Ranking the 50 best defenses in college football history


Georgia’s 2021 national title was obviously a victory for Bulldog fans around the country, but it was also a victory for fans of defense. The prior two national champions in college football — LSU in 2019, Alabama in 2020 — won primarily because of nearly perfect offensive systems. Both ranked first in offensive SP+, and with 78 combined points, 1,045 total yards and 7.0 yards per play, both absolutely torched a Georgia defense that ranked first in defensive SP+ both years.

In 2021, the Dawgs struck back. With an even better defense in tow — and, it must be noted, a better offense too — Georgia went 14-1, allowing more than 18 points just once and finally securing a national title it had waited 41 years to see. Fittingly, the win was secured with a defensive touchdown. And as icing on the cake, five defensive starters got selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft.

Coach Kirby Smart has built a nearly perfect modern defense, but where do these recent Bulldog D’s rank among the best ever? To find out, let’s first acknowledge the difference in eras.

What’s more impressive …

A. Allowing 1.3 points per game in 1939, as Tennessee did under Bob Neyland during one of college football’s lowest scoring ebbs?

B. Allowing 5.2 points per game in 1972, as Michigan did under Bo Schembechler?

C. Allowing 13.0 points per game in 2016, as Alabama did under Nick Saban during maybe the most offense-friendly season ever?

Below are my attempts at answering exactly that. Adjusting for opponents, tempo (where applicable) and my own personal whims, here are what I view as the 50 best defenses in the history of top-division college football.

50. 2003 LSU

Head coach: Nick Saban
Scoring defense: 11.0 points per game
Record: 13-1 (No. 2 in the AP poll, No. 1 in BCS)

Led by a pair of All-Americans in defensive tackle Chad Lavalais and cornerback Corey Webster, the Tigers won a share of their first national title in nearly 50 years — and Saban won his first title ever — thanks to a defense that allowed more than 14 points just twice and held a prolific Oklahoma attack to just 14 in the Sugar Bowl.

49. 1935 Stanford

Head coach: Tiny Thornhill
Scoring defense: 1.4 PPG
Record: 8-1

In an era dominated by defense, Stanford still stood out, allowing seven points to UCLA, six to Santa Clara and none to the seven other opponents on the schedule. Powered by College Football Hall of Famers Bobby Grayson and Monk Moscrip, Stanford finished the season by picking off six passes in a 7-0 win over SMU in the Rose Bowl.

48. 2016 Michigan

Head coach: Jim Harbaugh
Scoring defense: 14.1 PPG
Record: 10-3 (12th in the AP poll)

In maybe the most prolific offensive season ever, linebacker Jabrill Peppers, cornerback Jourdan Lewis & Co. took perfectly to what first-year coordinator Don Brown was preaching. The Wolverines held their first 11 opponents to just 10.9 PPG, and while they slipped late against both Ohio State (30 points) and Florida State (33), they still held both of those prolific opponents well under their season averages.

47. 1978 USC

Head coach: John Robinson
Scoring defense: 11.8 PPG
Record: 12-1 (second in the AP poll)

Opponent adjustments are kind to a Trojan defense that faced five ranked teams (including top-ranked Alabama) and 11 teams that finished over .500 but allowed more than 20 points just once, to Joe Montana and Notre Dame. USC took down Bama in Birmingham (24-14) and Michigan in the Rose Bowl (17-10) to claim a share of the national title.

46. 1927 Michigan

Head coach: Tad Wieman
Scoring defense: 4.9 PPG
Record: 6-2

All-time Michigan great Bennie Oosterbaan — a football (three times) and basketball (twice) All-American and, on the side, conference batting champion in baseball — was the face of this Wolverines team, which shut out five of eight opponents and lost only to unbeaten Illinois and Minnesota squads.

45. 1938 Duke

Head coach: Wallace Wade
Scoring defense: 0.7 PPG
Record: 9-1 (third in the AP poll)

Hall of Famers Dan Hill and Eric Tipton (a future outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds) were the leaders of this Blue Devils attack, which admittedly didn’t play the roughest of schedules but finished the season by taking down No. 4 Pitt 7-0 and losing to mighty USC by only a 7-3 margin in the Rose Bowl.

44. 1918 Illinois

Head coach: Robert Zuppke
Scoring defense: 2.0 PPG
Record: 5-2

Zuppke is most famous for introducing Red Grange to the world — the Galloping Ghost played for the Fighting Illini from 1923 to 1925 — but he won shares of seven conference titles and helmed this ridiculous team, which allowed single touchdowns to Great Lakes Navy and Chicago Naval Reserve but outscored four conference opponents by a combined 83-0.

