The end of September means the start of the stretch drive in college soccer, making it a good time to check in on where the season stands.
1. How does Stanford keep doing it?
For context on Stanford's success, consider that the Cardinal have lost twice as many Hermann Trophy winners as regular-season games since the start of the 2009 season.
Even with former Hermann winners Kelley O'Hara and Christen Press gone to WPS, opponents are having little success getting even. After a 7-0 win against Arizona to open Pac-12 play, No. 1 Stanford is 9-0-1 this season and has outscored opponents 25-2 in seven games since a 0-0 draw at Maryland. Little wonder that a senior like Teresa Noyola, who has experienced one regular-season loss in her college career, has to look all the way to Spanish giant Barcelona for useful inspiration.
"I've just watched game after game," Noyola said of the reigning Champions League titleholders. "Clearly, they're doing something right, and they're showing that good soccer can also win. I think ever since the World Cup, with the rise of Spain, they've really been my models."
Credit her for taking a page from their playbook to solve a problem they don't have to worry about.
Where Barcelona can add to its base, bringing in a Javier Mascherano here or a Cesc Fabregas there, college dynasties sustain themselves on less stable foundations. Indeed, what Stanford is doing after losing O'Hara following her 2009 Hermann campaign and Press after her 2010 effort would be more akin to Barcelona rolling through all comers after watching Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta walk out the door. In their last season together in 2009, O'Hara and Press combined to score 47 goals. The rest of the team scored 33. Without O'Hara, Press scored 26 goals last season, the same as the combined total of the team's second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers.
The result is the Cardinal have been dispatching foes with ease this season while working through a retooling.
"They gave us a great counterattack option that I think we've struggled a little bit more this season to do that, to get solid counterattacks, that killer instinct in the final third," Noyola said of O'Hara and Press. "I think we have the players to do it; I think we just need to work on it and make that our goal because I think all the other elements are there as a team to bring what Kelley and Press naturally brought."
The day after she said that, the Cardinal piled up seven goals from six players against Arizona. And while the Cardinal don't have a finisher in the same league as those who came before, they do have Noyola, a natural playmaking midfielder who has only gotten better for her experience with the United States in the 2010 Under-20 Women's World Cup and with Mexico in this summer's Women's World Cup (she opted to represent Mexico at the senior level). With her pulling the strings, the Cardinal are possessing the ball better than ever.
Senior Lindsay Taylor is a player both Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe and Noyola have talked about as a natural goal scorer. In freshman Chioma Ubogagu and sophomore Sydney Payne, the Cardinal have at least one, and perhaps two, stars in waiting. Maybe they aren't so unlike Barcelona after all.
"Chi has brought a great spark to the team with her speed," Noyola said. "She's good on the ball, she makes good decisions. She's been really dynamic in our attack. Sydney as well, with her speed. I think we could take advantage of that a little bit more. She can give defenses a lot of trouble with her speed."
The killer instinct will come. Chances are these Cardinal will have possession when it does.
2. Who is the favorite for ACC Freshman of the Year?
This might seem like a narrow focus for a perusal of the national landscape, but that's precisely the point. Only in the ACC could such a debate have national ramifications. That it does this season is another reminder that the powers that be can shuffle the conferences all they want. They aren't dislodging the ACC from atop women's soccer.
Two weeks into conference play, the ACC is not only playing the best soccer but also providing the best drama. Boston College, Duke and Wake Forest are off to 3-0-0 starts, while Virginia is 2-1-0 and has the biggest win to date with a 1-0 overtime victory against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, its first win in 38 games between the schools.
Cavaliers freshman midfielder Morgan Brian got the assist on Caroline Miller's overtime winner against the Tar Heels, adding to a season in which the former has more than delivered on the hype that comes with being the first soccer player honored as Gatorade National High School Athlete of the Year. In addition to her three goals and four assists, she has played the most minutes of Virginia's non-defenders and has a command of the midfield beyond her years.
"The unique thing about Morgan is she's constantly making the right decision," Virginia coach Steve Swanson said. "Technique is one thing. You've got to have good technique to play at this level, and to play at the highest levels. You have to be a good athlete. You have to have good mental capacity. But there's a lot of people that don't pay attention to the decisions and how important those are.
"I haven't seen anybody at her age make the kind of decisions she makes consistently."
The only team to beat Virginia with a shutout this season, Boston College has its own freshman star in center back Casey Morrison. Even with a keeper like Jillian Mastroianni, not just any freshman could anchor a retooled back line for an ACC contender, but Morrison is doing just that for a team that has allowed only three goals all season and knocked off Virginia and Maryland.
"Casey plays with the composure of a senior captain," Boston College coach Alison Foley said. "Her decision-making, her ability to connect passes, her defending, individual defending in the box -- it's really uncanny. You typically don't see that in a freshman."
