After breaking down Notre Dame’s 2018 opponent offenses last week, let’s take a look at the other side of the ball. What caliber of defenses will Brandon Wimbush, Chip Long and company be up against this season?
The graph below shows how each opponent (and the Irish) performed last season in explosiveness (IsoPPP) allowed and opponent efficiency, as measured by success rate. Following that quick look will be a quick dive into the returning production and projected performance (utilizing preseason S&P+ projections) for each team, grouped by where I expect each team’s to finish.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 116th
Success Rate: 45.0% (100th)
IsoPPP: 1.36 (125th)
Returning Production Rank: 85% (12th)
I feel bad to continue dismissing Mike Neu’s team, as they return a ton of young and now semi-experienced guys on both sides of the ball. But that returning production struggled so much last year, giving up more than 55 points or more five times. Those six opponents were (insert direction here) Michigan (Western/Eastern/Central), Toledo, and Northern Illinois, so not exactly Notre Dame’s talent level either.
Still, there were glimpses of hope, including holding Illinois to 24 points in the opener. The Cardinals average score over the last nine games was Opponent 43, BSU 13, and at some point it seems like maybe the towel was thrown for at least parts of the team effort-wise in an injury-ravaged year. If anything to keep an eye out for, the Ball State defense was at least decent rushing the passer (46th in adjusted sack rate). Leading sack-man Anthony Winbush (11.5 sacks) is gone, but BSU figures to start aggressively trying to generate negative plays to create passing downs versus Brandon Wimbush and company.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 83rd
Success Rate: 42.4% (79th)
IsoPPP: 1.25 (100th)
Returning Production Rank: 46% (121st )
S&P+ projects the Middies 106th after finishing 83rd last season and losing a ton of seniors. Navy was awful against the pass (104th in Passing S&P+) but surprisingly good (29th in Rushing S&P+) on the ground. Fueling the strength against the run was finishing 21st in Stuff Rate, generating a lot of stops for zero or negative yardage. Unfortunately, the three leading disruptors with at least 19 run stuffs each (Notre Dame’s leader was Nyles Morgan, with 17) were all seniors.
Navy figures to try to rely on their old formula of bend but don’t break, but last year they struggled giving up big plays and weren’t great limiting opponents scoring chances (89th in opponent points per trp inside the 40). If the Midshipmen can stay solid against the run and shore up the pass defense, top 80-90 again is feasible. More likely is probably a poor defense that will be aided by good field position and limited opponent possessions courtesy of the triple option.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 99th
Success Rate: 42.7% (82nd)
IsoPPP: 1.32 (116th)
Returning Production Rank: 68% (53rd)
Like Navy, the Orange gave up a ton of big plays (both through the air and on the ground) and were poor limiting opponents scoring chances (100th in points per trip inside the 40). The defense was ok on standard downs (49th in Standard Downs S&P+), and extremely bad on Passing Downs (101st). ‘Cuse could create a decent pass rush on standard downs (44th adjusted sack rate) but generated absolutely nothing when opponents were probably going to throw (130th adjusted sack rate on passing downs).
Linebackers generated the most havoc of any unit on the team (65th nationally in unit havoc rate), but the three leading tacklers at the position are all graduated. The defensive line mostly returns, and should be the strength, but the secondary should continue to be a weakness. That’s a combination that likely matches up better against the Irish than the opposite strengths and weaknesses, but this figures to be a bad defense again in 2018.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 67th
Success Rate: 41.1% (66th)
IsoPPP: 1.28 (110th)
Returning Production Rank: 52% (105th )
If you read the opposing offenses preview last week, you likely noticed the lack of poor attacks on the Notre Dame schedule. Each had a pretty good reason for upside, and few were projected outside the top-60 nationally. In Vanderbilt we have another defense that will probably be pretty poor in 2018 – good news for a Notre Dame offense with more question marks.
S&P+ projects the Commodore defense to finish 92nd, a pretty steep drop-off after a decent showing at 67th in the nation in 2017. That performance was fueled by strong pass defense (17th in the country in Passing S&P+) and a porous effort containing the run (91st). Most of the secondary will turn over though, making a repeat performance as a good passing defense unlikely. There’s some hope of improvement versus the run, with returning experience at LB, but it’s hard to imagine the run defense becoming even average without some Derek Mason magic.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 66th
Success Rate: 40.9% (64th)
IsoPPP: 1.15 (57th)
Returning Production Rank: 69% (49th)
After losing Mike Elko, the Demon Deacon defense took a step back last season, especially down the stretch, giving up more than 30 points in five of the last six games. The offense allowed them to survive a couple of those shootouts, including a 64-43 win at Syracuse and 55-52 bowl win over Texas A&M. Wake was solid against the run (31st nationally in Rushing S&P+ D) and bad limiting opponents through the air (87th). The passing game gave up a lot of easy throws (80th in opponent pass success rate) but still was strong in big play prevention (17th in opponent passing explosiveness).