43. 1964 Arkansas

Head coach: Frank Broyles
Scoring defense: 5.8 PPG
Record: 11-0 (second in the AP poll)

All-Americans Ronnie Caveness and Ken Hatfield were the stars — and future Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was the co-captain — of Broyles’ most storied team. (Future Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson was Jones’ roommate.) The Razorbacks allowed 22 points to Tulsa early in the season, 13 to top-ranked Texas in October and just 29 to the other nine opponents on the schedule.

42. 1903 Princeton

Head coach: Art Hillebrand
Scoring defense: 0.5 PPG
Record: 11-0

In the final days before the legalization of the forward pass (and the opening up of the game overall), this Princeton team ran roughshod, fielding seven All-Americans and outscoring its first 10 opponents by a combined 248-0 before a tighter 11-6 decision against mighty Yale in the season finale.

41. 2000 Florida State

Head coach: Bobby Bowden
Scoring defense: 10.5 PPG
Record: 11-2 (seventh in the AP poll)

This team is remembered primarily for unfairly eking out a BCS championship bid over Miami, which had won head-to-head. But that’s unfair to Mickey Andrews’ defense, which held the Canes two touchdowns below their season scoring average and allowed barely nine points per game otherwise. The Seminoles held Oklahoma’s prolific attack to just 13 points and 270 yards in the Orange Bowl too.

40. 1973 Michigan

Head coach: Bo Schembechler
Scoring defense: 6.2 PPG
Record: 10-0-1 (sixth in the AP poll)

The Wolverines’ season ended with the most painful tie in program history, but a unit led by defensive end Dave Gallagher and defensive back Dave Brown allowed more than 10 points just once all year: 13, to an Indiana team it was beating 42-0 in the second quarter. Even by Michigan standards, this defense was absurd. (And yet, it was also slightly inferior to the 1972 rendition, farther up the list.)

39. 2016 LSU

Head coach: Les Miles for four games, Ed Orgeron for eight
Scoring defense: 15.8
Record: 8-4

Accounting for strength of schedule is also kind to this team, which played for Orgeron as interim coach most of the season, faced five ranked opponents in its final six games and somehow allowed more than 16 points to just one of them. In retrospect, having Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams in the same secondary was downright unfair. So was a defense this good going just 8-4.

38. 1912 Minnesota

Head coach: Henry Williams
Scoring defense: 5.4 PPG
Record: 4-3

As the father of the T-formation, Clark Shaughnessy would go on to become one of the sport’s most influential offensive coaches at both the college and pro levels. But in 1912, he was an All-American leader of one of the sport’s greatest defenses. Minnesota got outscored a combined 21-0 by brilliant Wisconsin and Chicago squads, but it outpaced four other major opponents by a combined 87-7.

37. 1994 Washington State

Head coach: Mike Price
Scoring defense: 11.3 PPG
Record: 8-4 (21st in the AP poll)

Mike Price’s 1994 squad was suddenly nasty, featuring three All-Americans in the front seven — Chad Eaton, Dewayne Patterson and Mark Fields, who combined for more than 25 sacks and nearly 50 tackles for loss — and leading the nation in scoring defense. That unit gave up just 48 combined points to five ranked opponents and beat Baylor 10-3 in an Alamo Bowl rock fight.

36. 2007 USC

Head coach: Pete Carroll
Scoring defense: 16.0 PPG
Record: 11-2 (third in the AP poll)

The spread offense was proliferating in earnest in 2007, but the Trojans nearly reached the BCS championship game with defense. USC held Notre Dame and UCLA to seven combined points and limited an otherworldly Oregon attack to 24 points and 4.7 yards per play. And with enforcers such as safety Taylor Mays and linebacker Rey Maualuga, it tried to inflict pain at every given opportunity.

35. 1929 Notre Dame

Head coach: Knute Rockne
Scoring defense: 4.2 PPG
Record: 9-0

Rockne missed much of the season with blood clot and infection issues in his right leg, and the team played its “home” games at Chicago’s Soldier Field because of the construction of a new home stadium. But what could have been a season of adversity was instead a perfect one. The Fighting Irish scored a 13-12 win over emerging power USC and swept eight other games by a combined 132-26.

