Race for the national championship heats up
With the regular season over for some and conference tournaments already underway for others, it's time to assess which of the NCAA's top teams has a real shot at winning the 49th national championship in Cary, North Carolina on Dec. 16.
1. Wake Forest -- The Demon Deacs have to be the fave. Forget the polls. With all due respect to UConn, Jay Vidovich's Deacs have been the best team in the country all season. In fact, the target on their backs may be their biggest obstacle. Wake showed no signs of slowing down in Friday's regular season finale, a convincing 3-1 win over Virginia. Now, all the Demon Deacs have to do is maintain their current form to go one step further than last season, when they lost in the College Cup semis on penalty kicks to eventual champion UC Santa Barbara. They're capable of making the leap.
2. Connecticut -- Not much was expected of the Huskies this season. In August's NSCAA/adidas Pre-Season Top 25 rankings, UConn was No. 25. Yet going into the last week of the season, Ray Reid's men are No. 1 in the land. The Big East powerhouse is looking for its fourth NCAA title after winning it all in 1948, 1981 and 2000, and there is little reason to believe they can't do it. The only thing Reid's team is lacking is tournament chops. The Huskies bombed out to in-state rival Fairfield in the first round last year and haven't made the Final Four since the last time they won it all.
3. SMU -- Two years ago the Mustangs followed a less-than-stellar regular season with a Cinderella run to the Cary. Last season, they went 17 games without a loss before grinding to a halt down the stretch and getting bounced in their first tournament game. But despite recently being upset by Kentucky on national television, 2007 might just be SMU's year. That KU loss notwithstanding, Schellas Hyndman's horses have quietly been getting better each week and seem to be nearing their peak at precisely the right time. Plus, in dynamic Brazilian midfielder (and Hermann trophy candidate) Bruno Guarda, they might have the best player in scholastic soccer.
4. Virginia Tech -- Before the season many would have thought it preposterous to suggest that the Hokies could win the national championship. Three months later, the team looks as good a bet as anyone. Fourth-ranked VT went unbeaten for over two months and dropped just two games all season, including its finale vs. BC. Still, attacking stars Robert Edmans and Patrick Nyarko have enough quality to carry the team on their backs should they get hot when it matters most. Plus, last April's on-campus tragedy helped create a bond and sense of purpose within Oliver Weiss's team. With little separating those on this list, that could even be the difference in the end.
5. Indiana -- When IU dropped three consecutive 2-1 decisions to Creighton, St. Louis and UAB in September, many fans couldn't help think the Hoosiers could be early-round fodder in the dance. Indiana has since gone 10-1-2 and can lock up an auto-bid by winning the Big Ten tournament title against Ohio State on Sunday. And don't underestimate the power of proper motivation. After a heartbreaking shootout loss to Santa Clara in the third round last year and another in round two as defending champs the year before, expect this year's Hoosiers to be desperate to leave their mark with college soccer's proudest program.
6. Santa Clara -- Third-ranked Santa Clara could very well keep the Cup in California. The Broncos remain unbeaten in West Coast Conference play and extended their unbeaten streak to 14 games with Friday's 2-1 victory over archrival San Francisco. Santa Clara's D is solid (10 GAA) and senior F Peter Lowry leads the way up front with a conference-best seven goals in 16 games. The Broncs also have valuable NCAA experience; this will be their fifth-straight appearance (and 17th all-time) in the tourney. However, two things could work against them in knockout play: First, the absence of a conference playoff (the WCC instead awards the automatic NCAA berth to the regular season champ) means no dress rehearsal before the dance, and second, SCU has faced just two ranked opponents all year.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.