Ohio State Buckeyes: MacGarrett Kings

The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

Now that the 2013 season is merely a memory, it's time to start looking toward 2014 and identifying some potential breakout performers.

Options are plentiful, but we are limiting ourselves to five on each side of the ball. We're looking for players who will take that next step into greatness, like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb did in 2013. As such, players who earned first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list. We're focusing instead on those who can make a big leap.

Let's kick it off, while going in alphabetical order:

Adam Breneman, TE, Penn State: ESPN rated Breneman the No. 1 tight end coming out of high school last year, so the talent is obviously there. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder got off to a slow start in 2013 after recovering from a knee injury, but he finished strong with touchdown catches in each of Penn State's last three games. The tight end group will be crowded again in State College, but Breneman should give Christian Hackenberg a prime target.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin: When trying to find new stars, it's always smart to look toward the Badgers backfield. Clement made a strong impression as a true freshman, running for 547 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. Most of his work came in garbage time, as he was behind James White and Melvin Gordon. Now that White is graduating, Clement should see a much bigger role alongside Gordon, and Wisconsin has shown it has plenty of carries to hand to two backs.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Someone has to replace Carlos Hyde's production in the Ohio State running game, and Elliott seems like a logical choice. He ran for 262 yards as a freshman, including a 162-yard game vs. Florida A&M. The Buckeyes also have Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith, Warren Ball and Brionte Dunn, but Wilson might be too small to be an every-down back, and Elliott got more carries than the other three combined in 2013.

Donovahn Jones, WR, Minnesota: The Gophers desperately need some playmakers to emerge on offense, and perhaps Jones will be that guy. The Georgia native turned down SEC offers to come to Minnesota, where he was promised a chance to play quarterback. Instead, he moved to receiver as a true freshman and showed flashes of his athleticism. He still needs to learn the finer points of the position, but at 6-foot-3 with good speed, he has all the tools the Gophers need

MacGarrett Kings Jr., WR, Michigan State: The Spartans' wide receivers took a big leap forward as a group in 2013, and with Connor Cook and the passing game coming on strong, it might be time for one of them to become a star. Kings is a strong candidate after catching 43 balls for 513 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore. He can also make things happen on punt returns.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
10:15
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Ten things to keep your eyes on in the four Big Ten games on Saturday:

1. Strength vs. strength for the Spittoon: The Indiana-Michigan State game might not be the most-hyped matchup of the weekend, but if you like irresistible force/immovable object conflicts, this one's for you. The Spartans lead the FBS in total defense, rush defense and passing efficiency defense. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are ninth nationally in total offense, 10th in passing yards and 11th in scoring. Indiana scored the first 17 points of the game last year in Bloomington before falling 31-27. This year's Old Brass Spittoon winner will go to the team that better parlays its strengths and its corresponding weaknesses (Michigan State's defense, Indiana's offense).

2. Inexperienced travelers: Both Indiana and Nebraska have had comfortable early-season schedules, as each has played its first five games at home. Both teams go on the road for the first time this week, with the Hoosiers in East Lansing and Nebraska visiting Purdue. Bo Pelini said the schedule worked out well for his young defense to gain some less stressful experience, but he still will be leaning on youthful players both on defense and at quarterback with redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said his team uses a lot of hand signals on offense, so he's not too worried about crowd noise. Michigan also gets easily its toughest road test at Penn State, which should be a much more intimidating atmosphere than UConn's Rentschler Field.

3. Heartbreak Hotel, aka Camp Randall Stadium: No team has suffered more gut-wrenching close losses in the past 2½ years than Wisconsin. But at least Northwestern can relate. Both teams might be playing for national titles if the NCAA shortened games to 55 minutes. On Saturday, Team 5:03 travels to the team that has yielded more Hail Marys than the pope's rosary beads. Both the Wildcats and Badgers are also coming off tough losses to Ohio State, with Wisconsin having two weeks to lick its wounds. The winner can still dream about a BCS bowl. The loser will be in serious catch-up mode. Is there any way it can end except on a key play in the final minute?

