Defense hasn’t necessarily been the name of the game ahead of the 2018 College Football Playoff, even though three of the four teams involved field three of the nation’s best defenses.
Alabama allows the fewest points (11.5 per game) of any team in Division 1-A. Clemson ranks second, giving up 12.8 points per game, and Georgia is tied for third (with Wisconsin) at 13.2 points allowed. The fourth team in the playoff, Oklahoma, didn’t crack the nation’s top 50 defensively (25.0 points allowed), but the Sooners make up for it by leading the nation in offensive yards (583 per game) and ranking fourth in scoring with 44.9 points per game.
As usual, though, the offensive playmakers have generated more attention than the defensive standouts. Oklahoma has quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner. Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley is as a top-10 pick in a lot of 2018 NFL mock drafts. Georgia’s running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are the Bulldogs’ headliners, and most Clemson coverage starts with quarterback Kelly Bryant, who stepped in to replace departed QB Deshaun Watson and has led the Tigers to within two wins of repeating last season’s national championship.
Meanwhile, there are some standout defensive backs worth watching on the road to crowning a national champion that kicks off Jan. 1, 2018, with the Rose Bowl (Georgia vs. Oklahoma) and the Sugar Bowl (Alabama vs. Clemson).
Ryan Carter, CB, Clemson
Carter was a starter on last season’s national title team, and this season the fifth-year senior was an honorable mention All-ACC selection. He made 28 tackles, 10 pass breakups and three interceptions, including a pick-six against rival South Carolina. One of Carter’s interceptions happened in the ACC championship game against Miami.
Clemson’s defensive backfield has been plagued by injuries, but Carter has been the iron man, starting each game. His stability and leadership helped the Tigers improve from 12th last season to 2nd in scoring defense, and his coverage helped Clemson lead the nation in total sacks with 44.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
After Mayfield, there isn’t a player in the CFP field more decorated than Fitzpatrick. The junior DB won this season’s Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player and the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back; he was also a consensus All-America and first team All-SEC pick.
Fitzpatrick has played pretty much every position in the secondary for the Crimson Tide, from cornerback to safety to the DB/LB hybrid that coach Nick Saban calls the “Star.”
Fitzpatrick has made 62 tackles, six tackles for loss, one interception and one forced fumble this season. In some NFL mock drafts he is slotted as a top-5 selection.
Steven Parker, SS, Oklahoma
In three years as a starter, Parker has been an All-Big-12 pick three times. This season the senior strong safety posted 57 tackles, six pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
The Big 12 is known for its high-scoring shootouts, so its most talented defenders are often overlooked and underrated. Six of the conference’s teams averaged more than 30 points per game, led by Oklahoma State’s 46.2 points. Oklahoma’s defense was mostly in the upper half of Big 12 team defensive stat categories. The unit has been much improved in the aftermath of Oklahoma’s win over Oklahoma State on Nov. 4. The Sooners gave up 52 points and 661 total yards, but fortunately Mayfield threw for 598 yards and accounted for six touchdowns in a 62-52 victory.
Parker said the defense had to regain its pride after that game, and since then, Oklahoma has given up 17.7 points in four games, including just three against Kansas.
The Sooners can certainly win a shootout with Georgia, Alabama or Clemson, but it’ll be up to the likes of Parker to give Oklahoma’s offense some margin for error.
Deandre Baker, CB, Georgia
According to Pro Football Focus, Baker (an NFL Draft prospect) has not allowed a touchdown in 372 coverage opportunities this season. He made 39 tackles, nine pass breakups and two interceptions, good enough to earn a spot on the All-SEC second team.
Georgia’s national semifinal opponent will by Oklahoma, which has arguably the nation’s most explosive offense led by arguably the nation’s best quarterback. (That Heisman Trophy makes the argument even easier.) The Bulldogs rank second in the nation in fewest passing yards allowed (158.3 per game) and the Sooners rank second in passing yards (367.4 per game), so something has to give here. Baker will be a key in determining how that matchup plays out.