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Nebraska, Florida take conference leads

9/23/2010

Conference play began last week, and it didn't take long for No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Nebraska to settle in at the top of the SEC and Big 12 standings, respectively.

To no one's surprise, the Huskers were tabbed as the team to beat in the Big 12, and they lived up to that expectation by defeating then-No. 11 Iowa State in four sets on the opening night of conference play.

Any victory on the road is a good one, but coming from behind late in each set to defeat one of the teams expected to pose a serious threat to Nebraska's title aspirations is a great way to begin a conference schedule.

The following night, Texas found out how hard winning on the road can be, particularly when playing an archrival.

Texas A&M snapped a seven-match losing streak against the Longhorns with a three-set victory, its first over UT since Oct. 16, 2004.

Iowa State and Texas bounced back to win their next matches, but allowing Nebraska to grab an early one-game lead could be a difficult deficit to overcome.

The Longhorns and Huskers tangle in Lincoln on Oct. 2, with the rematch scheduled for Oct. 27 in Austin. The Cyclones get their final shot at Nebraska on Oct. 30.

In the SEC, Florida made a huge statement by earning road victories against two ranked opponents, including the team that the SEC preseason poll predicted to finish ahead of the Gators.

Florida opened its conference schedule Friday with a 3-1 victory at then-No. 22 Kentucky and defeated then-No. 18 Tennessee by the same count Sunday.

The Gators have one remaining road match against a conference opponent ranked in the top 25, at reigning SEC champion LSU on Nov. 21. Between now and then, the LSU Tigers (Oct. 1), Tennessee Lady Vols (Oct. 20) and Kentucky Wildcats (Oct. 24) must visit Gainesville.

Like Florida in the Eastern Division, No. 17 LSU and Ole Miss currently share a spot atop the Western Division standings with a 2-0 record.

The Rebels travel to UF on Sunday, while the Tigers travel to Alabama and Mississippi State on Friday and Sunday, respectively.

Things will get really interesting this weekend when the other top conferences, including the Pac-10 and Big 10, get in on the action.

Here is a quick look at four conference races that could come down to the last week of the season:

Big Ten: Penn State has won 65 consecutive conference matches since losing at Ohio State on Nov. 8, 2006. Until another team takes the title from the Nittany Lions, they remain the team to beat. Penn State has won seven consecutive Big Ten titles, and the longer it goes without losing a match the more likely it is the three-time defending national champions will make it eight conference crowns. The last team to win the Big Ten title before the Nittany Lions was Minnesota in 2002.

Illinois could be the team to slow Penn State's domination in the Big Ten, but the Illini will be at less than 100 perecent strength when the Nittany Lions visit Huff Hall on Friday night. Junior outside hitter Laura DeBruler could return to the lineup after missing the last five matches with mononucleosis, and Michelle Bartsch will be closer to 100 percent after playing last weekend on a tender ankle.

Teams don't want to put too much emphasis on the first conference match of the season, but Illinois certainly doesn't want to fall behind Penn State out of the gate. The Illini are hoping to win their first Big Ten championship since sharing the title with Penn State in 1992, and they know they have a better shot at beating the Nittany Lions at Huff Hall than at Rec Hall on Nov. 13.

Pac 10: With six teams currently ranked in the top 15 and one more receiving votes, the Pac-10 is arguably the most competitive conference in the country. If those teams stay in the rankings and if Arizona climbs into the top 25, Pac-10 teams will play at least one ranked opponent every week of the season except when some play their travel partner.

With three All-Americans among its six returning starters, it was no surprise Stanford was favored to win its fifth-consecutive Pac-10 championship in the conference's preseason poll. The Cardinal lived up to those high expectations when they defeated Penn State at the Big Four Classic. Stanford is now one of the favorites to win its seventh national title.

Washington is one of five Pac-10 teams that made it through the nonconference portion of its schedule without a loss, joining Stanford (9-0), USC (11-0), Cal (10-0) and Oregon (12-0). In fact, the Huskies (11-0) have not lost a set this season. UW will see its first ranked opponent when it plays host to Oregon on Saturday.

West Coast Conference: The West Coast Conference has at least four teams that no one will want to play in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and since WCC teams are playing for no more than two spots in the field of 64, canference matches are always a battle.

Don't be fooled by the combined 16-9 record compiled by the WCC's top two teams -- No. 21 San Diego and Saint Mary's -- during the nonconference portion of the schedule. The Torreros are 8-4 and have wins over then-No. 12 Minnesota and then-No. 23 Long Beach State, and three of their four losses came against top-10 opponents UCLA, Hawaii and Cal. The Gaels are 8-5, but all five of their losses are against top-25 opponents, including four in the top 11.