34. 2017 Clemson

Head coach: Dabo Swinney
Scoring defense: 13.6 PPG
Record: 12-2 (fourth in the AP poll)

Clemson won national titles in 2016 and 2018, but in between came a transition season. The offense stumbled, but the Tigers still reached the College Football Playoff because of Brent Venables’ ridiculous defense, which peaked late, giving up 214 yards and three points to No. 7 Miami in the ACC championship game and 261 yards and 17 (offensive) points to eventual national champ Alabama in the CFP.

33. 1979 Texas

32. 1979 Alabama

Head coaches: Fred Akers and Bear Bryant, respectively
Scoring defense: 8.7 and 5.6
Records: 9-3 and 12-0 (12th and first in the AP poll)

Scoring numbers would begin to perk up in the early 1980s, but the 1970s were punctuated by two nearly perfect defenses. Akers’ Longhorns were just 80th in scoring offense but came within 16 points of an unbeaten record (despite games against four top-10 teams) because of defensive tackle Steve McMichael, cornerback Johnnie Johnson and a defense that didn’t allow more than 17 points all season.

Down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama got much more help from a brilliant offense and ran the table, beating ranked Tennessee and Auburn teams by a combined 52-35 and outscoring 10 other opponents by an incredible 331-32. Bryant’s last great team was one of his greatest.

31. 1980 Florida State

Head coach: Bobby Bowden
Scoring defense: 8.6 PPG
Record: 10-2 (fifth in the AP poll)

Bowden’s first top-five team was good on offense and unbelievable on defense. With All-Americans at all three levels of the defense — including defensive tackle and consensus All-American Ron Simmons — the Noles held seven opponents to seven or fewer points and held three top-five opponents, including Dan Marino’s Pitt, to a combined 54 points as well.

30. 2015 Alabama

Head coach: Nick Saban
Scoring defense: 15.1 PPG
Record: 14-1 (first in the AP poll)

Offenses were rampant in the mid-2010s; seven teams finished the year averaging at least 7 yards per play, but Bama won another national title by allowing just 4.3. A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen anchored an intimidating line, and against a schedule that featured six top-15 opponents, the Tide really let only two of them score: Ole Miss and Clemson. Everyone else averaged 11 PPG.

29. 1892 Harvard

Head coach: George Adams and George Stewart
Scoring defense: 3.8 PPG
Record: 10-1

In 1890, Harvard appointed two 27-year-olds, Adams and Stewart, as co-leaders of the football program, and they proceeded to go a combined 46-3 over the next four seasons before Stewart’s death from typhoid. (Adams died of tuberculosis a few years later. The 1890s were rough.)

The 1890 Crimson team went unbeaten, and the 1892 team, powered by four All-Americans (including William Lewis, the first Black player awarded the honor), nearly did so as well despite facing a tougher schedule.

28. 1989 Auburn

27. 1988 Auburn

Head coach: Pat Dye
Scoring defense: 10.9 and 7.7, respectively
Records: Both 10-2

Pat Dye’s last two top-10 teams — he had five in all — were his most defensively stout. The 1988 team, powered by an all-world defensive line featuring Tracy Rocker and Benji Roland at tackle, came within seven points of an unbeaten season, allowed more than 13 points just once all season and completely shut down a dynamite Florida State offense in the Sugar Bowl; the Noles scored their only touchdown on the opening possession of the game.

The next year, the Tigers faced five ranked teams, including Florida State, Alabama and Ohio State, but tackle David Rocker (Tracy’s brother) and linebackers Craig Ogletree and Quentin Riggins still minimized damage, holding six opponents to seven or fewer points and powering a second straight SEC title run.

26. 2012 Florida

Head coach: Will Muschamp
Scoring defense: 14.5 PPG
Record: 11-2

Against a schedule featuring nine opponents with eight-plus wins, and with an offense that lacked much initiative (to put it diplomatically), Florida allowed a combined 17 points to top-10 LSU and South Carolina teams and damn near made the BCS championship game by riding a defense that boasted Sharrif Floyd at the front, Matt Elam at the back and a bunch of standouts in between.

25. 1957 Auburn

Head coach: Shug Jordan
Scoring defense: 2.8 PPG
Record: 10-0 (first in the AP poll)

The late-1950s SEC was a defense-and-field-position league, but allowing 2.8 points per game is still ridiculous. Led by dominant end Jim Phillips, Jordan’s Tigers scored more than 15 points in just three of 10 games but went unbeaten anyway — and scored the school’s first of two national titles — by never allowing more than seven points.

