Momentum and "getting hot at the right time" are supremely powerful forces in any sport. With that in mind, it is time to look at who is hot (and not) heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
I know Loyola (Md.) plays in the comparatively lowly Metro Atlantic conference, but with a 16-0-1 record, identical to top-ranked Wake Forest, shouldn't the Greyhounds be higher than sixth in the latest NSCAA/adidas poll? They enter their final game of the regular season against Rider on Nov. 8 on an 11-game win streak and, along with Wake, are one of two undefeated teams remaining in the Top 25.
The reason is probably twofold. First, the teams ahead of Loyola -- Maryland, Akron, St. John's, Creighton and the aforementioned Demon Deacons, in that order -- are pretty darn good.
But the other reason is clearly the Greyhounds' weak nonconference schedule. Amazingly, the boys from Baltimore haven't played a ranked team all season. That's a little surprising after coach Mark Mettrick's squad turned influential heads with their second-round loss (on penalties) at Maryland in last year's NCAA tournament.
If Loyola can repeat as MAAC tourney champ, it should receive a relatively high seed in this year's NCAAs. But even if the Greyhounds win their opener again, that lack of big-game experience will bite them before they get anywhere near December.
|This season, ESPNsoccernet brings you the scores of every men's and women's NCAA Division I game.
Meanwhile, Saint Louis has won three in a row after dropping only its second game of the season (to Dayton on Oct. 19). The Billikens jumped six spots to No. 10 but face two tough matches to close out the regular-season docket: first at 2007 College Cup semifinalist Massachusetts on Nov. 7, then at tricky Rhode Island two days later.
It has been a season of ups and downs for No. 9 Illinois-Chicago (10-2-4). UIC started the season with a school-record unbeaten start (8-0-4), before following that with consecutive losses in mid-October. Now, the Flames are up again. They're on a winning streak heading into the Horizon League championship, which they'll host in the Windy City. Still, can't help thinking that the 12-day layoff between games won't do them any favors.
UC Irvine, Michigan and Notre Dame were all big movers in this week's rankings. The Californians, 10-1-6 and currently on a six-game undefeated run, ascended furthest, to No. 11, after holding the 20th spot previously.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines leaped six spots to No. 12 after posting a 1-0 win against 2007 national runner-up Ohio State. The triumph came just seven days after Michigan beat then-No. 2 Northwestern. However, Michigan faces another difficult test, versus Penn State on Nov. 8, before the Big Ten playoffs commence Nov. 13.
As for the Fighting Irish, they jumped from 19th to 13th on the strength of a two big W's over Georgetown and West Virginia. Those six points secured Notre Dame the highest seed in the Big East's Blue Division, meaning the Irish get to host a conference quarterfinal tilt on Nov. 8.
Speaking of Penn State, is there a team that has pulled more upsets over the past few seasons than the Nittany Lions? First, PSU holds then-No. 2 Akron to a 1-1 draw on Oct. 29. Then, four days later, Penn State downs No. 17 Indiana 1-0 for its fourth win over the Hoosiers in as many years. Not bad for a team that is just 5-9-3. Despite that losing record -- and the fact they play in one of the top three conferences in the country -- the Lions have the experience, and a realistic chance, of taking the Big Ten Championship (and the tourney spot that goes with it) on Nov. 16.
After spending most of the season undefeated and in the upper reaches of the national pecking order, Northwestern is picking precisely the wrong time to tank. After being whacked by Michigan 3-1 on Oct. 25, the Wildcats fell to No. 25 Michigan State on Nov. 2. Granted, NU is a lock to make the NCAAs regardless of what happens in the Big Ten tourney. Still, a road game against Indiana, Northwestern's last game before the postseason, is hardly the ideal confidence restorer.
Cal is also struggling mightily down the stretch. The Bears went winless this past weekend, losing to San Diego State and settling for a tie at UCLA. But more troubling is the fact that the Bears, who fell from seventh to 14th, have only one win in their past five games and are just .500 in Pac-10 play. That makes their three remaining games vital to their tournament hopes.
What to Watch for
Army vs. Navy: Friday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel
Service academy contests are hard-fought in any sport. And even though these teams have borderline pathetic records this season, don't expect this one to be any different. In the last game of 2008 for both teams, Navy (4-10-3) would love nothing more than leave West Point with bragging rights. Naturally, the Black Knights (2-14) will be bent on making sure that doesn't happen.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.