1. SOUTHERN CAL
With a pair of All-Americans candidates at linebacker and in the secondary, it's no surprise that the Trojans also top our list of defenses. Linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing along with safeties Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison lead one of the most talented defensive units in the country. There is some concern on the defensive line, where the Trojans lost defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and end Lawrence Jackson, but even the loss of three first round draft picks (Ellis, Jackson and LB Keith Rivers) won't prevent the USC defense from being amongst the nation's toughest.
Dave Wannstedt made his way through the NFL ranks as a defensive ace, and in his fourth year at Pitt, he may have his best unit yet. The linebackers, especially Scott McKillop will lead the Panthers, but the talent is spread out rather nicely. Pitt feels that it finally has some quality depth on the defensive line and there is some good competition in the secondary, particularly at safety. McKillop led the nation in tackles last year, while defensive end Greg Romeus is a NFL prospect and cornerback Aaron Berry is back as the leader in the defensive backfield.
No matter what Rich Rodriguez installs for the Wolverines' offense, the defense will have to carry a load while their mates get accustomed to the change. With eight starters back from last year, Michigan's defense will be the strength of the team all year. Michigan has a new defensive coordinator too in Scott Shafer, but the aggressive scheme shouldn't be much different from the previous one under Ron English. The defensive line will be the strength of the defense, although the secondary is talented enough to give Shafer the flexibility to be aggressive up front.
4. NOTRE DAME
While the addition of John Tenuta to the defensive staff will undoubtedly help coordinator Corwin Brown in the meeting rooms, it also allows Brown to coach the defensive backs, which was his position as a player and puts Tenuta with the linebackers, a spot where he is comfortable. One of the big problems with this group last year was that it was just on the field too much, which wasn't entirely the defense's fault. But with an improved offense expected this year, the defense should get more of a break this year and that will help everybody. The Irish have plenty of talent in the secondary and at linebacker and whether they employ a 3-4 or a 4-3 won't be as important as whether the defensive line improves.
5. BOSTON COLLEGE
The Eagles were 19th in the country in total defense in 2007 and the best players on this year's unit did not play last season. The returns of defensive tackle B.J. Raji and linebacker Brian Toal could give BC a chance to duplicate last season's success that included a second overall rank against the run. But BC will have to improve against the pass, where the Eagles allowed 253.9 yards per game in 2007 and they will have to do it after losing their top cover corner and an All-American safety. Raji and Toal should give this unit a boost, but it could come down to how well sophomore corner DeLeon Gause plays.
6. NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels bring back their entire secondary from a year ago and the unit will be better than last year when it was 27th against the pass. North Carolina is young up front, but the coaches feel that there is plenty of potential. Unfortunately for the Heels, while the linebackers are just as inexperienced, there is not as much talent. If North Carolina can develop some of those linebackers, this unit has the chance to be one of the ACC's best.
The Cardinal return nine starters from last year's group, including all three linebackers. Middle linebacker Clinton Snyder will be the leader of this unit along with senior defensive end Pannel Egboh and junior safeties Bo McNally and Austin Yancy. Stanford did a good job pressuring the passer last year, but still gave up an average of 266.2 yards through the air. If this defense is going to take a big step forward in 2008, it will have to limit the big plays while sustaining a healthy pass rush.
8. MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans lost their two most productive defensive linemen from a year ago, but they add end Trevor Anderson, who transferred after having an impact as a freshman at Cincinnati. With sophomores Eric Gordon and Greg Jones at linebacker, Michigan State will have some of the fastest linebackers in the conference. The secondary lost some key performers, but still bring back a number of players with playing experience.
A strong defensive line will try to mask the experienced linebackers behind it. Purdue has a strong group of defensive tackles and could receive a boost from some young guys at end. Senior linebacker Anthony Heygood is one of the best players on the team, but he will be joined almost solely by underclassmen. The Boilermakers bring some players back in the secondary, but the staff is still trying to find the right combination of players in the right spots.
Navy will try to improve on last year's season when they ranked 99th in total defense (439.2 yards) and 108th in scoring defense (36.4 points). As always, the Midshipmen will be undersized, but they do have eight returning starters from 2007 along with a couple of standouts who did not play much last year. Linebacker Clint Sovie and defensive back Jeff Deliz return after missing most of the season with injuries. The Midshipmen should be especially experienced in the secondary where they shifted a number of guys around last year in response to injuries. Senior defensive end Michael Walsh will be the top guy up front.
For a time it appeared as though new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was going to design his defense around the talents of senior linebacker E.J. Savannah, but now it appears unlikely that Savannah will be on the field this season. Savannah was suspended for the start of spring for missing offseason workouts, but came on with a strong finish. After the close of spring he broke his arm in a non-football activity and just this week comes news that he is academically ineligible. The Huskies will now be inexperienced at linebacker while bringing back just one starting defensive lineman and trying to rearrange their secondary. With Savannah out, expect Donatell to be even more guarded with his ideas for 2008, but it will be a tall task.
12. SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs recognized that what they had been doing wasn't working and that something needed to change. San Diego State ranked 94th in passing defense, 103rd in scoring defense, 115th in total defense and 118th in rushing defense in 2007, finishing last in the Mountain West in each category. The major changes come along the defensive line where they have moved inside guys outside and outside guys in. The linebackers were the best unit on last year's defense and have their top four guys back. The secondary too is experienced, but will have need to show some improvement.
Greg Robinson is on thin ice and as a former NFL defensive coordinator with a total defensive ranking of 111th last year, it's not much of a surprise. The defensive line will be the strength as the linebackers are young and the secondary is even younger. Tackles Arthur Jones and Bud Tribbey could be the best players on defense, but the Orange will have to break in two new ends, including one former linebacker. Robinson along with new co-defensive coordinator Derrick Jackson are trying to move some speed into the linebacker positions. The secondary is in a bit of flux as their only returning starter is a sophomore and a key reserve was a wide receiver last year.