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Key conference match-ups headline big weekend in college volleyball

With conference season continuing to roll along, each game is becoming more and more critical as teams try to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. No. 5 Texas scored a huge five-set win at No. 9 Kansas Wednesday night, and No. 11 Wisconsin snapped a three-game losing streak with an impressive win of their own over No. 4 Nebraska.

As the weekend approaches, here are three conference match-ups to keep an eye on:

[More from Excelle: Colorado native Alexa Smith at home leading Buffs]

No. 3 Stanford (13-2, 6-0 Pac-12) vs. No. 12 UCLA (11-4, 4-2 Pac-12)

Friday 6:00 p.m. PT

Stanford currently sits at 13-2, but the Cardinal are perfect against all teams not named Penn State. In six Pac-12 games, they have five sweeps. And this weekend, Stanford has the chance to create separation in the conference standings as they travel to Los Angeles to take on No. 12 UCLA Friday and No. 19 USC Sunday. Kathryn Plummer continues to be one of the best players in the country, as the sophomore is averaging 4.76 kills per set. She has the ability to take a game over and setter Jenna Gray will look to feed her the ball early and often.

UCLA has a perfect opportunity to score a signature win at home Friday. After starting out conference play 1-2, including losses to USC and Washington, the Bruins have won three straight matches. UCLA has four players who average greater than 2.5 kills per set, but getting consistent production in every set will be key. In three of their four losses this season, the Bruins have failed to hit at a .200 percent clip, well below their season average of .264 percent. However, Coach Michael Sealy’s team has the fire power to pull off the upset, and playing inside Pauley Pavilion is a challenge for any team.

No. 10 Michigan State (12-3, 5-1 Big Ten) vs. No. 2 Penn State (15-1, 5-1 Big Ten)

Friday 7:00 p.m. ET

How did Michigan State bounce back after suffering its first Big Ten loss? By knocking off No. 11 Wisconsin for the second time this season. So the Spartans will enter Happy Valley with a ton of confidence, but coming away from Penn State with a win is a tall order. Alyssa Garvelink ranks second in the Big Ten in blocks per set (1.58), so she will need to continue to play big in order to stifle Haleigh Washington, Simone Lee and co.

Penn State opened conference play with a loss to Nebraska, but has rattled off five wins in a row since. The Nittany Lions continue to get strong play from Lee and Washington, who won her eighth career Big Ten Player of the Week honor Monday, and senior setter Abby Detering has helped pace the offense with 301 assists on the season. Like the Spartans, the Nittany Lions will also enter Friday’s showdown with a ton of confidence, as they haven’t dropped a set to MSU since 2013.

No. 8 Kentucky (15-2, 6-0 SEC) vs. No. 1 Florida (13-0, 5-0 SEC)

Sunday 1:00 p.m. ET

Florida has gathered a good amount of headlines this season, and deservedly so as the only remaining undefeated team in the NCAA, but Kentucky will have the Gators on upset alert Sunday. The Wildcats currently sit atop the SEC standings and will bring their lethal offense with them to Gainesville, Fla. Led by Avery Skinner and Leah Edmond, Kentucky ranks third nationally in kills per set (14.87) while hitting at .329 percent (fourth nationally). The last time the Wildcats visited Florida? They left with a sweep of the Gators.

As mentioned above, Florida is the only undefeated team remaining, but it will face its toughest test since opening weekend in Kentucky. The Gators began the season with wins over then-No. 1 Texas and No. 5 Nebraska, but have since not played a team currently ranked in the top-25. Florida has a potent offense of its own, but will need to remain solid defensively in order to secure the win and remain perfect. The Gators allow their opponents to hit only .139 percent (sixth nationally), while posting 3.13 blocks per set (fifth nationally). Rhamat Alhassan has been a big reason why the Gators defense has been so stingy this season. The senior middle blocker leads the team and is second nationally with 1.72 blocks per set.

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