NCAA Football

Power Ranking Top Defenses in College Football Heading Into Bowl Season

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Top 10 Defenses in College Football Heading Into Bowl Season

timmy jernigan
Melina Vastola - USA TODAY Sports

While offense sells tickets, it’s defense that wins championships. With bowl season upon us, the 2013 regular season gave us many strong contenders for the best defense in the country. In the end, however, some of them separated themselves from the pack and led their teams to great heights this season.

Of the top 10 defenses in the country, four played for conference titles this season (with three winning), four are in BCS bowl games (including one in the BCS National Championship), and all of them are going bowling this season after winning eight games or more. With a solid defensive foundation in place, a team can go a long way toward their goals, even if their offensive counterparts sometimes let them down.

In an age of up-tempo, video-game style offensive performances, it’s refreshing to sometimes watch an old-school, physical defense shut things down. They prove that there’s more than one way to win in college football these days and that a smash-mouth approach on defense can trump the speedy attacks that have become common in college football.

But heading into the bowl season, which defense ranks the best? Which unit rose up and consistently shut down their opposition, leading the way for their team to find consistent success week in and week out? While there were plenty of worthy contenders from all over the country from every conference, there were the unquestionably great defenses that separated themselves down the stretch.

So without further ado, let’s count down the top 10 defenses in college football heading into bowl season.

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10. Stanford Cardinal

henry anderson
Matt Kartozian - USA TODAY Sports

The Stanford Cardinal (11-2) have won this season with a simple formula: Beat up the opponent on both sides of the ball. Their defense is tenacious with a defensive line that can wreak havoc in offensive backfields and linebackers who make plays sideline to sideline. They ranked No. 15 in the country in total defense this season, allowing 339.4 yards per game and No. 19 in scoring defense, allowing only 18.6 points per game, as they rode the defense to their second-straight Pac-12 title.

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9. Iowa Hawkeyes

james morris
Reese Strickland - USA TODAY Sports

Flying under the radar in 2013, the Iowa Hawkeyes (8-4) have enjoyed a strong bounce-back season for Kirk Ferentz behind the play of a stout defense. Led by a trio of senior linebackers, Iowa made life difficult for Big Ten offenses this season and even gave the Hawkeyes a shot against the high-powered Ohio State Buckeyes in a 10-point loss. Iowa ranks No. 7 in total defense this season, allowing 303.2 yards per game, and No. 11 in scoring defense, giving up up 18.8 points per game, as Iowa heads to the Outback Bowl to face the LSU Tigers.

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8. Utah State Aggies

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Kelley L. Cox - USA TODAY Sports

In just their first season in the conference, the Utah State Aggies (8-5) made an impact in the Mountain West Conference thanks to their defense picking up the slack in the second half of the season. USU got hot at just the right time and played their way into the MWC Championship this season (though they fell just short against the Fresno State Bulldogs) thanks to the No. 12 ranked total defense in the country, giving up 332.2 yards per game, and No. 7 scoring defense, allowing just 17.3 points per game. Now, they'll test that defense in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl against the Northern Illinois Huskies and Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch.

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7. Bowling Green Falcons

jairus campbell
Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports

Going up against the high-flying offensive attack of NIU and quarterback Jordan Lynch in the MAC Championship game, the Bowling Green Falcons (10-3) got an elite performance from their defense to score the upset. That shouldn't have been a major surprise for anyone who had watched the Falcons play this season as their defense has been playing at a high level all year long. They rank No. 8 in total defense this season, allowing 308.7 yards per game, and No. 5 in scoring defense, surrendering 14.8 points per game, heading into the Little Ceasars Pizza Bowl matchup with the Pitt Panthers.

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6. Virginia Tech Hokies

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Geoff Burke - USA TODAY Sports

No defense on this list was let down more by their offense in 2013 than the Virginia Tech Hokies (8-4). Frank Beamer had one of the toughest defensive units in the ACC this season and the inside track to a division title but the inability of their offense to put up any points whatsoever caused VT to fall out of the race down the stretch. You can't blame the defense, however, which ranked No. 4 in the nation in total defense with 269.6 yards allowed per game and No. 8 in scoring defense with 17.4 points allowed per game. They'll hope for a more balanced effort from the team when they square off with the UCLA Bruins in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.

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5. Wisconsin Badgers

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Jeff Hanisch - USA TODAY Sports

Gary Andersen took over the Wisconsin Badgers (9-3) in 2013 and implemented a new defensive scheme. While Wisconsin failed to make it back to the Rose Bowl in Andersen's first season, his defensive changes made a positive impact. The Badgers fielded the No. 2 defense in the Big Ten this season as they ranked No. 6 in the nation in total defense, allowing 294.0 yards per game, and No. 5 in scoring defense, allowing 14.8 points per game. Andersen will test his tough-nosed defense in the bowl season against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Capital One Bowl to cap off a fine inaugural run.

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4. Louisville Cardinals

marcus smith
Kim Klement - USA TODAY Sports

Most of the attention paid to the Louisville Cardinals (11-1) in 2013 centered around Teddy Bridgewater and the offense, it has been the defense putting up the more impressive numbers this season. While they fell just short of winning the AAC title this season after getting upset by the Central Florida Knights earlier this season, the Louisville defense has played strong all year long. They are the No. 2 total defense in the country, allowing just 257.9 yards per game, and the No. 3 scoring defense, surrendering just 12.4 points per game. On nights when the offense wasn't clicking, the Cardinals' defense could be counted on rise up. They missed out on the BCS, but will have another opportunity to flex their muscle in the Russell Athletic Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes.

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3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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John David Mercer - USA TODAY Sports

While the Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1) fell short of their goal for a third-straight BCS National Championship, they have been one of the best teams in the country once again thanks to the play of their defense. Nick Saban makes sure that his defense makes opponents earn every yard they get week in and week out and once again rank among the nation's best. They stand at No. 5 in total defense this season, allowing 274.7 yards per game and No. 2 in scoring defense, giving up a mere 11.3 points per game. Maybe if a few more defensive players were on the field goal unit, Alabama would be playing in Pasadena this January but they will have to make do with their at-large bid to the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners.

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2. Michigan State Spartans

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Mike Carter - USA TODAY Sports

Many people overlooked the Michigan State Spartans (12-1) for most of the season, but nobody can ignore the exploits of the Sparty defense. They shut down just about everyone they faced this season (including holding the Michigan Wolverines to negative-rushing yards) and helped to upset the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship. They rank No. 1 in total defense this season, allowing just 248.2 yards per game and No. 4 in scoring defense, allowing 12.7 points per game. That stingy defense has punched Michigan State's ticket to the Rose Bowl this January against like-minded defensively tough Stanford.

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1. Florida State Seminoles

lamarcus joyner
Kim Klement - USA TODAY Sports

One major aspect of the total dominance that the Florida State Seminoles (13-0) have displayed in 2013 has been the play of their suffocating defense. Sporting a winning-margin of over 40 points this season, FSU has been able to coast to easy wins thanks to the play of their defense shutting opponents completely down. They rank No. 3 in total defense, allowing 268.5 yards per game, and No. 1 in scoring defense, giving up a miniscule 10.7 points per game. That stingy defensive effort has pushed FSU all the way to No. 1 in the nation to play for the BCS National Championship where they will square off with the Auburn Tigers.