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April 12, 2007

The nation's top triplets: Strong foundations

Football is the ultimate team sport, but sometimes a couple (or three) players can make a major difference.

For the Dallas Cowboys dynasty in the NFL, quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin were known as "The Triplets."

In that tradition, Rivals.com will take a look at the best "triplets" in college football for the 2007 season.

We won't limit this to offense only, though. We're going to look at the best quarterback, running back and wide receiver (or tight end) combination along with the best defensive lineman, linebacker and defensive back trios.

Here is our list of the top triplets for the 2007 season:

Photo gallery: The top trios of 2007

Top Triplets
1. Michigan: QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, WR Mario Manningham. Henne and Hart have already started two Rose Bowls in their career. The pair of seniors and the junior Manningham return for another shot at a national championship in 2007. All three will be top NFL prospects when they leave Ann Arbor. Throw in offensive tackle Jake Long, and this could be the most dangerous offense in the Big Ten. Last year, the 5-foot-9 Hart rebounded from an injury-plagued sophomore season with more than 1,500 yards. Henne could break John Navarre's career passing records as a senior, especially if Manningham (left) is healthy this year. A dangerous home run threat, Manningham missed three games last year due to injury. A healthy year for all three will be key for the Wolverines' offense to play up to its potential.
Video: Henne in action | Hart in action
2. West Virginia: QB Pat White, RB Steve Slaton, WR Darius Reynaud. No trio is more dangerous in the ground game than West Virginia's group. The three had a combined 3,184 rushing yards last year, and that doesn't get to White (left) and Reynaud's contributions in the passing game. White improved as a passer in his sophomore season, and Reynaud emerged as a solid receiver in Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. Reynaud also showed he can be a top threat as a kickoff returner. Like the Michigan triplets, the Mountaineers trio is starting its third season together. The trademark of this group is explosion as much as it is chemistry. All three scored at least one touchdown of at least 60 yards in 2006.
Video: White in action | Slaton in action
3. USC: DT Sedrick Ellis, LB Rey Maualuga, CB Terrell Thomas. After USC's first loss of the season to Oregon State on Oct. 28, the Trojans' defense took over as the offense found its way. USC allowed only two touchdowns over a three-game span at midseason to wrap up the Pac-10 title. It all starts with Ellis at tackle, who has nine sacks in his last two seasons as a starter. Behind him is emerging star linebacker Maualuga (left), who delivered one of the hardest hits of last year on UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan in the regular season finale. Thomas came back from knee surgery in 2005 to give quarterbacks headaches in 2006. He had 12 pass break ups and two interceptions.
4. Virginia Tech: DE Chris Ellis, LB Vince Hall, CB Brandon Flowers. Virginia Tech led the nation in scoring and total defense last year while posting four shutouts. This could easily be a quartet with fellow star linebacker Xavier Adibi joining Hall, but the rules are one linebacker per triplet. Sorry, Xavier. These three were a nightmare for quarterbacks. Ellis and Hall (left) combined for 6.5 sacks and 24 quarterback hurries while Flowers had three interceptions and 21 pass deflections on the country's No. 1 pass defense.
5. USC: DE Lawrence Jackson, LB Keith Rivers, S Taylor Mays. How good can USC be this year? Just take a look at the defense, which has two sets of triplets in the top five. Add Jackson (left), Rivers and Mays to Ellis, Maualuga and Thomas and the Trojans' defense becomes one of the most intimidating in the country. Jackson waited until the ninth game of the season to pick up his first sack (he finished with three in that game against Oregon). Entering his third year as a starter, Rivers led the team in tackles with 85 as a junior in 2006. With a team-leading three interceptions, Mays was a difference-maker as a freshman in a depleted secondary when he became a starter in the second game of the season.
