(Editor’s note: This is a continuation of Monday’s column, which looked at the 10 offenses that have the power to shape the 2024 College Football Playoff. Again, this exercise was inspired by Bill Connelly’s similar piece for ESPN.)

Without much ado, here are the defenses that will have a hand in crafting the College Football Playoff picture next season. Whether it’s a breakthrough group trying to follow up with another strong showing now that the ante has been upped (hello, Ponies), a group trying to replace something major, or a defense welcoming a new coordinator, each of these teams has something going on that makes 2024 interesting.

Florida State Seminoles

With so much emphasis on what Florida State lost when Jordan Travis went down with an injury late in the year, it was completely overlooked that Florida State was playing CFP-caliber defense to close out the season. From Oct. 28 through the ACC title game (6 games), Florida State gave up just 3.98 yards per play while recording 29 sacks, 56 tackles for loss, and 8 takeaways. Offenses converted just 22% of their third downs over that stretch. For a full season, those would have been FBS-leading marks almost across the board.

In 2024, the Seminoles return 3 of the top 4 snap-getters from last year. Seven of the 13 players who saw 400 snaps last fall are back. The departures are significant, it’s true. Linebackers Tatum Bethune and Kalen DeLoach led the team in tackles. Jared Verse’s 9 sacks were third in the ACC. And Braden Fiske was one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the country. But the secondary is well-stocked and Patrick Payton is a breakout candidate after posting 14.5 tackles for loss with 5 sacks a year ago. Mike Norvell did his thing in the portal and loaded up with quality pieces.

With the offense turning to DJ Uiagalelei and needing to replace multiple key playmakers, FSU will be leaning on its defense early in the season. It’s a group that can handle the burden. Florida State has gone from 37th to 35th to ninth in defensive SP+ over the last 3 seasons. This group has top-5 potential.

Seminoles to make the CFP: +164

Georgia Bulldogs

After 3 consecutive seasons with a top-10 defense (by yards per play), Georgia finished 15th in 2022 and then 11th in 2023. It was a fine unit, though not nearly elite in the way a defense with this much talent could be — or has been under Kirby Smart. And after Georgia saw its 29-game win streak end at the doorstep of the CFP last year, it’s fair to wonder just how hungry this group will be in 2024.

If the Orange Bowl was any indication, the Bulldogs could be a new kind of monster. To that end, Georgia returns some freaks on the defensive side of the football. Malaki Starks is perhaps the best safety in the country. Last season was sort of a transitional one for the interior of the defensive line, but a core of Nazir Stackhouse, Warren Brinson, Christen Miller, and Jordan Hall looks promising. Linebacker is stuffed to the brim with talent, and CJ Allen could be the next star in the middle.

More than anything, Smart might be able to get this group playing like the hunter rather than the hunted. It’s a subtle mindset shift, but it’s also a potentially significant one. In terms of year-to-year recruiting, Smart has assembled the best roster in the country. With the top-ranked 2024 class joining the fold, that isn’t changing this season. Georgia plays Clemson and Alabama before the calendar hits October. It plays Texas and Ole Miss away from home and closes out SEC play with a home game against Tennessee. The offense will be fine; if the defense is back to being elite, the Bulldogs will crush some dreams.

Bulldogs to make the CFP: -500

Michigan Wolverines

Michigan reached the mountaintop in 2023 and now finds itself looking over the edge as 2024 approaches. The head coach is gone, and he took his mastermind defensive coordinator with him. The top 2 tacklers are gone. The top disruptor off the edge is gone. The secondary’s leader is gone. And the defense won’t have the luxury of time to sort things out. The offense has its own overhaul to work out, and Texas comes to town on Sept. 7. The schedule also includes USC, Oregon, and Ohio State.

Will Johnson is a star in the making at defensive back. And new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has some havoc creators on the edge in Derrick Moore and Josaiah Stewart. Plus, Ernest Hausmann is a breakout candidate at linebacker.

Michigan wasn’t among the national leaders in tackles for loss last fall, yet it had one of the most efficient defenses in football. Neither the run nor the pass yielded much fruit against the Wolverines, who were sound across the board. They were unyielding, particularly at the point of attack. Twelve of Michigan’s 15 opponents were held at or below 4 yards per carry on the ground, but that’s what Michigan has been in recent years. Over the last 2 years, only 3 teams ran for at least 150 yards on the Wolverines.

Are they as consistently dominant as they were last season? That’ll be a tough bar to clear. But perhaps Martindale’s defense can create more splash plays.

