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Oct 6, 2008

Only five undefeated teams remain

Welcome to October.

With the regular season in high gear, here's a look at how things are shaking out with just a month to go:

A perfect start

Seven ranked teams started last week undefeated. Five remain: No. 1 Wake Forest (10-0-0), No. 3 Northwestern (9-0-2), No. 9 University of Illinois-Chicago (8-0-3), No. 11 Saint Louis (4-0-5) and No. 16 Loyola (Md.) (8-0-1). Wake Forest looks all but unbeatable, especially after the Demon Deacons' 8-2 thumping of Virginia Tech. The eight goals tied the school record for goals against an Atlantic Coast Conference team -- Wake shut out North Carolina State 8-0 in the 1997 conference tournament.

A pair of draws against Northwestern and Creighton kept Saint Louis undefeated, but the Billikens need to start coming up with wins once Atlantic-10 play starts next week if they want to make any kind of statement.

Without a doubt Loyola (Md.) is the most surprising school on this list -- and I mean that with the utmost respect for the Greyhounds. No one expected them to be one of the top teams in the country, yet here they are, so big props to them.

As for the two teams that slipped off the list? St. John's (8-1-2) had its first-half streak snapped in a 2-1 loss to Big East foe Louisville. Meanwhile, UC Irvine fell to UC Santa Barbara 2-1 in Big West play.

Go West

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It's not a shocker to see two UC's in the top 20, but who could have imagined it would be No. 17 UC Davis and No. 18 UC Irvine?

Sure, the Anteaters will probably slip after losing to UCSB, but they remain the No. 18 team until at least Tuesday. The loss certainly doesn't spell the end for Irvine, which will have its chance for redemption (teams play each other twice in the Big West) on Nov. 1. Of course, the Anteaters will have to pull off the win at Harder Stadium -- something many teams have tried and few have accomplished. The No. 22 Gauchos are 54-7-5 at home since 2002.

As for UCLA, which started the year with a No. 14 preseason ranking and dropped steadily before falling out of the polls in mid-September, things aren't so good. The Bruins are a struggling 2-3-5. Consistency from season to season has been an issue in Westwood, and the roller coaster continues.

But the Bruins aren't the only California team facing its share of problems after being tabbed as an early contender. Santa Clara, another preseason favorite -- the No. 5 pick -- has completely fallen off the map, going 2-5-2.

One West Coast team that's been living up to and exceeding expectations is California, which I suppose would actually make it three "UC's" in the top 20 -- as any Golden Bears fan will tell you, Cal is the original UC. At 6-1-3, the Bears are ranked as the top team on the Left Coast, but they need a few more big wins to truly elevate them into the ranks of the nation's best. A big win over UCLA on Friday (even though the Bruins have a less than stellar record) is a must if Cal wants to make a statement in the Pac-10 and the country.

Stat pack

Players on non-ranked teams very rarely see the spotlight. Not because they don't deserve it, but because soccer's a team sport, the focus is on, well, the team.

That said, a look at this season's NCAA statistical leader lists (through Sept. 28) illustrates that you don't have to be from a top-tier program to make your mark.

Case(s) in point: George Washington's Andy Stadler, Michigan State's Doug DeMartin and Charlotte's Chris Salvaggione rank first, second and third, respectively, in the nation in points per game.

Three players lead the nation with 20 points -- DeMartin, South Carolina's Sam Arthur and Alabama A&M's MfanaFuthi Bhembe.

When it comes to goalkeeping, the Ivy League is proving to have some of the nation's best. Brown's Jarrett Leech has led the nation or shared the lead in goals against average all season (0.16 GAA). He gave up his first goal of the year in a 2-1 Bears win over Columbia, but it has been almost impossible to get anything by him.

But Leech isn't the only notable Ivy keeper. With a .231 GAA, Penn's Drew Healy also ranks among the top 5 nationally -- even more impressive, the Quakers (7-0-3) are still unbeaten in 2008.

Just as expected

We're halfway through the season, give or take, and a look at the top 10 is surprisingly surprise-less.

We knew Wake Forest would be dominant, and they have been.

As for St. John's, Maryland, Akron, Creighton, Connecticut and Notre Dame, it's more or less become a given that these programs will do big things. When they don't, it's a disappointment.

Northwestern, University of Illinois-Chicago and California have really taken it to the next level recently. Northwestern and UIC's NCAA results have proven they're more than just a flash in the pan, while Cal's back-to-back Pac-10 titles have illustrated a Golden State power shift.

The question now becomes: Can these teams keep the momentum?

Who will stay strong? Who will fall short? And who will play spoiler?

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

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