1. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeye secondary contributed to Ohio State surrendering just 15 passing touchdowns in 2012, one of the lowest yields in the nation. Ohio State could be even better defending opposing aerial attacks this time around, with C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant returning from a 2012 of a combined 127 tackles, three interceptions and 21 defended passes. The two safeties key an outstanding secondary that could be among the most stingy in college football this season.
Consider the other players in the mix: cornerback Bradley Roby is coming off a year in which he defended 19 passes and intercepted two. But opposing quarterbacks cannot simply throw away from him, because on the other side is Doran Grant. A four-star prospect in 2011, Grant made an interception in a reserve role last season.
2. Michigan State Spartans
Phil Steele ranks two Sparty defensive backs in his preseason All-Big Ten 1st Team, and with good reason. Isaiah Lewis and Darqueze Dennard are two of the most talented products Big Ten secondaries have to offer. Lewis in particular is garnering plenty of national attention.
The 5-foot-10, 210-pound safety is an Athlon Magazine preseason All-American, and potential first rounder in next spring’s NFL draft. Kurtis Drummond is another proven commodity; he made 53 tackles, four break-ups and two interceptions in 2012.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Huskers have a decided strength in this facet of their defense. In fact, opposing offenses could complete just 47 percent of their attempts against Nebraska a season ago. Stanley Jean-Baptiste did his part with a pair of interceptions. Jean-Baptiste looks very much like the next Husker defensive back to hear his name called on NFL draft weekend. Ciante Evans was also a key member of the secondary. He started 12 games, made an interception and broke up eight passes. Evans, along with Andrew Green, are potential breakout stars.
Although two of the primary contributors instrumental to such stinginess are gone, Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith, Nebraska has other players ready to step in. Among them is ballyhooed 2012 signee Mohammed Seisay, who suffered an injury that slowed his production a year ago.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
NU recovered from a challenging Week 1 against the pass-happy attack of Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse Orange to finish 2012 allowing opponents just 58.2 percent completions. Nick Van Hoose stepped up in his debut season, tying departed linebacker David Nwabuisi for most interceptions on the team with three. The Wildcats also return safety Ibraheim Campbell, a play-making dynamo who made 89 tackles, two interceptions and broke up a team-high 14 pass plays a season ago.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota boasted one of the best passing defenses in all of college football during 2012, holding opponents to just 186.6 yards per game and a 57 percent completion rate. Interceptions leader Michael Carter and leading tackler Tony Stoudermire are gone, but the Gophers are returning talented Derrick Wells. He’s solid in coverage and a potential ball-hawk, last season intercepting a pair of passes and break up another 12.
Brock Vereen played in all 13 games and started in seven last year, recording 64 tackles, two interceptions and 11 broken-up passes along the way. Cedric Thompson was also active at safety, making eight starts and intercepting a pair of passes. This is definitely Minnesota’s defensive strength and one of the more experienced Big Ten secondaries returning for 2013.
6. Michigan Wolverines
Teams could muster only 169.5 yards per game through the air against this Michigan defense a season ago. Replacing stalwart Jordan Kovacs and cornerback J.T. Floyd will not be easy, but Brady Hoke’s roster is flush with talent. Thomas Gordon was among the team’s leading tacklers with 81, and, along with cornerback Raymond Taylor, was the only Wolverine with multiple interceptions. Each had two, and Taylor is also returning.
That is an area where Michigan stands to improve. Last season, the Wolverines gained just 18 takeaways, a distinction they shared with Marshall, FIU, UAB and conference counterpart Illinois. Just seven of those 18 forced turnovers were interceptions.
7. Purdue Boilermakers
Play-making Ricardo Allen could be an X-factor in the Boilermaker defense, especially with first-year standout cornerback Frankie Williams returning for more. Williams provided outstanding coverage last season with two interceptions and 11 break-ups. USA Today‘s Paul Myerberg writes that opposing quarterbacks are likely to “shy away” from Williams’ side of the field. That could spell big things for Allen, who may very well be the conference’s premiere corner by season’s end.
8. Wisconsin Badgers
Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith’s departures from the starting cornerback positions make for some uncertainty. Both were instrumental in the Badgers ranking No. 18 in the nation against the pass a season ago.
Dezmend Southward, a Phil Steele All-Big Ten preseason selection, is Wisconsin’s sole returning starter. Southward made 69 tackles last year, including eight for loss. He will need others who operated primarily in reserve roles last year to step up, like Darius Hillary. The redshirt freshman played in all 14 games, made 24 tackles and deflected two passes.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
Losing standout Micah Hyde really hurts the Hawkeye secondary. Hyde was outstanding both in run stopping protection and pass coverage. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker does have experience with which to work though, including B.J. Lowery. Parker told The Des Moines Register Lowery played at “a higher level in spring ball than he has at any time in his career. Iowa also returns safety Nico Law, who played in all 12 games last year as a freshman.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers were substantially better against the pass than they were the rush in 2012. IU gave up 232.2 yards through the air, a respectable figure. However, Indiana did surrender 23 touchdowns. Curtailing the big play is going to be of critical importance for this unit in 2013.
IU is one of the most experienced teams in college football. With all four starting defensive backs returning, IU is the most veteran of the Big Ten secondaries. Greg Heban is coming off an impressive season in which he led the Hoosiers in tackles with 91, and interceptions with three. He is a Phil Steele preseason All-Conference selection. JUCO transfer Antonio Marshall came on strong late in the season, picking off a pair of passes in his final seven starts.
11. Penn State Nittany Lions
Returning Adrian Amos led PSU defensive backs last season in interceptions, but was the only member of the secondary with multiple picks. The Lions had just 10 interceptions altogether in 2012, but that didn’t impact the pass defense profoundly. Opponents scored just 15 touchdowns on Penn State via the pass, and completed only 56 of their attempts. However, Stephen Morris (60 tackles, five broken-up passes) and Jacob Fagnano (an interception, six break-ups) departing leaves a sanction-depleted team with substantial gaps to plug.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini
The good news? Illinois was actually very good against the pass in 2012. In fact, UI ranked No. 19 with 193.7 yards yielded per game. The bad news? The Illini secondary is depleted of experience, with Terry Hawthorne (44 tackles, 7 passes defended, an interception), Justin Green (36 tackles, six passes defended) and Ashante Williams (78 tackles, six passes defended, an interception) all gone. Earnest Thomas returns off a solid season (69 tackles, three forced fumbles, an interception), but needs support from new contributors.