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August 10, 2009

Monday with Mike: Top trios in the nation

Those of us approaching middle age probably have heard "good things come in threes" about, oh, a million times. It probably started when our grandmothers handed us three cookies when we were 4 after we went 10 minutes without knocking something off her shelves.

Since then, we have learned that good things do come in threes, in sports (Tinker to Evers to Chance, the Steel Curtain's Greene, Lambert and Blount, and the Celtics' Bird, McHale and Parish) and music (trios such as Nirvana, The Jam, Husker Du and Cream) and even cheesy sitcoms (Jack, Chrissy and Janet).

In college football this season, five teams have special trios worth bragging about. For the purpose of this exercise, we looked for teams that had stars at the skill positions on offense (sorry, no linemen allowed) or at each level on defense (line, linebacker and secondary).

Here are the five:

1. Oklahoma State
The Terrific Trio: QB Zac Robinson, TB Kendall Hunter, WR Dez Bryant.
The buzz: Robinson isn't the typical pro-style, drop-back quarterback; instead, he's a great fit for the Cowboys' offense. He threw for 3,064 yards and 25 touchdowns last season and also ran for 562 yards and eight scores. Hunter is a little guy (5 feet 8/190 pounds) who has good speed and is tougher than he looks; he ran for 1,555 yards and 16 touchdowns in '08. We've saved the best for last: Bryant is the best wide receiver in the nation. He's a big target (6-2/215) who really can move. He had 87 receptions for 1,480 yards and 19 touchdowns last season; best of all, he averaged 17 yards per catch. Bryant can beat you deep. He can outjump you. And he can take a short slant pass and sprint 65 yards for a score. There are a few reasons Oklahoma State should average 40 points a game this season, and these three are the biggest.

2. Florida
The Terrific Trio: DE Carlos Dunlap, LB Brandon Spikes, CB Joe Haden.
The buzz: Dunlap started just twice last season but still finished with 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Dunlap (6-6/290) has gotten by on his freakish athletic ability in his first two seasons at Florida - as a 260-pounder, he returned kickoffs in high school - but he seemed to put it all together in the spring and will start this season; a 13- or 14-sack season is a legitimate goal. He also seems destined to be a top-15 pick in the 2010 NFL draft if he leaves school early. Spikes is the emotional leader of the Gators' defense. He's also a nasty player, with 239 career tackles, many in an "I'm going to blow you up" manner (do an Internet search for his hit on Georgia's Knowshon Moreno early in last season's blowout). He also has four interceptions and 11 pass breakups in his career. Haden was abused frequently as a true freshman in 2007 after playing quarterback in high school. But he emerged as a star last season - 87 tackles, three picks and 12 pass breakups - and heads into this season as a legit All-America candidate.

3. Oklahoma
The Terrific Trio: QB Sam Bradford, RB DeMarco Murray, TE Jermaine Gresham.
The buzz: Bradford is coming off a phenomenal season: 4,720 yards, 50 touchdowns and just eight picks. He became the second sophomore to win the Heisman and is back for more this season. While the line in front of him might have some issues, there aren't any questions about his surrounding skill-position talent. Murray is a big-time, big-play threat; he shared time with fellow 1,000-yard rusher Chris Brown last season and still ran for 1,002 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also caught 31 passes last season and is one of the nation's best kick returners. While Brown might be the more consistent of the two backs, Murray possesses more big-play ability. Gresham is the best tight end in the nation. He had 66 catches for 950 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. He averaged 14.4 yards per reception - as a 261-pound tight end. He can physically overpower defensive backs and can run right past linebackers, making him a matchup nightmare. He easily could become Bradford's go-to guy this season, meaning a 75-catch season is a possibility.

