Pac-12 powers battle for national supremacy

Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI

Chioma Ubogagu and her Stanford teammates hope to hand UCLA its first loss on the year.

It is not the biggest college soccer game in California this year, but it's big enough for October. The top two teams in these power rankings and the NSCAA Top 25 meet Sunday in Los Angeles.

The rivalry game between Stanford and UCLA has become the most significant each season west of the Rocky Mountains. Portland and Santa Clara set a standard of excellence in the Pacific time zone, winning three national championships in the first decade of the new century. The West Coast Conference remains far more of a major player in the sport than a mid-major league, but the two Pac-12 powers, once sleeping giants, now have a grip on power in the present. Perfect locations, great academics, innovative coaching and Pac-12 resources -- you couldn't design better conditions for success.

Prior to 2000, Stanford's College Cup appearance in 1993 was the only one for either school. Little more than a decade later, UCLA's eight appearances are tied for the fourth-most in NCAA history. Stanford capped its fourth consecutive trip to the College Cup with its first national championship last season, the second for a Pac-12 program.

The nation's top two teams will meet Sunday, with the Pac-12 regular-season title at least unofficially up for grabs.

Both teams rank among the top 25 nationally in scoring offense and goals-against average, with the Cardinal fifth on the offensive side and the Bruins first on the defensive side. They are two of only five teams from BCS conferences or the WCC that are in the top 25 in both. But these also are not yet the recognizable juggernauts of seasons past, not to the degree of names such as Sydney Leroux, Lauren Cheney, Kara Lang, Kelley O'Hara, Christen Press and Teresa Noyola. There won't be a likely Hermann Trophy finalist on the field Sunday. Many of the most recognizable names on both sides are still in the early stages of their careers, players like Stanford's Chioma Ubogagu and UCLA's Samantha Mewis and Sarah Killion (all of whom played for the United States in the Under-20 World Cup earlier this fall). Stanford's 10 seniors continue playing out of the shadow of their predecessors.

Potentially tricky games await both beforehand, with UCLA hosting California and Stanford visiting USC on Friday. By Sunday night, we will have a better sense of which team is the favorite to win the biggest game of the year on the West Coast -- the national championship game Dec. 2 in San Diego.

1. UCLA (14-0-2)

It was a workmanlike week for the new No. 1, who didn't so much seize the top spot as settle into it. The Bruins remained unbeaten with a pair of conference wins, 2-1 against Colorado and 2-0 against Utah. UCLA's last and only loss in the B.J. Snow era came in a 4-1 defeat at Stanford on Oct. 9, 2011 (the Bruins exited last season's NCAA tournament in a penalty shootout that went in the books as a draw).

2. Stanford (14-1-1)

The Cardinal gave up multiple goals in a game for just the second time this season in a 3-2 win against Washington State. Add in a 3-0 win against Washington and they also scored at least three goals in three consecutive games for the second time this fall. The win against the Huskies provided an odd array of goals: Stanford scoring off a penalty kick, directly off a corner kick (both by Courtney Verloo) and an own goal by Washington.

3. Florida State (15-1-0)

The important takeaway from last week is the Seminoles clinched the ACC regular-season title, their second in four seasons, after beating Maryland 1-0 on the road. But as this ranking suggests, it wasn't a perfect week. A 3-2 loss at Boston College amplified what all of the one-goal wins that preceded suggested. As good as Florida State is when it controls possession, it's like every other contender this season when it comes to a small margin for error.

4. BYU (14-1-1)

We're getting ahead of ourselves, but BYU controls its own destiny when it comes to hosting deep into the NCAA tournament. For a team with one of the best home-field advantages out there, that's a big prize. Still, three more WCC road games will test them. Portland transfer Cloee Colohan, who had a goal and an assist in last week's win against Gonzaga, might be the most valuable newcomer anywhere influencing games beyond her stats.

