Power Rankings: Missouri making noise

Ben Walton/Mizzou Athletics

Senior Lisa Henning has been a big part of Missouri's success, leading the Tigers with 249 kills.

For most of its history, the Missouri volleyball program had a nearly unbeatable goliath to deal with: Nebraska. From 1975 to 2010, first in the Big Eight and then the Big 12, the Tigers faced the Huskers 75 times. Nebraska won 71 of those meetings, Missouri won three times, and there was a tie. (Yeah, that's weird. It was in 1977, and the teams played just two sets.)

Suffice it to say, Nebraska was a Big Red nightmare, although the Tigers did at least have an edge over loathed rival Kansas, which never beat the Huskers in 87 meetings. (KU did have one tie with Nebraska -- yep, in 1977, two sets.)

At any rate, Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten after the 2010 season, and Missouri left for the SEC after 2011. No more regularly scheduled matchups with Nebraska -- or Kansas, for that matter -- for Mizzou.

The Tigers are in their second season in the SEC, where they are currently undefeated and just got into the American Volleyball Coaches Association rankings at No. 25.

Missouri's move to the SEC raised questions in a lot of sports about whether the Tigers' programs could consistently be competitive in that league. But volleyball was one of the sports where it seemed likely the Tigers might thrive and even one day be considered a potential league champion.

That said, is there another giant to deal with in the SEC? Absolutely: Florida, a seven-time participant in the final four and the SEC's standard-bearer. The SEC -- which has never had an NCAA champion in volleyball -- has taken strides in the past several years to become a better league in this sport.

Last year, it was a tough first season in the league for the Tigers, who went 10-10 in the SEC and 19-12 overall.

So far this season, Missouri is 18-0 and 3-0 in the league, with victories against South Carolina, Arkansas and Auburn. This week, the Tigers have a nonconference matchup with Austin Peay and face Tennessee. Senior Lisa Henning leads Missouri with 249 kills. Senior Molly Kreklow -- who leads the nation in assists per set at 12.57 -- is one of the top setters in the league.

Their home meetings with the other two ranked SEC schools -- No. 2 Florida (Oct. 20) and No. 15 Kentucky (Nov. 3) -- are a little ways down the road, and both should draw large and loud crowds to the Hearnes Center. Then the Tigers will have to face both those schools, also currently unbeaten in league play, on the road in November.

There's still a lot left for the Tigers to navigate, but they are off to a good start at returning to the NCAA tournament, in which they last appeared in 2011.

Here are this week's espnW Power Rankings:

1. USC (14-1)

For the second week in a row, the Trojans are atop our list. On Monday, they moved into the No. 1 spot in the AVCA poll too after victories over Stanford (3-0) and Cal (3-2) combined with Washington's loss at Colorado. USC swept the weekly Pac-12 awards, with Alexis Olgard as offensive player of the week while Natalie Hagglund picked up the defensive honor and Ebony Nwanebu the freshman award. The Trojans travel to Oregon State and Oregon this weekend.

2. Texas (10-2)

The Longhorns are coming off victories over Baylor and LSU. This week, they host Texas Tech and travel to Kansas. Last year, the Jayhawks pushed Texas to a fifth set in Lawrence, Kan., before the Longhorns prevailed 15-12. Expect a packed gym of Kansas fans Saturday trying to cheer their Jayhawks to an upset of the defending national champs.

3. Penn State (12-2)

Last week, the Nittany Lions swept Indiana but had to go to five sets to win at Purdue. Junior Micha Hancock was Big Ten setter of the week, the 11th time she's earned that honor. This week, two upset-minded teams will visit Penn State: Minnesota and Wisconsin.

4. Florida (15-1)

The Gators, now No. 2 in the AVCA poll, beat Texas A&M and Alabama last week and have opened the SEC season with four consecutive sweeps. However, their projected toughest league opponent -- No. 15 Kentucky -- is up next, as the Wildcats visit Gainesville, Fla., on Friday. On Sunday, Florida hosts Georgia.

5. Washington (11-1)

The Huskies were No. 1 in the AVCA poll last week but dropped to No. 6 after their first loss of the season, 3-1 at Colorado. They came back to sweep Utah, and this week are home to face Arizona and No. 16 Arizona State.

6. Hawaii (15-1)

Last week, the Rainbow Wahine swept Long Beach State, the team picked to finish second to Hawaii in the Big West. Then Hawaii went four sets in a victory at UC Irvine. Senior Emily Hartong had a combined 39 kills in those two matches and was named Big West player of the week for the third time this season. It's back home to Honolulu this week, with UCSB and Cal Poly visiting.

7. Michigan State (15-1)

There was no letup for the Spartans after their previous huge week of beating then-No. 1 Penn State and Ohio State, as they defeated Illinois and Northwestern. This weekend, Michigan State has two contrasting matches: versus Iowa, a team it should dominate, and against Nebraska, which will be one of the marquee meetings of the Big Ten season. In the AVCA poll, the Spartans are No. 7 and the Huskers are No. 9; they are tied atop the league standings at 4-0.

8. Nebraska (11-2)

The Huskers swept Minnesota and outlasted Wisconsin in five sets last week. Kelsey Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee, had a career-high 29 kills in the victory over the Badgers. She shared Big Ten player of the week honors with Michigan State's Lauren Wicinski, and those two will meet up Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. Before traveling to Michigan State, Nebraska has a tough match at nearby Michigan on Friday.

9. Stanford (10-3)

The Cardinal swept UCLA last week then lost 3-0 to USC. The Trojans were the only team to defeat Stanford in Pac-12 play last year, and they did it again last week. This week, the Cardinal are host to Utah and Colorado, which is coming off an upset of Washington.

10. North Carolina (15-0)

With sweeps over Syracuse and Boston College, the Tar Heels moved to No. 10 in the AVCA poll, the highest ranking in UNC volleyball history. Who would most like to knock the Tar Heels from that perch? Rival Duke, of course, which visits Chapel Hill, N.C., on Friday. That match can be seen on ESPN3 at 7 p.m. ET. The Blue Devils, 13-2, are 4-0 in the league, as is UNC.

Next in line: Minnesota, San Diego, Kentucky, Colorado State, Wisconsin

Digs

• Last week, seven teams had votes for No. 1 in the AVCA poll. This week, it's five -- USC, Florida, Texas, Hawaii and Michigan State -- with the vast majority going to the Trojans (47 of 60).

• Colorado got its second victory over a No. 1-ranked squad in program history when the Buffs defeated Washington on Friday. They followed that up with a win over Washington State. The Buffs also have upset UCLA this season, on Sept. 27. The only other time Colorado took down No. 1, it was Nebraska in 2006, when both programs were in the Big 12. The Huskers went on to win the NCAA title that year, with the final four in Nebraska. So maybe that's a good omen for Washington, with the final four in Seattle this year.

• Kansas is 13-3 overall and 3-0 in the Big 12, and this is a big week for the Jayhawks. They host Oklahoma on Wednesday and No. 3 Texas on Saturday. They pushed the Longhorns to the limit last year at home before falling in five sets.

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