College volleyball roundtable: Midseason surprises and predictions

San Diego middle blocker Leyla Blackwell (left) leads the 20-1 Toreros with 99 blocks this season. University of San Diego Athletics

Defending national champion Wisconsin defeated the then-No. 1 Nebraska volleyball team in three sets last week. Was the win enough of a statement for the Badgers?

Led by fifth-year senior and player of the year contender Logan Eggleston, Texas is ranked No. 1 in the country in the AVCA Coaches' Poll and the Division I committee's Top 10. The Longhorns are seeking their first national championship since 2012, despite three runner-up finishes over the past seven seasons.

What about upstart San Diego? The Toreros (fifth in the committee's top 10, second in the coaches' poll) opened the season with a 3-2 win over Pitt, which made the final four last year, and have also beaten ranked Ohio State, Pepperdine and BYU teams. Their only loss is to Louisville, another national semifinalist a year ago, which at 20-2 is second in the committee's list (fifth in the poll).

With a month until the NCAA women's volleyball tournament begins, we asked our analysts about the season's biggest surprises, standouts and storylines before the final four in Omaha.

Which team has impressed you the most this season?

Sam Gore: Even though Texas was considered to be the best team on paper, the Longhorns have impressed me by how they've taken so many new players and seamlessly come together to back up those expectations so far. Talent doesn't always produce wins if there are chemistry issues. Coach Jerritt Elliott and his staff have done an excellent job in molding elite talent into an elite team.

Holly McPeak: I have been really impressed with Wisconsin. The Badgers graduated some pretty special players in All-Americans Dana Rettke, Sydney Hilley and Lauren Barnes. They have reloaded and added some depth to their bench. Their block and team defense are exceptional.

Jennifer Hoffman: Several teams have impressed me, but no one specifically stands out when it comes to running the table. Texas on paper (and in person) is impressive, but is beatable, as proven by a loss to Iowa State. San Diego is a sleeper team that no one predicted would be in the top five.

Paul Sunderland: The most impressive team is a tough one. San Diego keeps winning and had a very impressive nonconference schedule with wins over Ohio State and Pitt. Nebraska played through a bit of drama and injury before the Huskers were outplayed in Madison, Wisconsin. Texas is the most complete and talented team, though, making its loss at Iowa State is a real head scratcher.

M.A. Voepel: It's a boring answer, but I have to go with Texas as most impressive. The loss to the Cyclones was surprising, obviously, but October was a really good month for Iowa State (7-1). If anything, that loss might have come in handy for Elliott to get his team's attention regarding how they need to keep grinding.

Who is this year's biggest surprise so far?

Gore: San Diego's success this season was unpredictable and unexpected. The Toreros are truly one of the best teams in the country.

McPeak: Louisville has been a nice surprise after graduating key players Anna Stevenson and Tori Dilfer. Louisville picked up Raquel Lazaro off the portal to run the offense, and Claire Chaussee, Amaya Tillman and Anna Debeer have all stepped up big time.

Hoffman: Other teams' hype allowed San Diego to creep under the radar. For a talented team to be wedged between the likes of Texas, Louisville and any Big Ten school on any given night, it must keep its head down and take things business as usual. I can't wait to see San Diego make a run into December.

Sunderland: A big surprise to me is the play of Pitt's Courtney Buzzerio. Yes, she was good at Iowa -- twice an all-Big Ten selection -- but hitting .335 as an opposite is incredible. She is the kind of player that can carry the Panthers -- maybe all the way to a title.

Voepel: San Diego has been a successful program going back to the early 1990s, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2018 when the Toreros upset USC to get there. That they are good this season isn't a surprise. But with a No. 2 national ranking is not something many would have predicted. Their only loss was at Louisville on Sept. 2, and they have zipped through West Coast Conference play almost unscathed so far, dropping just three sets in 11 matches.

Who is your Player of the Year pick?

Gore: I've gone with Julia Bergmann from Georgia Tech all season. She possesses Olympic-level talent on a top-10 team. Although everyone is trying to stop her, she continues to put up astronomical numbers on a balanced team against some of the stiffest competition each week in the ACC.

McPeak: Logan Eggleston of Texas is the front-runner. She does so much for her team -- from kills to aces to blocks -- and excels in every area, as well as leadership.

Hoffman: While everyone has their eyes on Logan Eggleston, a freshman has taken the offense of a Big Ten powerhouse on her shoulders. Purdue's Eva Hudson is simply stellar. Her numbers (5.07 points per set, 4.56 kills per set) are off the charts in her first year. Being the first freshman to win national player of the year honors would be historic.

Sunderland: I'll echo Holly and go with Eggleston.

Voepel: Other than the loss at Iowa State, Texas has been the top team all season and Eggleston is their top player. She is averaging 5.2 points per set and 4.5 kills per set. The NCAA selection committee released its top 10 reveal Sunday for the second time this season, and the Longhorns are No. 1 there, too. All that makes Eggleston the leader in the player of the year race.

Which match in November are you most looking forward to?

Gore: Wisconsin-Nebraska on Nov. 25, and the back-to-back series between Florida and Kentucky on Nov. 19 and 20.

McPeak: I was looking forward to the Wisconsin-Nebraska rematch, but another rematch that could be fun is Iowa State-Texas on Nov. 9 after the Cyclones ended Texas' undefeated season.

Hoffman: Wisconsin-Nebraska, Pitt-Louisville on Nov. 18 and Baylor-Texas on Nov. 19 will feature top teams fighting for seeding heading into the NCAA tournament.

Sunderland: Everyone has mentioned Wisconsin-Nebraska, but keep in mind that Ohio State has matches remaining with Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin. They could win it all if Emily Londot ups her efficiency. The rematch between Pitt and Louisville could be for the ACC title and possibly a top-four seed.

Voepel: Texas-Baylor has become the premiere match in the Big 12 the last few years. The Longhorns won 3-1 at Baylor on Oct. 15, and the teams will meet again on Nov. 19, senior night, at Texas. That match (8 p.m. ET, Longhorn Network/ESPN App) might be pivotal in terms of Texas securing the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

What is your bold prediction for the rest of the way?

Gore: We will have a first-time team in the national semis.

McPeak: I think it is going to be a year of huge upsets. There is more parity now than ever, and plenty of unranked teams can knock off ranked teams come tournament time.

Hoffman: Nebraska may not have the homecoming in December everyone is expecting, and the Huskers don't make it back to Omaha playing for a national championship.

Voepel: As Pac-12 volleyball goes, this appears to be one of the weaker seasons for the conference, which currently has just three ranked teams: No. 8 Stanford, No. 16 Oregon (which gave the Cardinal their only league loss so far) and No. 19 Washington. Yet don't be surprised if by NCAA tournament time, the league redeems itself with three or four teams making the Sweet 16.

Who makes the national semifinals?

McPeak: As of now, my prediction is Wisconsin, Texas, Nebraska and Stanford.

Sunderland: Texas, Stanford, Nebraska and Pitt.

Voepel: Texas, Louisville, Nebraska, Stanford.