Wolverines to make the CFP: -110

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Missouri Tigers

Missouri has been ascending under coach Eli Drinkwitz, and the 2024 season provides a chance for Mizzou to take a massive step. The nonconference schedule is manageable. The conference slate sees the Tigers avoiding Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee. Oklahoma is at home off a bye week. Texas A&M comes after a bye week. The make-or-break point in Missouri’s season will be an Oct. 26 trip to Tuscaloosa.

Win that game and everything is on the table. And Missouri should believe it can win that game. Brady Cook returns at quarterback. Luther Burden III returns at receiver. Between the 2, Missouri has one of the sport’s best quarterback/receiver tandems. Whether or not Missouri takes that next step will come down to its defense.

Coordinator Blake Baker left to rebuild LSU. To replace him, Drinkwitz turned to South Alabama’s Corey Batoon, a man who steadily improved the Jags’ defense in each of his 3 years with the program. Last season, Batoon’s defense ranked 18th in stop rate and 30th in havoc rate. Missouri also needs to replace Butkus Award finalist Ty’Ron Hopper as well as outstanding cover corner Kris Abrams-Draine.

The 2024 class hit heavy on the defensive side of the football. Darris Smith (Georgia), Sterling Webb (New Mexico State) and Zion Young (Michigan State) provide much-needed help on the defensive line. Five-star freshman Williams Nwaneri should provide an immediate impact there as well. Missouri will need him to. The rotation has to be rebuilt, with Kristian Williams the only regular member of the defensive front to return. All-SEC edge rusher Darius Robinson is also gone.

Missouri finished 45th in defensive efficiency last season, giving up 5.28 yards per play. If Batoon can build upon what Baker started, Missouri could get into the CFP conversation and maybe even squeeze the at-large pool.

Tigers to make the CFP: +184

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame can’t secure an auto-bid, which means style points still have to be considered. With the offense turning over from Sam Hartman, Audric Estime, and Joe Alt, the defense needs to be the driving force. Last year’s group was outstanding, and this year’s defense can be the same.

The strength is in the backend, where ball-hawking unanimous All-American safety Xavier Watts leads a deep group. Benjamin Morrison and Jordan Clark should be a strong pairing at corner. Watts had 7 interceptions last season. Morrison had 6 in 2022 and 3 more in 2023. Clark had 9 pass breakups last fall for Arizona State. Northwestern transfer Rod Heard II had 4 pass breakups and 2 forced fumbles. Notre Dame’s 24 takeaways last year were the 13th-most in the country, and the 64 passes defended were the 22nd-most. Notre Dame’s 2024 secondary could feasibly be better.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden needs to replace Javontae Jean Baptiste and JD Bertrand, last year’s leading tackler. But the talent in the front seven is undeniable. Defensive lineman Howard Cross III is back. So is linebacker Jack Kiser. Both were Notre Dame’s top-graded defenders last season, per PFF. Freshmen Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa and Bryce Young can be impactful players right away as freshmen. Duke transfer edge R.J. Oben shows promise as a 1-to-1 Jean Baptiste replacement.

Fighting Irish to make the CFP: -172

Ohio State Buckeyes

Last year’s top ends (Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau) return, as do their primary backups (Caden Curry and Kenyatta Jackson Jr.). Two of Ohio State’s top 3 interior defensive linemen return. This has the makings of a terrifying defensive front. And while the departures of Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg leave a hole at linebacker, Ohio State has the necessary pieces to feel good there and a secondary to bookend what should be one of college football’s elite defenses.

Sawyer, Tuimoloau, and Tyleik Williams combined to produce 96 quarterback pressures, 27 tackles for loss, and 14.5 sacks last fall. In the secondary, Ohio State has Caleb Downs, Denzel Burke, Davison Igbinosun, and Jordan Hancock. Just last season, those 4 defensive backs produced 231 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 23 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions.

Guys came back (or, in Downs’ case, joined) with the intent of winning a national championship, so this group should be laser-focused each and every week. Ohio State had the No. 3 defense in the country already last year, giving up only 4.17 yards per play. The Buckeyes will be just as good, if not better, in 2024.

Buckeyes to make the CFP: -500

Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State’s offense was covered in Monday’s column, and the defense lands in this version because we might have an Iowa-lite situation brewing if Drew Allar doesn’t take that next step. James Franklin’s defense was downright nasty in 2023, giving up only 4.16 yards per play and just 0.23 points per play. Even in the regular-season losses, the defense mostly did its job. Ohio State scored 20 points; Michigan scored 24. That’s enough against that caliber of offense.