4. Northwestern's run defense vs. Wisconsin's rushing attack: The Wildcats had trouble stopping Ohio State's offensive line and bulldozing back Carlos Hyde as the Buckeyes racked up 248 rushing yards in last week's 40-30 win. Northwestern players and coaches say it was more a matter of tackling and execution than a size and strength issue. They will have to do a much better job this week against Wisconsin, which is averaging 300 rushing yards per game. By all accounts, star tailback Melvin Gordon's left knee is fine after he injured it against Ohio State two weeks ago, and James White ran for 134 yards the last time these two teams played, in 2010 (yes, he's been around a long time). The Badgers ran for 329 yards in that last meeting three years ago. The teams have changed, but Wisconsin's approach hasn't. Northwestern had better hope its run defense has improved.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerPenn State wideout Allen Robinson has 38 catches for 621 yards this season, with five touchdowns.
5. Penn State's response: Bill O'Brien has been jovial in many of his news conferences this year, but he was clearly not a happy man on Tuesday. O'Brien was terse in his answers with the media and basically refused to address anything regarding the Indiana loss or the team's scholarship situation. It's understandable why he wouldn't want to relive the program's first-ever loss to the Hoosiers or dwell on problems, because he needs his team focused on 5-0 Michigan, which comes to Beaver Stadium for a 5 p.m. game. The game is sold out and will be a White Out, though the enthusiasm from the fans might be a little less than before last week's loss. It remains to be seen whether the team will match O'Brien's feistiness and come out with a much better effort this Saturday.

6. Allen Robinson vs. Blake Countess: Penn State's Robinson is the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year and is gunning for another trophy after his 12-catch, 173-yard day against Indiana last week. Michigan's top job on defense is to find a way to stop him, and that's where cornerback Countess should come in. Countess has four interceptions this year, tying him for the national lead. The Wolverines likely will need more than just Countess to slow down Robinson, and Penn State continues to search for a complementary weapon in the passing game for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

7. Ryan's return? Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan has been itching to return from the torn ACL he suffered in the spring, and he has been medically cleared to play on Saturday in State College. Coach Brady Hoke appears hesitant to put his star back in there, fearing the risk of further injury. Hoke said Wednesday that Ryan has practiced as a backup. The Wolverines' defense has been light on big-play ability, which Ryan brings to the table in spades. Getting him back would provide a physical and emotional boost for Michigan.

8. Etling's big day: In what has been a sorry season so far for Purdue, at least quarterback Danny Etling provides reason for optimism. After making his college debut two weeks ago against Northern Illinois, the freshman gets his first start Saturday vs. Nebraska. Head coach Darrell Hazell says Etling's strong arm opens the whole field for the Boilermakers' passing game, and he hinted at offensive changes made during the bye week to suit Etling's skills. Nebraska's defense did a good job slowing down Illinois' passing attack last week but still has vulnerabilities. Etling had better watch out for cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who -- like Countess -- has four interceptions this season.

9. Two steps forward for Spartans' passing game? Michigan State had its most encouraging offensive performance of the season in last week's 26-14 win at Iowa. Quarterback Connor Cook made good decisions en route to a 277-yard day, and even better for the offense, receivers Bennie Fowler and Macgarrett Kings Jr. showed off excellent playmaking ability. While not exactly an Oregon-esque outburst, last week's offensive showing was the kind the Spartans and their fans had been waiting to see for more than a year. The key will be whether that is a repeatable performance, especially this week against a below-average Indiana defense.

10. Well, hello again (and for the first time): One of the most aggravating byproducts of conference expansion is the gap between games for some high-profile programs. Michigan hasn't played Penn State since 2010, while Northwestern and Wisconsin also haven't met in three years despite the short distance between the two schools. That's why it's good to see those two games on the schedule this weekend. With the new division alignment starting in 2014, the Wolverines and Nittany Lions will be paired in the East, while the Wildcats and Badgers will be in the West. Perhaps this will be the start of some renewed rivalry tensions in both series. Meanwhile, Nebraska plays Purdue for the first time as a Big Ten member. The schools have only played twice before and not since 1958 in West Lafayette. Scouting takes on added importance in all three of those games, as these teams have few players and coaches who have ever faced one another on the field.
Five lessons learned from a full week of conference play on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesCarlos Hyde carried 26 times for 168 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns Saturday.
1. Ohio State can handle adversity; will it be enough? Ohio State hadn't trailed all season before finding itself in a dogfight at Northwestern in which it had to come from behind in the fourth quarter on the road. In the end, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line proved too much for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes are now 6-0, halfway to another undefeated regular season heading into a bye week and riding an 18-game winning streak under Urban Meyer. Yet Ohio State has shown some weaknesses, particularly with a pass defense that Northwestern exploited for 343 yards the week after safety Christian Bryant was lost for the season. A win is a win, and 18-0 is 18-0, but Meyer's team hasn't produced a lot of style points that would distinguish it in what looks like -- for now, anyway -- a very crowded BCS title chase. The good news is that the Buckeyes have cleared two of their biggest hurdles of the season with back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and the Wildcats, and they might not be challenged again until the season finale at Michigan, if even then. We wouldn't mind seeing a Northwestern-Ohio State rematch in Indianapolis, as Pat Fitzgerald's team looks like the best in a muddled Legends Division scrum, but the remaining schedule is tough. Someone from the Big Ten is probably going to have to play a near-perfect game to beat the Buckeyes; it remains to be seen whether perfection will be enough for Ohio State to get into the national title game.

