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Conference season has arrived in women’s volleyball

The top seven teams all stayed put this week, but conference season has begun, and with it, we will begin to find out which teams will separate themselves from the pack. Some mid-week games provided excitement, as No. 3 Florida swept No. 19 Florida State and No. 21 USC went on the road to beat rival No. 11 UCLA, but here are a few games to keep an eye on as the weekend gets underway:

No. 25 Colorado (10-1) at No. 16 Utah (9-2)

Friday Sept. 22 7:00 p.m. MT

Colorado enters the rankings this week following a win against rival No. 23 Colorado State that saw the Buffaloes battle back from down two sets to shock the Rams. A team that won only 14 games last season, Colorado will travel to Utah with 10 already in 2017 and look to prove that its performance in the non-conference was no fluke. Junior outside hitter Alexa Smith, the reigning Pac-12 offensive player of the week, leads the Buffaloes with 4.24 kills per set, and controlled Colorado State with 25 kills and 15 digs in the five-set win.

Utah dropped its own rivalry game against No. 9 BYU last Thursday in five-sets, but the Utes will have to put that game behind them as it begins Pac-12 play with a critical stretch. Utah’s first four games in conference will be played at home, starting with Colorado Friday, before the team hits the road for four straight. The Utes have been a two-way team this season, boasting a top-25 offense in kills per set (14.41) and blocks per set (2.72).

No. 14 Nebraska (7-3) at No. 2 Penn State (10-0)

Friday Sept. 22 7:00 p.m. ET

Penn State is one of just four remaining undefeated teams, and the Nittany Lions enter Big Ten play with signature wins over No. 4 Stanford (twice) and No. 25 Colorado. Coach Russ Rose’s team is loaded, paced by the trio of Simone Lee, Haleigh Washington and Ali Frantti. Lee, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week is leading the Nittany Lions with 3.94 kills per set, with Frantti not far behind (2.53 kills per set). Washington does it on both sides of the net, as she is second on the team in kills with 2.54 and first in blocks with 1.49 per set. As a result, the Nittany Lions lead the country in hitting percentage (.360 percent).

For Nebraska, they navigated a difficult non-conference season, with half of its contests coming against teams ranked in the Top 25, so the Cornhuskers will be battle-tested come Friday. But in order to score a huge road win and hand the Nittany Lions its first loss, Nebraska is going to need to play a clean game. They’ve held opponents to .137 percent hitting percentage, so Briana Holman (1.18 blocks per set) and Kenzie Maloney (4.62 digs per set) will need to get going early to shut down the potent Penn State attack.

No. 8 Oregon (8-1) at No. 11 UCLA (7-3)

Friday Sept. 22 8:00 p.m. PT

Oregon has been a team consistently climbing the rankings ladder and now currently sit at No. 8 in the country. Scoring big wins in its non-conference slate (No. 24 Wichita State, No. 14 Nebraska), and beginning Pac-12 play with a sweep in the Civil War against Oregon State, the Ducks will travel to Los Angeles with a lot of confidence Friday. They boast a lethal offense that puts up 15 kills per set, good for third nationally, led by junior outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide (3.45 kills per set).

[More from Excelle: Erica Di Maulo is becoming one of the best setters in the Big East]

UCLA opened up conference play by dropping a five-set match to rival USC inside Pauley Pavilion Wednesday night. The loss dropped the Bruins to 1-3 against ranked opponents on the season, but the beauty of playing in the Pac-12 means they will have ample opportunities to change that, beginning Friday. The combination of outside hitters Reily Buechler and Mac May will be important for the Bruins to sustain a consistent attack and counter the Ducks. UCLA took both games against Oregon last year.

Ohio State (8-4) vs. No. 13 Purdue (11-1)

Saturday Sept. 23 8:30 p.m. ET

Purdue started off Big Ten play with a sweep after coming off a strong non-conference season that saw the Boilermakers beat the teams they should while picking up a solid win against No. 14 Creighton. One of the reasons for Purdue’s hot start has been its offense, which owns the nation’s second-best hitting percentage at .353 percent, behind only conference foe Penn State mentioned earlier. Senior setter Ashley Evans has been a big part of the offense, posting 11.38 assists per set, and should have extra motivation as the Liberty Township, Ohio native will go up against her home state Buckeyes Saturday.

As for the aforementioned Buckeyes, they also picked up a sweep to start Big Ten play Wednesday against Maryland, and will look to continue that momentum in West Lafayette, Ind. Freshman Ayanna Swan provided Ohio State with a boost this past weekend, earning her first career start against Western Kentucky in the Buckeye Invitational, and posted a team-best 3.9 kills per set on the weekend (including 19 against Northern Illinois). Ohio State will counter Evans and the Boilermakers’ offense with Hannah Gruensfelder, who is tops in the Big Ten with 4.86 digs per set.

Note: The Buckeyes hold a narrow 43-42 advantage in the all-time series, with the last three matches going the distance.

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