University of Southern California v University of Notre Dame
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Between rule changes that have benefitted the other side of the ball and the emergence of spread offenses that force players to cover and tackle in space, playing in a college football secondary has become much more difficult over the past 10-15 years. For a while, this resulted in higher scores across the country as offenses pressed their advantage to light up scoreboards and set records. 

However, in the past couple of years, we've seen a bit of a defensive resurgence. Much of that has to do with the type of versatile athletes that now occupy many of college football's best secondaries. Last year, players like Cooper DeJean (Iowa) and Malachi Starks (Georgia) and Trey Taylor (Air Force) exemplified the new blueprint for a defensive back in college football, flashing both coverage and tackling ability en route to being named Thorpe Award finalists. 

Every team wants to build around a star player like that, but a secondary is only as good as its weakest link. To be truly effective on the back end, a team needs the right combination of talent, depth, chemistry and experience. 

We've put together a list of teams we think have all those ingredients in droves. Here's a look the best secondaries in the country entering the 2024 season. 

1. Ohio State

The Buckeyes scored a major offseason win by signing the nation's top-ranked transfer in Caleb Downs from Alabama, but he is only one part of a stacked secondary. The Buckeyes allowed a passer rating of 99.1 in 2023, which ranked No. 1 in the country and ahead of teams like Notre Dame, Michigan, and Iowa. From that defensive backfield, only safety Josh Proctor is gone. His spot will be filled by Downs, arguably the country's top returning safety. Cornerback and potential top-10 draft pick Denzel Burke is back, while Jordan Hancock, Lathan Ransom, and Davison Igbinosun return next to him.

Ohio State also added quality depth in former South Carolina safety Keenan Nelson Jr. Four-star cornerbacks Aaron Scott Jr. and Bryce West join the group from the high school ranks. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will be entering his third season, and this should be his deepest and most talented unit to date. 

2. Notre Dame

Notre Dame comes into the 2024 season with high expectations in Year 3 of the Marcus Freeman era. Spearheading the hype are players like Benjamin Morrison and Xavier Watts, the latter of whom earned First Team All-America honors from CBS Sports and won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy -- awarded to the top defensive player in the country -- after recording 52 tackles and seven interceptions last season.

Former four-star cornerback Jaden Mickey could be due for a breakout season after recording 11 tackles and an interception in two starts. Former Northwestern cornerback Ron Heard ll and ex-Arizona State safety Jordan Clark arrive from the transfer portal. Both should contribute to a defense that ranked third in passing yards allowed (154.2 per game) last fall.

3. Iowa

Iowa's defense starts with reigning Broyles Award winner Phil Parker, who is considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. Parker will coach a group led by the top slot cornerback in the nation, Sebastian Castro. With DeJean off to the NFL, Castro headlines a unit that ranked No. 15 in passing yards allowed (172.2) and No. 4 in scoring defense (13.2) in 2023.

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Xavier Nwankpa is a name to know in the Big Ten this season. Getty Images

Xavier Nwankpa is a breakout name to watch, and Quinn Schulte slots next to him on the back line. Jermari Harris recorded 42 tackles and an interception in 12 starts, while Deshaun Lee made six starts at corner last season. With some moderate improvements to last year's lackluster offense, the defense could propel Iowa to a spot in the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff.

4. Georgia

Georgia's secondary will look significantly different this season after Kamari Lassiter, Javon Bullard and Tykee Smith were all selected in the 2024 NFL Draft. Defensive back coach Fran Brown also departed for the vacant job at Syracuse. The good news for Georgia is that Starks returns next to cornerback Daylen Everette. 

Starks is receiving first-round buzz heading into the 2024 campaign after recording 52 tackles and three interceptions last season. The Bulldogs added five-star prospects KJ Bolden and Ellis Robinson IV from the 2024 recruiting cycle, and both could compete for playing time as freshmen. Coach Kirby Smart deserves the benefit of the doubt after producing elite secondaries throughout his tenure.

5. Michigan

Michigan cornerback Will Johnson is good enough to be the first defensive back off the board in the 2025 NFL Draft. At 6-foot-2, Johnson boasts the ideal size for the position, and his play recognition makes him a strong All-American candidate after recording four interceptions during Michigan's run to a national championship.

Johnson helps keep Michigan on this list despite some devastating losses, headlined by Keon Sabb transferring to Alabama and Rod Moore tearing his ACL earlier this spring. While there's no official timeline for Moore's return, first-year coach Sherrone Moore is hopeful he'll return this season. Returners Makari Paige, Quinten Johnson and Ja'Den McBurrows should receive a production bump after star cornerback Mike Sainristil departed for the NFL.

Honorable Mention

  • Alabama (Domani Jackson, Malachi Moore, Keon Sabb)
  • Texas (Malik Muhammad, Gavin Holmes, Jahdae Barron)
  • Oregon (Jabbar Muhammad, Tysheem Johnson, Kobe Savage)
  • Penn State (A.J. Harris, Kevin Winston Jr., Jaylen Reed)
  • Purdue (Dillon Thieneman, Nyland Green, Markevious Brown)