Key conference matchups take center stage

Conference season is here. And Wednesday brings two terrific, televised rivalry matches that involve the top four teams in this week's American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.

One matchup is an age-old rivalry in all sports: UCLA vs. USC. The No. 1 Bruins visit the No. 2 Trojans at Southern California's Galen Center, televised live on ESPNU at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday. (Newly named U.S. women's national team coach Karch Kiraly joins Sam Gore on the broadcast.)

Before that, No. 3 Nebraska -- which suffered its first match loss of the season Saturday -- takes on No. 4 Penn State (8 p.m., Big Ten Network). Those teams were national rivals in volleyball before they became conference mates last year when the Huskers joined the Big Ten.

The four schools combined have won 15 NCAA titles, including the past six.

1. UCLA (8-1)

After sweeping Pepperdine on Wednesday, the Bruins got the test coach Michael Sealy was expecting at Colorado State on Saturday. He scheduled the Rams for that purpose, and they gave the Bruins all they could handle before UCLA prevailed 15-10 in the fifth set. Sophomore Megan Moenoa and freshman Becca Strehlow continue to share time at setter.

2. Nebraska (8-1)

Maybe we didn't drop the Huskers far enough from No. 1 after their 3-1 loss Saturday at Iowa State. But the defeat in Ames, Iowa, was the kind you could see coming. The Cyclones were mega geared up to face their former Big 12 mates, and Nebraska couldn't match that emotional energy. Can the Huskers do any better Wednesday in State College, Pa.?

3. Oregon (9-0)

Speaking of rivalries, the Ducks open Pac-12 play Wednesday with a visit from Oregon State, which is 10-2 and handed Penn State its only loss thus far in 2012. Then, on Friday, Oregon travels to USC, another league team out to prove to doubters that it's as good as its record.

4. Penn State (10-1)

As expected, the Nittany Lions swept their way through the Penn State Classic this past weekend, beating Portland, Duquesne and Eastern Illinois. Also as expected, coach Russ Rose still saw problems with the Nittany Lions' serving and energy level. They'll need both to improve against Nebraska.

5. Washington (9-0)

The Huskies still haven't lost a set this season, a streak Washington State would like to snap Tuesday night in Seattle. Huskies senior Kylin Munoz has hit better than .500 for the past three Washington matches; her mom, April, also played volleyball for the Huskies (1989-90).

6. Southern Cal (12-0)

The Trojans are the defending Pac-12 champions, but they had to replace a lot of graduated talent and thus didn't have a very challenging nonconference schedule. But the level of competition will rise dramatically when they meet UCLA. The Trojans lead the overall series 52-45; the teams are 5-5 in their past 10 meetings.

7. Kansas State (12-0)

The Wildcats, an NCAA Sweet 16 team last year, are off to their best start in school history. They won the Golden Hurricane Classic in Tulsa this past weekend behind middle blocker Kaitlyn Pelger, who subsequently was named the Big 12's offensive player of the week. K-State defeated two ranked opponents -- Minnesota and Dayton -- back-to-back, which was another first in program history.

8. Minnesota (9-2)

The Gophers split matchups with Texas the previous week, but, this past weekend, it was another foe from the Big 12 that toppled Minnesota: Kansas State. The Wildcats won that battle 3-2. Next up for the Gophers is their Big Ten opener at Illinois, which -- like Minnesota -- has a victory this season against Texas.

9. Stanford (8-2)

The Cardinal begin Pac-12 play with another of college sports' great rivalries: Stanford gets a visit from Cal on Wednesday. This past Saturday, Stanford defeated Saint Mary's for the second time this year (they met in Hawaii to start the season), and Cardinal freshmen Madi Bugg, Jordan Burgess and Inky Ajanaku all played well against the Gaels.

10. Louisville (11-1)

The Big East favorite Cardinals suffered their only loss back in August, when they fell to visiting Penn State. Since then, Louisville has won nine in a row. The Cardinals open their Big East season against DePaul and Notre Dame.

Digs

• It was a good trip to the Lone Star State this past weekend for Illinois. The Illini entered the Texas Invitational with a 3-4 record but won all three matches in Austin: 3-2 over the host Longhorns, 3-0 over Central Florida and 3-1 over Cincinnati. Now Illinois will start Big Ten season at home, with Minnesota and Wisconsin visiting this weekend.

• Looking for Texas and Hawaii in the power rankings? The Longhorns' loss to Illinois on Friday was their third defeat of this season. Meanwhile, the Rainbow Wahine were idle last week. Well, not exactly: Hawaii had an intrasquad match and faced a team of Wahine alums. The Horns and the Bows likely won't be out of this top 10 for very long.

• Florida, one of the SEC's perennially strong teams, faces league newcomer Missouri in Gainesville, Fla., this Friday. The Tigers are 10-2 overall and have won their first two SEC matches, against Tennessee and Mississippi last week.

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