First-year Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is the top defensive mind not just in college football, but in all of football.
So says his boss, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who was ecstatic when he landed Muschamp after he was fired in November as Florida's head coach. The Tigers gave up more than 30 points in seven of their 13 games last season, and Malzahn is convinced that Muschamp can get Auburn back to a championship level on defense. The Tigers sure are paying Muschamp that way — $5.1 million during the next three years.
And while there's little debate that Muschamp is one of the more respected defensive minds in the game, there are a litany of coaches in the NFL — Bill Belichick, Dick LeBeau, Pete Carroll, John Fox, Marvin Lewis, Wade Phillips, Vic Fangio and Dom Capers, to name a few — known for their defensive acumen.
But let's keep this debate to the college game. Who are the top defensive minds in college football — those coaches you could make the easiest arguments for when comparing them to Muschamp?
We've divided it up between head coaches and coordinators, with a top five in each category and five more who would warrant consideration. They're listed alphabetically.
Let the second-guessing commence:
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State: The Spartans have been a load defensively under Dantonio, who's entering his ninth season as Michigan State's head coach. He lost ace defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi — who was hired as Pitt's head coach — this offseason, but Dantonio has his own distinguished background as a defensive guru. Go back and look at some of the defenses he coordinated under Jim Tressel at Youngstown State and Ohio State. Dantonio was also the secondary coach under Nick Saban for five seasons at Michigan State in the late 1990s. Everywhere Dantonio has been, his defenses have been tough, disciplined and disruptive.
Gary Patterson, TCU: To his credit, Patterson brought in two new offensive coordinators (Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham) last season to rev up a stagnant TCU offense, and the move paid off, with the Horned Frogs winning 12 games and sharing the Big 12 championship. But aside from the gaudy offensive numbers, Patterson remains one of the best in the business when it comes to devising a defensive game plan and developing defensive talent. Entering his 15th season as TCU's head coach, Patterson built the program on rock-solid defense, which was a staple in the Horned Frogs' six conference titles in three different leagues.
Nick Saban, Alabama: Look around and you'll see versions of Saban's 3-4 scheme being run all over college football, and most of the guys running it are Saban disciples. One of the recent knocks on Saban is that his defenses have been exploited by spread, up-tempo offenses. But scoring — period — is up all across college football with the way the game has changed. Even in a supposedly down year last season, Alabama finished sixth nationally in scoring defense (18.4 points per game), and all four of Saban's national championship teams put defenses on the field that would rank among the best in college football in the past two decades.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma: Now entering his 17th season as Oklahoma's coach, Stoops made a name for himself as a hotshot defensive coordinator under Bill Snyder at Kansas State and then Steve Spurrier at Florida. The Gators' only national championship under Spurrier came with Stoops running the show on defense. Many of his Oklahoma teams have been known more for their high-scoring offenses, but that's also a reflection of Stoops seeing the bigger picture as a head coach and playing as much to his offense as his defense. Stoops remains a hot commodity among NFL executives.
Charlie Strong, Texas: There's a reason all of the defenses Strong has been associated with typically look the same. They play with Strong's personality, which is full-go, doing things the right way and never taking a day (or down) off. Strong worked under the likes of Spurrier, Lou Holtz and Urban Meyer as an assistant coach before finally getting his chance as a head coach. It didn't take him long to transform Louisville's defense into one of the stingiest in the country. His final team at Louisville before taking the Texas job led the country in five defensive categories, including total defense, rushing defense and third-down defense.
The next five
Gary Andersen, Oregon State: Built his reputation as an assistant at Utah, both as a defensive line coach and defensive coordinator.
Jim Mora, UCLA: Much of his experience is at the NFL level, but has restored UCLA to power in the Pac-12. Courted by Texas last offseason but stayed in Westwood.
Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh: Served as Dantonio's right-hand man at Michigan State and Cincinnati before taking the Pitt job in December.
Dave Steckel, Missouri State: Entering his first season as Missouri State's head coach after 14 seasons of helping to churn out stellar defenses at Missouri under Gary Pinkel.
Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Served as Meyer's defensive coordinator at Utah in 2004, when the Utes went unbeaten, and then replaced Meyer as Utah's head coach.
Tom Bradley, UCLA: His defenses at Penn State under the late Joe Paterno were synonymous with excellence. Bradley coached at Penn State for 32 years, the final 12 as defensive coordinator. After Paterno was fired, Bradley spent two years away from coaching but got back into it last season as defensive line coach and assistant head coach at West Virginia. Jim Mora hired Bradley as his defensive coordinator this offseason.
John Chavis, Texas A&M: The "Chief" will embark this fall on his third different stop as an SEC defensive coordinator. His penchant for bringing pressure and playing man defense behind that pressure is his calling card. Chavis' attacking defenses at Tennessee and LSU were the backbone of championship teams. The Vols won a national title in 1998, and LSU won an SEC title in 2011. Kevin Sumlin hired Chavis away from LSU this offseason for $1.65 million per year after Chavis' defenses shut down the Aggies each of the past three years.
Bud Foster, Virginia Tech: One of the deans of defensive coordinators, Foster has continually crafted top-ranked defenses. Entering his 21st season as the Hokies' defensive coordinator, he has repeatedly turned down lucrative offers to go elsewhere and has stayed loyal to coach Frank Beamer. Foster has been with Beamer since his playing days at Murray State, dating to 1979, when Beamer was the defensive coordinator.
Bob Shoop, Penn State: He's as innovative as he is aggressive, and Shoop's defenses have a history of not giving up the backbreaking plays. Nobody would ever accuse him of "out-talenting" opponents when he was at Vanderbilt, but the Commodores were one of the most consistent defenses in the SEC during his three years as coordinator there. Last season, though the Nittany Lions struggled on offense, they finished second nationally in total defense and seventh in scoring defense.
Kirby Smart, Alabama: He gets the rap of it being Saban's defense at Alabama, but Saban will be the first to tell you Smart is the one doing all of the heavy lifting. Even though the Crimson Tide haven't finished the past two seasons the way they wanted defensively, they've been a top-five fixture nationally in all of the major defensive categories on Smart's watch. He has been extremely selective when it comes to head-coaching opportunities and insists he's in no rush to leave Alabama unless the "right one" comes along.
The next five
Dave Aranda, Wisconsin: A rising star in his profession, Aranda is entering his third season as the Badgers' defensive coordinator.
D.J. Durkin, Michigan: Jim Harbaugh made it a priority to bring Durkin aboard to run the Wolverines' defense. Durkin worked under both Meyer and Muschamp at Florida.
Robb Smith, Arkansas: He won't be underrated for long, not after transforming the Arkansas defense the way he did last season.
Kevin Steele, LSU: Some people have a hard time getting past one game (West Virginia), but Steele's impressive body of work speaks for itself.
Brent Venables, Clemson: In his four years as the Tigers' coordinator, the team has improved steadily. It finished last season ranked third nationally in scoring defense.