1. USC (17-3, 12-1 in the Pac-12)
The No. 4 Trojans dropped their conference opener on Sept. 9 to rival UCLA. USC hasn’t lost since.
Coach Mick Haley’s squad has torn through the first half of conference play, sweeping the likes of Cal and Stanford in Los Angeles and stunning Washington in Seattle.
The Trojans have only dropped two sets in that span — one to lowly Arizona State and one to Oregon.
USC leads the conference in hitting percentage, kills and assists. The squad’s offense is assuredly among the nation’s best, but the defense could be the Trojans’ Achilles heel.
2. UCLA (18-3, 11-2)
The No. 6 Bruins may have beaten the Trojans, but it’s hard to argue that UCLA is the better team. Arizona, an unmistakably middle-of-the-pack team upset the then-second ranked Bruins, 3-2, in Tucson a few weeks ago. UCLA’s first conference loss was more legitimate, coming on the road against Washington.
While Cal didn’t lose to either Washington or Arizona, it’s hard to forget the smackdown the Bruins issued the Bears in their first head-to-head meeting this year. Cal will be looking for revenge this weekend when UCLA comes to town, and may give the country a better read on the top-tier of the Pac-12.
3. Cal (21-2, 11-2)
After enduring two crushing losses in Los Angeles, the No. 2 Bears have regained some confidence with wins over Oregon and Washington.
Cal made a statement this weekend with convincing victories this weekend against Arizona and Arizona State with a depleted lineup. Coach Rich Feller has a very deep squad, which should help the Bears down the stretch. Feller hasn’t been happy with Cal’s passing and serving for weeks, but saw some improvement this weekend. Those elements will be pivotal to running a balanced attack going forward, especially in two grudge matches this weekend against UCLA and USC.
4. Stanford (16-3, 10-3)
No. 5 Stanford and Cal have played pretty evenly this season. Both beat Washington, both lost to the L.A. schools. The Bears dropped fewer sets in their wins than the Cardinal, but the outcomes have all been the same.
But the biggest difference between the squads has been that first conference game when the rivals squared off. Not only did Cal win, 3-1, but the Bears obliterated Stanford.
The nation seems to agree that the Cardinal is just a bit behind Cal. Stanford has never been ranked higher, despite the squads’ similar record. Still, the club from Palo Alto has proven itself a legitimate contender with a 3-0 victory over then-No. 2 Washington and no embarrassing losses.
5. Washington (16-4, 8-4)
Two weeks ago, the Huskies were the ranked second in the nation. Three losses later, Washington’s stock has plummeted.
The No. 10 Huskies were outmatched against Cal on Oct. 14, dropping a 3-1 decision in Berkeley. Stanford dominated them the following night in a clean sweep.
While those losses may have been excusable — the Bay Area trip is notoriously one of the most difficult in the conference — a loss to Oregon this weekend was not. And not only did Washington lose, but the squad got swept in Eugene.
The Huskies return to the friendly confines of Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle, where they have only lost one match this season: a 3-0 defeat at the hands of USC in mid-September. Washington should make quick work of the Arizona schools before heading to Los Angeles for another tough road trip.
6. Oregon (14-6, 7-5)
The No. 16 Ducks may deserve more credit than they’ve been getting. They knocked off defending national champions Penn State in the preseason and soundly defeated Washington.
One more upset against a Pac-12 team in the top third of the conference and Oregon should gain some respect. The Ducks lack the kind of firepower and stalwart defense that set the top-five squads apart. They’ve proven a team to be respected, but not one to be feared. At least not yet.
7. Arizona (13-8, 5-7)
One big upset over UCLA was nice. Admirable, even. It’s too easy, however, to write it off as an off-night for the Bruins or even a stroke of luck. It was, after all, a five-set victory the Wildcats squeaked out by three points.
Arizona pushed the Bears in three sets this weekend, but could not display the same type of execution it did against UCLA. The Wildcats took a set from Stanford on Friday night, too. They’re a good team, but one that will remain an NCAA bubble squad barring a couple more upsets.
8. Oregon State (12-10, 4-8)
The Beavers are essentially the best of the worst. They’re better than Washington State, as proven by a 3-2 win on Saturday. They’ve beaten Utah, Arizona State and Colorado. But Oregon State hasn’t really come close to beating any of the big guns in the conference.
While Oregon and Arizona have a chance to make the NCAA tournament, the Beavers have no such shot. There’s a huge drop off after the Wildcats.
9. Washington State (11-11, 3-9)
There’s Meagan Ganzar, and then there’s everyone else on the Cougars’ squad. Ganzar, a senior outside hitter, leads the Pac-12 in points and kills, not an easy task in a power-packed conference.
Ganzar’s singlehanded production is seemingly never enough to get Washington State a win, but it can keep the squad in sets. It also leads to teams keying up on her, an effective defensive strategy which all but shuts down the Cougars’ attack.
Washington State is on a four-match skid since beating Pac-12 bottom-feeder Colorado, most recently suffering a five-set loss to Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore.
10. Utah (8-14, 3-10)
The Utes haven’t done much this season. The Pac-12 newcomer has beaten Arizona State and Colorado as expected, and defeated Washington State on the road, 3-1.
The Cougars, at least, have played Oregon State much closer recently, giving them an edge over Utah.
11. Arizona State (5-16, 1-11)
The Sun Devils one win came against Colorado in mid-October. Arizona State has shown some bite against big-time teams, taking a set from Stanford this weekend, as well as USC and Cal a little farther back. The scrappy squad from Tempe is very tough at the service line, but struggle at the net.
12. Colorado (5-16, 0-13)
The Buffaloes are still looking like they don’t belong in the Pac-12. Colorado keeps getting beat up on a routine basis, and have won only a single set in conference play.
That small victory came in the third frame against UCLA on Friday, which shows some heart on the brink of elimination. After getting blown out in the first two sets, the Buffaloes showed some life in the last two, but couldn’t extend the match into five.
Perhaps they’ll find a sleeping Oregon State squad this weekend and get that much needed win.