Ranking the Top 15 College Football Defensive Coordinators at Creating Havoc

Ranking the Top 15 College Football Defensive Coordinators at Creating Havoc article feature image
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Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Brent Venables.

Generating Havoc is very important when it comes to having a successful defense in college football.

For those unaware, “Havoc” is the rate at which the defense causes disruptions. These can come in a few different ways; tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, passes defended, and forced fumbles all count as Havoc plays.

Creating Havoc results in more turnovers, which makes the offense’s job a whole lot easier. Games nowadays are largely won with offense, and giving the offense more advantageous opportunities goes a long way in the game of football.

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Oklahoma’s Alex Grinch is an example of how a Havoc-minded defensive coordinator can completely turn around a defense.

So, I’m taking a look at Grinch and the other coordinators who create Havoc at the best and worst rates. This can be an important element when it comes to betting in the fall.

I’ll look at every defensive coordinator’s average Havoc ranking since 2017. The coordinator needed to coach at least three of the past four seasons to qualify. Eighty-eight defensive coordinators ended up being included, and they are ranked by their average Havoc ranking per year over that span.

The Top 15 Havoc-Inducing Defensive Coordinators

No surprise here with the No. 1 one spot. Brent Venables gets it easily, with an average Havoc ranking of 5.5 over the past four seasons.

One of the surest things in college football is Venables fielding a defense that consistently takes the ball away. That is likely to continue this year as well, as he returns arguably the most experienced defense of his career at Clemson.

Venables’ defenses since 2016:

Year
Havoc Ranking
2016
4
2017
6
2018
3
2019
11
2020
2

Coming in at No. 2 two on the list is UAB’s David Reeves. For anyone who pays attention to the UAB program, this is probably no surprise. The Blazers boast an elite defense seemingly every year. Reeves’ defense has ranked in the top 10 in Havoc rate in three of the past four seasons. 

Alabama’s Pete Golding ranks third on this list, which includes his 2017 season at UTSA. His defense ranked seventh in Havoc rate that season, but he has also had a top-20 defense in Havoc rate in all three of his seasons at Alabama. Having Alabama’s talent definitely makes the job easier, but he’s shown he can do it with UTSA’s talent pool as well.

Rounding out the top five are Pitt’s Randy Bates and new Baylor head coach Dave Aranda.

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Aranda was consistently one of the best defensive coordinators in the nation during his time in Baton Rouge and turned that into a head coaching job with Baylor.

Meanwhile, Bates has led two incredibly disruptive defenses in the past two seasons. Pitt’s 2019 unit led the nation in Havoc rate, and the 2020 defense ranked third. Pitt will need to replace a lot of production on the defensive front but is still in good hands with Bates calling the shots.

Grinch has completely transformed the Oklahoma defense over the past two years as well.

With the Sooners consistently having one of the worst defenses in the country prior to his arrival, Grinch now has a unit that ranked 16th in Havoc rate in 2019 and improved to ninth in 2020. Grinch also gets another year with pass rusher Nik Bonitto in 2021 after the linebacker racked up nine sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in just 10 games played last year. In another year’s time, Grinch could absolutely jump into the top five of these rankings.

Oklahoma’s Havoc rankings since 2016:

Year
Havoc Ranking
2016
99
2017
114
2018
107
2019 (Grinch Hired)
16
2020
9

Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and new Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea finished 10th in these rankings, but his spot is brought down by a rank of 61st in 2018.

Over the past two seasons, though, Lea’s defenses ranked sixth and eighth in Havoc, respectively. He leaves some big shoes to fill at Notre Dame, but the Irish landed a highly coveted coach in Marcus Freeman to replace him.

Similar to Lea, Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard has a ranking that is brought down significantly due to one year. The Badgers ranked only 89th in Havoc in 2018 but also have two top-three finishes in the past four seasons.  Nobody should be surprised if Leonhard puts out another top-10 Havoc defense in 2021.

The Bottom 15 Havoc-Inducing Defensive Coordinators

Among defensive coordinators that have done it for at least three of the past four seasons, nobody generated less Havoc than Andy Buh.

During this period, Buh spent two seasons as Maryland’s defensive coordinator and one year at Rutgers. His defenses ranked in the bottom 20 every year, and that led him to a position as the linebackers coach at Illinois.

Notre Dame fans probably still cringe a little bit whenever they hear the name Brian VanGorder.

After being cursed out on the sidelines and fired by Brian Kelly in 2016, he became Louisville’s defensive coordinator in 2018. That year, Louisville allowed 44 points per game and ranked last nationally in Havoc.

VanGorder then took the DC job at Bowling Green in 2019, and you probably don’t need me to tell you that its defense has struggled over the past two years. He recently retired, which is probably bad news to anyone who was looking to fade Bowling Green this year.

VanGorder’s defenses since becoming Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator:

Team
Year
Havoc Ranking
Notre Dame
2015
95
Notre Dame
2016
95
Louisville
2018
130
Bowling Green
2019
114
Bowling Green
2020
83

The first surprise with this list comes with BYU’s Ilaisa Tuiaki.

His Cougar defenses have never really struggled, but they haven’t generated Havoc either. BYU’s highest ranking in Havoc rate since 2017 is 88th, and every other year was outside the top 100. Tuiaki one of the outliers on this list who has had plenty of success despite a lack of Havoc.

San Jose State had a great defense in 2020, so it came as a surprise to see Derrick Odum end up on this list.

