Monday, September 21, 2009
That time of year, conference play is here
Just as the frost on the windshield Sunday morning in Connecticut offered a reminder of what's ahead, the schedule shows that soccer season is already at its first major fork in the road.
The Pac-10 and West Coast Conference, demonstrating that coast's admirable ability to take life at a more leisurely pace, don't start conference play for another couple of weeks. But putting those two leagues aside for the moment, how do things look elsewhere?
Sadly, Neil Patrick Harris wasn't available to host, so you're stuck with me.
Early test: Boston College at Florida State, Sunday
Is North Carolina vulnerable after Sunday's 0-0 tie against Auburn? Don't bet on it -- the only two goals the Tar Heels have allowed all season came opening night at the end of a 7-2 rout against UCLA on a sloppy field. But this game in Tallahassee will be a showdown of perhaps the two teams best equipped to challenge the defending champs. After seeing the Eagles on Sunday, I'd put a midfield of Gina DiMartino, Julia Bouchelle and Kristen Mewis up against any group out there.
September surprise: Easily Maryland, which has a 1-0 win against Santa Clara to validate an 8-0-0 start. The Terrapins actually get first crack at the Seminoles, as they'll visit Tallahassee on Thursday.
Early test: Kansas at Oklahoma State, Sunday
The Jayhawks got off to a fast start last season but finished under .500 in conference play, including a 1-3-1 record away from Lawrence. Oklahoma State is the defending conference champion but dropped its conference opener against Colorado (the lone Big 12 game played thus far). Texas A&M still seems like the class of the league, especially after beating Portland 3-1 this past weekend, but Sunday's game in Stillwater is a chance for the Jayhawks to show they're a real challenger and the Cowgirls to show they're not ready to be deposed.
September surprise: At this point, we know more about most Big 12 teams' ability to schedule advantageously than their ability to play great soccer, but Nebraska's prolific offense -- paced by freshman Morgan Marlborough's 13 goals -- is worth noting.
Early test: Rutgers at Georgetown, Friday
Georgetown produced the most emphatic result of the first Big East weekend, drubbing Villanova 4-0 (although the Hoyas then tied Penn 3-3 on Sunday). Like Santa Clara's Jordan Angeli, Georgetown's Sara Jordan returned for a sixth year after an injury-plagued career and has helped in tangible (four goals, four assists) and intangible ways.
September surprise: Minus a lost weekend in Philadelphia (defeats to Drexel and Penn), Pitt has enjoyed a banner September, capped by a win at Ohio State and a tie against West Virginia this past weekend in Morgantown, always a tough stop for Big East teams.
Early test: Penn State at Michigan State, Sunday
The Spartans were 7-0-1 entering Sunday's 1-1 draw at Eastern Michigan, but the result raises questions, given the caliber of opponent in many of those wins. The good news is they get a shot at instant credibility against Penn State. The Nittany Lions took the opposite route early, persevering through six consecutive one-goal games, including four losses, against likely NCAA tournament teams before breezing past Boston University and James Madison.
September surprise: Indiana reached the Sweet 16 two years ago, so surprise is a little strong, but the Hoosiers, at 8-1-0, including a win against Florida, are perhaps ahead of schedule.
Early test: Georgia at LSU, Friday
Two familiar conference contenders in recent seasons open this year's conference slate. After a disappointing opening loss at home against Memphis, the Tigers have shown a lot of fight, including a 1-0 loss against North Carolina and 2-2 tie against Duke this past weekend. Georgia has played a good schedule, albeit one short on ranked opponents, and will look to return the favor after LSU beat it in Athens last season. (The Bulldogs are 14-4-0 since that loss.)
September surprise: South Carolina is the undefeated SEC team with championship aspirations, but forget the quality of the schedule and give Mississippi State full marks for an 8-0-0 start. That's more wins than in any of the past four full seasons.