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Oct 15, 2009

ACC rife with talent, but who's the best?

Coming into the season, the Atlantic Coast Conference's dominance was clearly on display. Teams from conference schools held down the Nos. 1-3 spots in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America men's rankings (Maryland, North Carolina and Wake Forest, respectively). The question was: Could the conference maintain its hold as the undisputed best collection of teams in the nation?

The answer is clearly yes.

Just how strong is the Atlantic Coast Conference? Virginia, which was nudged out by UNC as the preseason conference favorite, has all but fallen off the map in the ACC, sharing the basement with Clemson (both teams are 1-3 in conference play), but the Cavaliers are still ranked 11th in the nation.

In all, six ACC teams are ranked in the NSCAA's Top 25: No. 2 North Carolina, No. 5 Wake Forest, No. 9 Maryland, No. 11 Virginia, No. 14 North Carolina State and No. 21 Duke. These half-dozen teams are also in the Top 25 in the recently released RPI rankings.

Results also show the level of parity among the ACC's teams. No team has a conference record better than 3-1-1, with Maryland and UNC tied for the top spot. Five programs (Wake Forest, NC State, Duke, Boston College and Virginia Tech) have two conference wins apiece.

So far, no clear favorite has emerged. The Tar Heels lost to the Terrapins 1-0 and tied the Demon Deacons 2-2. The Terps played to a 1-1 draw against the Wolfpack and fell to the Blue Devils 2-0. The Deacs dropped a 1-0 contest to the Cavaliers.

Of the top three teams, Wake Forest and Maryland have yet to play. Virginia closes out conference play with games against Maryland and NC State. It's safe to say no one will be coasting into the ACC tournament.

Ivy League getting noticed

While the ACC might be leading the way, the Ivy League is making its mark, with three teams in the top 20.

No. 6 Harvard (8-2-1, 1-0-1 in the Ivy League) is the conference's top-ranked program, but a tough 4-0 loss at No. 17 Connecticut certainly will shake things up. The undefeated Brown Bears move up to No. 15 while Dartmouth comes in at No. 20.

The Crimson might lead the way when it comes to the polls, but Brown (7-0-4) and Dartmouth (7-2-1) are atop the conference standings; each has a 2-0 Ivy League record.

Harvard and Brown play this weekend, but the Ivy League title -- and its automatic conference bid -- could come down to the final game of the season, as Brown and Dartmouth are set to meet on Nov. 15.

Small Schools taking big strides

While many of the usual suspects can still be found in the polls -- i.e., the aforementioned ACC teams, UCLA, UCSB and Akron -- schools like Monmouth and Charlotte are coming on strong.

Monmouth, which had never been ranked in the top 10 in any sport coming into this season, remains unbeaten (11-0-1) and comes in at No. 8 this week.

No. 13 Charlotte dropped its season opener, but since then the 49ers have posted a 10-game unbeaten streak. They notched a huge 3-1 win over Wake Forest on Sept. 29 and have kept that momentum going.

Charlotte made a brief appearance in the polls late last season, the first time in a decade that the 49ers cracked the Top 25. That wasn't enough to get a tournament bid as the team finished 12-6-1. But this year's squad looks poised to make the postseason. A conference game against St. Louis on Saturday will be another test for Charlotte.

RPI rankings released

The NCAA released its first RPI rankings of the 2009 season this week.

Many were surprised to find Northwestern taking the top spot. Due respect goes to the Wildcats, who are riding a 10-game unbeaten streak, but it's hard to argue that the 6-1-4 squad deserves top billing over the unanimous national No. 1 Akron (12-0), which is ranked second. UCLA comes in third.

The RPI calculates its rankings using a formula that factors in a team's results as well as its opponents' results. The RPI is also the primary factor when it comes to the NCAA selection committee's awarding of at-large bids.

The idea behind the RPI is that the final calculation gives you a number for every team that can be used to compare teams across conferences.

The truth is that anyone who knows anything about college soccer will tell you there is no way UC Santa Barbara (9-2-1) is No. 34 in the nation.

As for the 7-4-1 Indiana squad that the Gauchos shut out 3-0 on Oct. 2, the Hoosiers are No. 17 in the RPI.

The RPI might make sense to a mathematician, but it can be a real head-scratcher for the layperson.

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

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