5. Penn State (15-2-1)

A 1-1 draw between Penn State and Michigan clinched another Big Ten title for the Nittany Lions and opened the door for some interesting postseason possibilities. Penn State held a 31-9 edge in shots and 12-3 edge in corners, but it took a penalty in the 86th minute to salvage the point. Penn State remains No. 4 in the RPI, but could the draw, on top of an earlier loss to BYU, cost it a chance to host an NCAA tournament quarterfinal?

6. Wake Forest (12-3-3)

The program's first win at North Carolina was a nice punctuation mark on a building theme. The Demon Deacons managed without Under-20 international Katie Stengel for the first month of the season. They managed with Rachel Nuzzolese in and out of the lineup because of injuries. But with Stengel and Nuzzolese back in front of a steady, veteran lineup, Wake Forest is beginning to look like a team that may peak at just the right time. Even a draw in the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech would secure second place outright in the ACC.

7. North Carolina (9-4-2)

The 2-1 loss against Wake Forest was a fair fight. North Carolina was undone by a defensive lapse on a corner kick and a bit of individual brilliance from Stengel. That disappointment came days after a 2-0 win at Duke in which Meg Morris scored the eventual winner in the 10th minute. North Carolina kept the pressure on with 18 shots requiring seven saves. A win at NC State in the regular-season finale might be enough to host an ACC quarterfinal.

8. San Diego State (16-1-1)

The Mountain West, in which San Diego State clinched the regular-season title with a sweep of Wyoming and Air Force, isn't in the top tier of conferences, but the Aztecs strengthened their profile with a tough, regional schedule out of conference. And after scoring two or fewer goals in each of their first nine games (a stretch in which they still went 7-1-1, with the lone loss a one-goal setback against Stanford), they have scored three goals in seven of their past nine games.

9. Virginia (12-4-1)

Welcome back to Virginia, which responded to the disappointment of a 1-0 overtime loss at Florida State on a penalty kick by routing in-state rival Virginia Tech 5-0. The victory included a hat trick from senior Caroline Miller. That was the last of three consecutive road games and five of the past seven on the road for the Cavaliers. Sophomore midfield engine Morgan Brian had six shots in 83 minutes in her eighth appearance since the Under-20 World Cup.

10. Baylor (13-1-4)

Baylor can't catch regular-season champion West Virginia in the Big 12, but the team from Waco is making a strong statement of late. A week after road draws against West Virginia and Oklahoma State, a challenging test of travel in which it had an edge in the run of play in both games, Baylor beat Texas -- in overtime -- and Iowa State. The Bears are big, physical and play an old-school direct style, but they play it well and with absolute conviction.

Free kicks

• It's an election year, so in the spirit of endorsements, consider this one for Kentucky sophomore Arin Gilliland. If you haven't watched the Wildcats' star, make an effort. A defender with international potential, she has been playing up top for Kentucky in recent games to spark the offense and solidify Kentucky's NCAA tournament profile. The results? Four consecutive SEC wins, including wins last week against South Carolina and Auburn, and goals in three consecutive games. Fast, strong and technically gifted, she's the real deal.

• The Big East is the first big conference to start its tournament, and it won't take long to find postseason implications. Connecticut, DePaul and Villanova all enter play in Thursday's opening round likely needing the Big East's automatic bid to reach the NCAA tournament, but the fourth team in action is a different story. Ranked 38th in this week's RPI, Rutgers closed the regular season with a flourish, including a draw at Notre Dame and a win against Louisville, thanks in no small part to Canadian Jonelle Filigno playing like one of the best players in the league. With just two RPI top-50 wins, the Scarlet Knights still need to win at Connecticut in the first round and take their best shot at a third top-50 win at Marquette in the quarterfinals to boost their NCAA at-large profile.

• Two regular-season finales are available on ESPN3 on Thursday, with North Carolina's visit to NC State at 7 p.m. ET and Missouri's visit to Texas A&M at 8 p.m. ET. The Aggies slipped out of the power rankings after last week's loss against Tennessee (they also beat Georgia in overtime), but this will be a game between two teams in the RPI top 30 with the SEC tournament on the horizon.

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