ESPN ranks the 50 best defenses of all time, USC places three on list
In the pantheon of legendary college football defenses, USC has a trio of absolute legends, including one in the top 15.
ESPN’s Bill Connelly, a historian of the game if ever there was one, recently sat down and attempted to place Georgia’s 2021 national title-producing defense in context. It’s argued as one of the greats. Where would it fall in an actual ranking? The result was a piece that ordered the 50 greatest defenses in college football history.
The Nick Saban-coached 2003 LSU Tigers (11 points a game) ranked at No. 50. The 1935 Stanford Cardinal defense led by Tiny Thornhill ranked No. 49, to set the baseline.
Connelly ranked the 1978 USC defense No. 47. That team was led by John Robinson, allowed just 11.8 points a game, and finished second in the AP poll with a 12-1 record. From Connelly:
Opponent adjustments are kind to a Trojan defense that faced five ranked teams (including top-ranked Alabama) and 11 teams that finished over .500 but allowed more than 20 points just once, to Joe Montana and Notre Dame. USC took down Bama in Birmingham (24-14) and Michigan in the Rose Bowl (17-10) to claim a share of the national title.
Next on the list, up at No. 36, was the 2007 USC squad. Behind Pete Carroll, USC went 11-2 to finish third in the AP Poll. That team rallied from a shaky start under the weight of enormous expectations and arguably was playing the best football of anyone in the country by the end of the year. Sedrick Ellis, Keith Rivers, and Taylor Mays all earned All-American honors. Ellis was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year by league coaches and selected to the all-conference first-team defense along with Lawrence Jackson, Rivers, Rey Maualuga, and Kevin Ellison. From Connelly:
The spread offense was proliferating in earnest in 2007, but the Trojans nearly reached the BCS championship game with defense. USC held Notre Dame and UCLA to seven combined points and limited an otherworldly Oregon attack to 24 points and 4.7 yards per play. And with enforcers such as safety Taylor Mays and linebacker Rey Maualuga, it tried to inflict pain at every given opportunity.
And all the way up at No. 12, Connelly had the 1932 USC squad—10-0, 1.3 points a game. Here’s what he had to say on that crew:
It’s one thing to allow 13 points in your first eight games. It’s another to shut out Notre Dame to end the regular season, then pummel Pitt 35-0 in the Rose Bowl. Howard Jones turned USC into a powerhouse in the 1920s and 1930s, and this defense, led by tackles Ernie Smith and Raymond Brown, was his masterpiece.
You can see Connelly’s full ranking here (ESPN+ required).