Welcome back to another installment of Three by Three, where I identify interesting things going on in the college football world in the following format: three about Mizzou, three about the SEC, and then three about the nation at large.
So far we’ve covered the offensive side of the ball and the 2024 schedule release. This edition is all about some defensive storylines. Let’s get to it.
Can Tristan Newson earn significant playing time — Newson was not the most ballyhooed newcomer arrival, but the JUCO linebacker turned heads in the spring with a standout session. For now, he’s stuck behind a pair of productive upperclassmen in Ty’Ron Hopper and Chad Bailey, but can he force his way into the rotation with his ability to generate havoc plays?
Can Robinson, Hopper, or a CB take a leap — Many of the question marks that litter columns like these are the existential sort, not just for Mizzou but for programs across the country. Who will play quarterback? Will the line improve? Can play calling be competent? Etcetera. But his question is not a crisis to fix on a path to competence, consider it a wish list. I would love to see a Missouri defender break out and become a national star. Top candidates are DT Darius Robinson, LB Ty’Ron Hopper, or one of the two tandem cornerbacks Kris Abrams-Draine or Ennis Rakestraw. The defense was excellent but somewhat faceless last season; its national perception deserves a Tiger taking a leap to become a bona-fide star in the mold of Aldon Smith or Michael Sam.
How does the DE rotation shake out — And here is your existential crisis. Blake Baker’s 4-2-5 scheme relies on pressuring the passer and generating havoc plays, and ends Isaiah McGuire and DJ Coleman thrived in that role. The Tigers will need some youngsters and newcomers to step up and produce, or else Baker will need to rely on blitzes to generate pressure, which will stress coverage assignments. I believe Nyles Gaddy can replace DJ Coleman’s production, and Joe Moore can replace Trajan Jeffcoat; is there anyone on this roster that can come close to replicating McGuire’s work?
Harold Perkins encore — The LSU edge rusher broke out in a major way last fall as a true freshman, becoming a household name as he terrorized the backfields of the SEC. He has been playing a little more traditional linebacker this spring, expanding his role beyond just a freaky athletic pass rusher bending the edge. Perkins has a chance to take a leap and submit a truly legendary SEC career, especially if he is the face of an LSU team that makes a playoff run.
Did Bama replace enough in the secondary? — After back-to-back seasons of not winning a championship, and two titles for Nick Saban’s former apprentice, something approaching an existential crisis has set in at Alabama. There is an urgency to get back to the top of the heap. While the three-man Battle of Mid quarterback competition will determine the offensive ceiling, filling in the lost talent will determine how good the defense can be. Brian Branch, Jordan Battle, and DeMarco Hellams are all off to the NFL. How good, how soon can their replacements be, when that includes a Sun Belt transfer (Trey Amos) and a true freshman (Caleb Downs)?
Can Arkansas rebuild? —The Razorbacks defense collapsed last season, finishing 68th in SP+ and hampering the overall results for a team that fielded an excellent offense. The changeover is widespread: coordinator and old friend Barry Odom is off to run the program at UNLV, and familiar names like Jalen Catalon, Bumper Pool, Myles Slusher, and Drew Sanders have all departed via the portal or to the NFL. New defensive coordinator Travis Williams arrives from UCF where he made a name for himself as a rising star, and will have a bevy of transfers to piece together into a competent stop unit.
Can a Pac12 contender find any defense? — The PAC-12 has become notorious in the playoff era for cannibalizing its championship contenders, with the top teams dropping a winnable game or two that prevents them from submitting a playoff-worthy resume. Part of that has been defensive performance, and would again be the likely cause if one of the tremendous offenses at Oregon, Washington, USC, or Utah win the league but fail to earn a bid. With a 4-team playoff on the way out and perhaps the PAC-12 disappearing as well, can any of their contenders play strong enough defense to make the tournament?
Can Marshall or Troy repeat? -– Last season these two teams played incredible defense, and not just “good for the Group of 5” good. They were legitimately good, finishing 7th and 8th in SP+ on defense. The Trojans won three different game when they only scored one touchdown, and Marshall rode their excellent cornerbacks to an upset win at Notre Dame. Troy returns most of their top pass-rushers, and Marshall gets back stars Owen Porter and Micah Abraham. I think both of them have a chance to be legitimately great again, but if not, I’ll be fascinated to see which Group of Five surges to catch them. I think South Alabama, Boise State, and Navy all have a chance to have excellent defenses this fall.
Can Rocky Long impact the ACC race? — The legendary defensive coach is travelling across the country after decades working at New Mexico and San Diego State. Now 73, the innovator of the 3-3-5 is taking his unique scheme to upstate New York to run Dino Babers’ defense. I don’t think the Orange have a deep enough roster to compete for the ACC title, but I do think they’ll have a good enough team knock off one of the favorites for the league, Clemson, Florida State, and UNC. In a twist, they play all three in a row, and could absolutely spoil someone’s dream season on the strengths of Long’s excellent coaching.