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Phil Steele ranks Top 25 Defensive Back Units ahead of 2024 college football season

Chandler Vesselsby:Chandler Vessels07/07/24


The college football season is a little less than two months away, and Phil Steele has released his list of the top 25 defensive back units. It is part of his annual college football preview magazine that features all kinds of rankings and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Big Ten leads all conferences with four teams in Steele’s top 10, headlined by No. 1 Ohio State. Three teams from the SEC also made the top 10, including two in the top three. Overall in the top 25, the Big Ten and SEC combined for 13 teams.

You can view the full list of the top defensive back units in college football, according to Phil Steele, below.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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Ohio State was already the No. 1 passing defense in the country this past season, limiting opponents to only 145.9 air yards per game on a 52.7% completion rate. The Buckeyes are set to look even scarier in 2024 after adding Alabama safety Caleb Downs in the transfer portal.

Downs was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2023, becoming the first freshman in Crimson Tide history to lead the team in tackles (107). He also had two interceptions, five passes defended and a force fumble. Downs will join returning players such as Denzel Burke and Jordan Hancock, who combined for three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2024, to make Ohio State the most fearsome group of DBs in the country.

2. Oklahoma Sooners


Oklahoma returns three starters in the secondary led by safety Billy Bowman. He ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 this past season with six interceptions, including three that he returned for touchdowns.

Veteran cornerbacks Woodi Washington and Gentry Williams, who had three interceptions despite injuries forcing him to miss three games in 2023, will also play key roles. Former five-star Peyton Bowen will look to continue to improve after flashing his potential as a true freshman, and transfer Dez Malone should factor in after starting the past two seasons at San Diego State.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

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Georgia ranked among the top 10 in the country in passing yards allowed per game this past season and should once again be one of the top units. Consensus All-American safety Malaki Starks headlines the group after recording 52 tackles, three interceptions and seven passes defended in 2023.

Starting cornerback Daylen Everette also returns as the pair’s experience should lead the unit. The Bulldogs also add five-star freshman KJ Bolden, the No. 1 safety in the 2024 cycle according to the On3 Industry Rankings.

4. Clemson Tigers

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Clemson failed to reach double digit wins for the first time since 2010 this past season, but it wasn’t because of poor pass defense. The Tigers still ranked eighth in the nation in passing yards allowed per game and also limited opponents to just a 52.9% completion rate.

Khalil Barnes is back at safety after recording 38 tackles, three interceptions, six passes defended and three forced fumbles as a true freshman. Fellow sophomore Avieon Terrell should also look to take a step forward after starting the final five games of 2023 at cornerback.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes

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Iowa has ranked among the top 25 in pass defense for seven straight seasons and the top 10 for each of the past three. The Hawkeyes lose do-it-all cornerback Cooper DeJean to the NFL but bring back a number of other experienced players.

Sebastian Castro should lead the group after finishing with a team-high three interceptions and eight passes defended this past season. Safety Quinn Schulte and cornerback Jermari Harris and are also back for their fifth and sixth seasons, respectively, to make this an experienced bunch.

6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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According to Phil Steele, Notre Dame allowed only eight passing touchdowns while forcing 16 interceptions in 2023 for one of the best ratios in the country. The Fighting Irish return fifth-year safety Xavier Watts after he was named a first team All-American.

Watts recorded 52 tackles and a team-high seven interceptions to go along with four passes defended and a forced fumble this past season. Notre Dame also adds a couple of transfers with starting experience in Rod Heard and Jordan Clark.

7. Florida State Seminoles

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After ranking 74th in passing defense in 2021, Florida State has finished inside the top 15 each of the past two years. The Seminoles return starters Fentrell Cypress and Azareye’h Thomas after combining for 18 passes defended in 2023.

Their experience combined with the talent of incoming transfers Earl Little Jr. and Davonte Brown should once again make them a feared group. Brown comes by way of Miami after spending the first three years of his career at UCF. He has three interceptions and 19 pass breakups across 47 games.

8. Michigan Wolverines

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The Michigan secondary suffered a huge blow this spring when safety Rod Moore went down with a torn ACL. Moore was expected to play a key role for a Wolverines squad coming off of a national title and also looking to replace Mike Sainristil and his six interceptions.

That leaves cornerback Will Johnson as the clear leader for the defensive backs after finishing second on the team with four interceptions this past season. Safety Quinten Johnston is also back for a sixth season and will be heavily relied upon due to his experience.

9. Penn State Nittany Lions

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Penn State loses both of its starting cornerbacks from last season but returns both starting safeties. That included Kevin Winston Jr., who led the team with 61 tackles to go along with one interception, five passes defended and two fumble recoveries.

Elsewhere, the Nittany Lions are expecting Cam Miller to take on a bigger role and also added Georgia transfer AJ Harris. Harris was the No. 3 cornerback in the 2023 class and has plenty of potential as he should be a key piece for the next few years.

10. Alabama Crimson Tide

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Alabama saw the departure of several key contributors in its secondary from this past season after the retirement of Nick Saban. However, safety Malachi Moore is back after finishing with 52 tackles and an interception in 2023 and should help fill the void left behind by Caleb Downs.

The Crimson Tide also brought in a number of transfer players who are expected to contribute right away. That includes former USC cornerback Domani Jackson and Michigan safety Keon Sabb, the latter of whom recorded a pair of interceptions for the defending national champions in 2023.

Phil Steele top college football defensive back units 11-25

11. Oregon Ducks
12. Wisconsin Badgers
13. NC State Wolfpack
14. Kansas State Wildcats
15. Iowa State Cyclones
16. Texas Longhorns
17. Louisville Cardinals
18. UCF Knights
19. SMU Mustangs
20. TCU Horned Frogs
21. Florida Gators
22. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
23. Ole Miss Rebels
24. Utah Utes
25. Arizona Wildcats