Conference questions: Stanford’s rankings, Pac-12 versus Big Ten, and USC’s resurgence

Does Stanford really deserve its No. 8 national ranking despite two early season losses?

Stanford began the season with two prestigious tournaments filled with top competition. But after losing two games to Hawaii and Penn State, the Cardinal only moved down the ranking three spots and has recently moved back up one spot in the past week.

Looking around the national landscape, no other top-ten schools had such a hard time with their first five games, making Stanford’s record stand out like a sore on the poll.

Yet no matter what some people may say, the Cardinal deserve such a high ranking.

Part of the reason people should not start questioning the Cardinal is that two of their losses came against elite opponents. On August 26th, on Hawaii’s home turf, Stanford lost their first game of the season 3-2 to No. 9 Rainbow Wahines.

Immediately following the loss, the Cardinal came face to face with perennial powerhouse No. 2 Penn State.  In an extremely close, 5-set match, Stanford fell 3-2 to the Nittany Lions.

Considering Stanford’s nonconference schedule thus far, it is not surprising the squad has already been beaten twice. Stanford can expect to boost their win total and prove its early season record will mean nothing.

Do multiple Pac-12 teams losing to top Big Ten teams indicate a shift in conference strength?

On August 25th, then No. 1 UCLA traveled to Lincoln to face then No. 4 Nebraska. The Bruins faced a hostile crowd, making the match feel more like a postseason meeting between the two top ranked reams. The 4,000 plus fans made an instant impact, and helped the Cornhuskers pull out a narrow two-point game, 15-13 to clinch the victory.

Six days later on August 31st, Stanford traveled to State College to face No. 2 Penn State. The raucous home crowd motivated the Nittany Lions to a dominating 25-13 first set and helped them prevail the Cardinal in yet another close, five-set victory.

Despite the Pac-12’s top teams dropping key nonconference games to its Big Ten foes, the Pac-12 is still the premier conference for volleyball in the country.

The Pac-12 still dominates the rankings with five teams in the top 13 and even more talented teams farther down. In contrast, the Big Ten only has a top-heavy distribution of power with Nebraska and Penn State sitting at the top two.

Furthermore, the fact that both UCLA and Stanford had to travel far for a tough away match has to be considered.

So, the short answer is no — despite the losses, the Pac-12 is still a better conference.

Is USC poised to make another run at the NCAA semifinals?

The Trojans have a chance at another NCAA tournament appearance, but another semifinals run seems unlikely.

So far this year, No. 5 USC has posted a solid 6-0 record and has looked impressive in all their games. The squadd so far defeated Texas A&M at College Station and has won 18 sets while only dropping two.

Leading the squad is the team’s first all-American libero junior Natalie Hagglund who ranked second in the conference with 5.14 digs/set. The team also returns senior Katie Fuller who had 2.83 kills per set en route to an all-American honorable mention.

While USC looks like a top-5 team at first glance, closer analysis reveals a team with many holes and a weak schedule thus far.

Despite the return of Hagglund and Fuller, the Trojans lost most of its veterant talent. AVCA National Player of the Year Alex Jupiter, 2011 Pac-12 setter of the year Kendall Batemen and middle blocker Lauren Williams graduated, leaving the team without three all-Americans, a hard gap to fill with four new freshman.

The Trojan’s early season has not tested them yet. Most teams do not hail from top conferences and three of the matches have been at home.

Although USC would love to repeat last year’s success, they may end up sorely disappointed.

Austin Crochetiere covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected].

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