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College football's 10 best secondaries of the 2000s, so far

If you want to win a title, you're probably gonna need an elite secondary. Who'll join this list in the next few years?

Mark Barron and Tyrann Mathieu led incredible defenses, but their squads don't rank No. 1.
Mark Barron and Tyrann Mathieu led incredible defenses, but their squads don't rank No. 1.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

For years, defensive coaches have answered every "How do you stop this offense?" question with, "Well first, we have to stop the run." But championship history shows stopping the pass is just as important.

Over the last 10 years, the average national championship defense has a ranking of 11th in rushing defense, 10th in defending standard downs, eighth in passing defense, and 11th in defending passing downs (all via Football Outsiders' S&P+ stat).

If you're not top-10 across the board in defense, you're probably not playing for a title. That means you need an elite secondary. And if your team is good at stopping the run, well, the secondary probably plays a role in that as well.

Here's a run through the best secondaries of this century, so far.

Honorable mention: 2013 Michigan State

This group posted dominant numbers in its "press-quarters" defense, led by first-round cornerbacks. The things holding the "No-Fly Zone" Spartans from the list are how few tough passing offenses they faced and the fact that when a similar group of DBs faced higher-grade offenses in 2014, they were shredded. (But there's a way to fix that.)

10. 2013 Virginia Tech

Kyle Fuller Cornerback Held Amari Cooper to 38 yards on 4 catches 1st round
Kendall Fuller Nickel True freshman with 6 interceptions Still in school
Detrick Bonner Free safety Converted cornerback Undrafted
Kyshoen Jarrett Rover 3-year starter 6th round
Brandon Facyson Cornerback 5 interceptions Still in school

The 2013 Hokies were largely unrecognized despite having S&P+'s No. 3 defense. Their calling card was to lock down receivers with their corners, press up on the line of scrimmage, and deny breathing room.

This squeezed the life out of the Alabama offense (although not special teams) and nearly every other opponent until UCLA's Brett Hundley burned them with the scramble in the bowl game.

Alpha dog: Kyle Fuller set the pace by taking on the top receivers, often in press-man coverage with no safety help. Offenses avoided him -- he only had to make 24 tackles -- but he still broke up 10 passes and picked off two more.

9. 2009 Texas

Curtis Brown Cornerback 15 pass breakups 3rd round
Aaron Williams Nickel 6 tackles for loss 2nd round
Blake Gideon Free safety 4-year starter Undrafted
Earl Thomas Strong safety 8 interceptions 1st round
Chykie Brown Cornerback 2 sacks 5th round

A terror in stopping the run (No. 6 in rushing S&P+) and getting after opponents on passing downs (No. 3). While Colt McCoy's offense struggled, the defense dragged the team past Nebraska in the Big 12 title game by holding the Huskers to less than 2 yards per play.

Alpha dog: Thomas was used differently by coordinator Will Muschamp than by Pete Carroll later in Seattle. He moved close to the action and combined with nickel Aaron Williams to allow Texas to field four plus coverage players, with heady sophomore Gideon on top.

8. 2001 Oklahoma

Derrick Strait Cornerback 2003 Thorpe winner 3rd round
Matt McCoy Nickel Academic All-Big 12 Undrafted
Brandon Everage Free safety 2002 All-American Undrafted
Roy Williams Strong safety 2001 Thorpe winner 1st round
Andre Woolfolk Cornerback Converted wide receiver 1st round

A year after winning the national championship, the Sooners still had perhaps the most dominant defense in the Bob Stoops era, giving up only 3.9 yards per play and picking off 20 passes.

Alpha dog: Williams was one of the most devastating strong safeties in the history of college football. His most famous play came in the Red River Shootout, when he leapt over a blocker and hit Texas' QB, deflecting the ball for a game-sealing touchdown. He would frequently deploy close to the line, resulting in the "Roy-backer" nickel that nearly every defense uses today.

7. 2011 Alabama

Dre Kirkpatrick Cornerback 6'2 with a 4.5 40 time 3rd round
DeQuan Menzie Nickel Moved inside in nickel package 5th round
Robert Lester Free safety 8 interceptions Undrafted
Mark Barron Strong safety Two-time All-American 1st round
Dee Milliner Cornerback 5-star recruit 1st round

The Tide were one of the strongest teams in recent memory. Although this secondary had the benefit of playing behind an absurdly stout front, they had no soft spots, and their nickel could shrink the field into nothing while playing two deep safeties with press man underneath.

Alpha dog: Secondaries are often guided by safeties that direct traffic from afar, but Barron led while finishing as the leading tackler and the heart of the defense. Listed by as a linebacker out of high school, Barron's physical play set the tone for Nick Saban's greatest defense.

6. 2013 Florida State

PJ Williams Cornerback Defensive MVP of BCS title game 3rd round
LaMarcus Joyner Nickel Led D with 5.5 sacks 2nd round
Terrence Brooks Free safety 4.42 at NFL Combine 3rd round
Jalen Ramsey Strong safety True freshman Still in school
Ronald Darby Cornerback 4.38 at NFL Combine 2nd round

The dominant unit on the nation's most dominant defense. They ranked safely ahead of Michigan State and were keyed by one of the most athletic backfields football has seen, with former high school track stars at nearly every position.

Alpha dog: Joyner was the most impactful, with two interceptions, three forced fumbles, seven tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks. Despite returning both corners and Ramsey in 2014, the FSU defense went off a cliff in the wake of his departure. This year, Ramsey's the foundation of a rebuild.

