Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Georgia tops Ohio State, Michigan for best college football front-seven room entering 2024 season

It wasn’t long ago that Joe Burrow (LSU, 2019) and Mac Jones (Alabama, 2020) were torching everyone in their paths with high-flying offensive attacks that were seemingly ushering in a new era in college football. Over the past three seasons, however, defense has made a comeback.

Georgia won national championships in 2021 and 2022 with a stifling defense, and Michigan followed suit during its unbeaten 2023 campaign. As the 2024 season approaches, it appears Ohio State is trying to remake itself in the mold of those Bulldogs and Wolverines.

With the retention of several draft-eligible defensive stars, the Buckeyes are gearing up to have their best unit yet under third-year coordinator Jim Knowles, who has already done some fine work since arriving from Oklahoma State in 2022. Getting more physical was a point of emphasis for Ohio State last season, and that quest continues with coach Ryan Day entering a critical seventh season.

Is Ohio State’s defensive front seven the best in the country? It may be by season’s end. For now, though, the benefit of the doubt goes to the two programs that have proven their dominance in that realm more recently.

Here’s our look at the nation’s best front sevens entering the 2024 campaign.

1. Georgia

It’s business as usual for the Georgia defense under coach Kirby Smart, which means the Bulldogs are going to be an issue for everyone up front. Mykel Williams is a potential first-round draft pick after two productive years on the edge. Nazir Stackhouse and Warren Brinson have taken the journeymen approach at defensive tackle but are also destined for an NFL payday once they conclude their fifth seasons as hulking run-stuffers. 

The Bulldogs are arguably even more loaded at linebacker with the likes of Chaz Chambliss, Smael Mondon Jr., and CJ Allen, who started five games as a true freshman last season after ranking as a top-50 prospect nationally. He will have at least two more seasons to make his mark on the SEC. 

2. Michigan

Michigan saw a program-record 13 players taken in the NFL Draft, but the Wolverines remain well-stocked on their defensive front as Sherrone Moore takes over for Jim Harbaugh. Mason Graham is already receiving first-round draft buzz after terrorizing opponents from his defensive tackle position as a sophomore in 2023. Between Graham and fellow junior run-stuffer Kenneth Grant — a returning all-conference performer — opening up holes against the Wolverines will be nearly impossible. 

Behind them, Maryland transfer Jaishawn Barham could be one of the most important additions to the roster from his linebacker slot after being named honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore. He will combine with productive returners such as Ernest Hausmann, Josaiah Stewart and Derrick Moore to round out an experienced and intimidating front.

3. Ohio State

Ohio State returns a collection of high-end talent from a defense that only allowed more than 17 points once last season. The headliner is defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, a two-time All-Big Ten performer and potential first-round draft pick. Holding down the line’s other flank is fellow senior and all-conference performer Jack Sawyer. In the middle is mammoth havoc-breaker Tyleik Williams. Any of the three could have declared for the NFL Draft, but all returned to give the Buckeyes one of the absolute nastiest fronts in the sport. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Ohio State at Rutgers

J.T. Tuimoloau leads an experienced Buckeyes front-seven hungry for a national championship. Getty Images

Leading tacklers Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg are gone from the linebacker room, but plenty of talent remains. If junior linebacker C.J. Hicks can reach the potential which made him the nation’s No. 10 prospect in the Class of 2022, it will only add to the fierceness of this defensive front.

4. Notre Dame

Defensive tackle Howard Cross III is back for his sixth season and will anchor the defensive line. Cross finished second on the team in tackles with 66 last season as an undersized bully. The potential All-American is surrounded by other veterans, including productive fifth-year players Jordan Botelho and Rylie Mills on the defensive line. Speaking of experience, middle linebacker Jack Kizer opted to return for his sixth season. Those four alone bring a combined total of 18 seasons of experience into the 2024 season. If former four-star linebackers Jaylen Sneed and Drayk Bowen are ready for larger roles, Notre Dame’s defensive front will be one of the program’s best in recent memory.

5. Utah

Utah must replace top sacker Jonah Elliss, but it has enough talent to handle that by committee. Leading tackler Levani Damuni is back at linebacker next to all-conference performer Karene Reid. Up front, Junior Tafuna is ready to mount a charge at a fourth consecutive all-conference season. Sophomores Logan Fano and Keanu Tanuvasa could be ready to stake their claim as the next great Utah defenders. The Utes also get a bump because of their coaching consistency as the program enters Year 20 under coach Kyle Whittingham and Year 9 with defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. Under their direction, it’s always a safe bet to believe in the Utes’ front seven.

Honorable mention 

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