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Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Updated: August 6, 9:22 AM ET
The Season: The best defensive years

By Chris Low
ESPN.com

Let's make sure we don't forget about the guys who play defense.

After all, we've all heard a time or two (and it's true) that defense wins championships.

So as ESPN.com unveils the greatest individual seasons from each of the FBS schools this week, it was only fitting that we created a defensive-only category.

The real trick was keeping it to just 10. How do you leave off Michigan State's Bubba Smith (1966), Arkansas State's Bill Bergey (1968), Nebraska's Rich Glover (1971), Baylor's Mike Singletary (1978), Ohio State's Chris Spielman (1986), Miami's Ed Reed (2001) and Boston College's Luke Kuechly (2011)?

And that's only a sampling.

Here's what we came up with:

LB Dick Butkus, Illinois, 1963

One of the most feared players to ever play the game, Butkus was a unanimous All-American each of his final two seasons at Illinois. But as a junior, he finished with 145 tackles and forced a staggering 10 fumbles -- all in 10 games -- in leading the Fighting Illini to a Big Ten championship, a 17-7 Rose Bowl victory over Washington and a No. 3 ranking in the final polls. In Illinois' 20-20 tie with Ohio State that season, Butkus had 23 tackles. He remains the measuring stick for linebackers, and an award was created in his honor in 1985 to recognize the top linebacker annually in college football.

CB Al Worley, Washington, 1968

The Huskies won only three games that season, which was 11 fewer than Worley's number of intercepted passes. It's an NCAA record (14 interceptions) that still stands, and he did all of his damage in just 10 games. That's an average of 1.4 interceptions per game, a record that may never be broken. Remarkably, Worley had only four career interceptions entering his final season at U-Dub. It's true that his name might not be among the greats to ever play college football, but only one FBS player (NC State's David Amerson in 2011) has had more than 12 interceptions in a season since Worley set his record more than 45 years ago, which underscores what an unbelievable season it was for Worley.

Randy White
Randy White was dominant on the defensive line.

DT Randy White, Maryland, 1974

He was dubbed the "Manster" and with good reason. White was a monster on the football field, and though he was undersized for an interior defensive lineman, he was incredibly strong with uncanny speed for a big man. He actually started out as a fullback at Maryland, but moved to tackle while weighing less than 250 pounds. When he arrived at Maryland, the Terrapins hadn't had a winning season since 1962. But as a senior, he led them to an ACC championship while winning both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. He finished with 24 tackles for loss that season, including 12 sacks.

DE Lee Roy Selmon, Oklahoma, 1975

The backbone of some of the best defenses in college football history along with his brothers Lucious and Dewey, Selmon was a two-time All-American and helped lead the Sooners to national championships in 1974 and 1975. As a senior, he racked up 132 total tackles, including 10 for loss, and won both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer called the late Selmon the best player he ever coached, and he's widely considered to be the best defensive player in Big Eight history. During Selmon's four seasons, the Sooners were 43-2-1 and went 38 straight games without a loss.

DE Hugh Green, Pittsburgh, 1980

Green was such a force that opposing offenses would come to the line and yell, "Where's Green?" It didn't matter where he lined up -- end or any of the linebacker spots -- he found a way to get to the ball and make plays. The Panthers gave up only 205 yards and 10 points per game that season en route to an 11-1 record, and Green spearheaded that unit with 123 tackles, including 17 sacks, and forced seven fumbles. He became the first defensive player in history to win the Walter Camp Award as the top player in college football and was runner-up to George Rogers in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

LB Lawrence Taylor, North Carolina, 1980

Before the legend of "LT" was born in the NFL with the New York Giants, Taylor was terrorizing quarterbacks in college. As a senior at North Carolina, he set the school record with 16 sacks, had 22 tackles for loss and led the Tar Heels to an 11-1 record, ACC championship and No. 8 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. After watching Taylor wreak havoc on Clemson that season in a game North Carolina won 24-19 in Death Valley, Giants general manager George Young marveled, "I've never seen a guy dominate a game like that."

Derrick Thomas
Derrick Thomas racked up the sacks at Alabama before it was an official statistic.

OLB Derrick Thomas, Alabama, 1988

The SEC has witnessed its share of memorable seasons by a defensive player over the years, but nothing compares to the season the late Thomas put together in 1988 with 27 sacks and 39 tackles for loss. That's an entire career for a lot of all-conference performers, but Thomas was on another planet with his ability to get to the ball and make big plays. Just on his sacks alone, opponents lost 204 yards that season. The only reason Thomas' sack total is not recognized as the NCAA record is because sacks didn't become an official NCAA statistic until 2000.

CB Charles Woodson, Michigan, 1997

Starring in a number of different roles, Woodson beat out Peyton Manning to become the first and only primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Woodson finished with eight interceptions and completely took away his side of the field. Those who did dare to throw his way usually paid the price. At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Woodson was the prototypical cornerback who changed the way defenses tried to attack the Wolverines and was a driving force in their march to a 12-0 season, Rose Bowl championship and share of the national title.

DE Terrell Suggs, Arizona State, 2002

If ever there was a stat-stuffing machine, it was Suggs during his junior season at Arizona State. He set an NCAA record with 24 sacks (keep in mind sacks didn't become an official NCAA statistic until 2000), and he also finished with 31.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles. The 6-3, 251-pound Suggs won just about every award he was eligible for that season but the Heisman Trophy, including the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award, Bronco Nagurski Award and Ted Hendricks Award. Suggs' explosive first step off the edge created a mismatch for anybody who tried to block him.

DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, 2009

Even though Suh didn't win the Heisman Trophy that season, there wasn't a more dominant player in college football. He led the Huskers in total tackles for the second straight season with 85 and also led the team in tackles for loss (24), sacks (12) and quarterback hurries (26). In a 13-12 loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game, Suh was a one-man wrecking machine with a school-record seven tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks. The Huskers' defense wasn't designed for Suh to pile up big numbers. His role was to take on blocks and free up linebackers, but nobody could come close to blocking him.