The top 10 secondaries: A Big 12 team led by its rising stars at cornerback leads the way

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

Fall practice is under way everywhere, and that means the 2012 college football season has started.

Today, we unveil the sixth set of our national unit rankings, on secondaries. We are revealing one unit per day; it started with offensive backfields, and receiving corps, offensive lines, defensive lines and linebackers have followed. The series ends Monday with coaching staffs.

These rankings take into account what the players have accomplished, how we think the players will do this season and sheer talent. Production does trump potential.

Here are the secondary rankings. Next up: special teams.

10. Utah

Likely starters: CBs Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee, FS Eric Rowe and SS Brian Blechen
The buzz: The safety duo of Blechen and Rowe is one of the best on the West Coast. They combined for 147 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups in 2011 to help Utah lead the Pac-12 in passing efficiency defense. Blechen has been suspended for the first two games. The top three corners are seniors: Lacy, Lee and backup Keith McGill. Lacy is a returning starter who had two interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season, while Lee and McGill were solid in reserve after transferring from junior college. Coaches expect a big season from Lee.

9. Rutgers

Likely starters: CBs Brandon Jones and Logan Ryan, FS Duron Harmon and SS Lorenzo Waters
The buzz: Ryan is a returning All-Big East player who had three picks and 14 pass breakups last season; he also made 67 tackles. Ryan and Jones, who helped Rutgers finish fifth nationally in pass efficiency

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Brodrick Brown is a key part of a defense that had 24 interceptions last season. (Getty Images)

defense last season, should be the best corner combo in the Big East. Harmon is a returning starter, while Waters, a sophomore, had a great spring and looks to be a star on the rise.

8. Oklahoma State

Likely starters: CBs Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert, FS Daytawion Lowe and SS Shamiel Gary
The buzz: So, how can a secondary that allowed 271.9 yards per game be a top-10 unit? Well, the Cowboys ranked 20th nationally in pass efficiency defense because while they gave up a ton of yards, they were second in the nation with 24 interceptions and allowed just 15 TD passes. Brown and Gilbert combined for 127 tackles, 10 interceptions and 25 pass breakups. Lowe led the Cowboys with 97 tackles and added an interception, five pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Gary is a transfer from Wyoming who started for two years; he made 94 tackles in 2010. Junior Lavocheya Cooper could beat out Gary.

[Big 12 preview: Two additions could make this most entertaining league race]

7. Florida

Likely starters: CBs Louchiez Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, FS Josh Evans and SS Matt Elam
The buzz: Elam seems poised for a breakout season; he is a big hitter who had two interceptions and seven pass breakups last season. Evans, a senior, should be a full-time starter for the first time in his career. Sophomore DeAnte "Pop" Saunders, who started nine games at safety and nickel back last season, also should see a lot of time. Florida is extremely deep at corner, with five returnees and a true freshman in the mix for time. Roberson started as a true freshman and has the talent to eventually become an All-SEC player. Purifoy, another sophomore, had a big spring, and coaches like his aggressiveness. Others in the mix at corner are juniors Jeremy Brown, Jaylen Watkins (the half-brother of Clemson WR Sammy Watkins), Cody Riggs and touted true freshman Brian Poole. Each of the three juniors has been a starter at some point in his career.

6. Oklahoma

Likely starters: CBs Aaron Colvin and Demontre Hurst, FS Tony Jefferson and SS Javon Harris
The buzz: Jefferson, a junior, has played a hybrid safety/linebacker role in his first two seasons but now strictly is a safety, where he should be a star. Jefferson has a nose for the ball (139 career tackles, six picks, 10 pass breakups) and is a hard hitter. Harris had three interceptions last season and looks to be a better fit at strong safety than at free safety. Colvin, a starter at safety last season, is back at cornerback, which he played in 2010. Hurst will be a three-year starter and has two interceptions, 23 pass breakups and 119 tackles in his career. Gabe Lynn is a proven backup safety, but depth at corner is questionable.

5. Michigan State

Likely starters: CBs Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, FS Kurtis Drummond and SS Isaiah Lewis
The buzz: Adams and Lewis are the standouts in this group; both have All-Big Ten potential. Adams, actually, has All-America potential; he had three picks and six pass breakups last season. Dennard played well down the stretch last season, and fifth-year senior Mitchell White is a solid No. 3 corner. Lewis had four interceptions last season and took two back for TDs. He also made 74 tackles. Drummond is the one new starter in the secondary; he played a lot as a reserve last fall and had two interceptions and 17 tackles. Depth at safety is iffy.

4. North Carolina State

Likely starters: CBs David Amerson and C.J. Wilson, FS Brandan Bishop and SS Earl Wolff
The buzz: All four starters return. Amerson is coming off a season for the ages. He had 13 interceptions

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David Amerson did a lot of celebrating last season: He finished with 13 interceptions. (AP)

as a sophomore, more than 65 teams. Amerson is both big (6 feet 3/194 pounds) and fast, and he had multiple picks in four games. Wilson, a senior, has three interceptions and seven pass breakups in the past two seasons. NCSU has the ACC's best safety duo. Bishop and Wolff are seniors. Bishop will be a four-year starter, Wolff a three-year starter. They combined for 212 tackles and eight interceptions last season.

[Related: Ranking the top 10 linebacker units in college football]

3. Ohio State

Likely starters: CBs Travis Howard and Bradley Roby and Ss C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant
The buzz: All four starters return, but the unit struggled at times and the new coaching staff needs more consistency from the safeties. Howard and Roby combined for five interceptions and 11 pass breakups, and Roby should contend for all-league honors this fall. Doran Grant will be a solid nickel back, but depth is iffy beyond the top three. Barnett and Bryant combined for 143 tackles, two picks (both by Barnett) and 14 pass breakups. Backup Orhian Johnson is a former starter.

2. Georgia

Likely starters: CBs Sanders Commings and Branden Smith, FS Bacarri Rambo and SS Shawn Williams
The buzz: The safety duo is excellent. Rambo is a fierce hitter who covers a ton of ground. He is coming off an excellent season: 55 tackles, eight interceptions and eight pass breakups. Williams is another big hitter who led the Bulldogs with 72 tackles; he also had four interceptions and six pass breakups. Commings is a big (6-2/217), physical corner who is overshadowed by the safeties, but he is a solid player in his own right. He has to serve an early-season suspension, though. Smith, a former five-star recruit, is a great athlete but never has lived up to his billing; he has four interceptions and seven breakups in his career. Sophomore Malcolm Mitchell, who played well as a true freshman wide receiver last fall, is expected to see a lot of time in nickel and dime situations, and he is part of a good group of corners. Mitchell could play both ways. Depth at safety isn't as good.

1. Texas

Likely starters: CBs Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs, FS Kenny Vaccaro and SS Adrian Phillips
The buzz: Byndom, a junior, is somewhat of an unknown, but trust us: You will know all about him at the end of this season. He is a big-timer who should vie for All-America attention. He had two interceptions and 15 pass breakups last fall. Diggs was a freshman All-America performer who had four interceptions and 13 breakups. Vaccaro is a vicious hitter who had 67 tackles, two interceptions and seven breakups last season. Phillips was a part-time starter as a sophomore in 2011 who had two picks. Depth looks OK. A positive for this group? They will benefit from what should be a nasty pass rush headed by Es Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor.

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