After four consecutive titles by Penn State, the race for volleyball's NCAA championship last year was considered a toss-up. Six different teams were ranked No. 1 during the course of the season in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
Add in the NCAA committee's bizarro bracket -- which appeared to rely almost robotically on RPI and not much at all on reasoning or the eye test -- and the free-for-all really began with the national tournament.
When it was all over in San Antonio in December, the last team standing was UCLA, the supposed No. 9 seed. Despite the Pac-12 being under-seeded as a league, both the Bruins and Southern Cal made the Final Four.
It wouldn't be a stretch to see both get back this year, when the event is held in Louisville, Ky., on Dec. 13 and 15. But there are plenty of other contenders, most of them familiar names.
There's a lot more volleyball on television and the Internet than a few years ago. The formation of broadcasting entities such as the Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network and Longhorn Network, combined with the likes of ESPNU, ESPN3 and Fox Sports Networks, has given the sport more exposure.
That's especially true for the Big Ten and Pac-12, and action gets under way this week with a matchup of two of the best teams in those leagues when UCLA meets Nebraska at 7 p.m. ET Saturday on the Big Ten Network. On Aug. 31, that network will feature Penn State versus Stanford.
1. Best in the West?
The Bruins start this season ranked No. 1, but coach Michael Sealy isn't talking about repeating. It isn't his style to feed into the "expectations" machine. He goes in the opposite direction.
"We aren't buying into the thought process that there should be more expectations now," Sealy said. "We are just seeing ourselves as a middle-of-the-road team."
That's playing possum more than a bit; with starters such as Rachael Kidder, Kelly Reeves, Bojana Todorovic and Tabi Love back, the Bruins certainly won't be just average.
But Sealy is wise enough about the vagaries of the rugged Pac-12: You think you have it all figured out one week, only to have it reshuffled a week later. We'll focus here on the teams projected to finish in the top three in the league, but it's a very deep conference in which any favorite could get tripped up.
The Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12, but perennial power Stanford isn't far behind. And unlike Sealy, Stanford coach John Dunning said "the right thing to do with this team is to set the expectations as high as possible."
Stanford returns all but one starter and has a strong group of seniors. Add to that the No. 1-ranked freshman class.
The Cardinal went through a tragedy in March with the death of outside hitter Sam Wopat; her twin, Carly, a junior middle blocker, remains with the team. Stanford has had some time to process this, but there are sure to be some painful moments this year.
Carly Wopat and fellow junior Rachel Williams will be keys in 2012, just as they were in 2011, when they combined to record 54 percent of the team's kills and 75 percent of its blocks.
Southern Cal lost standouts Alex Jupiter at outside hitter, Kendall Bateman at setter and Lauren Williams at middle blocker, so the Trojans have some growing to do. But coach Mick Haley has been pleased with his younger players and said he believes his team is physical and athletic. And Bateman is still around as a graduate student working with the team.
USC was ranked No, 1 at the end of the regular season last year but wasn't treated well by the NCAA committee. After going through the toughest region just to make the Final Four, the Trojans lost a five-setter to Illinois in the semifinals.
Speaking of that region, which was in Honolulu, two of the other teams that were there also should be strong again. Hawaii is ranked No. 8 in the preseason and Pepperdine is No. 11.
Hawaii is back in the Big West this season (for all sports except football, in which it plays in the Mountain West). The Big West makes great sense for Hawaii volleyball; the Rainbow Wahine previously competed in that league from 1985-95. They're picked to win it this year, but Long Beach State will try to hold its ground there.
Meanwhile, Pepperdine lost a lot to graduation but still is picked to finish third in the West Coast Conference behind San Diego and Saint Mary's, who tied for first in the preseason poll.
2. Time for another Texas title?
The Longhorns are loaded, but that's not anything new. Texas was the No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA tournament, although that was another slave-to-the-RPI decision. Even most Longhorns loyalists probably realized Texas wasn't the best team in the country.
Still, the fans made the short drive from Austin to San Antonio, hoping to see what would have been the Longhorns' fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four. It was not to be, as Texas lost in the regional final to eventual champ UCLA.
The Longhorns have been good enough to challenge for a national championship several times in recent years, but Texas has won the title only once, in 1988.
Nearly a quarter-century later, can the Longhorns do it again? It's possible, as No. 2-ranked Texas brings back most of its best performers, save for the graduated Rachael Adams.