And yet for all of that, the favorite at this point has to be Duke freshman forward Kelly Cobb, whose eight goals and six assists in 12 games lead a Blue Devils attack that beat Notre Dame 3-1 and Texas A&M 7-2.
With freshmen like these, it's little wonder the ACC continues to showcase the best college soccer has to offer.
3. Which teams are working on seasons to remember?
Baylor: Former U.S. national team member Marci Jobson continues to transform Baylor into a compelling program. The Bears opened Big 12 play with a tough two-game road trip to Texas A&M and Texas and came away with a one-goal loss against the Aggies and a win against the Longhorns. Baylor also tied former conference foe Nebraska on the road. At 9-2-1 with just two more road games, a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998 is doable.
Dayton: Don't sleep on the Flyers as Sweet 16 material. Their lone loss this season, at Wisconsin, is more than offset by quality wins against Kansas, Purdue, Ohio State, Kentucky and Cal State Northridge. Junior Colleen Williams (seven goals, seven assists) isn't going to get a lot of attention in the Hermann discussion, but few players do more for a team. Throw in a veteran back line and this team is for real.
Memphis: Only the scope of the success and the place in the discussion for NCAA tournament seeding are anything close to a surprise for No. 9 Memphis, a program that has been on a roll for five or six seasons. The Tigers went 4-0-0 against SEC teams in nonconference play and are benefitting greatly from the arrival of freshman Natalia Gomez-Junco, a member of the Mexican national program, and the health of redshirt freshman Kelley Gravlin.
Seton Hall: Your eyes do not deceive. That's Seton Hall ahead of Notre Dame in the Big East National Division. West Virginia dumped a bucket of reality on the Pirates in a 4-0 win for the Mountaineers over the weekend, and nobody is talking NCAA tournament potential just yet. But this is a Seton Hall team that hasn't even qualified for the Big East tournament since 2000, the season after Kelly Smith departed. It'll take a 7-2-2 record for now.
4. Which team has the most to prove?
Michigan State entered the second weekend of Big Ten play with an 8-1-0 record and an offense more prolific than all but 20 teams in Division I, averaging 2.67 goals per game. It also entered the weekend unranked and unsupported by even a single vote in the NSCAA Top 25, a situation that isn't likely to change after the Spartans lost to Wisconsin and beat Minnesota at home. The deafening chorus of ambivalence from their peers can undoubtedly be traced to a nonconference schedule that annually merits consideration as the softest in the land -- these Spartans would have passed on the Persians at Thermopylae and scheduled Eastern Michigan instead.
A replay of the seemingly annual tradition matters this time around because the schedule did a disservice to a player who deserves a better farewell. Forget for a moment that senior Laura Heyboer is still in the running for the Lowe's Senior Class Award and is by all accounts a model student-athlete. Strictly from a soccer standpoint, she is a special talent, a player who has 53 career goals and whose skills are anything but the product of a weak schedule.
After a trip to Nebraska this week, Michigan State gets Illinois, Ohio State and Penn State at home, among Big Ten contenders. It's the Spartans' chance to earn the respect a 9-2-0 record hasn't and send Heyboer out in fitting fashion.
5. What are five games that can't be missed?
UCLA at Stanford, Oct. 9: The Bruins are very much back in the championship mix thanks to first-year coach B.J. Snow and the senior-freshman combo of Sydney Leroux and Samantha Mewis, but after controlling the series against Stanford for most of a decade, they've lost the past three meetings, including one in last year's NCAA tournament.
Duke at North Carolina, Oct. 13: The Blue Devils have the pieces to win a national championship, but there's no getting around one number: 33-2-1. That's North Carolina's all-time record against its neighbor. Prior to 2007, North Carolina had just one season of three or more losses. One more loss this season would make it three in a row.
Santa Clara at Portland, Oct. 21: Both took some lumps early, but both former national champions also gave as good as they got (Portland beating Florida State, Santa Clara drawing Notre Dame). From the talent on the field to the Villa Drum Squad in the stands, this remains as good a rivalry as there is in women's soccer.
Oklahoma State at Texas A&M, Oct. 23: The Big 12 title will probably be on the line. Oklahoma State (13-0-0) could have a perfect season on the line. And both teams could be angling for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But in what could be the final Big 12 meeting between these two, conference bragging rights may be the ultimate prize.
Memphis at Central Florida, Oct. 23: The new format for the NCAA tournament makes it crucial to be one of the top eight seeds (after the field is narrowed to 32 teams the first weekend, eight schools will host four-team pods for the second and third rounds the following weekend). If either of these teams wants to be in that mix out of Conference USA, running the table is imperative. That means winning this one.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.