Power ranking the B1G defenses in 2020
This is a tricky exercise in a conference like the Big Ten. In any given season, there will be 5-7 Big Ten defenses ranked among the top 25 nationally.
There are concerns with every team, naturally. Can Ohio State reload? What does losing its top 2 defensive players mean for Wisconsin? And Minnesota? Is having the best defensive player in the country enough to propel Penn State into an elite defense?
Here is how I would rank the Big Ten defenses heading into 2020:
Maryland figures to play more sound football on the defensive side in Jon Hoke’s 2nd year as defensive coordinator, but just 5 starters and 1 of the top 4 tacklers are back. The defense was a disaster in 2019, allowing an average of 449 yards per game. And with no cupcakes like Howard, when the Terrapins allowed 68 yards, it could be a tough year.
Rutgers returns 8 starters, so it gets the benefit of the doubt over Maryland. And despite this being a new staff, it does help that the men in charge of the defense (head coach Greg Schiano and defensive coordinator Robb Smith) coached at Rutgers before. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact transfers Brendon White (Ohio State) and Malik Barrow (UCF) make.
The Illini return just 5 starters, and I’m worried they tapped out on their potential last season when they were 4th in the nation in takeaways. That unit made some great strides but still allowed over 26 points per game. A lot of that was thanks to Lovie Smith taking over as defensive coordinator. He has his work cut out for him this year without Dele Harding, the Big Ten’s leading tackler in 2019.
Is it strange to put a Jeff Brohm-coached squad ahead of a Lovie Smith-coached squad? Maybe, but Purdue has the ingredients for a decent defense. For one, George Karlaftis was terrific as a freshman (7.5 sacks, most of any returning B1G player) and is a budding star. Secondly, Purdue did well to battle defensively after losing its top 2 defenders early in 2019. The Boilermakers kind of fell apart at the end of the season against Wisconsin and Indiana, but those were mixed in with some decent performances against Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is out to build on those.
When will things start to get better in Lincoln? Well, when the Cornhuskers can stop someone. Nebraska allowed 27 or more points in every Big Ten game except against Northwestern and Maryland. The saving grace this year will be 1 of the Big Ten’s top secondaries, led by safety Cam Taylor-Britt. The concern is the defensive line, which has no starters back.
The Golden Gophers are my biggest faller from 2019, when they finished 3rd in total defense. That’s what happens when you have 4 players drafted from your defense, led by playmaking safety Antoine Winfield. I think last season was also partially due to the schedule that featured no Power-5 nonconference games and no Ohio State or Indiana (2 of the top 3 B1G offenses). With a likely 10-game conference slate, they are naturally due to regress a little. Returning 4 starters isn’t great, either, as the front 7 may struggle some.
Is this the year for the Hoosiers? If it is, it will be because the defense continues its upward ascent from being 1 of the worst in college football 5-10 years ago. Still, last year’s numbers were inflated by holding Eastern Illinois, UConn, Rutgers and Northwestern below 200 yards. With 9 starters back and 12 of the top 14 tacklers, the Hoosiers have a solid foundation in place. Tom Allen has been a home run hire as head coach, and we should continue to see his defensive chops on this unit.
7. Michigan State
While this season figures to be incredibly challenging for Michigan State, I think the majority of issues will be on the offensive side of the ball (especially at QB). The defense, on the other hand, should be halfway decent and mostly plagued by an offense that will likely struggle most days. The Spartans could be this year’s version of 2019 Northwestern, which actually fielded a solid defense, all things considered. The defensive line, which has long been a strength, figures to be one again. Jacub Panasiuk isn’t flashy, but he’s productive. Former 4-star recruit Naquan Jones figures to finally get his chance to shine, and Antjuan Simmons looks headed for a big senior season.
The way Northwestern battled on the defensive end in 2019 was impressive; the offense did it no favors. With 9 starters back, the Wildcats are expected to be very good. Most important for Northwestern is figuring out a way to replace Joe Gaziano on the defensive line. If the Wildcats can compensate — and Samdup Miller and Earnest Brown look up to the task up front — then they should have a top-25 defense once again. Pat Fitzgerald has a reputation as 1 of the top coaches in the sport for a reason. The continuity with Fitzgerald (in his 15th season) and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz (13th season) also could be an advantage in a shortened offseason.
Iowa has to overcome the loss of A.J. Epenesa to the NFL, but the Hawkeyes churn out NFL talent year after year and figure out how to reload. They have had a top-25 defense in 6 of the past 7 seasons, and this season figures to be no different. Iowa graduated 3 starters up front, but it should once again be 1 of the best defensive lines in the conference, led by Chauncey Golston and bolstered by Northern Illinois transfer Jack Heflin.
4. Penn State
Penn State hasn’t finished higher than 5th in the Big Ten in total defense since 2014. And this season, the Nittany Lions have some holes to fill, mainly in the secondary as they had the No. 13 pass defense in the Big Ten last season. The reason Penn State is up this high has a lot to do with having the top defensive player in the country, Micah Parsons. Likely the 1st defensive player picked in the 2021 NFL Draft, Parsons can take over a game like no other defender in college football. Penn State should be solid up front with PJ Mustipher in the middle and Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh (an intriguing draft prospect) on the ends.
The Badgers lost 2 critical players in Zack Baun and Chris Orr, but everyone else from the No. 4 defense is back. Linebacker Jack Sanborn and safety Eric Burrell are the stars, but Wisconsin should be solid at every position. Wisconsin has had a top-10 defense in 6 of the past 7 seasons, and this season looks to be like another of those. My favorite Wisconsin stat? The Badgers led the nation in allowing just 27.3 percent of 3rd-down conversions. I’m a little hesitant to put the Badgers any higher at this point, though, because those 2 linebackers did so much and I think there will be some growing pains. That said, no one would be surprised if they finish atop the Big Ten in defense.
I’ll admit, I almost put Michigan ahead of Ohio State. That’s because the Wolverines have as much established talent of anyone in the Big Ten. But I can’t quite do it until I see Michigan step up against elite teams. That said, Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson have very different styles at defensive end, but each is effective in their own way, with Carlo Kemp holding down the middle. The secondary, led by Daxton Hill and Ambry Thomas, should be very good as well. Michigan has finished in the top 11 nationally in total defense in 6 straight seasons, with 4 of those being top-4 finishes. Say what you will about Michigan’s offense, but it has fielded a very good defense every year of the Jim Harbaugh era. That should continue this season. Of course, if the Wolverines don’t play well defensively against Ohio State and whatever SEC team they play in the bowl game, it doesn’t seem to matter.
1. Ohio State
It feels strange to not have Ohio State at the top of any Big Ten ranking, because it has been such a dominant team in all phases. So by default, the Buckeyes claim the top spot — inexperience be damned. They have just 4 starters back, and like usual, they lost some good ones. In all, 7 Buckeye defenders were drafted, including the top 2 defensive players off the board and 3 in the 1st round. But this is what Ohio State does — it reloads. Shaun Wade is back to try to improve his draft stock and become a lockdown corner like Okudah. Can former 5-star prospect Zach Harrison blossom into Ohio State’s next elite edge rusher? The 2-deep is filled with 4-star and 5-star recruits who have been waiting for their time to shine.