When Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon was asked to describe the Big Ten this year, his first response was: "Awesome."

That might be an understatement.

Defending NCAA champion Nebraska, defending Big Ten champion Minnesota and Wisconsin are ranked first, second and third in the country this week. Eight Big Ten teams are in the top 25.

The No. 2 Gophers (8-1) are on a seven-match win streak since falling to Stanford (now No. 11) in Palo Alto, Calif. in the first weekend of the season. They open Big Ten play this weekend at home: 7 p.m. Friday against Maryland, and 7 p.m. Saturday against No. 17 Ohio State, at the Sports Pavilion.

"There are so many good teams," McCutcheon said of his conference. "I think our team is ready. I'm excited for what's to come here."

Last year, Minnesota took the nation by surprise by winning 15 consecutive conference matches on the way to the program's first Big Ten title since 2002. The Gophers' 2015 season ended with their first Final Four appearance since 2009.

McCutcheon returns six seniors, including middle blockers Paige and Hannah Tapp and outside hitter Sarah Wilhite. All-American sophomore setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson and freshman outside hitter Alexis Hart have picked up multiple conference weekly honors.

"Whatever the Big Ten brings," Paige Tapp said, "we have a little bit of confidence knowing that we've played those tough matches."

Star Tribune