Ranking the Top 25 defensive coordinators in college football for 2021
One of college football’s great maxims is that defense wins games and championships. Whether that’s true or those guys picking up first downs and points have something to do with it is perhaps a matter of interpretation. But one thing is for sure — because defenses are critical, defensive coordinators must be, too. As part of our annual Top 25 series, here’s some fodder for the water cooler arguments, as I rank the nation’s top 25 FBS defensive coordinators for 2021.
A few caveats. Yes, a head coach qualifies if he calls the defensive plays. Yes, this is always hard. How much of coaching is finding and keeping the best players? How much do you credit a new coach at a powerhouse? A veteran coach at an above-average school? For that matter, when a coach moves, do we reward his past excellence in ranking his successor at the old school or him at his new school? Answer wise, this list could change by the day on fall Saturdays — maybe even by the minute. Factors considered included team success, defensive success, longevity, success at other jobs and programs, and the likelihood that this particular defense will shine in 2021. Without further ado, here are the top 25 defensive coordinators in college football.
25. Nate Woody, Army
It’s not exactly a secret, but coaching at the service academies largely involves working around missing ingredients — talent often being chief among them. Woody’s Army defense led the nation in giving up just 275 yards per game. Opponents managed just 14.8 points per game against the Black Knights, and the 2nd-year DC is a man to watch.
24. Bob Gregory/Ikaika Malloe, Washington
Gregory was promoted to the primary defensive coordinator, but Malloe will retain his co-coordinator status. Both coaches have been on staff for a while, and the defensive units and players they coached have produced. Washington’s defenses have been stout, and an excellent secondary should lead this group in 2021.
23. Brad White, Kentucky
White’s Kentucky defense wasn’t exactly perfect during a 5-6 2020 campaign that was his first season as UK’s DC. But he coached UK’s pass defense to top of the SEC status and sent a bunch of players to the NFL. He’ll do better with more and better players in ’21.
22. Morgan Scalley, Utah
Sixth-year DC Scalley always has the Utes among the conference’s best in stopping the run and before a slow 2020, his guys had generated a ton of QB pressure. Utah returns 9 starters on defense and could enhance Scalley’s status by threatening for the Pac-12 title.
21. Barry Odom, Arkansas
Year 1 for Odom at Arkansas wasn’t a statistical success. But the veteran coordinator and former Mizzou head coach knows defense. He has 10 starters back and even in the eternally loaded SEC West, Arkansas will show significant improvement this fall.
20. Chad Staggs, Coastal Carolina
In 2020, Staggs’ second CCU defense knocked off 10 points per game allowed from his first. They also went from 21 sacks to 34 and were part of a team that had a 0 turnover margin improving to +13. Of course, CCU went from 5 wins in 2019 to 11 last year. And with 10 starters back, CCU will be tough again this fall.
19. Kerry Coombs, Ohio State
Yeah, Coombs’ first OSU defense got singed with the passing game a few times in 2020. But they also were tough on the run (98 yards per game allowed) and in turnovers (positive margin in every game last year). This is a leap of faith that Coombs could well be in the top 10-15 a year from now.
18. Tim DeRuyter, Oregon
DeRuyter did a solid job at Cal of making a horrible defense pretty good. Can he translate that to making a talented defense significantly better? Mario Cristobal bet on yes and will likely be rewarded for his faith.
17. Todd Grantham, Florida
Talk about a guy who could rise or fall, here’s your pick. Grantham has done great and terrible things and has coached everywhere in the world, given or take a few teams. Some love him, some hate him. In 2019, his UF defense was outstanding (15.5 PPG allowed, 305 total yards, 49 sacks). Last year, not so much (30.8 PPG allowed, 428 total yards, 35 sacks). Which one is more representative? We’ll see in 2021.
16. Jay Bateman/Tommy Thigpen, North Carolina
This is essentially a referendum on Mack Brown at UNC. While the defense regressed a bit in 2020, it was substantially better since the new staff came on board than it had been. UNC was ranked No. 105 in total defense in 2018 but improved to No. 57 in 2020. Given 10 returning starters, these guys could become stars in 2021.