2. Nebraska's defense and Michigan State's offense provide hope: The Huskers' defensive struggles and the Spartans' offensive woes were the top storylines for each team through the first month of the season. Nebraska entered the open week needing to repair a defense that hadn't stopped anyone consistently, from nationally ranked UCLA to FCS foe South Dakota State. But the Blackshirts responded against an Illinois offense that had made a bunch of big plays through the first four games. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Randy Gregory and Michael Rose all had big games, as did veteran nickelback Ciante Evans, as Nebraska held Illinois out of the end zone for two and a half quarters. Nebraska's offense did its thing behind running back Ameer Abdullah, but the defense's progress is encouraging for the future. Michigan State also saw an encouraging performance from its offense, as quarterback Connor Cook bounced back from his struggles at Notre Dame and got some help from not one, but two receivers in Macgarrett Kings Jr. (five catches, 94 yards, TD) and Bennie Fowler (nine catches, 92 yards, TD). Michigan State dominated possession time (37 minutes, 13 seconds) and scored the game's final 16 points. Nebraska will continue to lean on its offense, while Michigan State will rely on the Spartan Dawg D, but both teams looked more balanced Saturday, which is a great sign for their chances in the wide-open Legends division.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a week off, Devin Gardner accounted for 252 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers.
3. Bye weeks can be helpful: Data doesn't support the notion that bye weeks are beneficial to a team's win-loss record. But when a team is struggling in a certain area and has a week to work on it, that can be very helpful. As mentioned above, Michigan State and Nebraska both showed much improvement on their underwhelming sides of the ball after being idle in Week 5. Michigan worked in two new starters on the offensive line and came out determined to run the ball versus Minnesota. While the yards per carry average (3.2) still wasn't great, the push was better and the Wolverines ran for four touchdowns. More importantly, quarterback Devin Gardner finally played a turnover-free game. Indiana, meanwhile, simplified things for its young defense, as coach Kevin Wilson said there "was less on their plate" against Penn State. That worked, as the Hoosiers were able to attack and play loose in a 44-24 win over the Nittany Lions, coming up with several key stops. Northwestern obviously used its bye to get Venric Mark healthy and to work on more plays with Kain Colter at receiver, both of which proved helpful, indeed. The only team that didn't show some improvement after a Week 5 holiday was Penn State, although that might be due because of depth and injury issues than anything else.

4. Pump the brakes on Iowa and Illinois: The Hawkeyes and Illini had been undoubtedly the league's two big surprises through September and had chances to keep the good vibes going on Saturday. But Iowa took a step back against Michigan State, unable to run the ball or prevent a typically pedestrian Spartans passing attack from stretching the field. Iowa didn't look like a Legends Division contender and paid a price on the injury front. Things don't get any easier after an open week, as Iowa visits Ohio State (Oct. 19). Illinois needed its high-powered offense to strike against a seemingly vulnerable Nebraska defense, but it never happened, as Nathan Scheelhaase struggled with his accuracy. The Illini defense had all sorts of trouble against Nebraska's backup quarterback and running back Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has another week off before home tests against Wisconsin (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Oct. 26). Both Iowa and Illinois could make bowls, but neither looks like a serious division contender.

5. Magic might be gone for Penn State: There were few better stories in the Big Ten last year than the way Penn State played under the cloud of NCAA sanctions, especially as the Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. But Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill aren't walking through that door. Not only does Penn State lack the incredible senior leadership of last year's group -- which is less a knock on the current players than a tip of the cap to last year's veterans -- but it is struggling to find speed and playmakers on a defense that looks like one of the weakest in years in State College. The only two decent passing attacks on the Lions' schedule -- UCF and Indiana -- shredded Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler's crew. Meanwhile, the offense is becoming too reliant on the individual greatness of receiver Allen Robinson and failed to dominate an Indiana rush defense that has been the Big Ten's worst for multiple years in a row. A 20-point loss to the Hoosiers, in a game in which his team trailed 42-17, is easily the worst defeat of the Bill O'Brien era. The team is down to 61 scholarship players, and not all of them are healthy. "I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination that this is a normal Penn State team," O'Brien said. Unfortunately, this might be the new normal for Penn State as the sanctions take their toll, and another 8-4 season might well require some magic at this point.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12