Penn State may be the two-time defending champions in women’s college volleyball, but with the Pac-10 gearing up for conference play this week, as many as six teams in the nation’s top league aim to show why they belong among the national discussion of which team will dethrone the Nittany Lions this season. With those six teams ranked in the AVCA Top 25 poll at the start of the season, four of them – UCLA, California, Stanford and Washington – are among the 10 elite teams to contend for a championship at season’s end.

UCLA head coach Andy Banachowski, now in his 43rd year, has a solid young core to make up for losing top setter Nellie Spicer. The young core includes returning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Amanda Gil and top recruit Lauren Cook. The Oct. 2 Stanford (No. 11) vs. UCLA (No. 7) game in Westwood will be huge.

No. 13 California is led by All-Americans Carli Lloyd and Hana Cutura, both of whom will help the Golden Bears challenge for the Pac-10 title. Across the Bay, Stanford hopes for a fourth consecutive trip to the national championship game, but with a different result – the Cardinal have been on the losing end of each of the last three title matches.

Up north, third-ranked Washington is the favorite to win the conference, with six of seven players returning from 2008, including senior libero Tamari Miyashiro (2008 Defensive Player of the Year) and third team All-American junior setter Jenna Hagglund (second in nation in assists per set). No. 12 Oregon is another solid team in the Pacific Northwest.

Back in Los Angeles, No. 15 USC is expected to have a solid 2009 campaign, with a Pac-10-best 13 players returning, including All-American senior Jessica Gysin, sophomore Alex Jupiter and junior Kimmee Roleder. The Trojans also welcome a Top 50 prospect in Katie Fuller.

Overall, expect the Pac-10 to maintain its status as the best conference in women’s college volleyball.