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Demon Deacons look set to repeat

The men's new season officially kicks off this weekend, and the highlight is undoubtedly Friday's nationally televised match between traditional powers UCLA and Maryland from the Home Depot Center. But before you tune in (or press play on your DVR) to watch this marquee tilt, here is a quick cheat sheet of what else to look for in 2008.

Thumbnail Rankings

1. Wake Forest: The 2007 Deacs managed what few squads have recently: celebrate the nation's best regular season with an NCAA title. In 2008, the targets on their backs only get bigger. However, with leading scorer Cody Arnoux, College Cup MVP Marcus Tracy and final hero Zack Schilawski all returning, Wake has enough firepower to repeat. Losing keeper Brian Edwards (Toronto FC) and versatile ball-winner Pat Phelan (New England Revolution) to graduation hurts the D, but sophomore center back Ike Opara is a rising star.

2. Connecticut: The Huskies ran neck-and-neck with Wake Forest atop the national polls for most of last season before bowing out of the tourney with a shocking home defeat -- the Huskies simply don't lose playoff games in Storrs -- to Virginia Tech in the quarters. This year, despite the loss of four players (including All-American defender Julius James), Ray Reid's side can go one game further, at least. If he stays healthy, O'Brian White's goals can take UConn all the way.

3. Santa Clara: UCLA and UC Santa Barbara played for the 2006 College Cup crown. So which team was far and away the best to rep Cali in 2007? How 'bout the Broncos, who lost only twice last year. The 2008 edition Broncs return seven starters and have again been voted favorites to take regular season West Coast Conference honors.

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4. Boston College: Could this be the year the Eagles finally get over the playoff hump? BC enjoyed a tremendous regular season before dropping its tournament opener to Massachusetts. With that failure fresh in the minds of the nine returning starters, which includes All-American midfielder Alejandro Bedoya (see more on Bedoya below), Ed Kelly's bunch could be a much tougher out this time around.

5. Maryland: After two rebuilding years, the Terps are back on the glory trail for the first time since winning it all in 2005. Sasho Cirovski has put together what likely is the nation's best corps of recruits, highlighted by former U.S. U-17 goalkeeper Zach MacMath and New York Red Bulls Academy standout midfielder Matt Kassel. 6. Indiana: Some folks are convinced the Hoosiers aren't the Big Ten's best, let alone among the top half-dozen in the country. But most of them are probably fans of Northwestern. With all respect due to the Wildcats, IU returns nine starters from the team that won the regular season league title, and it has another blue-chip class (headlined by defender Tommy Meyer) coming in. With a bit of postseason luck, Mike Freitag's team could easily be in Dallas in December.

7. Notre Dame: The fact that we rate the Irish this highly after losing former Hermann Trophy winner Joseph Lapira to graduation is a testament to the rest of Bobby Clark's underrated roster, not to mention a recruiting class ranked No. 12 by College Soccer News.

8. Ohio State: A year ago, the Buckeyes weren't on anyone's preseason Top 20. Just over three months later, coach John Bluem's men outplayed Wake Forest for the first hour of the national championship game. And, had a bounce or two gone their way, might have won it all. With seven seniors and dynamic junior Roger Espinoza moving on, getting back there won't be easy. But if Bluem's promising recruiting class buys into his defense-first system, it's not impossible.

9. UCLA: This might be the only preseason ranking that places the Bruins in the top 10. But opponents would be wise not to follow the pollsters' lead and underestimate Jorge Salcedo's team. Disappointing as they were last season following that memorable 2006 run, the roster still includes experienced underclassmen like keeper Brian Perk, midfielder Kyle Nakazawa and forward David Estrada. Seniors Jason Leopoldo and Maxwell Griffin aren't too shabby either.

10. Creighton: The Blue Jays have only three seniors on their roster this season and College Soccer News ranked 15 incoming classes ahead of theirs. Still, we have 'em 10th. What gives? Perhaps nothing more than coach Bob Warming's insistence that something special is going on in Omaha. When a guy has taken his team to 16 consecutive NCAA tournaments, you tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.

And the rest ...

11. Akron

12. Northwestern Massachusetts

13. Illinois-Chicago

14. Brown

15. Virginia Tech

16. Massachusetts

17. West Virginia

18. SMU

19. UC Santa Barbara

20. Saint Louis

Preseason All-American Starting XI

Goalkeeper

Zack Simmons (Massachusetts): Anyone who saw this guy almost single-handedly take unfancied UMass to the NCAA title game with an unreal display against Ohio State in the College Cup semis -- after his string of lights-out performances had gotten them there to begin with -- knows he's the best keeper in college by a country mile.

Defenders

Ofori Sarkodie (Indiana): Last year, after helping the U.S. defeat Brazil at the U-20 World Cup, Sarkodie endured a bit of a sophomore slump. That the pro offers were still there afterward says a lot about his potential. This year he'll cement his rep as the real deal.

Yohance Marshall (South Florida): The 6-foot-2 Trinidadian has been USF's captain since 2006 and has started every game he's ever played for the Bulls. He's got the tools, and now the experience, to have a breakout 2008.

Omar Gonzalez (Maryland): Simply put, the giant Texan (6-5, 206 pounds) is the best back in the college game. What's more, Gonzalez also has underrated feet for a large man. He's only a junior, but his big-game chops will be invaluable on a young Terp team.

Midfielders

Alejandro Bedoya (Boston College): Classy playmaker starred in his first season with the Eagles after transferring from New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson. He picked up 26 points on eight goals and 10 assists and was voted a first-team NSCAA All-American.

Sam Cronin (Wake Forest): Every team needs that terrier-type destroyer in the center of the park -- even hastily put-together All-America teams. But make no mistake, Cronin can play a bit too. His composure on the ball and competent passing was a big reason Wake won it all last season.

Brad Ring (Indiana): Ring is IU's captain and maestro, the proverbial straw that stirs the Hoosiers drink. Indiana will go as far as he does, and we expect him to go really well in his final turn in Bloomington.

Ryan Maduro (Providence): Maduro led his team with five goals and six helpers last season, a career year for the Rhode Island product. Somehow, it wasn't good enough to keep his place as a first-team NSCAA All-American. Look for him to reclaim his spot in December.

Forwards

O'Brian White (Connecticut): The Hermann Trophy holder torched opposing back lines for 23 goals a year ago. If he can come close to that number in 2008, his biggest scores might be a UConn's third national title followed by a fat European contract.

Marcus Tracy (Wake Forest): Before the 2007 College Cup, Tracy's strike partner Cody Arnoux was getting most of the hype. Not any more. Tracy came through big during that final weekend in Cary, scoring three times in two games. Now, scouts' eyes are on him alone.

Andre Akpan (Harvard): Akpan was only a sophomore last season, but he still managed to finish second to White nationally with an average of over two points per game. No wonder he was the only underclassman named a Hermann semifinalist.

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

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