Projecting the Pac-12's best defenses

Myles Jack is a returning starter at linebacker at UCLA, which should have another strong defense in 2015. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Stanford had the best defense in the Pac-12 last year, and there's no question about that by any measure. It wasn't even close. Stanford yielded 5.9 fewer points per game than No. 2 Oregon and 1.0 yards per play less than No. 2 UCLA. The Cardinal surrendered just 24 touchdowns. Utah was second-best with 35, and eight teams gave up 40 or more.

In fact, Stanford has produced the best scoring defense in the Pac-12 the past three seasons, and in 2011 the Cardinal ranked No. 2. Despite that impressive pedigree, Stanford's defense is one of the biggest questions heading into the 2015 season. The Cardinal welcome back just two starters and no starting defensive linemen, which is why ESPN Stats & Information projects Stanford to fall to third-best defense in the Pac-12 and 20th in the nation.

It might surprise some, however, that Stats & Info projects Arizona State to have the Pac-12's best defense -- No. 11 in the nation -- and USC to rank second, 18th in the nation. The Sun Devils ranked sixth in scoring defense (27.9 points per game) and seventh in yards per play (5.62), while USC was slightly better (25.2 ppg and 5.30 ypp).

So what if we mix up the metrics with some cold, hard facts -- such as returning starters, returning playmakers, returning D-linemen -- and combine it with some good old subjectivity, a.k.a., the eye test.

Here's how we see the Pac-12's best defenses stacking up heading into the 2015 season. We did offenses on Wednesday.


Returning starters: 8

Returning playmakers: LB Myles Jack (second-team All-Pac-12), LB Deon Hollins (9 sacks), CB Ishmael Adams (first-team All-Pac-12), NT Kenny Clark (second-team All-Pac-12), CB Fabian Moreau (second-team All-Pac-12), DT Eddie Vanderdoes

Returning D-line: 2 of 3

FPI ranking: 22

Verdict: The Bruins lost three All-Pac-12 players, most notably Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks, but no conference team welcomes back as much defensive star power. The Clark/Vanderdoes combination up front is particularly noteworthy, though D-line depth is a question. Jack will shift inside at LB, and expectations are high that he and sophomore Kenny Young will become a dynamic, versatile tandem. The secondary is deep, talented and experienced. New coordinator Tom Bradley, who made his name under Joe Paterno at Penn State, has a lot to work with.

2. Oregon

Returning starters: 6

Returning playmakers: DE DeForest Buckner (second-team All-Pac-12), LB Joe Walker, CB/WR Charles Nelson, S Reggie Daniels

Returning D-line: 2 of 3

FPI ranking: 26

Verdict: As usual, the Ducks defense was better last year than most folks thought -- see 22.3 points per game, which ranked second in the conference. A big key, also as usual, was turnovers. The Ducks led the conference by forcing 34. That offset a middling 5.4 yards per play. Oregon must replace end Arik Armstead, but a rotation of healthy players might prove more effective than the talented but oft-injured first-round NFL draft pick who seemed to sport a perpetual limp. The secondary also must be rebuilt, but there's plenty of talent, and young players saw action last year because of veterans' injuries. There's so much speed and talent here at all three levels, and you'd expect second-year coordinator Don Pellum will have a better feel for how he wants to run a defense after he replaced Nick Aliotti last year.

3. Utah

Returning starters: 6

Returning playmakers: LB Jared Norris (116 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss), DE Hunter Dimick (10 sacks, 14.5 TFL), LB Gionni Paul (4 interceptions), DT Lowell Lotulelei

Returning D-line: 2 of 4

FPI ranking: 28

Verdict: The Utes might have ranked second if not for the departure of coordinator Kalani Sitake and cornerback Dominique Hatfield being kicked off the team this summer. They ranked fourth in the conference in scoring defense last year and third in yards per play. Many of the key pieces are back this fall despite the departure of All-Ameircan end Nate Orchard and his 18.5 sacks. What separates Utah on defense, however, is not just potential stars; it's the big, meaty, interior defensive linemen, led by Lotulelei, younger brother of Star Lotulelei. Their physicality inside creates opportunities on the perimeter -- see a nation-leading 55 sacks last year.

4. USC

Returning starters: 7

Returning playmakers: LB Su'a Cavens (first-team All-Pac-12), CB/WR Adoree' Jackson (freshman All-American), NT Antwaun Woods

Returning D-line: 2 of 3

FPI ranking: 18

Verdict: You don't replace a guy like Leonard Williams at defensive end, and linebacker Hayes Pullard was the leader of the 2014 defense, but this crew -- if it stays healthy -- should be a top-25 defense, perhaps coordinator Justin Wilcox's best. Cravens is just a playmaking beast. The true junior would have been a high NFL draft pick this past spring if he were eligible to enter. Jackson could become a Heisman Trophy candidate as a two-way player, and as a cornerback he's among the nation's elite in coverage. While some are worried about the D-line, if players get and stay healthy, such as defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow, it could become one of the conference's best units. Linebacker after Cravens, in fact, might be the biggest question.

5. Arizona State

Returning starters: 8

Returning playmakers: S Jordan Simone (100 tackles, two interceptions), LB D.J. Calhoun, CB Lloyd Carrington, DT Tashon Smallwood, LB Viliami Moeakiola

Returning D-line: 2 of 3

FPI ranking: 11

Verdict: The Sun Devils lost their two best defensive players from 2014 -- defensive end Marcus Hardison and first-team All-Pac-12 safety Damarious Randall -- but they've got a lot coming back, both in terms of experience and talented youngsters. The biggest question is the pass rush. With touted recruit Davon Durant getting kicked off the team, it's uncertain who the "Devil" back will be, a guy who's always on the attack in the Sun Devils' scheme. Last year, this unit was pretty much completely rebuilding. This year, it should be poised to improve dramatically from the 27.9 points per game it yielded in 2014, which ranked sixth in the conference.

6. Stanford

Returning starters: 2

Returning playmakers: LB Blake Martinez (102 tackles, 3 interceptions, 4.5 sacks), OLB Kevin Anderson (11 TFL)

Returning D-line: 0 of 3

FPI ranking: 20

Verdict: Sometimes you just go with pedigree, and that's what we're doing here because this is a drastically rebuilding unit. Martinez and Anderson are productive and underrated playmakers, but their supporting cast will be pretty green. Cal transfer -- yeah, that feels strange to type -- Brennan Scarlett could bolster the pass rush, but he struggles to stay healthy. Is end Aziz Shittu ready to break through? Is linebacker Peter Kalambayi the next Cardinal defensive star? How big a loss was safety Zach Hoffpauir's decision to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks? Lots of questions, but Stanford has been the best defensive team in the conference for three consecutive years, so they get some benefit of the doubt.