6. Texas: QB Colt McCoy, RB Jamaal Charles, WR Limas Sweed. Vince Young left the Texas offense in more-than-capable hands. An unheralded recruit in the class of 2005, McCoy exceeded expectations by setting a Texas single-season record and tying an NCAA freshman record with 29 touchdowns last year. His numbers would have been better if not for a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the Kansas State game and limited him in the loss to Texas A&M. The rest of the offense isn't too shabby. At 6 feet 5, Sweed (left) is a big target and a big-play threat. After rushing for 870 yards last year, Charles is prepared for a breakout season now that he's not sharing carries with Selvin Young.
Video: McCoy in action | Charles in action
7. Louisville: QB Brian Brohm, RB George Stripling, WR Harry Douglas. After finishing second in total offense last season and fourth in scoring, Louisville could be headed for a setback in its first year without Bobby Petrino. The Cardinals managed to score 37.8 points per game without Michael Bush for 12 games, and Brohm (left) was out for two games. Bush is gone, as is leading rusher Kolby Smith. Stripling (and sophomore Anthony Allen) should be able to keep the running game afloat, but the strength of Steve Kragthorpe's offense will be the passing game. Brohm opted not to enter the NFL Draft, so he and 1,200-yard receiver Douglas should have another successful season.
Video: Brohm in action
8. Ohio State: DE Vernon Gholston, LB James Laurinaitis, CB Malcolm Jenkins. The overhauled Ohio State defense was just as productive in 2006 as it was in 2005, when it was led by linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter. Laurinaitis, the Nagurski Award winner last year, leads a defense that was fifth in the country - allowing just 12.8 points per game. The Buckeyes will hope to have just as much success reloading this season, especially on the defensive line. Gholston (15 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks) is the only returning starter up front. Laurinaitis (five interceptions), Jenkins (left, four) and Gholston (one) return to a team that was tied for third in the nation with 21 picks.
9. Cal: QB Nate Longshore, RB Justin Forsett, WR DeSean Jackson. Jeff Tedford quarterbacks get most of the acclaim, but Tedford's teams have been at their best with an elite running back. Cal hopes Forsett (left) has the same seamless transition from backup to starter as Marshawn Lynch had in succeeding J.J. Arrington. Forsett will need to show he can carry the load after rushing for 1,625 yards as Lynch's backup. But the star of this offense is the big-play threat Jackson, who scored a touchdown in eight consecutive games in 2005-06. Jackson averaged 18 yards per catch and had nine touchdowns. He was just as dangerous as a punt returner (18.2 yards per return, four TDs). After shaking off a poor game against Tennessee in the 2006 opener, Longshore threw 17 touchdown passes in the next four contests.
10. Kentucky: QB Andre' Woodson, RB Rafael Little, WR Keenan Burton. Kentucky returned to a bowl game for the first time since 1999 by riding the arm of Woodson (left), who led the SEC with 3,515 passing yards and 31 touchdowns. Both figures were the highest in the conference since 2001. Burton was Woodson's primary target, and ended the season with 1,036 yards and 12 touchdowns. Kentucky will look to build on its offensive success last year with a full season from Little. The running back missed four games with a knee injury, but still finished with 673 rushing yards and 392 receiving yards. Burton and Little also had touchdowns in the return game last year.
The next 10:
11. Texas A&M: QB Stephen McGee, RB Mike Goodson, TE Martellus Bennett
( Video: McGee in action | Goodson in action)
12. Florida State: DT Andre Fluellen, LB Geno Hayes, S Myron Rolle
13. Wisconsin: DE Matt Shaughnessy, LB Jonathan Casillas, CB Jack Ikegwuonu
14. Miami: DE Calais Campbell, LB Glenn Cook, S Kenny Phillips
15. Arizona: DE Louis Holmes, LB Spencer Larsen, CB Antoine Cason
16. Oklahoma State: QB Bobby Reid, RB Dantrell Savage, WR Adarius Bowman
17. Purdue: QB Curtis Painter, RB Kory Sheets, TE Dustin Keller
18. Rutgers: DT Eric Foster, LB Brandon Renkart, S Ron Girault
19. Alabama: DE Wallace Gilberry, LB Prince Hall, CB Simeon Castille
20. Missouri: QB Chase Daniel, RB Tony Temple, TE Chase Coffman
( Video: Daniel in action)

David Fox is a college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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