Odum has called the SJSU defense since 2016, but last year was an anomaly compared to his previous seasons. Prior to 2020, his defense allowed more than 30 points per game every year and owned Havoc rankings of 123rd and 118th in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Even with a great defense this year, the Spartans only generated enough Havoc to rank 78th. 

Other Notable Findings

Florida’s Todd Grantham ranked 16th here but would have easily been in the top 10 before the 2020 season.

His 2017 Mississippi State defense ranked 18th in Havoc, and his Florida defenses ranked inside the top 25 in 2018 and 2019. The Gators’ 2020 defense tanked his ranking, though, as it came in at 80th.

Grantham is well-known for his aggressiveness, often to a fault. It’s no surprise to see him near the top of these rankings.

Team
Year
Havoc Ranking
Mississippi St.
2017
18
Florida
2018
16
Florida
2019
25
Florida
2020
80

Texas A&M’s Mike Elko is one of the highest-paid assistant coaches in all of college football, so you would expect to see him near the top of this list.

He came in at 24th due to a forgettable season as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in 2017. Since arriving at Texas A&M in 2018, though, his defenses have ranked second, 35th, and 29th in Havoc rate.

Team
Year
Havoc Ranking
Notre Dame
2017
83
Texas A&M
2018
2
Texas A&M
2019
35
Texas A&M
2020
29

Former Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown had a funny trend in terms of Havoc — unless you’re a Michigan fan.

His defense ranked first in 2017, plus two top-35 finishes in 2018 and 2019. That would have easily been good enough to put him in the top 15 of this list, but there was one problem. His 2020 defense ranked second-to-last in Havoc, which may have been one of the reasons he was fired. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not he can improve Arizona’s defense in 2021, which has nowhere to go but up. 

If this list only included seasons since 2018, former Cincinnati defensive coordinator and new Notre Dame DC Freeman easily would have been included in the top 10.

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His defense ranked 18th in 2018, 40th in 2019, and 15th a season ago. However, it was hard to overcome a ranking of 122nd in 2017, which left him out of the top group. Lea was a big loss for Notre Dame, but Irish fans should still feel great about Freeman.

Auburn will replace defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who was the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country in 2020. His defenses ranked top-20 in Havoc rate in both 2018 and 2019 but fell all the way to 96th in 2020.

He’ll be replaced by former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason. His defenses never generated much Havoc in Nashville, but he also wasn’t working with the same type of talent he will have at Auburn.

Rank
Defensive Coordinator
Avg. Havoc Ranking
1
Brent Venables
5.5
2
David Reeves
12.25
3
Pete Golding
14.5
4
Randy Bates
18.33
5
Dave Aranda
20.33
6
Alex Grinch
22
7
Mike Tressel
22.33
8
Vic Koenning
22.33
9
Randy Shannon
23.25
10
Clark Lea
25
11
Brian Jean-Mary
26.33
12
Kevin Kane
29.75
13
Jim Leonhard
33.25
14
Brent Pry
33.75
15
Joe Cauthen
34.5
16
Todd Grantham
34.75
17
Mike Hankwitz
35
18
Scot Sloan
35.33
19
Bryan Brown
35.67
20
Morgan Scalley
35.75
21
Chad Glasgow
36
22
Tony Gibson
36.25
23
Jack Curtis
37
24
Mike Elko
37.25
25
Nick Howell
39.75
26
Erik Chinander
40.5
27
Jim Knowles
40.75
28
Jon Heacock
40.75
29
Blake Baker
41
30
Bud Foster
44
31
Nate Woody
44
32
Don Brown
47
33
Jim Leavitt
47
34
Bob Shoop
48
35
John Hauser
48.5
36
Marcus Freeman
48.75
37
Zach Arnett
49.67
38
Kevin Steele
50
39
Phil Parker
51.75
40
Todd Orlando
53.25
41
Glenn Spencer
53.5
42
Scott Shafer
62.75
43
Brian George
63.33
44
Phil Snow
63.66
45
Dan Lanning
65.33
46
Ryan Walters
65.33
47
Clancy Pendergast
66
48
John Chavis
66
49
Clayton White
67.25
50
Scottie Hazelton
67.25
51
Nate Fuqua
67.75
52
Andy Avalos
68
53
Jay Bateman
70.25
54
Jeff Casteel
72
55
Adam Fuller
73
56
Tim DeRuyter
74
57
Ben Albert
75
58
Kane Wommack
75.33
59
Troy Reffett
75.33
60
Andrew Thacker
76
61
Jeff Copp
77.5
62
Brian Borland
78
63
Brian Smith
78
64
Joe Rossi
81.67
65
Bob Diaco
82.67
66
Nick Holt
83
67
Brian Ward
83.25
68
Jeff Knowles
85
69
Frank Maile
86
70
Clint Bowen
89
71
Lance Anderson
89.25
72
DJ Eliot
89.75
73
Travaris Robinson
90.25
74
Ted Roof
90.67
75
Frank Spaziani
92.33
76
Ron Roberts
92.33
77
Tom Kaufman
92.67
78
Mike Collins
96
79
Mike Cox
98.33
80
John Rudzinski
98.67
81
Neal Neathery
99.5
82
Greg Stewart
99.67
83
Derrick Odum
102.5
84
Jerry Azzinaro
103.33
85
Tim Tibesar
109.33
86
Ilaisa Tuiaki
109.5
87
Brian VanGorder
113.5
88
Andy Buh
116.33

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