Featured among our favorite matches of the weekend are three potential first-place clashes in the SEC, Pac-12 and Missouri Valley Conference:
— 1. No. 7 Kentucky at No. 1 Florida (Sunday, 1 PM ET, SEC Network)
What to Watch For: Most of the time assuming anything relating to volleyball results is dumb, but let’s live on the edge and assume both Florida and Kentucky remain undefeated in SEC action when this mega-clash arrives. That means the winner of this one will retain sole possession of first place. It’s no secret Kentucky rides outsides Leah Edmond and Avery Skinner, but Florida is an above average blocking team with Rhamat Alhassan and Rachael Kramer in the middle, setter Cheyenne Huskey playing across the front row and Shaina Joseph on the right. If Kentucky can’t keep Florida honest by moving the ball around just enough, then the Gators’ block is going to load up on the outside and it’s going to be tough on Edmond and Skinner. The passing duo of Ashley Dusek and Gabby Curry needs to be on so setter Madison Lilley can utilize the whole offense. Carli Snyder has been terrific for Florida this season, but she’s not going to beat a team like Kentucky by herself. That means Florida needs to get Alhassan and Kramer going in the middle. Both are extremely efficient and Kentucky will struggle to slow a Florida offense that is scoring effectively in the middle.
Prediction: If this contest were being played in Lexington, then I would have the ‘Cats pulling off the upset. But Florida isn’t going to suffer its first loss of the season on its home court, not in an important match like this one. Florida in 4.
— 2. No. 10 Michigan State at No. 2 Penn State (Friday, 7 PM ET, BTN2GO)
— PennStateVolleyball (@PennStateVBALL) October 9, 2017
What to Watch For: Another Top-10 get together takes place here between the 4-1 Nittany Lions and 5-1 Spartans. Given that, it’s certainly a key tussle in the Big Ten standings because more than likely a school isn’t going to win the conference championship with more than two losses. That means whichever side losses this one is conceivably going to have to win out the rest of the way to have a shot at the conference title. If you are a fan of tall, physical volleyball, then this matchup is perfect for you. There is going to be some physicality on display but the outcome could hinge on Michigan State’s ability to serve tough and Penn State’s skill of passing well enough to be in system or not. The one thing the Spartans did in taking down Wisconsin and Minnesota in back-to-back matches was own the service line. If the Spartans do that here, winning on the road isn’t that far-fetched. To win, Penn State needs to throw a heavy dose of Haleigh Washington at the Spartans and if the Nittany Lions don’t pass, that’s not happening.
Prediction: Penn State simply didn’t take care of the ball when getting swept by Nebraska. I think Penn State improves in that area, at least enough to sneak past the Spartans in this one. Penn State in 5.
— 3. No. 3 Stanford at No. 16 USC (Sunday, 6 PM ET, Pac-12 Networks)
What to Watch For: First place in the Pac-12 could potentially be on the line when USC hosts Stanford on Sunday. It depends on what happens in their other outings this week, but if USC downs Cal and Stanford can defeat UCLA, then the Trojans would be one game behind the Cardinal come Sunday. If that were to happen, then an USC victory would pull the Trojans even with Stanford and tied for first place. USC has been tough to pin down at times, knocking off UCLA and Washington in consecutive weeks then getting upset by Arizona. However, we do know that when USC plays well, the Trojans are a real threat. It’s just a matter of consistency. USC is still searching for someone to match with Khalia Lanier on the outside. At times, Lanier is up and down as well. On the flip side, Lanier, Brittany Abercrombie and Niki Withers can just as easily catch fire and be almost impossible to stop. Either way, they’ll all be dealing with the big block of Stanford, which is going to have a big day in the middle with Audriana Fitzmorris and Tami Alade.
Prediction: I think if Stanford loses this week, it’ll be to UCLA, not USC. It’ll be a struggle at times, being a late Sunday afternoon contest but Stanford will prevail. Stanford in 5.
— 4. No. 42 LSU at No. 38 Auburn (Friday, 8 PM ET, SEC Network Plus)
What to Watch For: With LSU and Auburn tied at 4-2 in the SEC standings, this figures to be an intense affair. It’s asking too much for either side to derail Florida or Kentucky, which both started the week at 5-0 in conference play. However, the only other team in between LSU/Auburn and Florida/Kentucky is Missouri (4-1). That leaves the winner of this one right near the top of the standings and hopes of possibly finishing in third place. Both LSU (vs. Alabama) and Auburn (vs. Texas A&M) have challenges ahead on Sunday, so losing this one could set up an 0-2 weekend and falling further down the standings. With the exception of Shaina White – leading the Tigers with 157 kills and hitting .422 – Auburn doesn’t hit for a very high percentage, but the presence of Jesse Earl (5.33 digs per set) in the backcourt makes the Tigers tough to breakdown defensively. LSU has benefitted from the arrival of Taylor Bannister, as the freshman is leading the way with 205 kills. Senior Gina Tillis has been the backbone though, and both will need to turn in strong efforts to lift LSU in this one.
Prediction: Tough call, but it goes to the home team here. Auburn in 4.
— 5. No. 36 Missouri State at No. 34 Northern Iowa (Saturday, 8 PM ET, ESPN3)
Bears Take on MVC's Other Unbeatens in Iowa https://t.co/kebKi2JVla
— Missouri State VB (@MissouriStateVB) October 11, 2017
What to Watch For: At 6-0, the week began with a three-way tie for first place between Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference. Missouri State faces Drake on Friday, a day before visiting Northern Iowa, which hosts Southern Illinois on Friday. If both Missouri State and Northern Iowa pick up victories Friday, their showdown will have first-place implications, as only one would remain undefeated and on top of the conference standings. Karlie Taylor, Piper Thomas and Bri Weber carry the offensive load for Northern Iowa. The trio averages over 12 kills per set combined. For Missouri State, the Bears ride the arm of outside Lily Johnson.
Prediction: This is a great showdown between two programs that have played similarly tough non-conference schedules. When the dust clears, the Panthers hang on. Northern Iowa in 5.
More PVB Top 50 Showdowns
*predicted winner in bold
Fri, Oct. 13
— No. 3 Stanford at No. 13 UCLA (in 4)
— No. 14 Oregon at No. 24 Washington State (in 5)
— No. 32 Ohio State at No. 20 Illinois (in 5)
Sat, Oct. 14
— No. 31 Michigan at No. 2 Penn State (in 4)
— No. 4 Nebraska at No. 18 Purdue (in 5)
— No. 26 Iowa State at No. 6 Texas (in 5)
— No. 41 Maryland at No. 20 Illinois (in 4)
Sun, Oct. 15
— No. 28 Iowa at No. 5 Minnesota (in 3)
— No. 38 Auburn at No. 46 Texas A&M (in 5)