right now. Teams use the 3-4, 4-3, and modified 4-2-5 formations.
Alabama and Notre Dame are two well-known teams that run the 3-4. Penn State and Ohio State both use 4-3 schemes, and North Carolina and South Carolina, to name a few, have changed to a 4-2-5.
Different programs run different defenses to meet changing needs. This is an overview of the basic defenses and why a team might choose one over another.
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The NFL style of defense is making its way into college football, which has led to the rise of the 3-4. In a 3-4, the linebacker is the most important player.
In this formation, you have to be a good linebacker to stay in the game. There are four defensive linemen, four defensive backs, and three defensive linemen.
The outside linebackers are another way to rush the quarterback, but they also need to be able to drop back into coverage when needed.
For this defense to work well, the corners need to be tall, athletic, and able to stay alive on islands.
Alabama is one of the teams that run the scheme the most, and they are popularly known for doing it very well. It is one of the top defenses in college football.
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The 4-3 defense gives an offense several different ways to look. For this defense to work, it needs a strong middle linebacker and good play from the safeties.
On an island, the safeties are often asked to serve in deep zones, and the strong safety must be able to consistently crash and play the run.
In this plan, there are four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs. This is the basic defense that several programs use. It’s the best of all possible worlds.
Four big guys can help stop the run, three linebackers, of which two are good at coverage, and a strong safety who plays.
One of the most well-known 4-3 schemes is the Tampa-2, which we’ll explain later. It’s used by teams all over the country. It is one of the top defenses in college football.
In college, the 4-2-5 defense was first used as a base defense when Ellis Johnson was at Mississippi State. Vic Koenning was at Troy in the middle of the 2000s. Both coaches started to use a base defense that was mostly on the nickel formation.
There are four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. In the 4-2-5 defense, the “Star” position is the most important. The “Star” is a type of hybrid safety who could also play outside linebacker in most 4-3 schemes.
This formation is the base defense for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Auburn right now. It was to help keep the defense on the field against “spread” offenses and limit the number of times players could come off the field.
The third safety has enough skills to be a cover guy, but he is best at stopping runs. It is one of the top defenses in college football.
15 Best Defenses in College Football History
#1. 1959 LSU
Ole Miss and LSU had two of the best defenses ever. Theirs is usually described as one of the best defenses in college football history. This was when they played each other on Halloween in 1959 and again in that season’s Sugar Bowl. In two games, LSU let the Rebels score 24 points, but in the other nine games, they let the Rebels score 26 points.
Ole Miss almost made this list, but their schedule was too tough. However, the Rebels’ numbers were even better: In 11 games, they gave up 21 points. Seven of those points came from Billy Cannon’s famous return of a punt that was to go out of bounds. 14 came from drives that started inside their territory.
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#2. 1985 Michigan
1985 Michigan is one of the top defenses in college football history. When No. 2 Miami lost to No. 3 Tennessee and No. 3 Oklahoma beat No. 1 Penn State, the 1985 title got decided. But the best team of the season may have played earlier when Michigan beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. This was on New Year’s Day.
The offense got led by Jim Harbaugh who scored 28.5 points per game. The defense, which got led by All-Americans Mike Hammerstein and Brad Cochran, only gave up 8.2 points per game. They held five opponents to three points or less, and only one scored more than 17. (to Nebraska).
The Wolverines didn’t win the title because they lost to Iowa 12-10. They also tied with Illinois 3-3, but that wasn’t because of their defense.
#3. 1997 Michigan
The Heisman went to this defense because it was so good. Corner Charles Woodson was the most famous player on this team, but it was full of stars. Rob Renes and Glen Steele were All-Americans up front. Sam Sword and Dhani Jones were linebackers, and Andre Weathers, Tommy Hendricks, and Marcus Ray were in the back with Woodson.
In its first five games, Michigan gave up only 26 points. In the Rose Bowl, it held Ryan Leaf’s Washington State team to 16 points. It is one of the best defenses in college football history.
#4. 1992 Arizona
In 1992, no one could beat Desert Swarm by Dick Tomey. Even though they played a tough schedule, the Wildcats only gave up 9.8 points per game. Against five ranked teams, they gave up a total of 34 points. In September, when they lost by one point to No. 1 Miami, they only gave up eight points.
In November, when they beat No. 1 Washington, they only gave up three points. Against Brandon Saunders, Tedy Bruschi, Keshon Johnson, and the Wildcats, only Washington State (23) was able to score more than 17 points. They are one of the best defenses in college football history.
#5. 1907 The Michigan Wolverines
1907 The Michigan Wolverines are one of the best defenses in college football history. Fielding Yost, the coach started the season by beating Case, Michigan State, Wabash, and Ohio State. This was by a combined score of 99-0.
However, their biggest win came on November 2 against Vanderbilt. The Commodores had a great offense. They had already scored 40 points against Kentucky.
They would go on to beat Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, and Sewanee by a total of 131-12. But when the Wolverines came to town, they couldn’t do a thing and lost 8-0.
In the last game, someone finally scored. Penn was a strong team that averaged 24 points per game. When they went to Ann Arbor, they beat them 6-0.