Pepperdine and Santa Clara are both 8-5 and have played strong nonconference schedules. WCC teams have to wait one more week before starting conference play Sept. 30.

Missouri Valley Conference: No. 16 Northern Iowa was the unanimous choice to repeat as champion of the Missouri Valley Conference, but four teams -- Creighton, Missouri State, UNI and Wichita State -- have demonstrated the ability to hold their own against opponents from major conferences.

The Valley's most impressive victory occurred on Sept. 4 when UNI defeated then-No. 8 Minnesota, but the MVC holds winning records against four conferences, too -- Big East (5-0), SEC (2-0), Pac-10 (1-0) and Big 12 (5-4).

Expect the title to come down to a battle between Northern Iowa and Missouri State, but there are several other Missouri Valley teams who could play spoiler.

Around the nation

Team of the week: Cincinnati overcame a two-set deficit to defeat then-No. 5 Illinois and swept Purdue the following day to post a 2-0 record at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge last weekend at the University of Louisville's Cardinal Arena. The victories, along with a five-set win over then-No. 16 Kentucky on Sept. 7, helped the Bearcats move into the American Volleyball Coaches Association's Top 25 for the first time since Nov. 17, 2003. Senior outside hitter Stephanie Niemer put down 28 kills against the Illini and added 32 more versus the Boilermakers. UC improved to 11-3 with a victory at Morehead State on Tuesday night, and will begin conference play at home against Seton Hall on Friday.

USA Volleyball announces rosters: Fans of some of the top collegiate programs will be keeping an eye on the Southern Hemisphere at the end of September when the U.S. Women's National Team travels to Brazil for a series of four friendly matches. The players selected for the tour are Foluke Akinradewo, Cynthia Barboza and Ogonna Nnamani (Stanford); Jordan Larson and Nancy Metcalf (Nebraska); Destinee Hooker and Lauren Paolini (Texas); Alisha Glass and Megan Hodge (Penn State); Heather Bown (Hawaii); Nicole Davis (USC); Kim Glass (Arizona); Nellie Spicer (UCLA); Stacy Sykora (Texas A&M); and Jennifer Tamas (Pacific). Those 15, along with Lindsey Berg (Minnesota); Nicole Fawcett and Christa Harmotto (Penn State); Angie Pressey (Cal); and Logan Tom (Stanford), are on the preliminary roster for the FIVB Women's World Championship that will be played Oct. 29 through Nov. 14 in Japan.

The week ahead: The opening weekend of the Pac-10 schedule features one of the great rivalries in women's volleyball -- No. 11 UCLA at No. 6 USC on Friday night. On Saturday night, No. 15 Oregon visits No. 7 Washington in a battle of undefeated teams. In the Big Ten, the two teams expected to be in the hunt for the conference championship meet when No. 2 Penn State travels to No. 9 Illinois on Friday. The following night, No. 22 Michigan plays host to No. 14 Minnesota. A little farther down the road, No. 10 Iowa State plays at No. 12 Texas next Wednesday in a match the Longhorns need to win to maintain contact with the teams at the top of the Big 12 standings.

Quick sets

Northern Iowa senior Ellie Blankenship broke the Missouri Valley Conference record for career digs when she recorded 14 during a 3-0 victory over Missouri State. She eclipsed the record for career digs, 2,202 set by Wichita State's Kelly Broussard (2005-08), and finished the weekend with 2,228. … Boise State senior middle blocker Sadie Maughan had 13 kills on 15 attacks without an error and set a school record for hitting percentage in a single match at .867 during the victory over Davidson. … Ray Bechard earned his 200th victory at Kansas when the Jayhawks came from behind to defeat Texas A&M last Saturday. … Kennesaw State senior outside hitter Sabrita Gulley became the first player in school history to reach the 1,000-kill plateau during a loss to Coastal Carolina. … Ball State senior libero Alyssa Rio moved into second place on the school's career dig list with 1,682, trailing Stephanie Keller's (2001-04) total of 2,273. … Senior outside hitter Lauren Krupsky became the 13th player in Central Michigan history to record 1,000 career kills with 10 during a three-set victory over Radford. … Western Michigan senior outside hitter Allyson Doyle became the 18th Bronco to reach 1,000 career kills when she put away nine during a 3-1 victory at Seton Hall. … Senior outside hitter Julianna Klein recorded career service ace No. 100 against Iowa State to become the third player coached by Wayne and Susan Kreklow to have more than 1,200 kills, 600 digs and 100 service aces. … Florida won its 20th consecutive SEC opener when the Gators defeated then-No. 22 Kentucky in front of 2,087 fans at UK's Memorial Coliseum.

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.