Seven days ago, a half-dozen teams sported perfect records in Division 1 play. What a difference a week makes. Now, the one undefeated, untied team in the Top 25 is No. 1 Wake Forest, 6-0 after beating Clemson last weekend.
You would think that most teams would be disappointed at slipping up and spoiling a perfect start. You would be wrong about that, and here's why: No team, no matter how good, is going to go an entire season without a couple blemishes on its record. As such, many coaches feel that it is better to get the inevitable setbacks out of the way early so they can work out the kinks before conference play begins.
Plus, fact is that a perfect record puts a target on a team's back, and an albatross around its neck. (Ever wonder about the origin of that idiom? It's a reference to the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which a sailor who shot a friendly albatross was obliged to wear the bird's carcass around his neck as punishment. Now you know ...)
It seems that a perfect winning percentage can even be the ultimate curse. At this point last season, Clemson and SMU looked like the class of college soccer, sure bets to reach the final four at the College Cup in St. Louis, at least. The Tigers had started 8-0 and out-scored opponents, which included ACC heavies Maryland and North Carolina, by a staggering 27-5 count. But, in its final 11 matches, Clemson played sub-.500 ball, winning just five games on the way to early ousters in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
It was the same story for SMU. The Mustangs also charged out the gates, going 7-0, and they didn't suffer a loss until their 18th game of the season. Yet, they were bounced in their first NCAA tourney game by eventual champ UC Santa Barbara, which, in contrast, had kicked off last season by dropping four of its first 10 tilts.
UCLA, the losing finalist that knocked Clemson out in the Round of 16, also seemed a long shot to contend seriously for a title last September after starting 2006 4-3-2.
Consider all that as a reminder that early-season results don't matter too much. So as good as Wake has been so far, its hot start and top ranking will mean squat when the weather gets cold.
The Demon Deacons face their toughest test yet Saturday night when 2005 Cup winner Maryland visits Spry Stadium. And while you can bet that Deacs coach Jay Vidovich wants the win that would give his program its best-ever start (not to mention three valuable league points), I suspect he's secretly hoping his team is humbled at least once in the coming weeks (preferably by a non-con foe: In addition to its three ACC tilts, Wake plays Elon, Appalachian State, UNC Greensboro and Coastal Carolina in October). Vidovich is fully aware that it is better to take one on the chin now than later on, when it really matters.
Beware the .500 Squads
UCLA, Maryland and Indiana sit 17th, 18th and 19th, respectively, in the latest NSCAA rankings with identical 3-3-1 marks.
IU has since picked up a fourth victory with a 2-0 result against Butler on Wednesday night, but the point here remains the same: don't write off these three traditional powers based on what they've done so far. Winning is ingrained at these schools, and history is on their side: Combined, the Bruins, Terps and Hoosiers have captured seven of the last 10 national championships, and four of the past five.
Each program has sent a gaggle of players to the professional ranks through the years, and, not surprisingly, each is loaded with talent again this season. And although all three dropped in the polls this week (Indiana fell from 10th to No. 19), I'll be surprised if any one of this trio doesn't turn it up several notches over the next few weeks and isn't still standing when the 48-team NCAA tourney field is whittled down to an Elite Eight by early December. Just a hunch ...
What to Watch For
Clemson versus Duke (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel)
A great ACC rumble is on tap this week as the Tigers welcome the Blue Devils to Riggs Field. Clemson is off to an undistinguished 3-4-1 start, but again, don't let that fool you into thinking that hope is lost for the year. If history is any indication, Clemson will be a tough out for the Dookies, who come into the match ranked seventh. While the hosts narrowly lead the overall series 21-20-3, the Tigers have won the last two matches and three of the last four between the schools. Plus, they are 12-6-2 versus. Duke in games played at Riggs.
UCSB versus UC Irvine (Wednesday, Oct. 3, 11 p.m. ET. FSC)
The defending champions are still shaking off that pesky post-Cup hangover, but their tough non-conference schedule hasn't done them any favors either: UCSB has played a ranked opponent in three of its last four matches. The Gauchos (3-2-2) begin their quest for a fifth-straight Big West crown against the surprising Anteaters, who broke into the polls last week on the strength of a 5-0 start, but fell back to earth last weekend with a home loss to lowly Loyola Chicago and a tie against then-No. 21 Brown.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.