But it wasn’t enough for Penn State. The question in 2024 is whether more is needed from this group.  New defensive coordinator Tom Allen has to replace soon-to-be NFL players Chop Robinson and Adisa Isaac on the edge, defenders who combined for 11.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 2023. Penn State moved first-team All-Big Ten performer Abdul Carter from linebacker to end, creating another hole to fill at linebacker. Allen also needs to replace 3 starters in the secondary. There’s talent everywhere — I like Dani Dennis-Sutton and Georgia transfer DB AJ Harris — but a ton of moving pieces for a unit that will have very little margin for error in 2024.

Nittany Lions to make the CFP: -142

SMU Mustangs

The rest of the ACC will learn pretty quickly when it turns on SMU’s tape that coordinator Scott Symons’ defense is no fun. SMU ranked sixth last season in defensive efficiency, allowing only 4.6 yards per play to opposing offenses. They had a top-10 pass defense — which generated 12 interceptions and 47 sacks (second only to Penn State’s 49) — and ranked fourth nationally in third-down defense. They got after teams and made a living in the backfield.

Elijah Roberts, a 6-foot-4 defensive end, is back after producing 10 sacks and an absurd 71 quarterback pressures. Roberts’ pressures were the most by any Group of 5 defender in the last 2 years and the second-most by a G5 defender in the last 6 years. And Roberts isn’t alone. SMU returns each of its top 7 tacklers from last year’s defense.

The Ponies host Florida State on Sept. 28. They face Louisville on Oct. 5. After that, they play Stanford, Duke, Pitt, Boston College, Virginia, and Cal. Not exactly a murderer’s row of teams. And if SMU can pull off an upset early in the year, it could very well be in the race for the ACC title. With teams like Clemson and Miami also vying for CFP consideration out of the ACC, SMU can be a major headache for the conference’s traditional powers right away.

Mustangs to make the CFP: N/A

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Texas Longhorns

Just looking at raw numbers, the Longhorns had an average defense for a CFP team a year ago. They ranked 41st in efficiency, giving up 5.24 yards per play. The run defense was awesome, but the pass defense was susceptible to burns. Situationally, though, Texas was stout. If the Longhorns got you to third down, you were going to punt. If you managed to find your way to the red zone, you were kicking a field goal. UT’s 26.6% conversion rate on third downs was the second-best in the FBS and its 45.2% touchdown rate inside the 20 was the sixth-best.

The interior presence of T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II made Texas a nightmare to gameplan for. Both are gone, as is linebacker Jaylan Ford. Ford posted 101 tackles last year to lead the team, and his departure puts Anthony Hill Jr. into a starring role in just his second season with the program. The Longhorns also return 4 of their top 5 defensive backs from last year’s group.

Replacing the likes of Sweat and Murphy isn’t easy. But Texas should feel… confident? At least on paper, this defense looks well-stocked. Clemson transfer Andrew Mukuba reinforces the safety group. Corner and nickel have a solid mix of experience and promise. Inside ‘backer is in good hands with Hill, super senior David Gbenda, and Alabama transfer Kendrick Blackshire. And the front added the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2023 with UTSA transfer edge Trey Moore. The 6-3, 242-pound Moore made 35.5 tackles for loss and 22 sacks for the Roadrunners in the last 2 years.

Longhorns to make the CFP: -230

Utah Utes

Returns from Cam Rising and Brant Kuithe have the attention on Utah’s offense rebounding in 2024. But Kyle Whittingham’s program is always going to be built on its defense, and the 2024 Utes will be no different. Last year’s injury issues weren’t confined to the offense, and the constant shuffle on defense helped to make what was already a deep defense deeper for the new year.

In the front 7, Utah should look like a classic, bust-in-your-facemask defensive front. The top 5 linebackers all return. Three of Utah’s top 4 defensive ends return, though the lone departure (Jonah Elliss) is a big blow. All 5 defensive tackles that played return. While Elliss was wonderfully productive last fall, Utah might be able to spread the workload around a bit more in 2024. And when edge Logan Fano returns to health (he tore his ACL 5 games into 2023), the Utes have a player who can be just as disruptive as Elliss was.

There are concerns in the secondary, where stalwart safety Cole Bishop and multi-tooled defensive back Sione Vaki need to be replaced. But if Utah looks the part in the front seven, it might buy some time for new guys to get acclimated in the backend. Last year’s group ranked ninth nationally in run defense (3.1 yards per carry allowed) and eighth in third-down defense (29.5%) and there’s no reason to doubt a similar performance in 2024 with better health. As was stated with the offense, Utah can run the Big 12 right away if things fall into place, and that means a long-coveted CFP spot is finally within reach.

Utes to make the CFP: +310