Ranking the 50 best defenses in college football history

Georgia’s 2021 national title was obviously a victory for Bulldog fans around the country, but it was also a victory for fans of defense. The prior two national champions in college football — LSU in 2019, Alabama in 2020 — won primarily because of nearly perfect offensive systems. Both ranked first in offensive SP+, and with 78 combined points, 1,045 total yards and 7.0 yards per play, both absolutely torched a Georgia defense that ranked first in defensive SP+ both years.

In 2021, the Dawgs struck back. With an even better defense in tow — and, it must be noted, a better offense too — Georgia went 14-1, allowing more than 18 points just once and finally securing a national title it had waited 41 years to see. Fittingly, the win was secured with a defensive touchdown. And as icing on the cake, five defensive starters got selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft.

Coach Kirby Smart has built a nearly perfect modern defense, but where do these recent Bulldog D’s rank among the best ever? To find out, let’s first acknowledge the difference in eras.

What’s more impressive…

A. Allowing 1.3 points per game in 1939, as Tennessee did under Bob Neyland during one of college football’s lowest scoring ebbs?

B. Allowing 5.2 points per game in 1972, as Michigan did under Bo Schembechler?

C. Allowing 13.0 points per game in 2016, as Alabama did under Nick Saban during maybe the most offense-friendly season ever?

Below are my attempts at answering exactly that. Adjusting for opponents, tempo (where applicable) and my own personal whims, here are what I view as the 50 best defenses in the history of top-division college football.


50. 2003 LSU

Head coach: Nick Saban
Scoring defence: 11.0 points per game
Records: 13-1 (No. 2 in the AP poll, No. 1 in BCS)

Led by a pair of All-Americans in defensive tackle Chad Lavalais and cornerback Corey Webster, the Tigers won a share of their first national title in nearly 50 years — and Saban won his first title ever — thanks to a defense that allowed more than 14 points just twice and held a prolific Oklahoma attack to just 14 in the Sugar Bowl.

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