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ACC remains the dominant conference

Given how much attention surrounds the top soccer conferences in the country, it may be hard to believe that 22 leagues make up the Division I soccer scene.

Sure, the big names will always field some of the best teams, but anyone that followed last year's NCAA tournament knows that parity is stronger than ever. And this year's National Soccer Coaches Association of America preseason rankings continue that trend.

With that in mind, here's an early look at the conferences we always focus on and the conferences that deserve more attention.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Just like everywhere else, No. 1 Wake Forest is tabbed to finish on top in the ACC. But it's the projected race for second where things heat up. No. 8 Maryland came in second in the coaches' poll overall, but No. 4 Boston College was the only other program besides the Demon Deacons to receive any first-place votes (two to Wake's seven).

And as the Eagles demonstrated last year, it doesn't matter where you're picked to finish, it's where you actually do. Boston College surprised pretty much everyone, going 6-1 in regular-season ACC play and winning the conference tournament -- after being picked to finish seventh in the conference.

With five nationally ranked teams (and seven of nine receiving votes), the ACC may again be the strongest conference top to bottom. It feels like only a matter of time before all nine teams get an NCAA bid.

Big Ten

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As always, No. 7 Indiana is everyone's pick to take top honors in the Big Ten, and why shouldn't they be after having won the conference regular-season crown 12 out of a possible 17 years?

The Hoosiers claimed back-to-back national titles in 2004-05, but the last two postseasons, it's been other Big Ten teams that stole the show. If Indiana looks to reclaim its national dominance, it will have to hold off a talented No. 20 Northwestern squad and last year's NCAA runner-up, No. 9 Ohio State.

Big East

For all intents and purposes, the Big East is basically two conferences that just happen to have a single postseason tournament as the Big East Red and Blue Divisions square off.

On the Blue side, the perennial preseason pairing of No. 2 University of Connecticut and No. 3 Notre Dame hold down the division's top and runner-up spots for the fourth straight season. Considering how the two programs have fared in recent years, who can argue?

The Red Division has been considered the preseason domain of No. 18 South Florida and St. John's, with the programs alternating who takes the top spot, but look for "also receiving votes" Louisville to challenge those two for the top spot this season.

Pac-10

Both Cal and UCLA were expected to contend on the national stage in 2007, but neither advanced past the NCAA tournament's second round (nor did Washington, the third team in the Pac-10 postseason trifecta). Look for those two to continue to dominate Pac-10 headlines.

For the first time, the unranked Golden Bears are tabbed to take the conference title -- recognition for the fact they've come away with the Pac-10 crown in back-to-back seasons. But UCLA, ranked 14th in the preseason poll, is garnering the national attention.

Conference USA

No. 17 Southern Methodist may hold the edge in the national rankings, but No. 23 Tulsa gets the preseason nod from C-USA coaches. However, the 2007 conference champion Golden Hurricane have some definite holes to fill as they lose five starters from a squad that finished with a school-record 15 wins.

SMU should provide a real challenge. The Mustangs have been a top 10-caliber program the last few seasons, and would love nothing more than to play the College Cup in their own backyard.

Atlantic 10

No. 19 Saint Louis has won three straight A-10 conference titles and may be pegged to do so once again, but No. 13 University of Massachusetts won bragging rights last season by advancing to the College Cup.

Expect any competition out of this conference to come from these two teams. It would be a shock for anyone else to emerge as a legitimate contender.

Ivy

Brown seems a shoo-in to repeat as Ivy League champs after going a perfect 7-0-0 in conference play last season. Again, defense should be the strength as defender Rhett Bernstein and goalkeeper Paul Grandstand look to follow up on impressive 2007 campaigns.

The Bears biggest challenge will likely come from Harvard. The Crimson should be strong again this season as Michael Fucito and Andre Akpan lead the charge, but it might take a little time for the team to start to jell under first-year head coach Jamie Clark.

Missouri Valley

When it comes to talk of powerhouse Division I athletic conferences in any sport, "The Valley" rarely (if ever) comes up. However, two of the nation's top preseason teams this year hail from the MVC -- No. 6 Creighton and No. 21 Bradley.

The Bluejays are again favored to win the conference after taking a share of the title the last two seasons, and Creighton looks to be even stronger with the return of Byron Dacy, who redshirted after a preseason knee injury in 2007.

Although Bradley reached the Elite Eight last season and comes into the season with a top-20 ranking, Missouri Valley coaches give Evansville the advantage when it comes to finishing second in the conference.

Powerhouse conferences will always exist, but we seem to be entering an era in which where you play is becoming less and less relevant down the stretch.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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