Last season's finalists likely to contend again
With another season upon us, I present my highly unscientific preseason (or in this case, early-season) rankings.
I do not survey coaches or perform in-depth statistical analysis, but I managed to do something none of the other "esteemed" polls are able to claim -- I had the two national championship finalists in 2006 ranked in my original top four. Whether this is because of my keen insight into college soccer or proof that random guesses are as likely to be correct as expert prognostications is up for debate.
This year's group lacks a true sleeper pick like UC Santa Barbara in 2006. Not because there won't be one -- college sports always produce a surprise -- but last year was one of those rare occasions where Cinderella made it past the Sweet 16.
Though some might be inclined to jump on early-season bandwagons or abandon ship when it comes to others, I'm going to hold steady on my picks ... until at least another week or two.
1. UC Santa Barbara -- As last year's national champion, UCSB automatically earns the top spot in these rankings. Some might argue that the Gauchos are not the top team returning this season, but Santa Barbara were far from favored last season -- even heading into the NCAA tournament -- and still came away with the national title. A major difference this season? The team won't be slipping under anyone's radar anytime soon.
2. UCLA -- The Bruins really gelled as last season progressed and found themselves in the NCAA final. The core of that team returns this year, knowing not only what it takes to make it to the national championship game, but also how miserable it feels to come home without any hardware. Don't think that didn't keep UCLA motivated in the offseason.
3. Duke -- The Atlantic Coast Conference will be tough as always, but expect this talent-packed Blue Devils team to come out on top and make a deep postseason run. On paper, Duke appears capable of bringing home its first national title since 1986. The team returns 10 starters and boasts one of the top, if not the top, recruiting classes in the nation. Adding to the intangible factor? Coach John Rennie has announced that this year -- his 29th with the program -- will be his final season at the Blue Devils' helm. There would be no better way to send off one of the winningest soccer coaches in NCAA Division I history than with the biggest win of all.
4. Wake Forest -- One of Duke's biggest challengers will be in-state and ACC rival Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons have some holes to fill in the midfield, but between their talented recruiting class -- including NSCAA Youth Player of the Year Corben Bone -- and their returning players, the team should be able to do so without too much trouble. Wake Forest made an impressive run to last year's College Cup, and it won't come as a shock to see them there again come December.
5. SMU -- The Mustangs could go either way. They made an early exit from last season's NCAA tournament, falling to the eventual champions, and lost some talented and decorated starters. However, the skeleton of the team that spent much of last season in the No. 1 spot remains intact. While it might have seemed as though SMU fell quickly at the end of 2006, the Mustangs might have the potential shoot back up just as quickly.
6. Cal -- To those convinced of an ESPN-wide East Coast bias, please note this is the third West Coast team in the top six spots. California (the state) might be the most talented in the nation this season, and California (the school) will be right up there as one of the state's top programs. Last year's Pac-10 champions have some holes to fill, but then again, so does almost everyone else. The Golden Bears have proven themselves as contenders the last few years and are on the verge of a breakthrough. Will this be the year?
7. Virginia -- The No. 7 spot might be a little high for the Cavaliers to begin the season, but it's hard to drop them any lower. Virginia is always a safe bet, and this season is no exception. While this team is not the same team that advanced to last year's Final Four, the Cavs might have enough time to get back to that point. The team's early-season schedule buys them time to improve.
8. Indiana -- For the second straight year, Indiana holds down the No. 8 spot in this poll. Everyone knows the Hoosiers are a perennial contender and early preseason favorite, so it's impossible to start a season with Indiana outside the top 10. However, the team's been bounced from the postseason relatively early the past two years, which makes it harder to put the Hoosiers any higher than here.
9. Northwestern -- The Wildcats probably were the biggest surprise of the tournament last season, even if they were overshadowed by Santa Barbara's success story. Credit coach Tim Lenahan for engineering one of the most successful turnarounds in recent years. Sure, Northwestern lost four starters. But look at the big picture: From 2000-03, the team lost every game in the Big Ten, but it emerged among the Elite Eight last season. If any team has demonstrated an ability to overcome adversity, it's the Wildcats, and that can make all the different down the stretch. The challenge will be winning the Big Ten. If they can do that, expect to see them even higher on this list next year.
10. Saint Louis -- The Billiken is a symbol of good fortune, and perhaps Saint Louis will have some this year. Sure, it's been a while since the Billikens brought home a national title (33 years and counting), but if anything, the team is due. And in its defense, Saint Louis hasn't been completely out of contention in the last three decades. The team has some spots to fill, but a large crop of returning players and a sizeable recruiting class will help.
Here's a look a few teams just outside the top 10:
Maryland -- The Terrapins are high in most preseason rankings, but losing Maurice Edu and Chris Seitz can't be underestimated. What MLS team wouldn't have jumped at the opportunity to have what Maryland had last year with the No. 1 and No. 4 SuperDraft picks playing together? But if anyone can maintain his team's level of national prominence in the face of huge losses, Sasho Cirovski is right up there.
Notre Dame -- It's not an intentional snub to the Big East, but the Fighting Irish are the closest conference team to make the list. The Irish do return last year's Hermann Trophy winner, Joseph Lapira, who snagged the award even while playing with a now-repaired torn meniscus. That shouldn't be a concern, but replacing a pair of second-round MLS draft picks -- midfielders Greg Dalby and Nate Norman – will be.
Creighton -- The Blue Jays have cracked the top 25 in most polls and would hold a top-10 spot here if not for Bryon Dacy's recent injury. Dacy was expected to be a key to Creighton's success. His return is crucial for a team that lost six starters. Of course, with a torn ACL, his return in 2007 is questionable.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.