SMU and Clemson emerge early

September 14, 2006
McIntyreBy Doug McIntyre
(Archive)

Last December, SMU and Clemson were surprise College Cup participants after impressive postseason runs. Now, just three weeks into the new season, they are the top two teams in the land.

Buchholz
WireImage / Andy MeadJunior midfielder Mark Buchholz has notched one goal and three assists so far in 2006.

SMU (7-0-0) leads this week's adidas/NSCAA rankings, but No. 2 Clemson (6-0-0), off to its best start in 23 years, could just as easily be No. 1. Last weekend, the Tigers beat top-ranked, defending national champs Maryland in both teams' ACC opener (in front of an overflow Historic Riggs Field crowd of 6,821, the largest since Clemson won the 1987 national championship on its home turf). What's more is they did it playing with 10 men for most of the second half.

Then on Tuesday, the Orange tore apart Wofford, 6-0. Next is a tough conference tilt against North Carolina (6-1-0) on Friday (Fox Soccer Channel 8 p.m. ET). The Heels are still smarting from that big loss in their first league game -- a 3-1 decision to rival N.C. State, their first loss to the Wolfpack in nine years. Can Clemson keep rolling and continue to plead its case to the pollsters? (SMU tops the three other national polls, too.) Make sure you watch this one.

As impressive as Clemson has been, few would argue Southern Methodist isn't worthy of the pole position. Like the Tigers, SMU has been bursting with confidence since that memorable Cup run last fall. Since we last checked in, the Mustangs beat Indiana 1-0, then outscored its next two opponents (Brown and Centenary) by a 13-1 aggregate. In fact, the goal Schellas Hyndman's side conceded against Brown was the only one they've surrendered this year. And offensively, the Mustangs are clicking too, averaging 3.3 goals a game.

Maybe last week's column ended up on bulletin-boards inside UCLA and Connecticut's locker rooms. Or perhaps two of college soccer's proudest programs simply weren't going go another week without picking up their first Ws. Either way, both the Bruins and the Huskies seem like different teams from the ones that started the season so poorly.

UCLA (2-2-1) traveled to New Mexico to play its fourth straight game against a side that had made at least the tourney's Sweet 16 in 2005. This time the Bruins showed some muscle, beating the Lobos convincingly, 2-1, before 3,212 in Albuquerque. Then they wrapped up the weekend with a 4-1 victory over Oakland University.

And as strange as it is to see the Bs out of the top 25, the good news for fans is that after a tough initiation to the rough-and-tumble college game, the latest vaunted recruiting class in Westwood is starting to show why it was considered the best in the country. In particular, U.S youth stars Jason Leopoldo (assist vs. UNM) and Kyle Nakazawa (who scored and had two helpers against Oakland) seem to be finally finding their feet.

Like UCLA, the similarly-unranked Huskies (2-2-1) have also climbed back to .500 and are 2-0 in Big East play after beating Rutgers and Villanova last weekend. UConn faces another conference foe Thursday when they travel to Belson Stadium to meet St. John's in a game that will be televised live (8 ET) on FSC.

Penn State, so impressive in 2005, is struggling. The Nittany Lions are reigning Big Ten titlists, no small feat in a conference that usually belongs to Indiana, a team PSU beat twice last season. But so far this year, the Lions are just 1-4-1. Big Ten play has yet to begin, but we expected a much better start from a program that seemed to be emerging as regular tourney-bound team.

As the monster conference in college soccer, the ACC always is represented in the NSCAA rankings. But because the nation's most noted poll ranks teams regionally, some ACC squad is seemingly always being punished for playing in the elite circuit. Take this week's list: North Carolina is 16th despite having lost just a single match. We're all for rewarding deserving teams from smaller leagues, but ask yourself, are the likes of Kentucky and Fordham really better than that great UNC club?

With nearly 200 NCAA Division 1 men's soccer programs, we're sorta forced to focus our attention on the best in the land. But from time to time, when appropriate, it's good to remember the minnows of the college game. This week, we'd like to give some props to D-III Messiah College. The two-time defending national champion from Pennsylvania had their 31-game winning streak broken last week when it tied York, 1-1. The Falcons haven't lost a match since Nov. 6, 2004, when they fell to Elizabethtown College, 1-0, in overtime.

What To Watch For: In addition to the Fox Soccer Channel games we already mentioned, there are two other games on the tube this week:

If you're in the Midwest and don't particularly care about seeing that delicious Clemson-UNC affair, CSTV will have Saint Louis and Indiana on Friday night at the same time (8 ET). And on Sunday, St. John's will play its second consecutive televised game, this one against Providence, at 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.