Top-ranked Texas has all but one starter back from last year's national championship volleyball team, and Jerritt Elliott says his roster is the deepest it has been in his 13 years at the school.
But the 2012 national coach of the year isn't ready to make travel plans for a fifth appearance in six years in the NCAA final four.
That's because the top challengers to Texas also return a bevy of talent. In fact, 10 of the 14 players who were first-team All-Americans are back.
"It's going to be a very competitive year in terms of getting to that point where you can be a final four team," Elliott said Wednesday. "Last year was a young year. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes you have a real senior-based talented group (nationally), and I think that's the case right now."
Penn State coach Russ Rose, whose program won four straight national titles from 2007-10, said the pool of potential champions is becoming deeper.
"Each year it gets harder and harder because there's more parity with the fact that people are getting better at coaching, players are getting better at playing and you have these 25-point (rally scoring) games," Rose said.
Returning All-Americans Haley Eckerman and Bailey Webster are the headliners for a Texas team that hit a nation-leading .325 last season and won 23 of its last 24 matches, including a 3-0 sweep of Oregon in the NCAA final.
Second-ranked Penn State lost no starters from the team that made it to the semifinals. The Nittany Lions are led by All-Americans Ariel Scott and Micha Hancock.
Every starter also is back at No. 3 Stanford. Carly Wopat was an All-American for the Cardinal, and Inky Ajanaku, Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard won postseason honors as freshmen.
No. 4 Southern California has six returning starters plus two-time first-team All-American Natalie Hagglund at libero. The Women of Troy also bring back Pac-12 freshman of the year Samantha Bricio.
Fifth-ranked Washington returns all but one starter and hopes to still be playing when Seattle hosts the NCAA championships for the first time Dec. 19 and 21.
"It's just human nature, that here we are in our backyard and there is a little bit more incentive," Huskies coach Jim McLaughlin said. "Over the years we've wanted to be the best we can be, develop and try to get to every final four. But yeah, for sure, it would be great to do it in our home city."
Texas' Elliott has built a schedule that provides early tests. Of the Longhorns' first eight matches, four are against opponents ranked among the top 11 in the coaches' poll.
"Last year people wanted to beat us because we were Texas, so regardless they bought their 'A' game, especially on the road," Webster said. "But this year, people will want to beat us because we are Texas and because we won the national championship. We will embrace that and are excited to play each team."
The Longhorns open Aug. 31 at No. 11 Hawaii, which has won 71 of its last 76 home matches. The next week they return home to play No. 2 Penn State and No. 3 Stanford.
"I told our team in our first meeting that I set up a schedule that will give us a chance to take some losses, and I'm OK with taking some losses early if we're competing at a high level and working on things we need to do," Elliott said. "I'm not looking to try to go undefeated on the season."
Penn State isn't easing into the season, either. The Nittany Lions play No. 19 Louisville before heading to Texas to face the Longhorns and No. 9 Florida. Nine of their opponents are in the Top 25, with Big Ten matches against No. 6 Minnesota, No. 7 Michigan and No. 10 Nebraska.
"If you play good teams, you increase the risk you're going to lose," Rose said. "But it also gives you a much better indicator of what you need to work on because the good teams and good programs are going to expose you."