College football Future Power Rankings: Defenses

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When Joe Burrow piloted LSU to a national title in 2019, there was a growing sense that teams needed transcendent quarterbacks to reach the top of the sport.

Defenses quickly put a stop to that notion.

Other than in 2020, when Alabama won during a shortened season behind a Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver (DeVonta Smith) and others, defenses have largely carried title teams. Georgia started the trend in 2021 with one of the greatest defenses in college football history, suffocating opponents en route to its first national championship since 1980. The Bulldogs followed up their efforts with another defense-fueled title in 2022 before Michigan ended its 26-year championship drought behind a defense that led the FBS in fewest points allowed (10.4) and yards allowed (247 ypg).

The Wolverines derailed Washington's potent offense in the title game and won 31-13 despite only 10 completions and 140 yards from their own quarterback, J.J. McCarthy.

Defense still matters in college football, so which units project best over the next three seasons?

Georgia's defense largely remains on autopilot under coach Kirby Smart, as the team chases its third national title in four years. Other FPR Defense mainstays such as Clemson, Iowa and Notre Dame also maintain strong forecasts. Michigan lost several standout players and its entire defensive staff from the championship team, and will now be overseen by longtime NFL guru Wink Martindale. Alabama and Penn State also are among the units going through some transition, both with personnel and coaching. There were several good to great defenses in 2023 that turn over much of their personnel, including UCLA, Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri.

The transfer portal is an increasingly important factor in shaping these projections. Texas, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Oregon and Louisville all added notable defensive transfers this winter, as did Florida State, which mines the portal better than just about every team. Given the fluctuation in rosters, I have placed a premium on coaching and continuity in sorting out the list.

Here's a look at last year's Future Power Rankings for the defense. Now, check out the latest Top 25 through the 2026 season.