Ranking Best Big Ten Secondaries: Oregon Ducks vs. Ohio State, Iowa Hawkeyes

Where does Oregon Football's secondary stack up against the best in the Big Ten Conference?
Oregon Green Team defensive back Dakoda Fields intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Jurrion Dickey during the Oregon Ducks’ Spring Game Saturday, April 27. 2024 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.
Oregon Green Team defensive back Dakoda Fields intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Jurrion Dickey during the Oregon Ducks’ Spring Game Saturday, April 27. 2024 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. / Ben Lonergan/The Register-Guard / USA

The Big Ten Conference is expanding in 2024 and with that expansion comes some of the best passing teams in the nation.

Oregon, Washington, and USC were among the five best passing teams last season. UCLA was down at No. 60, but their 229.2 passing yards per game would have been good for fourth in the Big Ten.

With returning air power Ohio State, and many other teams like Maryland, Wisconsin, and Nebraska making major upgrades in that part of the game, 2024 will be a major season for Big Ten secondaries.

Here are the top five secondary units in the Big Ten Conference heading into 2024.

5. Penn State

Oct 28, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions safety Kevin Winston Jr. (21) is congratulated by offensive linesman Nick Dawkins (53) after recovering a fumble during the first quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Beaver Stadium.
Oct 28, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions safety Kevin Winston Jr. (21) is congratulated by offensive linesman Nick Dawkins (53) after recovering a fumble during the first quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Beaver Stadium. / Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions trailed only Ohio State and Michigan in passing yards allowed last season, giving up 153.6. They also grabbed 12 interceptions and had a nation-leading 49 sacks. When you can get to the quarterback, the opens up opportunities for your guys downfield to take the ball away.

Safety Kevin Winston will be key to the Penn State secondary, as he's one of the best cover and run defenders in the nation. He's joined by returning starter Jaylen Reed and dynamic corner Cam Miller.

4. Michigan

Jan 8, 2024; Houston, TX, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive back Will Johnson (2) celebrates with quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) after a turnover against the Washington Huskies during the third quarter in the 2024 College Football Playoff national championship game at NRG Stadium.
Jan 8, 2024; Houston, TX, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive back Will Johnson (2) celebrates with quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) after a turnover against the Washington Huskies during the third quarter in the 2024 College Football Playoff national championship game at NRG Stadium. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The defending national champion Wolverines lost plenty of talent to the NFL Draft, but they're still back with perhaps the nation's best corner in Will Johnson. He'll be joined by Jyaire Hill and Keshawn Harris, and, eventually, stud safety Rod Moore who will miss at least some of the season recovering from an ACL injury.

Michigan reeled in 16 interceptions in 2023, good for fifth in the nation. The Wolverines also gave up just 152.6 yards a game through the air, only trailing Ohio State in that category. Michigan should be tested as much as any Big Ten team this fall, with games against USC, Oregon, Washington, and Ohio State, as well as a non-conference game against Texas.

3. Oregon

Nov 18, 2023; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Oregon Ducks defensive back Cole Martin (21) celebrates an interception with teammate Jahlil Florence (6) against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the second half at Mountain America Stadium.
Nov 18, 2023; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Oregon Ducks defensive back Cole Martin (21) celebrates an interception with teammate Jahlil Florence (6) against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the second half at Mountain America Stadium. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Having had to defend in one of the pass-happier leagues last season, the Ducks grabbed double-digit interceptions and did not allow a passing play of more than 60 yards. While Oregon lost Khyree Jackson, adding the No. 1 corner and other studs from the transfer portal is a nice way to improve the team.

Jabbar Muhammad was All-Pac-12 at Washington last season. Coach Dan Lanning is also bringing in speedy corner Cam Alexander from UTSA. They join Jahlil Florence and Nikko Reed, as well as the highest-ranked corner to ever sign with Oregon in Dontae Manning.

With the Ducks expected to be playing in front in most of their games this season, the secondary should have plenty of opportunities to make plays against team's attempting comebacks.

2. Iowa

Oct 7, 2023; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Jay Higgins (34) and defensive back Xavier Nwankpa (1) and defensive back Quinn Schulte (30) react after an interception by Higgins against the Purdue Boilermakers during the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium.
Oct 7, 2023; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Jay Higgins (34) and defensive back Xavier Nwankpa (1) and defensive back Quinn Schulte (30) react after an interception by Higgins against the Purdue Boilermakers during the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium. / Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Part of the magic for the Hawkeye defense is sheer frustration by their opponents. No other program in the country lives by the creed "Punting Is Winning" as much as Iowa does, and their perennially inept offense means short passing routes, a lot of running the ball, and playing field position. That results in less time for opponents with the ball.

That frustration many times turns into taking risks, something recently drafted Cooper DeJean thrived on. But even with DeJean gone, the Hawkeyes stay elite on the backend, with stars like Xavier Nwankpa, Sebastian Castro, Jemari Harris.

Iowa had a top-five defense in 2023, and that should continue in 2024 thanks to the secondary.

1. Ohio State

Dec 29, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Denzel Burke (10) celebrates a tackle during the first quarter of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic against the Missouri Tigers at AT&T Stadium.
Dec 29, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Denzel Burke (10) celebrates a tackle during the first quarter of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic against the Missouri Tigers at AT&T Stadium. / Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA

The Buckeyes had the stingiest pass defense in the country in 2023, allowing just 147.4 yards a game through the air. Part of that success came with playing in the run-heavy Big Ten, but it also comes with elite players like Denzel Burke, Jordan Hancock, and Davison Igbinosun. Ohio State also got better in the offseason, adding Alabama transfer safety Caleb Downs.

With only two, maybe three, games of any difficulty on the schedule this season, the Buckeyes could again be the best in the Big Ten and the country.


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Kaleb Henry

KALEB HENRY