Make way for the Chippewas
Before we get to the royalty of college soccer, spare a thought for Central Michigan.
Home games this week against struggling Akron and Buffalo give the Chippewas an opportunity to stockpile results in advance of next week's showdown against fellow Mid-American Conference division leader Miami.
Why, you might ask with slightly stronger language, is this worth mentioning beyond MAC circles? Because Central Michigan has played just two home games this season, spending almost as much time on roads across the Midwest as the two fellows running for the White House. Consider some of the opponents on this soccer tour: West Virginia, Penn State, Dayton, Marquette, Texas A&M and Purdue.
Such a schedule might have left a team from the MAC shell-shocked and splintered. But the Chippewas, which beat West Virginia on a neutral field and beat Dayton and drew Marquette on the road, are 9-4-1 overall, 5-1-0 in conference play and ranked No. 34 in this week's RPI. That after a 2-1 overtime win against Northern Illinois last week in which they played with 10 players for more than 80 minutes until Christen Chiesa scored the dramatic winner.
The teams below are the best college soccer has to offer, but no team has gone the extra mile -- and several more -- quite like Central Michigan.
If you feel like adopting a second team, the Chippewas surely won't mind. They may well be coming to a town near you.
1. Florida State (12-0-0)It is remarkable how well the schedule fell into place for the Seminoles. Coming off a 7-0 rout against Clemson last week, they will have played just six games in 31 days entering Thursday's game against Virginia Tech (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET) and Sunday's showdown against Virginia (ESPN3, 1 p.m.). That's a good way to keep legs fresh and bodies healthy in the middle of the season. While there aren't any breaks ahead, they could conceivably leave the state of Florida just once, admittedly for a tricky swing through Maryland and Boston College, between Oct. 1 and the College Cup.
2. UCLA (11-0-2)The end of the road is finally in sight for the Bruins, which swept visits to Oregon and Oregon State last week and have only this week's game at Washington remaining in a stretch of five in a row away from Westwood. They did surrender a goal in a 4-1 win against Oregon State, but that's just five conceded on the season. After surrendering at least 20 goals in 2009 and 2010, UCLA has allowed 17 goals in 34 games under second-year coach B.J. Snow.
3. Stanford (11-1-1)The Cardinal swept their trip to Colorado and Utah, but they did so by one-goal margins in both games. That included two goals in the 79th minute of a 2-1 win against Colorado -- one of which was the fourth of the season for stalwart defender Alina Garciamendez, doubling her career total entering the season. Three of Stanford's five Pac-12 wins are by a single goal, matching the most it had in conference play in any of the past four seasons.
4. Penn State (12-2-0)In a season where other contenders seem to lead with clean sheets and score only as needed, Penn State continues putting scoreboards to good use. After twice allowing Indiana to draw even in their lone game last week, the Nittany Lions piled up three goals in a six-minute stretch of the second half to earn a 5-2 win. That makes 10 times this season they have scored at least three goals, including six times in seven games since a loss at BYU.
5. Maryland (10-3-2)The biggest red flag on Maryland's résumé is, and will remain, that 1-0 loss at home against Fordham in September, a game in which Maryland had a 29-5 edge in shots and 13-1 edge in shots on goal. Rising to the occasion to take points against Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest didn't erase that; neither will a 3-0 win at NC State last week. But in addition to the big wins, winning without drama as a road favorite is a positive.
6. Duke (10-3-1)Want a mind-bending statistic? The Blue Devils aren't ranked in the top 150 this week in goals-against average. All right, perhaps some minds are more easily bent than others. The Blue Devils kept conceding goals last week, so why are they sixth? Because they also earned two wins with a little grit and a lot of offense, but without Kelly Cobb, in a 3-2 win in overtime at Virginia Tech and a 4-2 win at home against Boston College. Another home-road combo awaits, Thursday at NC State (ESPN3, 7 p.m.) and Sunday against Wake Forest (ESPN3, 1 p.m.).
7. North Carolina (7-3-2)Ranee Premji scored the only goal off a terrific cross from Kealia Ohai, but the Tar Heels clearly deserved their 1-0 win against Boston College. We're starting to see the interplay develop between Ohai and Summer Green, who played her first game since returning from the Under-17 World Cup. The only test this week is one of focus with a lone game at Clemson, but an identity-defining week awaits after that with games at Duke and at home against Wake Forest.
8. Florida (10-3-1)Are the Gators entering the rankings by jumping over some teams that didn't do anything wrong? You bet. It may be putting too much emphasis on one result, but a 2-1 win on the road against previously one-loss Texas A&M was an impressive result from a team that played impressive soccer to get it. Maybe that game was the best-case scenario for Adriana Leon and Erika Tymrak at the top of the attack, but it was really, really good. We'll see soon enough, with first place in the SEC again on the line Friday at home against Missouri (12-2-0).
9. Texas A&M (12-2-1)Dropping a game against Florida isn't the end of the world for Texas A&M, which had an edge in play early but slowly found itself on its heels to a degree that left Annie Kunz, Shea Groom and other forwards alternately isolated or spending too much time doing defensive triage in their own half. This week's trips to Arkansas and Vanderbilt shouldn't offer a similar physical test, so the challenge is to see how the Aggies react mentally.
10. BYU (11-1-1)There's nothing inherently bad about a 0-0 home draw against a good Santa Clara team, BYU's lone result last week, especially considering the Cougars had the edge in shots 22-9 and forced Broncos keeper Andi Tostanoski to make 11 saves. So what's the "but" coming? Just that BYU's undeniably impressive résumé is largely built on home results, which means holding them to a higher standard there. A win at wounded Portland on Saturday would be a big deal.
• Virginia was a tough omission after a 2-1 loss at home against Wake Forest, itself a contender but for a subsequent draw against Kansas. San Diego State (12-1-1) was the toughest team to exclude from this week's rankings, especially after the Aztecs went on the road for a 3-2 win at Portland, playing that Sunday game two days after a win at Boise State against a Portland team that came in rested. Sarah Halverson scored the winner in both games, an impressive feat considering those were her first two goals of the season, but leading scorer Megan Jurado's beautifully placed strike from 25 yards for the second goal against the Pilots had to be the highlight of the weekend.
• Boston College exited the Power Rankings a couple of weeks ago and now must be careful it doesn't slip out of the top eight in the ACC altogether, thus missing the conference tournament. But don't write off the Eagles. Against North Carolina and Duke last week, Boston College looked less like a team outclassed than a team short on efficiency in the final third. Two big opportunities await, beginning with Thursday's home game against Maryland and another home game next week against Florida State.
• West Virginia is doing just fine in the Big 12, sitting atop the conference table as it welcomes Baylor for an important game Friday, but the league it left looks muddled. Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame, the three Big East teams with cases for the Power Rankings, all drew against weaker foes Sunday to slow their momentum. That takes some luster from Friday's game in the nation's capital between Notre Dame and Georgetown, but it's still a chance for the young Fighting Irish or the unheralded Hoyas to make a statement.
• In addition to the ACC games mentioned, Sunday offers a chance to see Florida's game against Mississippi State (ESPN3, 2 p.m.) and an intriguing Big 12 game with Baylor visiting Oklahoma State (ESPNU, 5 p.m.). More on Baylor's rise to prominence later this week.