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Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon's expectations are to compete for a Big Ten title every year, but this might be the toughest season during his tenure to accomplish that goal.

In six of his nine seasons at Minnesota, McCutcheon has finished at least second in the league, including Big Ten titles in 2015 and 2018.

Entering Friday's Big Ten opener at home against Michigan (7-2), the No. 9 Gophers (5-3) are one of the conference's six ranked teams, including five in the top 12.

"I think [the league is] as good as it has ever been," said McCutcheon, whose team also plays host to Maryland (12-0) on Sunday. "Mainly because of the fifth-year seniors and the transfers. Teams that maybe have lost some have reloaded. It's going to be awesome."

Wisconsin (No. 2), Ohio State (No. 3), and Purdue (No. 7) are the early favorites in the Big Ten title race, but anything could happen in the deepest league in women's volleyball. Nebraska (No. 12) and Penn State (No. 20) were picked second and third in the preseason Big Ten coaches poll, while Minnesota was fourth.

Extra year boost

The NCAA allowing athletes an extra year of eligibility during the pandemic gave several Big Ten programs a boost. Nine of the 10 seniors on the all-conference first team last season returned for a fifth year. The only senior that didn't come back was Gophers middle blocker Regan Pittman. Minnesota's Stephanie Samedy, the Big Ten player of the year, picked up where she left off with 5.1 kills per set, ranking first in the Big Ten and fifth nationally. Wisconsin's Sydney Hilley, a former Champlin Park star, ranks second in the country with 11.81 assists per set. The Badgers also returned all-league fifth-year seniors Dana Rettke (who stands 6-8) and Grace Loberg. Purdue welcomed back All-Americas Jena Otec (Big Ten defensive player of the year) and Caitlyn Newton. Nebraska returned unanimous All-Big Ten seniors Lexi Sun and three-time All-America Lauren Stivrins.

Marquee wins

The Badgers, Gophers, and Purdue all have two wins against top-25 opponents this season. Minnesota defeated No. 14 Stanford and No. 11 Oregon, both in Eugene, Ore. The Badgers beat Baylor and defending NCAA champion Kentucky. Purdue defeated Washington State and Tennessee. The Big Ten's best victory so far outside of the league, though, was Ohio State upsetting then-No. 4 Washington in four sets on Aug. 28.

Transfer help

Penn State has a roster filled with transfers from schools such as the Gophers, Nebraska, Rutgers, Miami (Fla.) and West Virginia. Leading the way are former All-Big Ten players Adanna Rollins and Erika Pritchard. Rollins was a standout during the Gophers' Final Four run in 2019. Pritchard was the Big Ten's active kills leader (1,526) after four years with Maryland. The Terrapins went from 5-15 last season to a 12-0 start this year with help from three grad transfers. Iowa also added UCLA transfer Mari Hinkle, a Rosemount native.

Injury bug

McCutcheon would love to be going into the Big Ten at full strength, but All-Big Ten preseason sophomore Taylor Landfair has missed the past four matches because of an undisclosed injury. Fortunately for the Gophers, sophomore Jenna Wenaas (Big Ten player of the week Monday) and junior Ellie Husemann from Eagan have stepped up. Nebraska has played this season so far without its best player, Stivrins, who has been recovering from a back injury.