The returning production is mostly in the secondary and linebackers, so it will be interesting to see how much the bad passing defense improves and the good run defense falls off. Overall S&P+ thinks the defense will stay about the same – not a huge liability, but definitely not good enough to contain strong offenses.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 59th
Success Rate: 45.0% (101st)
IsoPPP: 1.12 (42nd)
Returning Production Rank: 51% (110th)
David Shaw’s defense was surprisingly bad (by their recent standards) last year, allowing opponents to be overly efficient through the air and on the ground. Throw in a lot of roster turnover, with four of last season’s six leading tacklers leaving via draft or graduation, and it’s hard to see many reasons for improvement, unless there’s obvious schematic issues that will be rectified. Stanford was equally mediocre against the run and the pass, but with a penchant for giving up big plays through the air while limiting them on the ground. S&P+ projects a small uptick to 54th, which seems optimistic but is likely caused by the presence of blue chip talent waiting in the wings to replace departed starters.
The Cardinal offense may be good enough that it doesn’t matter. But there’s additional areas for potential regression here – Stanford was 1st in average opponent starting field position, and 35th in limiting opponent scoring opportunities. Field position should continue to be a strength, with all of the key special teams contributors returning. But by the time the Cardinal visit South Bend, it will be evident from games vs USC and at Oregon if this is again a mediocre unit or if young players are able to immediately perform at a high level.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 75th
Success Rate: 41.2% (67th)
IsoPPP: 1.18 (70th)
Returning Production Rank: 75% (33rd)
Pat Narduzzi was expected to build a tough, physical defense at Pitt. He didn’t inherit a ton of talent, but through three years he has yet to turn in a defense that finished better than 50th in Defensive S&P+. In fact, he’s trended the wrong direction, going from 50th in 2015, to 62nd in ’16 (hidden a bit by a good season fueled by a strong Matt Canada offense), then 75th last season.
The good news for the Panthers is that they return eight starters; the bad news is that the key departing contributors are from the unit that was their strength. Pitt finished 37th in Passing S&P+ defense, but lost Jordan Whitehead and Avonte Maddox, two 4th round draft picks. The front seven returns mostly intact, but it wasn’t a good unit against the run, finishing 73rd in Rushing S&P+ defense. Narduzzi’s defense was decent limiting big plays (32nd in Rushing IsoPPP) but really poor disrupting the run, finishing 117th in adjusted line yards, 105th in power success rate allowed, and 83rd in stuff rate. This allowed opponents to have successful runs on 46.6% of attempts, 100th in FBS. The run defense should improve with experience, but will need much better disruption. S&P+ projects the defense 42nd, and that feels high to me unless the secondary can replicate a good showing despite key losses and the run defense has a few players emerge.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 23rd
Success Rate: 38.4% (36th)
IsoPPP: 1.14 (52nd)
Returning Production Rank: 61% (79th )
The Wildcats were a sneaky top-25 defense last season, especially playing well down the stretch. It wasn’t a murderer’s row of offenses by any means, but closing the regular season allowing 16.1 points per game over their last eight games. There were some dominant performances against bad and mediocre offenses, shutting out Minnesota, holding Illinois to single digits, and keeping Iowa to ten points. Even good offenses like Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State were held below their season averages and didn’t score more than 33 points (weirdly, the most points allowed was 41 to Duke).
The front seven, which was excellent against the run (20th in Defensive S&P+) was awesome and overall quite young. It should be a strong unit again, but the pass defense (62nd) is another story. Everything about the pass defense was mediocre – the pass rush, pass efficiency, and passing explosiveness. And I’m not sure where improvement will come from – the Cats lose two great senior safeties, and the pass rush might have a fairly low ceiling. A young and productive run defense gives Northwestern a high floor, and the pass defense will determine how far they can push their ceiling (S&P+ projects 25th).
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 9th
Success Rate: 34.3% (9th)
IsoPPP: 1.35 (122nd)
Returning Production Rank: 64% (67th)
S&P+ projects the Hokie defense 9th overall, and this is probably the biggest disagreement I’ve had in this series. In S&P+’s defense that was in the spring, before losing key three contributors – starting CB Adonis Alexander (academically ineligible), nickelback Mook Reynolds (dismissed from team; VT’s fourth leading tackler in ’17), and transfer Jeremey Webb (Achilles). Still, even before those losses it seemed like a ton to replace from last year’s top-10 defense – the Edmunds brothers were two of the top five tacklers last year, linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka was the second leading tackler, and DT Tim Settle was a monster on the defensive line at 6’3, 335 lbs.
