There are plenty of reasons to believe California and Colorado will play better defense this fall compared to last, starting with the fact that getting worse would almost be a challenge. There also are plenty of reasons to believe Stanford and Oregon State will take a step backwards after being outstanding and OK, respectively, on defense a year ago.
Phil Steele presents one of those measures that explains both sorts of projections: Percent of tackles returning. It's a straight-forward number that takes a team's total tackles from 2014, the number of tackles returning defenders recorded and then figures the percentage.
Steele points out:
Last year at the top of the list was Air Force which had 89.6 percent of their total tackles returning from 2013 and they went from 2-10 to 10-3! Ole Miss was #3 with 84.4 percent and they went from allowing 23.7 ppg to just 16.0 ppg (and those numbers were better than that prior to giving up 42 in the bowl).
At the other end of the spectrum last year was #128 Arizona St which had just 30.8 percent of their tackles returning and #127 Oklahoma St which had just 35 percent back. Arizona St went from allowing 372 ypg to 417 while Oklahoma St went from yielding 21.6 ppg all the way up to 31.2 ppg. Western Kentucky was #126 with just 38.1 percent back and they imploded going from 339 ypg and 24.6 ppg allowed in 2013 to 510 ypg and 39.9 ppg in 2014!!
So how does the Pac-12 stack up? Glad you asked. The number on the left is the national ranking.
9. California 81.71 percent
11. Arizona St 79.16 percent
12. Colorado 78.68 percent
48. Utah 66.67 percent
55. UCLA 65.18 percent
61. USC 63.96 percent
80. Washington St 59.24 percent
86. Oregon 57.53 percent
88. Arizona 57.29 percent
108. Washington 50.60 percent
115. Stanford 45.49 percent
127. Oregon St 29.71 percent
While UCLA has eight starters back on defense, it is replacing three of its top four tacklers, including stalwart leading tackler Eric Kendricks. Still, the Bruins and Utah appear on paper to have the best defenses in the conference heading into the season, with Arizona State looking to be a candidate for most improved, going from OK to good this fall.
Further, based on recent track record, it's probably not smart to write off Stanford. While it on has just four returning starters on defense, there's certainly some young talent on hand that should keep the bottom from dropping out on that side of the ball.
Of further interest is how nonconference foes stand. Notre Dame tops the nation with 90.9 percent of its tackles back this fall. That should raise a few eyebrows at USC and Stanford.
As for other key nonconference foes, Boise State (Washington) is 17th at 77 percent, Michigan State (Oregon) is 47th at 61 percent, Michigan (Utah, Oregon State) is 52nd at 65.5 percent, Texas A&M (Arizona State) is 57th at 64.6 percent, Virginia (UCLA) is 112th at 46 percent and Texas (Cal) is 120th at 43 percent.