4. UCLA
The Terrific Trio: DT Brian Price, LB Reggie Carter, CB Alterraun Verner.
The buzz: Price is a difference-maker in the middle of the line. He has good quickness, which enabled him to rack up 4.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss last season. He's also stout at the point of attack, taking on two blockers and opening the way for Carter to make plays. Carter went to high school about three miles from USC's campus but took his talents across town, and the Bruins are better for it. He made 83 tackles last season and has 16.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons. Verner is another All-America candidate. He's a physical corner, finishing with 73 tackles last season. He also had two interceptions and led the nation with 18 pass breakups.

5. BYU
The Terrific Trio: QB Max Hall, RB Harvey Unga, TE Dennis Pitta.
The buzz: Hall, who began his career at Arizona State, has thrown for 7,805 yards and 61 touchdowns in his two seasons as the Cougars' starter. He completed 69.2 percent of his passes last season. While he will miss leading receiver Austin Collie, hitting more than 70 percent of his passes is a legit goal this season. Unga is one of the nation's most underrated all-around backs. He's not a blazer, but he's still ultra-productive. He ran for 1,132 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and also had 42 receptions for 309 yards and four more scores. Pitta likely will be the nation's leading receiver among tight ends. He caught 83 passes for 1,083 yards and six touchdowns last season; with Collie gone, Pitta could catch 90 passes this season. And it's no surprise he and Hall work so well together: They are brothers-in-law (they married sisters).

Poll talk
A few weeks ago, in a Rivals.com roundtable, we discussed the possibility of no Big East teams finishing the season in the top 25. In the coaches' poll at least, no league school will start the season in the top 25. While three Mountain West teams were in the coaches' preseason top 25 - TCU at 17th, Utah at 18th and BYU at 24th - the highest-ranked Big East team was defending champion Cincinnati, at 29th. Pittsburgh was 30th, West Virginia 31st, Rutgers 32nd and USF was tied for 40th.

The SEC led the way with five teams in the top 25, including three West Division teams in the top 10 (Alabama at fifth, LSU at ninth and Ole Miss at 10th). The ACC, Big 12 and Pac-10 each had four teams, the Big Ten and Mountain West had three each and the WAC and independent ranks each had one.

Four teams that were unranked at the end of last season are in the preseason poll: LSU, North Carolina at 20th, Nebraska at 22nd and Notre Dame at 23rd. The four teams who enter the season unranked after finishing last season ranked are Cincinnati (17th last season), Michigan State (24th), Missouri (16th) and Texas Tech (12th).

From the "How the mighty have fallen" department: Miami was 33rd, Tennessee got two votes and Michigan received one. Central Michigan got three votes - or as many as Michigan and Tennessee combined.

Perhaps the most surprising result in the poll was that Boston College - a team picked to finish last in its division in the ACC - received three votes. BC lost its coach, its projected starting quarterback and its best player in a five-month stretch.

Grid bits
News that Florida coach Urban Meyer signed a deal last week that will make him the third-highest paid coach in the nation, behind Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis, will make things interesting at LSU. A clause in Les Miles' contract says he must be the highest-paid coach in the SEC, but it's hard to imagine LSU officials being too happy to fork over a bit more than $4 million to a guy coming off a five-loss season - and all five losses came in the SEC, which was a bit down by its standards last season.

A bit of under-the-radar news last week was that Florida WR Riley Cooper will play his senior season rather than skip it for pro baseball. Why is it a big deal that a guy who caught just 18 passes last season - and has just 30 receptions in his career - is returning to the team? He is the only returning starter at wide receiver for Florida, and he is by far the Gators' best downfield blocker among the receivers. The Gators are loaded with talent, but the situation at wide receiver bears watching. Florida lost its top two receivers, Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, and the Gators need two or three wide receivers to become consistent playmakers. Junior TE Aaron Hernandez might lead the Gators in receptions, but Tim Tebow needs some targets on the outside he can count on; Cooper, who is his roommate, likely will be one of them.

As a reminder, here are the dates for this season's BCS games: Jan. 1, Rose and Sugar bowls; Jan. 4, Fiesta Bowl; Jan. 5, Orange Bowl; and Jan. 7, BCS title game in Pasadena, Calif.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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