If ever the door was open for Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto to claim a world ice dancing title, it would be this season.
Even though they capped off the 2006-07 season with a bronze medal at the world championships in Tokyo, they are considered front-runners this season because the top two teams at worlds are no longer in the running -- for two very different reasons.
The defending world champions, Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria, might not skate together ever again. Tragically, over the summer, Staviski was involved in a car accident in Bulgaria that killed a 24-year-old man. According to news reports, Staviski's blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit and he now faces charges that could result in a 10-year prison sentence. Denkova and Staviski had been training at the University of Delaware.
As for two-time world silver medalists Marie-France Dubrueil and Patrice Lauzon, they have decided not to compete this season and will instead tour with Stars on Ice and appear in skating shows on TV.
So, it would seem as if Belbin and Agosto, who will make their 2007-08 season debut at Skate America this weekend in Reading, Pa., would be a skate-in for the top spot. But Belbin and Agosto, fan favorites and silver medalists at the 2006 Olympics, need to resuscitate their showstopping ways if they are going to achieve that goal. They struggled with the free dance last season, in part because so much of last season blended in with their media-frenzied post-Olympic life.
They began the 2006-07 campaign with a routine to "That's Entertainment," which turned out to be anything but. Their second free dance, to "Amelie," had some potential, but they never had the time to perfect it.
"Last season was sort of like a bad sophomore album for a band," Belbin said.
This season, they plan to skate to Chopin. For a duo that made its name performing to Elvis, classical music marks a big change.
"We've often been criticized for not having the nicest lines or being very balletic," Belbin said. "But I think this is something we can master. We've had time to devote to this. It's complex and very different.''
Just to get an idea of how different this summer was for Belbin and Agosto, consider this: They had five weeks just to train their free dance this season. Last year, they choreographed, practiced and competed "That's Entertainment" in the same time span.
"After last season, anything could be better," Belbin said.
Look for Belbin and Agosto to face top competition internationally from France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder and Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. Among their top American competitors are Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, who recently started working with coach Priscilla Hill; Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who train with Belbin and Agosto in Michigan, and Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, the junior U.S. champions.
Here's a quick look at some other top skaters to watch this season:
She's trying to defend her first U.S. title and hopes to improve on a fourth-place finish at the 2007 world championships. Meissner spent the summer training new programs, hosting her own charity skating benefit in her hometown of Baltimore and working with Frank Carroll in Los Angeles. Sure, the American public would love to see her land a triple axel, but we think she'll be pretty happy with some triple-triple combinations and consistency with her flip and lutz.
Another woman who can land triple axels, Asada has to be able to stand up to the pressure. She finished second behind Miki Ando at the 2007 world championships in front of a hometown crowd in Tokyo, but when she skates well, she's brilliant. Now 17, she could be the star in 2010.
Trained by two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, this woman has emerged as a South Korean sensation. She did not compete in her country's national championships, citing back problems, but wound up third two months later at worlds.
She had pretty much been ruled out as a has-been after barely qualifying for the 2006 Olympics and placing 15th in Torino. But she regrouped and, after working with Nikolai Morozov, found herself on top of the world podium. A former world junior champion, Ando is also known for having landed a quadruple salchow.
She lost a national title to Meissner by less than one point (.82 of a point to be exact) and there's little doubt she'll never forget how close she was. This season, she's made a big move, training with Mark Mitchell after spending her career with Bonni Retzkin on her native Long Island. She's also a freshman at Harvard.
Interesting Americans to watch
Caroline Zhang is the reigning world junior champion and she'll make her senior-level competitive debut at this weekend's Skate America. She was the heavy favorite to win the U.S. junior title, but wound up second behind the unheralded Mirai Nagasu, who has been dominant in the junior international circuit this season. Nagasu won both her Junior Grand Prix events and will compete at the senior level at nationals. Rachel Flatt placed fifth in her senior debut at the 2007 U.S. championships and has busily worked on triple triples. She's placed first and second at her Junior Grand Prix events this season.
He dominated the Grand Prix circuit last season and won the 2007 world title by landing a quad toe and seven triples. He can be a dramatic skater, much in the same style as his former mentor, Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin.
This Japanese skater claimed a silver medal at the world championships even though he placed 11th and 15th in his only two previous appearances at worlds.
A two-time world champion, Lambiel dropped to third place this past season. Known for his incredible spins, Lambiel also can jump with the best of them.
The 2007 U.S. champion had the performance of his career at nationals, but struggled at the world championships. A two-time world bronze medalist, Lysacek wound up fifth this past season.
A back injury limited the 2006 Olympic bronze medalist last season, but he appears to be in good health now.
Interesting Americans to watch
As we've learned, you never know how a season is going to turn out for Johnny Weir. When he's on, few can compete with his exquisite spin positions, but he needs more jumping consistency. His eccentric personality makes him one of the most interesting, but sometimes frustrating, skaters to watch. He won U.S. titles in 2004, 2005 and 2006 under the guidance of Priscilla Hill. But after losing his title to Lysacek and placing eighth at worlds, Weir opted to work with Galina Zmievskaya. She's best known for working with Olympic gold medalists Viktor Petrenko and Oksana Baiul. Stephen Carriere made his senior debut at the 2007 nationals and could be a force this season.
Qing Pang and Jian Tong
They are part of a very strong Chinese pairs group, with three of the top five teams at the 2007 worlds representing China. With world champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao not competing in the Grand Prixs this season, Pang and Tong, the world silver medalists and the 2006 world champions, figure to be the top team this season. They will compete at Skate America.
Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang
This Chinese pair performs amazingly high and difficult triple twists and as juniors, they even executed a quad twist. They have been steadily climbing the world rankings and placed second at the Torino Olympics, but they struggled this past season at worlds, placing fifth, their lowest finish since 2004.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy
These German world bronze medalists could be a tough team to reckon with as the Olympic cycle gears up for 2010. This duo is coached by Ingo Steuer, who, along with partner Mandy Wotzel, claimed the 1997 world title.
Interesting Americans to watch
Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski are the blue-collar kids from Michigan who shocked everyone by winning the U.S. pairs title in Spokane, Wash. Castile and Okolski can compete with the Chinese with their triple twist, but they need to improve their jumps if they're going to be among the best in the world. Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, who had a tumultuous time last season after he claimed he was mugged in Russia, are not competing in the Grand Prix circuit this year but said they plan on competing at nationals. Look for Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, the U.S. junior champs and the 2007 world junior titlists, to make their mark this season at the senior level.
Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.