One phrase you'll hear a lot with many of the top teams in NCAA women's volleyball this fall is "returns key starters." Because most of the national championship contenders are very experienced, don't look for a plucky underdog to pull off an upset run to win it all this year. There are just too many usual suspects who are loaded with talented veteran players.
But if there is a team outside of our espnW preseason top five that could claim the NCAA title, perhaps it is Washington. The Huskies would at least love to make it to a final four in their home city of Seattle. KeyArena will be host for the national semifinals and final, Dec. 19 and 21.
Let the debate resume about which conference is the most difficult; again that will be an argument between the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Those leagues provide all but two of espnW's preseason power rankings. But who's at the very top? Defending national champion Texas of the Big 12.
1. Texas (Last season: 29-4, NCAA champion)
The Longhorns won their second NCAA title, and first since 1988, with a sweep of Oregon last December. Texas brings back all its key players, led by big hitters Haley Eckerman and Bailey Webster. But there's also a strong freshman class that will push for playing time. Coach Jerritt Elliott loaded his nonconference schedule with fellow heavyweights, starting with a trip to Hawaii. He's more interested in exposing his younger players to stern tests right off the bat than piling up wins. (Although Texas will probably do both.) Look for Iowa State and Kansas to be the Longhorns' biggest tests in Big 12 play, but Texas may run the table in the league.
2. Penn State (Last season: 33-3, national semifinals)
The Big Ten's defending champion is picked to win the league again behind a returning cast of stars, led by outside hitters Ariel Scott and Deja McClendon, both seniors, and junior setter Micha Hancock. Scott was the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2012. Setter/outside hitter Megan Courtney, the league's 2012 freshman of the year, also returns, as does senior Katie Slay, who was the Nittany Lions' top blocker last year. Penn State's only Big Ten loss last year was at Nebraska. This year, those teams meet just once in league play, and it's the regular-season finale Nov. 30 in Lincoln, Neb.
3. Stanford (Last season: 30-4, regional final)
From 1992 to 2008, the Cardinal won six NCAA titles and made the final four six additional times. In that period, Stanford never went more than a year without advancing as far as the final four. But Stanford has been in a "drought" in that regard the past four seasons, losing in the regional semis in 2009; the regional final in 2010 and 2012; and the second round in 2011. Three of those four losses were to Michigan, so the Cardinal would prefer not see the Wolverines in their quarter of the NCAA bracket this year. Stanford is picked to win the Pac-12, and is led by senior first-team All-American Carly Wopat, along with super sophomores Inky Ajanaku, Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard.
4. Minnesota (Last season 27-8: regional final)
Led by senior middle blocker Tori Dixon, the Golden Gophers are picked second in the Big Ten. They will try to make the program's fourth trip to the final four; Minnesota's best finish is national runner-up (2004). Minnesota will have to replace first-team All-American hitter Katherine Harms, but the Gophers probably will have a more diversified attack this year for that reason. They certainly have depth, with good competition at all positions. Hugh McCutcheon, the former Olympic men's and women's coach for USA Volleyball, is in his second season in Minneapolis. The Gophers will face both Penn State and Nebraska twice in league play.
5. USC (Last season: 30-6, regional final)
Under coach Mick Haley, the Trojans won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2002 and '03, and have made it to the final four an additional four times since then. Last year, USC was defeated in the NCAA tournament by eventual champion Texas. This year, the Trojans are picked second in the Pac-12, and they are hosting one of the four NCAA regionals. USC returns one of its better defensive players in school history, libero Natalie Hagglund. Also back is the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last season, hitter Samantha Bricio. Haley knows he has back-row defense, but he wants his front row to be stronger defensively this year, too.
6. Florida (Last season: 27-5, regional semifinals)
The Gators have been the standard-bearers for the SEC for a long time -- and that's taken a lot of work because the league continues to improve. Florida goes into this season healthier and more experienced than last year. Middle blocker Chloe Mann was very limited in practice last season because of injury -- she had to save herself for matches -- yet still was a first-team All-American and SEC Player of the Year. She returns healthy, as does outside hitter Noami Santos-Lamb, who missed last season with a torn ACL. Combined with hitter Ziva Recek, who was the AVCA national freshman of the year in 2012, the trio will give the Gators quite an offensive bite. Florida is picked to win the SEC.
7. Oregon (Last season: 30-5, national runner-up)
After beating Nebraska in a regional final in Omaha, Neb., and then knocking off Penn State in the national semifinals, it looked like the Ducks might be the team of destiny in 2012. But then they ran into the Texas buzz saw, and ended up with a second-place trophy. Still, it was the best season for Oregon -- the Ducks made the program's first final four -- but now they have to replace 2012 national player of the year Alaina Bergsma. They also lost to graduation standout Katherine Fischer. But they have back outside hitter Liz Brenner, a fantastic athlete, and setter Lauren Plum. The Ducks are picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12; they were second to Stanford in the league last year.
8. Michigan (Last season: 27-12, national semifinals)
The Wolverines definitely know how to beat six-time NCAA champ Stanford. Three of the past four years, Michigan has ended the Cardinal's season in the NCAA tournament. Last year, Michigan went through some ups and downs, but still made its first appearance in the final four. Coach Mark Rosen knows that puts a different kind of target on his program now, but the Wolverines are ready for it. Lexi Erwin -- the most valuable player in the Berkeley regional last year -- had a fantastic junior season; look for her to add to that as a senior. The other Lexi -- setter Lexi Dannemiller -- and middle blocker Jennifer Cross join Erwin on the preseason all-Big Ten team. The Wolverines are picked to finish third in the league.
9. Washington (Last season: 25-7, regional semifinals)
The Huskies tied for fourth in the Pac-12 last year, but were disappointed with getting swept by Nebraska in the NCAA tournament to end their season. This year, they are picked to finish third in the league and are led by outside hitters Krista Vansant and Kylin Munoz, both all-Pac 12 preseason picks. Coach Jim McLaughlin constructed this team with the hope that it would fully mature this season, as the final four is in Seattle. That's the team's ultimate goal, but the Huskies know they can't spend much time thinking about that with the difficulty of what faces them nightly in the Pac-12.
10. Nebraska (Last season: 26-7, regional final)
It's a season of "new" in Lincoln, as the Huskers have a new-look team and will play in a new home. The Devaney Center is an old building, but the former basketball arena has been extensively refurbished for volleyball. The Huskers now have a home capacity of around 8,000 -- about double what the Nebraska Coliseum held. Coach John Cook has returning standouts such as hitter Morgan Broekhuis, but also welcomes eight freshmen. They include twins Amber and Kadie Rolfzen, Nebraska natives who committed to the Huskers before they'd even started high school. Nebraska also has two of the four players who transferred from Tennessee after last season: senior Kelsey Robinson and junior Mary Pollmiller. Nebraska is picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten, and has the luxury of being considered "underdogs" -- to the degree that the Huskers can ever be called that in volleyball -- this season.
Next in line: Michigan State, Hawaii, UCLA, BYU, Iowa State
Marquee matches on opening weekend (rankings from AVCA preseason poll)
• No. 1 Texas at No. 11 Hawaii, 1:30 a.m. ET Saturday
• No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Louisville, 7 p.m. ET Saturday
• No. 4 USC at No. 16 Purdue, 7 p.m. ET Friday
• No. 17 Kentucky vs. No. 18 Florida State at Long Beach State, 8 p.m. ET Friday