Bailey Webster, a 6-foot-2 junior outside hitter, is the preseason pick to repeat as the Big 12 Player of the Year, and Molly McCage, a middle blocker, got the preseason nod as the conference's freshman of the year. Haley Eckerman, the team's kill leader, returns for her sophomore season.
Texas was the unanimous selection to win the Big 12, which in the past two years has lost Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC. Newcomers TCU and West Virginia are not adequate replacements in terms of volleyball profile.
The teams most likely to challenge Texas in the Big 12 are No. 10 Iowa State and No. 22 Kansas State. The Cyclones lost in their regional final last year, while the Wildcats made it to the Sweet 16.
The Longhorns have enough depth and ability to run the table in the Big 12, although they will have to do some experimentation with lineups, because there are a lot of possibilities.
3. Huskers, Nittany Lions ... or somebody else?
Nebraska won the 2011 Big Ten regular-season title in the school's first year in the conference. But the Cornhuskers started to fade at the time when they most wanted to peak. As a result, they were shocked on their home court in the NCAA's second round by Kansas State, a team that Nebraska had mostly owned during its decades of Big Eight/Big 12 play.
They take their volleyball seriously in Lincoln, Neb., so that loss, combined with a Sweet 16 defeat the season before, almost constitutes a drought for the Huskers.
Nebraska, picked to win the league again, is led by three seniors who are preseason All-Big Ten: setter Lauren Cook and outside hitters Hannah Werth and Gina Mancuso. And Dani Busboom, one of the sparkplug players on Nebraska's last NCAA title team (2006), is back as an assistant coach.
Penn State is picked to finish second in the league. However, the AVCA poll has Penn State No. 3 nationally and Nebraska No. 4. Star hitter Deja McClendon returns for the Nittany Lions, and she'd like nothing better than to finish the season in her hometown of Louisville.
Penn State lost to UCLA in the Sweet 16 last year. The Nittany Lions were young, but coach Russ Rose didn't use that as an excuse and got irritated when asked about it. In Rose's view, freshman or not, once you get to a program the status of Penn State's, you'd better be ready to play.
Of course, the volleyball team -- like the entire Penn State community -- has had a lot to deal with in the past year. This squad could bring some pride back to a campus that needs a boost.
Purdue, which made the Sweet 16 last year and the Elite Eight the year before, was picked third in the Big Ten. The league team that went the furthest last year, Illinois, was chosen No. 7 in the AVCA preseason poll but was picked fifth by the league's coaches.
Minnesota is picked fourth in the Big Ten, and the Gophers will have coach Hugh McCutcheon in place full time. He was named to the position in February 2011 but was with the U.S. women's national team through the recent Olympics, in which the Americans took silver.
4. What's up with the SEC?
The Southeastern Conference is strong in women's sports, but the league has never had a team win the NCAA volleyball title. The closest it has come was Florida's runner-up finish to USC in 2003; LSU and Tennessee also have made Final Four appearances.
No. 13 Kentucky, No. 15 Tennessee and No. 18 Florida are all ranked in the preseason AVCA poll and are coming off good seasons. The Vols won their first outright SEC title in 2011. Florida made the Elite Eight. And Kentucky, which has raised its profile in this sport in recent years, went to the Sweet 16. With the Final Four in nearby Louisville, the Wildcats would love for this to be the year they make a big breakthrough.
There are two additions this year to the SEC, and both have solid volleyball credentials. Missouri and Texas A&M come from the Big 12. So many years of having to regularly face the likes of powerhouses Nebraska and Texas mean the Tigers and Aggies bring a battle-tested history into the SEC. They are likely going to make an impact on the conference.
5. Best of the rest?
• Florida State had a breakthrough for the ACC last year, becoming the first school from that league to advance to the Final Four. The No. 12 Seminoles were picked to win the ACC, which they've done two of the past three years.
• Northern Iowa is a perennial national contender out of the Missouri Valley Conference, and the No. 21-ranked Panthers are again the unanimous favorite in their league.
• Behind senior outside hitter Tyler Henderson, Tulsa is predicted to win its third consecutive Conference USA title. The Golden Hurricane are 38-2 in their past two years of league play.
• Might the hometown team make a Cinderella-like appearance in the Final Four? Louisville won its first Big East regular-season title last year and was picked to finish first in the conference again. But no Big East volleyball team has ever advanced to the Final Four.