5. 2008 Florida

Joe Haden Cornerback Unanimous 2009 All-American 1st round
Will Hill Nickel SEC All-Freshman Undrafted
Major Wright Free safety One of football's biggest hitters 3rd round
Ahmad Black Strong safety 7 interceptions 5th round
Janoris Jenkins Cornerback Freshman All-American 2nd round

As impressive as this unit was, it played at a higher level by the end of the year, as its nickel lineup included three sophomores and two freshmen. The top five DBs combined for 19 interceptions and finished by taking down an Oklahoma offense that had just set a season record for scoring. Urban Meyer's and Charlie Strong's Gators held Heisman QB Sam Bradford to 6.2 yards per attempt by lighting up Oklahoma receivers as soon as the ball arrived.

Alpha dog: This secondary was best known for its identity as a pack of "wild animals." While they were all savage hitters, Haden was the second-leading tackler on the team and made the scheme work from his island out wide.


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4. 2010 Nebraska

Prince Amukamara Cornerback All-American 1st round
Eric Hagg Nickel 5 interceptions 7th round
Rickey Thenarse Free safety Unit's highest-rated recruit: 4-stars Undrafted
Austin Cassidy Strong safety Two-time 1st team Academic All-American Undrafted
DeJon Gomes Dime 99 tackles, 3 INTs, 7 breakups as a hybrid LB/S 5th round
Alfonzo Dennard Cornerback 2nd cousin of Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard 7th round

A year after finishing No. 6 in defensive S&P+ with lineman Ndamukong Suh, one of the most dominant defenders in history, Nebraska only slipped to No. 9 without him. These Huskers spent most of their snaps playing dime defense with Gomes hanging around in the box, which led to the dime safety finishing with 99 tackles.

Alpha dog: Amukamara was the major talent. He drew the toughest assignments, and his performance in the pass-happy Big 12 earned him his first-round contract.

3. 2005 Texas

Cedric Griffin Cornerback 15 pass break-ups 2nd round
Aaron Ross Nickel 2006 Thorpe winner 1st round
Michael Griffin Free safety 124 tackles 1st round
Michael Huff Strong safety 2005 Thorpe winner 1st round
Tarell Brown Cornerback Two-time Pete Carroll nemesis (2005, 2012) 5th round

Arguably the most athletic on the list, with an average size of 6'1, 196 pounds and nothing but sub-4.5 NFL Combine times, save for Cedric Griffin, who ran a 4.51. While Vince Young was the headliner, this group had a lot to do with Texas' first title since 1970.

Alpha dog: Huff won the Thorpe award, had 14 pass breakups and four forced fumbles, and led the secondary that carried S&P+'s No. 1 defense. His combination of physicality (109 tackles) and speed (4.34 40) make him one of the rarest talents.

2. 2011 LSU

Morris Claiborne Cornerback SEC DPOY 1st round
Tyrann Mathieu Nickel Heisman finalist 3rd round
Eric Reid Free safety Team's leading tackler 1st round
Brandon Taylor Strong safety 7.5 tackles for loss 3rd round
Tharold Simon Cornerback 10 pass breakups 5th round

Length, size, and athleticism and Mathieu's persona made LSU's secondary a national sensation as the Tigers completed the seemingly impossible task of going 13-0 out of the SEC West. The highlight was out-defensing one of Saban's best teams in Tuscaloosa. Of course, things came apart as they were blown out in their rematch.

Alpha dog: Claiborne was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and drew more scout buzz, but Mathieu was invited to New York as a Heisman finalist. "The Honey Badger" played boundary corner, nickel and free safety and had six forced fumbles as a ferocious 180-pounder. Mathieu returned two punts for touchdowns and was prominently involved in almost every LSU victory.

1. 2001 Miami

Phillip Buchanon Cornerback Stud punt returner and 1st-team All-American 1st round
Antrel Rolle Nickel True freshman, eventual 2004 All-American 1st round
Ed Reed Free safety Arguably the greatest safety of all time 1st round
James Lewis Strong safety Leading tackler in secondary 6th round
Sean Taylor Dime True freshman, eventual 2003 All-American 1st round
Mike Rumph Cornerback 4-year starter 1st round

Arguably the greatest team in college football history, the Hurricanes gave up 9.75 points per game in a 12-0 season. There were a few keys in the secondary.

  • First was that the starting group was all highly experienced.
  • Secondly, the young talent that saw the field in nickel and dime packages, such as Taylor and Rolle, earned eventual first-round grades themselves. The Canes would often roll with as many as seven DBs in passing situations, making it impossible to find passing windows.
  • Everything was made easy by the presence of Reed.

Alpha dog: Ed freaking Reed. Nine interceptions, three returned for touchdowns, and 18 pass breakups. For Miami and later in Baltimore, Reed's coverage ability in deep centerfield allowed defenses to do things no other defenses should even attempt. He is the alpha dog of this entire list.

Most of these units were parts of well-known teams from the last 15 years and five were national champions.

It seems that if you want to find a team to pick as an early frontrunner for the national championship in 2015, find a team with a loaded secondary. Teams like Florida, LSU and Virginia Tech might not have the offenses to complement their talented defensive backs, but you can't help but notice that three of four starters return for Ohio State's secondary.

Could Meyer add a second team of his to this list?