So the returning production rank will change a bit when updated, and significantly downward. Bud Foster is a wizard, and deserves all the benefits of the doubt, and has good defensive line depth again. The Hokies finished 15th in Rushing S&P+ defense last year, and another top-20 performance in that category is on the table with the talent and experience still left on the line. But after that, whew are things thin. The returning linebackers have a grand total of 2.5 tackles in their careers as a group. The secondary has a bit more experience but will be basically an entirely brand new two-deep at corner. Explosive plays were a problem last year with an experienced group – what will they look like in 2018 with a green defense far more likely to have breakdowns? Top 30-40 seems realistic, but I can’t buy into a top-25 performance for VT.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 33rd
Success Rate: 38.8% (40th)
IsoPPP: 1.09 (29th)
Returning Production Rank: 46% (120th)
You can make a strong argument that either the Hokies, Trojans, or Noles belong in a new tier. All feel like borderline top-25 defenses to me, but I wouldn’t feel confident individually betting on any one. Maybe I’m being overly critical – virtually every defense is going to have holes to replace – but the lack of continuity and returning production in key places that weren’t great in 2017 stands out across the board. That said, I think there’s maybe the most upside in Tallahassee than any of those others choices heading into 2018.
The returning production rank above is the reason for doubt. Unsurprisingly, coming off a bad season and coaching change FSU lost a ton of talent to the draft and graduation. But there is still so much talent in the wings, much of it with some experience and high production in limited time, that replicating last season’s underachieving or even improving still seems possible. New DC Harlon Barnett comes down from Michigan State, so you can bet on a lot of physical press coverage – with some excellent corners. Stanford Samuels III (of the Noles Finer Things Club) and Levonta Taylor were tremendous last year as underclassmen. The front seven lost Josh Sweat, Matthew Thomas, and Derick Nnadi, but returns Brian Burns (13.5 TFL as a sophomore), Demarcus Christmas (team-leading 15 run stuffs), and ND tease Josh Kaindoh (4 sacks in limited action as a freshman).
While underachieving, the defense really wasn’t the biggest issue last season, and was mostly competent, ranking 25th in Rushing S&P+ and 25th in Passing S&P+. Somehow with all of the blue chip depth the Seminoles struggled rushing the passer, but I have to think that they’ll figure some answers out there, and the secondary and run defense should be stout again. I think this is a top-30 offense, with a higher ceiling than others in this tier if young talent shows out and quickly adapts to Barnett’s scheme.
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 55th
Success Rate: 38.6% (39th)
IsoPPP: 1.18 (75th)
Returning Production Rank: 65% (64th)
The Trojans are borderline top-25, and definitely have a wide range of potential outcomes on defense (just like the offense! Bovada’s latest over/under at 8.5 wins seems fair against a tough schedule). As noted by Josh Adams and company in Notre Dame Stadium, the Trojans were shaky on this side of the ball in 2017. Injuries played a big role, but USC underperformed relative to their talent level. Per usual the blue-chip talent is everywhere – half the key performers like Cameron Smith, Porter Gustin, Marvel Tell, and Iman Marshall are back. But the departures of safety Chris Hawkins, the top two pass rushers Rasheem Green and Uchenna Nwosu, and the suspension of corner Jack Jones leave big holes.
The pass defense was great (9th in Passing S&P+) last year, led by a fantastic pass rush (8th in adjusted sack rate) and experienced secondary. The run defense (47th in Rushing S&P+), not so much, with poor marks in efficiency and explosiveness. For as good as SC was rushing the passer, they were surprisingly weak creating disruption against the run (113th in stuff rate). The upside, as always, is there, especially if Gustin and Smith stay healthy. The run defense almost has to get better, but it will be hard to replicate the same performance against the pass with the losses in the secondary and defensive line. S&P+ projects USC 26th, and that seems fair to me unless a lot of new starters find immediate success.
Top 5 Defense
‘17 Defensive S&P+ Rank: 10th
Success Rate: 30.6% (1st)
IsoPPP: 1.30 (112th)
Returning Production Rank: 83% (15th)
I think the Wolverines defense will be the single best unit the Irish face this season, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. S&P+ projects the UM defense as 4th best nationally, and top-5 feels pretty safe with the amount of talent and returning production. It’s rare to see a top-10 defense return just about everyone, and Don Brown developing and deploying that talent makes me sick.
Brown’s aggression translated into a defense that was incredibly disruptive while smothering efficiency (1st in opponent success rate). The Wolverines were 1st in havoc rate, 2nd in adjusted sack rate, 1st in stuff rate, and 3rd in opponent power success rate. This was a mean front seven, and while they’ll miss Mo Hurst, I don’t envision much of a drop-off. The one statistical hole was the explosiveness allowed on the rare occasion opponents were successful, and unfortunately it’s hard to even find much to get excited about there.
When you don’t allowed many successes, any big plays drag the average points per play up significantly. Zooming out of that context (UM not allowing many successes), Michigan only allowed nine plays of 40+ yards, tied for 20th nationally. It’s more than a defense of that caliber would prefer to give up, but a Van Gorder defense this was not.
The good news is….Notre Dame’s defense is really good too, and they get the Wolverines at home? The Harbaugh-led offense may put the defense in bad spots? Maybe the best news is that if the Irish can somehow score enough to beat Michigan, they won’t face anything close to this defense again in the regular season.