24. 1953 Maryland

Head coach: Jim Tatum
Scoring defense: 3.5 PPG
Record: 10-1 (first in the AP poll)

Tatum engineered three top-five finishes in a five-year span, and while his 1953 Terrapins lost 7-0 to mighty Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, they had already secured the national title by outscoring their first 10 opponents, including ranked Ole Miss and Alabama squads, by a combined 298-31. Rugged tackle Stan Jones, their best player, ended up in both the pro and college halls of fame.

23. 1966 Ole Miss

Head coach: John Vaught
Scoring defense: 5.9 PPG
Record: 8-3

A poor offense had begun to hold Vaught’s program back by this point — his ’66 Rebels scored 10 combined points in three losses — but they were still defending at an elite level. Jim Urbanek, Jerry Richardson and Jimmy Keyes powered a dominant line, and only unbeaten Alabama and Texas were able to hit double digits against Ole Miss.

22. 2006 Virginia Tech

Head coach: Frank Beamer
Scoring defense: 11.0 PPG
Record: 10-3 (19th in the AP poll)

The peak of Bud Foster’s era as defensive coordinator. Tech allowed more than 13 points just three times, and in two of three it was primarily the offense’s fault. The Hokies gave up just 264 yards (4.2 per play) in a 22-3 loss to Boston College and a paltry 200 (3.8) in a 31-24 loss to Georgia. Linebacker Vince Hall and this Hokie D deserved better.

21. 1962 LSU

Head coach: Charles McClendon
Scoring defense: 3.1 PPG
Record: 9-1-1 (seventh in the AP poll)

Before becoming one of the best NFL defensive backs of the late 1960s, Jerry Stovall nearly won the Heisman Trophy with his work at the back of this ridiculous defense. The Tigers gave up 15 points to a great (and eventually unbeaten) Ole Miss team, but they allowed just 19 points in 10 other games and held two other top-five opponents (Georgia Tech and Texas) to seven combined.

20. 1946 Notre Dame

Head coach: Frank Leahy
Scoring defense: 2.7 PPG
Record: 8-0-1 (first in the AP poll)

Here’s all you need to know about the 1946 Fighting Irish: Army went into its battle with the defending Heisman winner (Doc Blanchard) and the impending Heisman winner (Glenn Davis) and had averaged 45 points per game during a 25-game winning streak. It had scored 48 on Notre Dame the year before.

George Connor, Johnny Lujack and the Irish defense held Army scoreless.

19. 2019 Georgia

18. 2020 Georgia

17. 2021 Georgia

Head coach: Kirby Smart
Scoring defense: 12.6, 20.0 and 10.2 PPG, respectively
Record: 12-2, 8-2 and 14-1

As mentioned above, Georgia finished first in defensive SP+ in both 2019 and 2020, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The Dawgs had too much size and too much depth for most opponents and allowed more than 21 points just four times in those two seasons. But in an era in which the best offenses outpace the best defenses, they couldn’t keep title-caliber offenses reined in. (And their 2020 numbers didn’t benefit from having the requisite filler teams on the schedule, including FCS opponents and Georgia Tech.)

That changed in 2021. The offense did its part, and the defense went to a different level. The Dawgs faced seven ranked opponents and basically slipped for one quarter, allowing 24 points in the second quarter of the SEC championship game. Otherwise? Almost perfect. They allowed 11 points to Michigan in the CFP semifinals and only 35 points in seven other quarters against Bama and Heisman winner Bryce Young. Just as Alabama did a decade ago, when Saban and Kirby Smart were coaching together, this Georgia defense has set the standard for all defenses for the rest of the coming decade.

16. 2009 Nebraska

Head coach: Bo Pelini
Scoring defense: 10.4 PPG
Record: 10-4 (14th in the AP poll)

The Cornhuskers boasted only one All-American in 2009, but he happened to be the best defensive player of the 2000s. Ndamukong Suh commanded constant double- and triple-teams and still racked up 20.5 TFLs and 12 sacks as Nebraska held 10 opponents under 300 yards and held its last two, Texas (Big 12 championship game) and Arizona (Holiday Bowl), to a combined 311 yards and 13 points.

