Talk to anyone who knows anything about college soccer, and they will tell you that the parity among the nation's top teams gets more pronounced every year. No longer do the Indianas, UCLAs and top ACC schools exclusively rule the roost. And of the emerging powers, Notre Dame and West Virginia are right up there.
Both programs spent considerable time in the top 10 last season, and both are back in the thick of things this year. The Fighting Irish sit third in the latest NSCAA rankings, while WVU dropped five spots to 13th after a heartbreaking double-OT loss to South Florida on Sunday.
Notre Dame has been particularly impressive lately; the Irish trounced 16th-ranked Michigan 3-0 on Wednesday night in South Bend. But we're really curious to see how the Irish fare when they meet the dangerous Mountaineers in Big East action on Saturday.
Notre Dame (7-1-2, 4-0-1) hasn't lost in eight games and leads the conference's Blue Division. Coach Bobby Clark's men are also unbeaten in their first five Big East games for the first time in a decade.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers sit fourth in the Blue after splitting a pair of league matches this past weekend; WVU squeaked by DePaul 1-0 on Friday before falling to South Florida two days later. But despite their middle-of-the-pack standing, WVU has already defeated two top-10 teams on the road this season (then-No. 6 Maryland on Sept. 7 and then-No. 5 Duke on Sept. 15).
Meanwhile, Irish senior forward Joe Lapira might be due for a breakout game. Lapira, who led the NCAA with 22 goals in 2006, has netted only twice this season, but he still leads his team in scoring with seven points and a team-high three assists.
If West Virginia can pull off the upset, we'll have a three-horse race in the super-tough Blue bracket the rest of the way: No. 2 Connecticut (10-1) is currently second.
On its way to a 7-0-1 start, Northwestern had allowed just two goals through those eight matches this season. Then NU allowed Penn State to score that many in a single game on Saturday, and it was enough for the Nittany Lions to hand the then-No. 3 Wildcats a 2-1 loss in Happy Valley.
The upset marks the third straight year that PSU has defeated a highly ranked opponent. At least this time, that opponent wasn't Indiana. In 2005, PSU upset the No. 5 Hoosiers in Bloomington. Then last year, the Lions toppled ninth-ranked IU. Still, the win against Northwestern can't be considered quite as shocking as either of those landmark results: All-time, the Wildcats have beaten Penn State just once in 23 matches.
NU will try to regroup on Saturday with a Big Ten tilt vs. Wisconsin (fans can watch the action live on the Big Ten Network). But the Wildcats' real test comes a week later, when they welcome Indiana to Evanston. Channeling Penn State couldn't hurt...
Giant Killers, Part II
Tiny Elon University is gaining quite a reputation of its own. Elon, which has never qualified for the NCAA Tournament in the program's 25-year history, tied powerful Clemson on Sept. 25, then ruined top-ranked Wake Forest's perfect start to the season with another tie. What's more, both results came on the road. On Oct. 16, the Phoenix will have a chance to go undefeated against ACC opposition for the year when in-state foe UNC comes to town.
Wither the Bruins?
It seems UCLA always finds a way to get a mention in this space. That's not surprising, really, considering that the Bruins arguably are the highest-profile team in college soccer. Yet this week, after back-to-back losses to Santa Clara and Cal State Northridge, coach Jorge Salcedo's team is conspicuous by its absence from the Top 25.
I'm not sure the last time UCLA wasn't included in the rankings (the school understandably isn't trumpeting this particular statistic), but let's just say it is a relatively rare occurrence. Still, the Bruins have plenty of time to return to the national reckoning, not least because sophomore forward David Estrada is back after missing the first seven games of the season with a fractured foot.
In case you forgot, Estrada was UCLA's top scorer last season with 12 goals, and his recent return has already helped his team. In his second appearance of 2007 on Tuesday, Estrada notched the game-winner in UCLA's 1-0 victory over San Diego.
Cruzing for Goals
UNLV rookie Daniel Cruz has made quite an impact for the Rebels since he arrived in Vegas following the U.S. U-17 team's disappointing second-round exit from the World Cup in August. Cruz, who excelled in hockey and football as a youngster and took up the beautiful game only four years ago -- leads his new team in scoring with four goals and 11 points in seven games. Makes you wonder how much he could have helped the Yanks in Korea if he had spent less time rooted to the pine.
What to Watch for:
Clemson versus Maryland (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel)
The Tigers get a chance to redeem themselves after dropping a 4-2 decision to No. 4 Duke in last Friday's nationally televised tilt. Clemson could be catching the Terps at just the right time: Unranked Maryland has lost its last two ACC contests (albeit against Duke and Wake Forest) and managed only a draw at home to lowly Stony Brook this week.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.