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#6. 1980 Florida State
In 1980, Bobby Bowden’s great Seminoles won two of the best college football games. They made their first serious run at the national title thanks to a strong defense. They played three top-five teams and nine teams that had won at least seven games. The Seminoles only gave up 8.6 points per game.
They gave up 18 points per game to the top three teams and only 5.4 points per game to the other teams. The Noles, led by defensive coordinator Jack Stanton, had 38 sacks, 18 interceptions, and 22 fumble recoveries. They also held opponents to 2.4 yards per carrying, which is not very good.
Nebraska averaged almost 40 points per game. But in one of Bowden’s first wins, an 18-14 victory in Lincoln, they only scored 14. This is one of the top defenses in college football history.
#7. 1919 Jefferson and Washington
How does Washington & Jefferson, a small, private liberal arts college near Pittsburgh that dropped out of Division I in 1934, make this list? By playing three strong teams—Syracuse (11.2 points per game). Pitt (13.2 points per game).
And West Virginia (32.6 points per game)—and scoring 19 points more than them. They beat Carnegie Tech and four other non-DI teams by a score of 106-0. A technicality in statistics? Probably.
But the Presidents were in the middle of an amazing run. From 1912 to 1921, they went 75-17-5, and to end that run, they went 10-0-1 and tied mighty California in the Rose Bowl.
Also in 1923, John Heisman was the coach there. Now, they are one of the better teams in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference for Division III. This is one of the best defenses in college football history.
#8. 1971 Alabama
From 1967 to 1970, Alabama only won an average of seven games a year. After being in the AP top 10 for nine straight years, they were not ranked in 1969 and 1970. But in 1971, if you will, the tide turned.
Not only did the offense explode when they figured out how to use the wishbone. But the defense suddenly went back to being a Bear Bryant defense. During the regular season, Alabama played four ranked teams and gave up 39 points to them. Lesser teams did even worse, giving up 45 points in seven games.
The season ended badly when unbeaten Nebraska beat them 38–6 in the Orange Bowl. But this defense was as good as any Bryant had. This is one of the best defenses in college football history.
#9. 1965 Michigan State
In 1964, Michigan State’s record was 4-5, and they gave up nearly 16 points per game. Coach Duffy Daugherty thought this was terrible. But then Bubba Smith got his name. The junior end was possibly the best defensive player in the country. Sparty dominated with him, linebacker George Webster, and a strong secondary.
The state never gave up more than 14 points all year, and only four times did they give up more than seven. They almost won the national championship when they beat Notre Dame 12–3. But in the Rose Bowl, they lost to UCLA, which was a two-touchdown underdog. It is one of the best defenses in college football history.
#10. 1962 LSU
1962 LSU is one of the best defenses in college football history. Early in the 1960s, SEC offenses started to get better. But in Charles McClendon’s first year at LSU, the defense was just as good as ever. 1962 LSU was one of the best defenses in college football history.
The Tigers only lost 15–7 to No. 6 Ole Miss. All-American defensive tackle Fred Miller and halfback/defensive back Jerry Stovall then led it. It was the only time they gave up more than seven points all season.
No. 5 Georgia Tech scored seven points, and No. 4 Texas lost a shutout in the Cotton Bowl. Just like five other teams in 1962.
#11. 1977 Tennessee State
How would the great HBCU teams of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s have done against Division I teams? This is a very interesting question. Since most of the South didn’t integrate until the late 1960s. Teams in the SWAC and MEAC had a lot of good players but mostly played each other.
But in 1977, something went wrong. Before Division I split into I-A and I-AA, HBCUs played in Division I for one season. The Tennessee State team from 1977 was great.
The Tigers went 8-1-1, beating teams like Jackson State (17-7) and Grambling State (26-8), who were both 8-3 and 10-1. Florida A&M was the only team that scored more than 14 points.
Another detail of statistics? Almost for sure. But this team had defensive linemen Sylvester Hicks and Stan Johnson, who got picked in the second round of the draft.
Danny Johnson, who would also get picked in the fourth round. Even if it wasn’t the best defense ever, it is one of the top defenses in college football history.
#12. 1994 Washington State
Even though Arizona was popularly known as the “Desert Swarm,” Mike Price’s defense in 1994 was one of the best in Pac-10 history. The Cougars couldn’t score to save their lives, averaging only 16 points per game. But Ron Childs led a tough defense that only let in 9.6 points per game.
This was against five ranked teams and shut down a Baylor team. The team averaged more than 30 points per game going into the 1994 Alamo Bowl. 1994 Washington State is one of the top defenses in college football history.
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#13. 1979 texas
In 1977, Texas had a chance to win the national championship, but Joe Montana and Notre Dame beat them. Two years later, at least one side of the Longhorns was again stacked.
Texas scored an average of 18.4 points per game, which put them 80th in Division I-A. As a result, they lost three games.
But the defense made things worse. The ‘Horns played four teams in the top 10 and beat all of them. No. 5 Missouri didn’t score a single point, No. 3 Oklahoma scored seven, No. 10 Arkansas scored 17, and No. 5 Houston scored 13. It was one of the best defenses in college football history.