15. 1992 Alabama

Head coach: Gene Stallings
Scoring defense: 9.4 PPG
Record: 13-0 (first in the AP poll)

Alabama’s only national title between 1980 and 2008 was driven by a perfectly balanced defense that allowed 21 points each to Florida and Mississippi State and 13 or fewer to everyone else. Ends John Copeland and Eric Curry wrecked shop up front, cornerback Antonio Langham played himself into the top 10 of the NFL draft and safety George Teague was an All-American even before he made the greatest play that didn’t count.

14. 1997 Michigan

Head coach: Lloyd Carr
Scoring defense: 9.5 PPG
Record: 12-0 (first in the AP poll)

Having Heisman winner Charles Woodson is an excellent starting point, but Michigan’s last national title run was defined by the entire defense — from lineman Glen Steele to linebacker Sam Sword to a deep and unforgiving secondary. Despite a schedule that featured four top-10 opponents, the Wolverines allowed more than 16 points just once all year.

13. 1945 Navy

Head coach: Oscar Hagberg
Scoring defense: 7.2 PPG (4.3 against teams that weren’t Army)
Record: 7-1-1 (third in the AP poll)

In 1945, Army fielded what might have been the greatest team of all time. Navy was the best of the rest. The Midshipmen held top-10 teams Penn, Notre Dame and Michigan to 20 combined points, and against an Army team averaging 53 points per game over its previous five, Navy proved itself elite by holding the Cadets to 32.

12. 1932 USC

Head coach: Howard Jones
Scoring defense: 1.3 PPG
Record: 10-0

It’s one thing to allow 13 points in your first eight games. It’s another to shut out Notre Dame to end the regular season, then pummel Pitt 35-0 in the Rose Bowl. Howard Jones turned USC into a powerhouse in the 1920s and 1930s, and this defense, led by tackles Ernie Smith and Raymond Brown, was his masterpiece.

11. 1991 Miami

Head coach: Dennis Erickson
Scoring defense: 8.3 PPG
Record: 12-0 (first in the AP poll)

The Canes lost No. 1 pick Russell Maryland after the 1990 season and somehow improved, thanks to the likes of safety Darryl Williams and one of the deepest, nastiest linebacking corps of the era. They held five opponents to a field goal or less, allowed barely eight points per game despite playing four opponents ranked 11th or better and wrapped up a fourth national title with a 22-0 thumping of Nebraska.

10. 1986 Oklahoma

Head coach: Barry Switzer
Scoring defense: 6.8 PPG
Record: 11-1 (third in the AP poll)

Seven opponents scored either zero or three points. UCLA, Nebraska and Arkansas, all top-10 teams, combined for just 28. The Sooners boasted linebacker Brian Bosworth and an otherworldly secondary led by Ricky Dixon and David Vickers, and even when they gave up 28 points to Miami, it was mostly due to turnovers — Vinny Testaverde and the excellent Canes offense averaged only 4.8 yards per play.

9. 1972 Michigan

Head coach: Bo Schembechler
Scoring defense: 5.2 PPG
Record: 10-1 (fourth in the AP poll)

Paced by safety Randy Logan and one of the era’s best secondaries, the Wolverines’ defense was particularly stout in 1972. Michigan played two ranked teams in September — No. 6 UCLA and No. 18 Tulane — and allowed a combined 16 points. In the Wolverines’ first seven Big Ten games, they allowed 20. And even in their lone loss, 14-11 to bitter rival Ohio State, they allowed only 192 yards, 78 of which came on a single touchdown drive. This was the stingiest defense of the stingy Schembechler era.

8. 2011 LSU

7. 2011 Alabama

Head coaches: Les Miles and Nick Saban, respectively
Scoring defense: 11.3 and 8.2 PPG
Record: 13-1 and 12-1 (second and first in the AP poll)

Here’s the deal about the famous 2011 LSU-Bama 9-6 game: It was fantastic! As someone who saw every 2015 Missouri game, I know what a bad 9-6 game looks like. I can say, without question, that LSU-Bama was great.

LSU’s receiving corps had Rueben Randle, Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Shepard; Alabama had Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy in the backfield and a perfectly solid AJ McCarron behind center. There was talent, and there were plenty of moments of strong offensive play.

The problem is that these offenses were playing against two of the best defenses of the 21st century. LSU had one of the prime candidates for Best Secondary Ever with Morris Claiborne, Eric Reid, Brandon Taylor and, of course, Heisman finalist and “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu. Alabama had an absurd linebacking corps of Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley.

LSU allowed more than 21 points only once (to a brilliant Oregon offense in the season opener), and Alabama allowed more than 14 points only to, of all teams, Georgia Southern of the FCS. The spread offense was beginning to take over college football, but the two most talented teams on the planet played some of the best defense we’ve ever seen.

