Breaking down soccer conference races
A quick look at some of the bigger conference tournaments taking place this week.
Skinny: North Carolina's remarkable start out of conference -- beating UCLA 7-2 and Notre Dame 6-0 -- gave way to a crowded race in ACC play. Boston College and Florida State finished tied atop the standings, a point ahead of the Tar Heels.
Favorite: North Carolina
The Seminoles earned the No. 1 seed, beating both Boston College and North Carolina. But Florida State also went just 4-3-1 away from Tallahassee, and its potent attack scored multiple goals in just three of those games. With the ACC tournament in North Carolina's backyard in Cary, the defending champ looks like the slightest favorite -- October struggles notwithstanding.
It looked for a time as though the Cavaliers might not even make the conference tournament, but that all changed with a phenomenal closing burst that saw them beat Florida State, Duke and Miami and tie Wake Forest in their final four games. Goal production remains a question mark, but momentum is momentum, especially for a young team.
Skinny: Notre Dame appeared vulnerable, at least by its standards, entering the conference season but rolled to the No. 1 seed. After last week's opening round of tournament games, it's down to Notre Dame, Marquette, St. John's and West Virginia.
Favorite: Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish put an emphatic punctuation mark on their dominance with a 5-0 win against South Florida in the quarterfinals. It has been a process of fitting pieces into places, but behind the goal production of Melissa Henderson, Lauren Fowlkes and Taylor Knaack, they've outscored opponents 20-1 in their past seven games.
West Virginia is the true sleeper after upsetting Rutgers, but Marquette has the best shot to knock off the Irish. It's an experienced team with an organized, composed back line that won't blink if faced with protecting a one-goal lead in the closing minutes.
Skinny: Missouri edged out Texas A&M for the regular-season title, thanks in part to a wild 4-4 draw in College Station. No other team won more than one league road game.
Favorite: Texas A&M
Missouri has the best of the rivalry recently, posting a 2-1-1 record against the Aggies the past three seasons. But a defensive slump in which the Aggies allowed 10 goals in one three-game stretch appears over. Texas A&M allowed just three goals in its past seven games.
Sleeper: Oklahoma State
Six of the Cowgirls' seven losses are by a single goal -- including games against BYU, USC, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M -- and they've scored 38 goals in 19 games. They're ranked No. 85 in the last official RPI on Oct. 19, and even a recent five-game winning streak may not put them in NCAA at-large range. That leaves a good team playing for its season in San Antonio.
Skinny: Florida and LSU came out on top of their respective divisions in a tight conference-wide race in which five teams finished with at least 21 points.
The Gators made a strong statement of intent in the closing weeks of the regular season, beating three of their four closest competitors in the final three weekends of play and doing it decisively in the cases of LSU (4-0) and South Carolina (3-0). All seven of redshirt freshman McKenzie Barney's goals came in 11 SEC games.
Ole Miss wrapped up its season against a lot of second-division teams in conference play, so perhaps there could be reason to worry about sharpness in the high-stakes tournament setting. But this is a fundamentally sound team with a good back line and creative play through the midfield and forwards. If the Rebels are in rhythm, they could win it all.
Without a full rundown, Conference USA is the best bet to earn multiple NCAA tournament bids outside the other seven leagues mentioned here. Central Florida will be in no matter what, while Memphis and Colorado College could essentially end up playing an at-large play-in game against each other in a conference tournament semifinal.
The following leagues do not hold conference tournaments:
Favorite: Penn State
Penn State and Ohio State will fight it out in Michigan for the conference title this weekend. The Nittany Lions visit Michigan, while the Buckeyes travel to Michigan State. Considering the Spartans are fighting for their postseason lives, while the Wolverines are closing out a frustrating conference schedule thus far marked by five ties and just one win, that has to make Penn State the favorite after it beat Ohio State a month ago.
A win at seventh-place Northwestern will clinch third place. Not too shabby for a team that went 3-7-0 in the Big Ten last season and hasn't finished even .500 in the conference since 2004. Wisconsin isn't especially prolific -- even excusing a 6-0 loss at Stanford, it is still giving up about as many goals as it scores -- but it put up five goals in earning three draws against conference heavyweights Penn State, Ohio State and Purdue.
Stanford clinched the conference title with a week to spare. The Cardinal allowed five goals in their first three games. (They also scored 13 goals total in those games, all wins.) In the subsequent 16 games, they've outscored the opposition by a staggering 53-6 margin. UCLA's only losses so far are at North Carolina and at Stanford, but the Bruins still have some work to do on the road this weekend to lock in second place.
Surprise: Oregon State
Washington State (5-1-0 Pac-10) might also qualify -- but the Cougars could have been expected to do well, if not quite this well, with the sensational senior Kiersten Dallstream back from the U-20 World Cup and available for a full season. Oregon State has come out of Pac-10 soccer purgatory to put itself in position to make the NCAA tournament under second-year coach Linus Rhode. Four points this weekend at Arizona and Arizona State would match the Beavers' best conference record in the past 12 seasons.
Since dropping a 3-1 decision at Texas A&M in September, Portland has outscored six WCC foes by a 31-1 margin. And this is a conference that can reasonably hope to get two at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. San Diego would go a long way toward making it so if it can somehow earn a draw or more in Portland this weekend.
It's not much of a surprise that Pepperdine is solid, but it would be a surprise for the WCC to get four teams in the NCAA tournament. And the Waves will have at least a shot if they beat San Francisco this weekend. They couldn't manage points against Portland, Santa Clara or San Diego but did beat Marquette and Tennessee early.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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