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College Football defense rankings 2023: Best defenses in the College Football Playoffs

Our NFL defense rankings take a look at the best defense at the highest level on Sundays. Now, our 2023 college football defense rankings examine the best defenses in college football right now.

It should come as no surprise that some of the programs leading the college football defense stats are bluebloods. The Michigan Wolverines and Alabama Crimson Tide have two of the best defenses in the nation, but they aren’t alone.

Let’s examine the best defenses in the College Football Playoff this year.

College Football defense rankings: Best defenses in CFB Playoff

4. Washington Huskies

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona
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The Washington Huskies have one of the best offenses in college football, but their offense isn’t nearly as good. That’s not to say this unit isn’t capable of coming through in big moments, it’s even won games for Washington, but it’s a tier below the other teams in our college football defense rankings.

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  • Washington Huskies defense 2023: 396.9 total yards per game allowed (76th in FBS), 5.4 yards per play allowed (59th), 40.11% opponents’ third-down conversion rate (76th), 1.4 takeaways per game (62nd)

Count on Quinn Ewers and the Texas Longhorns coming after this defense. Washington allowed the 14th-most passing yards per game (263.2) to opponents this season in the entire FBS, surrendering a 59.7 percent completion rate (47th). This front is also ineffective at bringing quarterbacks down, owning the fourth-lowest sack rate (3.52 percent) in college football.

Texas will miss Jonathan Brooks, but it might not necessarily need him to have success on the ground. During the regular season, Washington allowed 133.8 rushing yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. The Huskies’ defense also ranked 71st in red-zone scoring rate allowed (84%).

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3. Texas Longhorns

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman
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Washington’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award, given to the best offensive line unit in college football. It’s one of the biggest reasons we’re excited for the Sugar Bowl matchup against the Texas Longhorns defense.

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There are big bullies on the Longhorns defensive line and they consistently win in the trenches. There’s a reason opponents averaged just 81.1 rushing yards per game (3rd fewest) against Texas, including 50 rush ypg in the final three weeks. Texas not only creates penetration in the backfield, its linebackers fill gaps and everyone erases the smallest of running lanes. It’s no wonder opponents averaged just 2.9 yards per carry against Texas.

However, the Longhorns’ pass defense is not quite as dominant. It ranked 63rd in sack rate this past season, allowing opponents to complete nearly 60 percent of pass attempts, but it came with a modest 122.9 average QB rating. We’re confident Texas can stop the Huskies on the ground, but Michael Penix Jr. could pick the Longhorns’ secondary apart if Washington’s offensive line delivers another outstanding performance.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

NCAA Football: SEC Football Championship-Georgia at Alabama
Jordan Godfree-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide defense isn’t quite as good as we’ve seen during its glory years, that’s why they aren’t No. 1 in our college football defense rankings. However, this was still one of the SEC’s top defensive units during the 2023 campaign.

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Opponents averaged just 320 total yards per game (18th) against Alabama and a lot of those were empty yardage. The Crimson Tide also surrendered just 4.8 yards per play (17th) and the opposition averaged just 3 red-zone scoring attempts per contest.

  • Alabama Crimson Tide run defense: 124.4 rushing yards per game allowed, 3.7 yards per carry allowed, 7.2 rushing first downs allowed per game

It’s the pass defense that truly stands out when you watch the Crimson Tide. Alabama held opponents to a 59.73 percent completion rate during the regular season, including a 57.1 percent mark in the final three games.

Not only are they sticky in coverage, limiting big plays and making throwing lanes tighter, but they force quarterbacks into lightning-quick decisions with the seventh-highest sack rate (9.65 percent) in the nation. Alabama matches up very well against Michigan’s offense, which is why the Rose Bowl will likely be a low-scoring game.

1. Michigan Wolverines

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Michigan Wolverines have the best defense in college football. Led by defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, this unit was simply putting on a defensive showcase just about every week during the regular season. Now, they get put to the test against Jalen Milroe and Alabama’s explosive offense.

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  • Michigan Wolverines pass rush: 8.6% sack rate (14th in FBS), 2.5 sacks per game (35th), 91.1 PFF pass-rushing grade

No matter how you define one of the best defenses in college football, the Wolverines meet the mark. Michigan allowed the 15th-lowest third-down success rate (30.77%), the second-fewest total yards per game (239.7), the fourth-lowest yards per play average (4.1), the fewest points per game (9.5) and the fewest red-zone scoring attempts per game (1.5).

Good luck running the football against the Wolverines’ front seven. Michigan’s opponents averaged just 87.1 rushing yards per game (6th in FBS), mustering just 2.5 yards per carry. As for how teams fared through the air, the Wolverines’ secondary allowed the seventh-lowest completion rate (54.7%) and the sixth-lowest average QB rating (101.1). Michigan has the best defense in college football.

Statistics via ESPN, Pro Football Focus and Team Rankings.

Who has the best defense in college football?

The Michigan Wolverines have the best defense in college football right now.

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Who has the best pass defense in college football?

The Ohio State Buckeyes have the best pass defense in college football in 2023, allowing just 147.4 passing yards per game.

Who has the best run defense in college football?

The James Madison Dukes have the best run defense in college football, holding opponents to an 61.5 rushing yards per game.

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College Football defense stats 2023

Who leads college football in sacks?

Troy Trojans linebacker led college football in sacks with 16 during the regular season.

CFB sack leaders 2023

  1. Javon Solomon, Troy – 16 sacks
  2. Jalen Green, James Madison – 15.5 sacks
  3. Trey Moore, UTSA – 15 sacks
  4. Laiatu Latu, UCLA – 13 sacks
  5. Mohamed Kamara, Colorado State – 13 sacks

Who leads college football in interceptions?

Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive back Xavier Watts leads college football with seven interceptions this season.

CFB interception leaders 2023

  1. Xavier Watts, Notre Dame – 7 interceptions
  2. Billy Bowman Jr, Oklahoma – 6 interceptions
  3. Ricardo Hallman, Wisconsin – 6 interceptions
  4. Dillon Thieneman, Purdue – 6 interceptions
  5. Elijah Jones, Boston College – 5 interceptions
  6. Maxwell Hairston, Kentucky – 5 interceptions
  7. Jeremiah Cooper, Iowa State – 5 interceptions
  8. Tarheeb Still, Maryland – 5 interceptions
  9. Mike Sainristil, Michigan – 5 interceptions

Who leads college football in tackles?

Old Dominion Monarchs linebacker Jason Henderson leads college football in tackles with 163 in 11 games. Henderson also has 4.5 sacks and has recorded double-digit tackles in nine games.

College football tackles leaders 2023

  1. Jason Henderson, Old Dominion – 163 total tackles
  2. Jay Higgins, Iowa – 141 total tackles
  3. Nathan Watson, Mississippi State – 137 total tackles
  4. Joe Sparacio, Eastern Michigan – 134 total tackles
  5. MJ Tafisi Jr, Utah State – 131 total tackles

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