The 5 Big Ten defenses that are destined for improvement in 2022
Here’s the thing about Big Ten defenses — not many of them have a whole lot of room to improve in 2022.
Last year, 5 of the top 13 scoring defenses in the country resided in the Big Ten. And while incremental improvement is possible for all of those units, there’s only so much growth available. It’s like trying to find a place to build in Manhattan.
But not every defense in the B1G was great last year. Indeed, some weren’t very good at all. But not all of those porous defenses are guaranteed to improve this year. It’s hard to believe Maryland will show much growth after finishing 80th or worse in scoring defense the past 3 seasons.
This is an attempt to find that perfect balance of defenses that need to improve this season, but actually can. And these are the 5 B1G defenses that stick out.
2021 finish — 33.3 ppg (109th in FBS)
Why improvement is imminent — Indiana is the only team to appear on our list of offenses and defenses destined for improvement. Part of that is the fact it’s quite difficult for the Hoosiers to get worse this season — IU was 123rd in scoring offense on top of being 109th on defense.
Those items are related. Indiana was 128th in the country with a minus-13 turnover margin. The Hoosiers had 22 giveaways and just 9 takeaways. In an 8-game 2020 season, Indiana was 13th nationally with 20 takeaways. In 2022, the reality will be somewhere between those extremes.
Though losing all-American linebacker Micah McFadden hurts, cornerback Tiawan Mullen’s return from injury will be a huge boost.
A better offense will also help the defense. Indiana was 69th in total defense last year, but 109th in scoring because it was so often put in an impossible spot. Expect the scoring defense and total defense ranks to be more closely aligned this season.
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2021 finish — 29 ppg (89th in FBS)
Why improvement is imminent — It’s perfectly fair to wonder how a defense is going to get better after losing a potential first-round draft pick to the transfer portal. The Wildcats could ill-afford to lose safety Brandon Joseph, but that’s what happened.
But I have to trust history here. There’s no precedent for a Pat Fitzgerald defense staying bad.
It may well be a modest improvement. Northwestern’s scoring defense was 77th nationally in 2010 before moving to 66th in 2011 and leaping to 29th in 2012. We’re likely in that type of progression at the moment.
Junior Bryce Gallagher should be one of the Big Ten’s better linebackers this year, and the Cats will take baby steps toward being competitive again in 2023.
2021 finish — 25.3 ppg (54th in FBS)
Why improvement is imminent — The Spartans finished in the top half of the country in scoring defense despite ranking dead last in passing defense. That’s a heck of an accomplishment. And I’m betting the part where Michigan State is 130th in pass defense does not repeat itself.
The Spartans were a bend-but-don’t break bunch, ranking 19th nationally in red-zone touchdown percentage. If they can combine that with fewer overall trips into the red zone, there can be some rather drastic improvement.
You’d also expect improvement from a head coach who spent his whole career coaching defense, as Mel Tucker has. Tucker added Brandon Jordan as a full-time pass rush specialist, which is the most unique hire in college football this offseason. Jordan will work closely with UNLV transfer Jacoby Windmon, who could have a Kenneth Walker-like impact on the defense.
2021 finish — 22.8 ppg (38th in FBS)
Why improvement is imminent — Because that’s where they spent the money.
After Ohio State’s defense was exposed in losses to Oregon and Michigan, Ryan Day went out and hired Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to revitalize the Buckeyes. The Cowboys were 9th nationally in scoring defense last season.
Expect the biggest improvements to take place at the line of scrimmage. Oklahoma State was 2nd in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2021. Ohio State was 34th in sacks and 44th in TFL last season.
Ohio State’s offense will be explosive enough. The Buckeyes can win a national championship with a good, but not great, defense. Knowles should be able to get his part of the deal done.
2021 finish — 22.7 ppg (36th in FBS)
Why improvement is imminent — Nebraska’s defense should have put up better numbers a year ago. The Cornhuskers were 12th nationally with just 46 plays of 20-plus yards allowed. They were 20th in red-zone touchdown percentage, allowing opponents to cross the goal line on 32.4% of their trips inside the 20.
But a couple of factors did Nebraska in.
A mistake-prone offense was among the issues. Nebraska was 95th with a minus-5 turnover margin as the offense had 18 giveaways and the defense didn’t do enough to compensate.
Opponents also paper-cut the Huskers to death. Nebraska allowed first downs on 39.2% of its 3rd-down situations, which was 73rd in the country.
The scheme, it seems, is fine. It’s a matter of execution when the defense needs to get off the field. A strong pass rush will help the 3rd-down situation, and that’s where the Huskers will make their biggest leap.
Nebraska has a top-tier pass-rushing combo in outside linebacker Garrett Nelson and defensive end Ochaun Mathis, so the opportunity is there for this defense to make significant statistical improvement.