Power rankings: Tar Heels at top

Whether North Carolina will be celebrating again in the College Cup remains to be seen, but don't expect the Tar Heels to lose four games in the regular season again. John Cordes/Icon SMI

Considering North Carolina is the defending national champion and should be even better this year, it's no surprise the Tar Heels are atop our first soccer power rankings of the season. But with Stanford's improved offense and Penn State's more settled back line -- not to mention all the other contenders in the loaded ACC -- life at the top won't be easy.

1. North Carolina (Last season: 15-5-3, national championship)

There is no guarantee the ending will be as sweet this year, but the ride should be smoother. Beset by injuries and national team interruptions a season ago, the Tar Heels lost four times in the regular season, again at home in the conference tournament, and barely survived just to reach the College Cup. Then we saw how good this team could be. Georgia transfer Alexa Newfield figures to slide in as a starter, providing a veteran complement to the returning attacking trio of Crystal Dunn, Summer Green and Kealia Ohai. Megan Brigman's return from injury boosts the back line, which also returns Caitlin Ball, Hanna Gardner and Satara Murray. A large, loaded freshman class offers depth at minimum.

2. Stanford (Last season: 21-2-1, NCAA semifinals)

The Cardinal lost once in August and once in December and were an overtime goal away from playing for a second consecutive national championship. This isn't a program going backward anytime soon. Stanford wasn't as potent as we've grown accustomed to seeing, scoring fewer than 70 goals for the first time since 2007, but Minnesota transfer Taylor Uhl and a full season of Chioma Ubogagu, who never really found a scoring vein after her return from the Under-20 World Cup, should boost those totals. Kendall Romine, injured much of last season, is the only defender still around from the starting lineup in the 2011 national championship game.

3. Penn State (Last season: 21-4-2, NCAA championship game)

No elite program needed an extended postseason run more than Penn State, which until last season had fallen into a rut of dominating a middling Big Ten and then falling flat in the NCAA tournament. Those demons are exorcised. The loss of a midfield engine like Christine Nairn hurts. Saying goodbye to Maddy Evans and Erin McNulty stings, too. But Penn State retains as good a collection of attacking talents as any team on this list, led by Maya Hayes, Mallory Weber and Raquel Rodriguez. Goals won't be a problem. Add to that a back line that has actual depth after last season's commendable patchwork effort, and the Nittany Lions should be right back in the championship race.

4. Duke (Last season: 15-6-2, NCAA quarterfinals)

The Under-20 World Cup took a toll on a lot of contenders last season, key players nursing aches or just fatigue upon returning from the tournament in Japan. Duke felt that bite as much as any team because it never really had forward Kelly Cobb at full strength. With a healthy Cobb, Laura Weinberg, Mollie Pathman, Kaitlyn Kerr, Kim DeCesare and Cassie Pecht (if she returns at full strength at some point this fall from a knee injury), there are goals to be had. The question likely to determine the team's title hopes is how many goals are needed after replacing goalkeeper Tara Campbell and most of the back line, save for stalwart Natasha Anasi.

5. Wake Forest (Last season: 14-6-3, NCAA second round)

Where you rank Wake Forest depends a lot on how much you like Katie Stengel. With the Demon Deacons sitting at No. 5, it's clear she is a favorite here. A year removed from its first College Cup appearance, Wake Forest fell back to earth in 2012, capped by an early postseason exit (albeit in at least a Sweet 16-type matchup against Notre Dame). Not having Stengel for a time because of the Under-20 World Cup hurt last season. It may help this season, as a team that had to figure out how to fend for itself now gets to fully reincorporate the ACC's two-time leading scorer. That said, a schedule that includes Kentucky, Louisville, Portland and Washington before ACC play will be a test.

6. UCLA (Last season: 18-3-2, NCAA quarterfinals)

Pac-12 coaches tabbed UCLA as the preseason conference favorite. As welcome-to-the-neighborhood gifts go, Amanda Cromwell might have preferred a fruit basket. The new coach of the Bruins after B.J. Snow left for a full-time position as coach of the United States Under-17 national team, Cromwell inherits a roster with all kinds of talent and matching expectations. They need to replace Zakiya Bywaters, who scored 15 of the team's 53 goals, the latter a total that sits on the lower edge of championship range. But a lineup with players such as Samantha Mewis, Sarah Killion, Jenna Richmond, Rosie White, Chelsea Stewart and on and on is too good not to contend.

7. Notre Dame (Last season: 16-6-2, NCAA quarterfinals)

Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum knew he had to be patient last season, his team relying heavily on 18 freshmen and sophomores and only two seniors. This season's roster still features only four seniors, but patience should give way to his more natural state of insistence as the Fighting Irish make their way to the cauldron of the ACC. Most of the minutes return, obviously, including leading scorer Crystal Thomas and U-20 veterans Cari Roccaro and Mandy Laddish. And another large freshman class arrives, highlighted by Morgan Andrews, a star in waiting. There is no easy path in the ACC, but road games at North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State make for a rough introduction.

8. Virginia (Last season: 18-5-1, NCAA third round)

Keep calm and carry on with Morgan Brian. It's a transition year of sorts for Virginia, which loses 20-goal scorer Caroline Miller and key pieces Olivia Brannon, Erica Hollenberg and Julia Roberts from a team that looked for all the world ready to break the program's College Cup drought. But with Brian, the junior who debuted for the full national team over the summer, leading a sizable contingent of returnees that includes promising finisher Makenzy Doniak, it is far from a rebuilding effort. Home tests against Santa Clara and Penn State the first two weeks await.

9. Florida State (Last season: 20-4-0, NCAA semifinals)

This feels low for a team that dominated much of the regular season and was an overtime away from playing for a national championship a season ago, and returns talent such as goalkeeper Kelsey Wys and outfield players Kassey Kallman, Kristin Grubka, Jamia Fields, Isabella Schmid, Carson Pickett and Icelandic international Dagny Brynjarsdottir, That's a lot to work with. But in a landscape that includes so many contenders returning so much talent, the Seminoles also have to replace as much as any top team this side of BYU or Florida. Six players who played at least 750 minutes in 2012 are gone, including Tiffany McCarty. It may take some time to find a new rhythm.

10. Santa Clara (Last season: 12-4-6, NCAA second round)

It has been too long since there was an opportunity to welcome Santa Clara to this club, but one of college soccer's historically familiar names is ready to get back in the thick of things. The Broncos should have more firepower than at any time since their heyday early in the last decade, with Nebraska transfer Morgan Marlborough eligible alongside Sofia Huerta and Julie Johnston. Overall, eight starters return, including promising young keeper Andi Tostanoski. Opening the season against North Carolina and Virginia on the latter team's home field is diving into the deep end.

Next in line: Texas A&M, West Virginia, BYU, Florida, Kentucky.

Ten games to watch this week (rankings from NSCAA Top 25)

• No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 16 Santa Clara (Charlottesville, Va.)
• No. 2 Stanford at Boston College
• West Virginia at No. 4 Penn State
• No. 7 Duke at No. 12 Texas A&M
• USC at No. 11 San Diego State
• No. 14 Marquette at No. 22 Portland
• Kentucky at No. 15 Wake Forest
• Auburn at No. 3 Florida State
• No. 16 Santa Clara at No. 8 Virginia
• Oregon State at No. 9 Florida