#14. 1966 Ole Miss
From the point of view of how many points they gave up, the 1959 Ole Miss team is hard to beat. But in 1966, when college football offenses were getting more and more open, Ole Miss played a ton of offenses and still only let 65 points through.
In Week 3, Alabama beat the Rebels by 17 points, and in the Bluebonnet Bowl, Texas scored 19. But John Vaught’s team gave up 29 points in the other nine games.
The average for Houston was 34, but they only got six. Georgia: 23 points per game against every other team, but only 3 points against Ole Miss.
The Rebels had five shutouts, but like Texas in 1979, their defense wasn’t strong enough to make up for a bad offense. The Rebels only scored 10 points in their three losses. It is still one of the top defenses in college football history.
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#15. 1978 USC
USC is popularly known for its offense, but John Robinson put together one of the best defenses in the history of the sport in 1978. The average number of points scored was going up quickly.
Despite playing five ranked teams and nine teams that finished with at least seven wins. The USC defense, led by Dennis Smith and Ronnie Lott, never gave up more than 20 points.
Alabama, which ended up being a national co-champion, averaged more than 30 points. This was against everyone else but only scored 14. Michigan State’s average against everyone else was more than 40, but they only scored nine.
Stanford, Notre Dame, and Michigan were all known for having good offenses. None of them met their averages.
What are the Types of Covers in the Best Defenses in College Football History?
One deep safety is what Cover 1 means. Most of the time, this plays when there is double coverage or a blitz. Cover 1 works well in the 4-2-5 because the extra defensive back plays either man coverage or a short zone. Only one deep safety is safe.
In the 4-3, Cover 2 is usually seen a lot. The Tampa-2 is a well-known cover-2 scheme with deep safeties and quick linebackers. Cover 2 sends two safeties into a deep zone and lets the linebackers cover the middle of the field.
You can also make a lot of blitz packages out of the cover 2 if safety is free to go after the ball and another defender falls into the zone.
Several defenses use this coverage because it gives the defense a solid deep coverage asset. It also keeps enough players in the box to stop the run.
Cover 3 is a balanced defense in which the strong safety comes up to help with the run. At this point, the defense usually plays a full zone scheme. The goal of the defense is to block as many lanes as possible.
In this screenshot, the purple circles show how the LSU defensive backfield is set up before the snap. This can be in several ways, but the most common is to drop the free safety deep. Then add two cornerbacks to the deep corners of pass coverage.
At this point, the strong safety is either playing a short zone or focusing on the slot receiver. This is an effort to reach as many people as possible.
Cover 4 can be in different ways. Most people think of formation as a way to stop a final score in a scheme called “prevent.” This can be a prevent or dime package look for the defense, with both safeties. Both cornerbacks are in deep coverage.
Cover 4 is also a good run support defense because both safeties can crash into the box and help with run support, or they can cover deep if a pass comes.
One linebacker is on the field, and two defensive backs are covering. Cover 4 is a case of “can’t let them score.” The defense is set up so that the offense can’t get into the end zone. It is one of the top defenses in college football.
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What is the Nickel Formation in the Top Defenses in College Football History?
Over the past few years, nickel formation has become a more common part of defenses all over the country. Teams are spreading out their formations more and more. So putting more defensive backs on the field has become a goal.
Now more than ever, speed is important, and this scheme lets teams put a lot of defensive backs on the field to help with coverage. Nickel has two linebackers, four defensive linemen, and five defensive backs on the field at once. The nickel is a cornerback or safety who is better than average against the run.
The nickel is the foundation of the 4-2-5 defense.
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Frequently Asked Questions
1907 The Michigan Wolverines
1980 Florida State
Georgia Tech beats Cumberland University 222-0 on October 7, 1916. It was the most one-sided college football game ever. Georgia Tech is up 63-0 in the first quarter at Grant Field in Atlanta. Their coach is John Heisman, who later gave his name to the most famous trophy in college football.
The NFL style of defense is making its way into college football, which has led to the rise of the 3-4. In a 3-4, the linebacker is the most important player. In this formation, you have to be a good linebacker to stay in the game. There are four defensive linemen, four defensive backs, and three defensive linemen.
Based on how well they defend, Georgia’s 2021 defense is the second-best of any national champion team since 2005. Only Alabama’s 2011 defense is better, which is the first year for which we have data. Georgia’s spread-optimized defense, which looked like coach Kirby Smart, caused a lot of damage all season.
There are currently at least three five-star recruits at Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama, and Penn State. One of these teams has already signed six of the 32 five-star players listed by Top247.
John Gagliardi is the all-time leader with 489 wins, most of which came at the NCAA Division III level. Gagliardi started as a head coach at Carroll in Helena, Montana, in 1949. He then moved to Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 1953. He stayed until he retired at the end of the 2012 season.
There are always questions about a new season, but “what is our defense doing?” is one that rarely gets an answer.
Our list of best defenses in college football history is highly spoken off. Most college football teams look upon them to organize their defense properly.
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- athlonsports.com– 10 greatest defenses in college football history
- sbnation.com– Best NCAA football defenses ever
- bleacherreport.com– Best defenses to carry college football teams to National Championships
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