Five burning questions for 2013 season

Returning Big Ten player of the year Ariel Scott will try to help Penn State win its fifth national championship in seven years. Bill Streicher/Icon SMI

Who is the real favorite to win the national championship this season?

Is it defending national champion Texas? Or Big Ten favorite Penn State? Or Pac-12 favorite Stanford?

There is no "wrong" pick, but we'll go with Penn State. The Nittany Lions' seniors -- led by 2012 Big Ten player of the year Ariel Scott, Deja McClendon and Katie Slay -- were freshmen when Penn State won its fourth consecutive NCAA title in 2010. They are itching to finish with another championship.

"It was a big change from freshman to sophomore year -- we went from being role players to more integral parts of the team," Scott said. "We had lost so many seniors, and it was a good learning experience for everyone."

In what passed for a "rebuilding year" in 2011, Penn State advanced to the regional semifinals, falling to eventual national champion UCLA. Then last year, the Nittany Lions made it back to the final four, where they lost to Oregon in the semifinals.

That match, though, was affected by an ankle injury during the second set to Penn State setter Micha Hancock. She played for most of the remainder of the match, but was not as effective as usual.

"I got it re-taped, and I tried to fight through it," Hancock said. "Sometimes, it just doesn't work out in your favor.

"Being at Penn State, the goal is always to make it to the final four and win a national championship. But we are also just focused on game-by-game, because we know this is a really tough conference. We have a lot of well-respected players in the Big Ten who we have to keep our eye on and try to beat."

All that said, are the Longhorns still an excellent choice to repeat? Yes, because they not only bring back their stars, but there are younger players who are pushing hard, too.

"We've got different stress levels in our gym that a lot of programs don't have," said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, who sees that as a big positive. "Some places, people can get pretty comfortable in what they are doing. But here, you have to play at a very high level day in and day out because of the depth that we have."

Meanwhile, which of the top three teams is perhaps longing the most for this season's title? The group that doesn't have one: Stanford. While the program itself has won six NCAA championships, the Cardinal's last final four appearance was in 2008. Stanford was swept then in the title match by Penn State.

Who might be the best dark horses for the NCAA title?

Is there such a thing in 2013? Kind of hard to envision, considering how good the favorites are. And it's a relative term, anyway, because even the programs we'll suggest as dark horses are still longtime volleyball powers.

Maybe Florida will get that elusive first volleyball title for an SEC school. The Gators have a lot of offensive weapons, and they are definitely approaching 2013 with a final four mentality. Florida has advanced that far seven times, with a best finish of national runner-up in 2003.

"In comparison to where we were a year ago," Gators coach Mary Wise said of the launch of this season, "for as many questions as we had then, we seem to have answers now."

Meanwhile, three-time NCAA champ Nebraska has a lot of questions because the Huskers have such a young team, with eight freshmen. Plus, there are two transfers who have a lot of experience in college but are new to Nebraska. But the answers the Huskers find over the course of this season could be very good.

Nebraska's last final four appearance was in 2008. The past four seasons, the Huskers, while scrappy and solid defensively on the back row, seemed to lack the offensive consistency and physicality at the net needed to be NCAA title contenders.

It might take a while this season for the Huskers to come together, but they may be very dangerous come tournament time.

But we also shouldn't leave out the likes of Washington. Which leads us to ...

Could the final four have a home team in Washington?

Coach Jim McLaughlin projected that this would be the year this group of Huskies really "grew up" as a team. So far, so good.

"I really like the progress we're making, and I think we're up to the challenge," McLaughlin said. "We're controlling the ball better. We had four freshmen who played a lot last year, and they understand the demands of the task significantly better.

"We're much more mindful in practice; we're working not only harder but much more efficiently."

The Huskies went 14-6 in Pac-12 play last year, then survived quite an NCAA second-round battle at home against Hawaii, prevailing 3-2. But they couldn't carry that energy into their regional semifinal against Nebraska in Omaha, Neb.

"That win against Hawaii was great, one of my favorite games of my career so far," said Huskies junior Krista Vansant. "Then we went to Nebraska, and we weren't really prepared. I think that gives us a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, and we're a little angry that we didn't advance further in the tournament."

Seattle's KeyArena will host the national semifinals and final in December. This will be just the second time the NCAA women's volleyball final four will be in the state of Washington; it was held in Spokane in 1997.

"The kids in this program the last 12 years created this opportunity, because they had success and we drew big crowds, plus we're in a major city," McLaughlin said. "We have a great following, and I think they're going to sell the arena out. Volleyball is important here."

Who are the top candidates for national player of the year?

Outside hitter Haley Eckerman and outside hitter Bailey Webster, Texas: Pick your poison; they can both kill you. Eckerman had 504 kills last season, while Webster had 435.

Outside hitter Ariel Scott and setter Micha Hancock, Penn State: Hancock is a very effective "quarterback," and Scott is not just a great hitter -- she has become a more well-rounded player.

Middle blocker Carly Wopat, Stanford: She led the Pac-12 last year with a .399 hitting percentage and was third in the league with 1.45 blocks per set.

Middle blocker Chloe Mann, Florida: Despite a shin injury that severely limited her practice time in 2012, she was a first-team All-American. A fifth-year senior, she's healthy again this season.

Outside hitter Krista Vansant, Washington: She's worked hard during the offseason on passing and serve receiving to make herself a more rounded player. She was already a top-notch offensive threat.

Outside hitter Liz Brenner, Oregon: A multisport athlete with tremendous power who also moves well on the court. She had 466 kills and 308 digs in the Ducks' national runner-up season last year.

Outside hitter Emily Hartong, Hawaii: She was the Big West player of the year and a first-team All-American in 2012. Look for her to lead the Rainbow Wahine to the Big West title again; they were 18-0 in the league last year.

What are the top league-rivalry matchups this season?

USC vs. Stanford: They meet in Los Angeles on Oct. 4, and at Stanford on Oct. 30. Last year at USC, the Trojans handed Stanford its only loss of the Pac-12 season.

Penn State at Nebraska: This is just the third year they've been in same league, but this matchup became the marquee rivalry as soon as Nebraska joined the Big Ten. They met twice in each of the past two years, with each winning at home both times. There's only one scheduled meeting in 2013: the regular-season finale in Lincoln, Neb., on Nov. 30.

Washington vs. Oregon: They split last year's meetings, with the second -- at Washington on Nov. 16 -- being an epic marathon. The Huskies won 3-2 despite facing 14 match points. This season, they play only once: in Eugene, Ore., on Sept. 27.

Florida vs. Kentucky: The Gators are picked to finish first in the SEC, and the Wildcats would like to knock them from that perch. Their first meeting is Oct. 11 in Gainesville, Fla., and the rematch is the regular-season finale, Nov. 27 in Lexington, Ky.

Michigan vs. Michigan State: Their campuses are only about an hour's drive apart, but last year they both had to take long flights for their third meeting of the season. That was in the regional semifinals in Berkeley, Calif., won by Michigan. The Wolverines and Spartans each had won on the other's home court during the 2012 regular season. This year's matchups: Oct. 23 in East Lansing, Nov. 27 in Ann Arbor.