6. 1939 Tennessee

Head coach: Bob Neyland
Scoring defense: 1.3 PPG
Record: 10-1 (second in the AP poll)

No. 8 Alabama lost 21-0. No. 18 LSU lost 20-0. Two other solid, late-season opponents (Kentucky and Auburn) lost by a combined 26-0. Through 10 regular-season games, Neyland’s best Tennessee defense didn’t allow a single point. All of his seven pillars — the team with the fewest mistakes wins, play for and make the breaks (and when one comes your way, score), carry the fight to your opponent for 60 minutes and so on — were on perfect display, and All-Americans Ed Molinski, George Cafego and Bob Suffridge made sure the effort was matched with raw talent.

The perfect record fell when No. 3 USC beat the Vols 14-0 — with a touchdown coming in the final minute of each half — in the Rose Bowl. But the scoreless regular season built a lasting reputation.

5. 1965 Michigan State

Head coach: Duffy Daugherty
Scoring defense: 6.9 PPG
Record: 10-1 (second in the AP poll)

These Spartans allowed 13 combined points to No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 6 Purdue. They destroyed Michigan and Ohio State by a combined 56-14. They boasted future Hall of Famers at both defensive end (Bubba Smith) and safety (George Webster), plus two other All-Americans in between. If college football had still been deciding its national champion before the bowl games, Michigan State would have taken the title after a rampant 10-0 regular season.

In the Rose Bowl, however, UCLA scored after a muffed punt at the MSU 6, then pulled off a surprise onside kick and quickly scored again. That was what it took to score even 14 points on the Spartans — no one else had done it — and it ended up deciding a 14-12 upset in one of the best Rose Bowls ever played. And it kept a title ring off the fingers of members of what was evidently the best non-SEC defense ever.

4. 1959 LSU

3. 1959 Ole Miss

Head coach: Paul Dietzel and John Vaught, respectively
Scoring defense: 4.5 and 1.9 PPG
Record: 9-2 and 10-1 (third and second in the AP poll)

Here are the three touchdowns Ole Miss allowed in 1959:

1. In the fifth game of the season, Tulane became the first team to score on the Rebels after recovering a fumble near midfield, punting, then recovering another fumble at the Ole Miss 5.

2. Ninth-ranked Tennessee blocked a quick kick, recovered it at the Ole Miss 7 and scored from there.

3. LSU’s Billy Cannon housed maybe the greatest punt return of all time.

That’s it. The Rebels didn’t allow a touchdown drive of more than 7 yards all season. They were almost perfect, and Cannon’s punt return — plus the blown scoring opportunities that contributed to a 7-3 loss to LSU — were the only things that kept them from a perfect season.

Somehow, LSU’s defense was only slightly inferior. Before they got thumped 21-0 by Ole Miss in a Sugar Bowl rematch, the Tigers had allowed three touchdowns: on a Tulane punt return, a Tennessee pick-six and a 29-yard Tennessee touchdown drive after a fumble.

If the Ole Miss and LSU offenses didn’t do you a favor, the Ole Miss and LSU defenses weren’t going to let you score. Even in a defense-heavy era, the Rebels and Tigers were incredible.

2. 2016 Alabama

1. 2017 Alabama

Head coach: Nick Saban
Scoring defense: 13.0 and 11.9 PPG, respectively
Record: 14-1 and 13-1 (second and first in the AP poll)

Back to the question at the top. What’s more impressive: allowing almost no points in an era when points were a rarity or allowing a few points in an era of offensive explosion? It is the ultimate eye-of-the-beholder exercise, but give me the latter.

In two seasons, as Saban was attempting to modernize Alabama’s offense for the changing era, he also fielded maybe the two best defenses of all time. In 29 games, these two Crimson Tide teams allowed 43 points to Ole Miss (2016), 35 to Clemson (2016), 30 to Arkansas (2016), 26 to Auburn (2017), 24 to Mississippi State (2017) and an average of just 8.5 points per game to 24 other opponents. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey helmed what might have been Saban’s best secondary, and dominant playmakers such as Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand, Daron Payne and Raekwon Davis mauled linemen up front.

During maybe the two most offense-friendly seasons in college football history, the Tide allowed almost no teams to reap the benefits of the era. Despite an offensive shift, Alabama won one national title and came within one second of another because these defenses were almost impossibly good.

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