1. Rutgers – There’s not much to dispute here. The Knights are the best overall defense – easily. Their linebackers and defensive backs are solid and deep, and the line is not far behind. Look for a strong season from Khaseem Greene, who has already been named to several national award watch lists.
2. South Florida – The Bulls defense was a significant contributor to last year’s seven losses. The unit failed to keep its team in the game on more than one occasion in 2011. It’s not without talented starters though, most of whom return. The USF defensive line, anchored by Cory Grissom (injured but not expected to miss much time) and Ryne Giddins is the Big East’s best.
3. Louisville – This unit is young and on the rise. It allowed only three yards per carry in run defense last season (101 yd. avg.), but lost three defensive lineman. Eight starters return through, so it could easily match last season’s success. If it stays healthy, watch for this unit to hit its stride during conference play, when it matters most. Experienced leadership should come from Adrian Bushell and Daniel Brown.
4. Connecticut – UConn lost two key linemen, but will their replacements are experienced. Defensive end Trevardo Williams was the conference sack leader (12.5) in 2011. The linebacker corps is deep and led by veteran Sio Moore. The run defense was best in conference at just 2.7 yards per carry. Injuries hurt the secondary last season, and still may be the weak point. The Huskies defense has eight returning veterans and will rely on this unit to keep them in games this season.
5. Pittsburgh – As noted previously, Pitt’s defense is switching from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. The linebackers are young, so the line will have to apply pressure on opponents’ quarterbacks. If Aaron Donald can get free to do so – or draw the double team so his teammates can – the unit should get the job done. K'Waun Williams and Jarred Holley will contribute to a strong secondary.
6. Cincinnati – The Bearcats need to adjust to departure of key players. They have two veteran ends in in Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart. Linebacker Maalik Bomar (LB) and safety Drew Frey are also returning talent. Questions remain about how quickly and effectively the unit can retool. Don’t expect them to be equal to last season.
7. Syracuse – This unit is hard to gauge. Player losses two years ago left the unit depleted in 2011. The defense has many young and rising stars, such as Marquis Spruill, and a few veteran leaders like Shamarko Thomas, but there is still a sense that cohesion is lacking.
8. Temple – The Owls defense, like Syracuse, is rebuilding after some key losses in 2010 and 2011. They’re solid at the center of the line with Levi Brown and John Youboty and have two talented members of the secondary in Justin Gildea and Zamel Johnson. This unit has only five returning starters though. The linebacker corps is rebuilding though, and the edge rush may be lacking. The Owls defense will be tested all season.