15. Todd Orlando, USC
This second-year coordinator tightened up the defense last year (improved from 29 to 26 PPG allowed, from 4.5 yards per carry allowed to 4.2, and from -10 turnover margin to +5). With an experienced and talented front, Orlando could really shine in 2021.
14. Brent Pry, Penn State
Pry came to State with James Franklin and while his usually stout defense stumbled a bit in 2020, expect to see a return to form that had PSU finishing with 40 or more sacks each of the previous 5 years before last year.
13. Mike Tressel, Cincinnati
Take an already tough UC defense (allowed 16.8 PPG last year) and add veteran Tressel, who spent 14 years as DC at Michigan State. An outstanding defensive line will key the Bearcats in 2021.
12. Derek Mason, Auburn
Bryan Harsin went with an experienced and talented coordinator. Mason was in a tough spot as head coach at Vandy, but his Stanford defenses were superb, and given that Auburn’s cupboard is never bare, don’t be surprised if Mason is back in the head coaching ranks sooner rather than later.
11. Pete Kwiatkowski, Texas
When Texas brought in Sark, they didn’t dry up the West coast connections. Kwiatkowski was outstanding at Washington, leading the Huskies to sub-20 PPG defensive performances in 5 of his 7 years there. At Texas, he inherits a talented base with a strong pass rush that could surprise in the Big 12.
10. Jon Heacock, Iowa State
Not a flashy guy, but this 6th-year coordinator has seen his defenses improve in yardage allowed every year but one in Ames. They’re tough against the run and over the past 4 years have generated more sacks than their offense allowed every season. A tough linebacker corps will lead this bunch in 2021.
9. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame
Gutsy move by the golden domers to bring in Cincinnati’s ace coordinator. If he could do it at Cincy, he should be fine at South Bend. As ND averaged under 20 PPG allowed the past 3 years, there’s quite a solid core to work with on this job.
8. Dan Lanning/Glenn Schumann, Georgia
UGA’s defense (or is it Kirby Smart’s defense?) is eternally solid, but it did come up lacking in a couple of big games last fall. That said, 20 points per game allowed, 72 rushing yards allowed (and 2.4 yards per carry) and 32 sacks is not a bad year of work. This is kind of a testing year for this duo — they could be in the top 5 next year or take a step back.
7. Manny Diaz, Miami
Diaz is that rare guy who calls his own defense as the head coach/DC. He did great work at Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State and is building toward something special at Miami. He has 9 starters back this fall and may well have the second-best defense in the ACC.
6. Mike Elko, Texas A&M
In 4 seasons at A&M, Elko has improved the Aggies’ points allowed and yardage allowed in every season. With 9 returning starters, if the stars align, this could be an Aggies defense that leads the team to a Playoff berth.
5. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin
The 5th-year DC saw his 2018 team struggle, but otherwise, he has delivered the same thing every year: a defense that allows fewer than 20 PPG, holds rushers to 3.3 yards per carry, and that limits passers to just under or above 50% completions. That’ll work.
4. Phil Parker, Iowa
Two things we love: continuity (Parker’s 10th year at Iowa as DC and 21st year coaching there) and stopping the run. Iowa held opponents at or below 3.5 yards per carry each of the past 3 seasons, including 2.8 yards per carry last year. With 5 seasons in a row of allowing under 20 points per game, Parker’s Hawkeyes will be tough again.
3. Alex Grinch, Oklahoma
Name alone would make him a top-flight pick, but Grinch has been downright stingy toward Big 12 offenses. Since his hiring, OU has gone from allowing 33 points per game to per game before him to 27 and 22 under him. The Sooners had 37 sacks in 11 games last year, and they’re a solid national title contender for 2021 partially on the strength of this great Grinch defense.
2. Brent Venables, Clemson
Hard to argue the status of this 9th-year coordinator. A pair of national titles, a Frank Broyles award, even despite some tough season-ending performances the past 2 years, this guy is a top-of-the-list pick until he becomes somebody’s head coach.
1. Pete Golding, Alabama
To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and after a few rough spots in 2019, Golding’s Tide defense took care of business against the top squads in 2020. Each of his first 2 Bama squads allowed fewer than 20 PPG, fewer than 4 yards per carry, and posted 32 and 35 sacks. Nick Saban likes him. Good enough for us.