Way back in late March, Nebraska swept Texas in a three-game series in Lincoln.
Husker fans started planning how to get tickets to the eventual NCAA regional in Lincoln and talked about buying tickets to the College World Series.
Well, Texas kept losing. The Longhorns, a CWS finalist last year with seven starters back, are 24-24, carry an RPI rating just barely in the top 100 and are staring at their worst season in 70 years.
But there is more than adding to NU fans' revulsion of Longhorn athletics as the Huskers (32-17, 8-10 Big Ten) prepare for a three-game series with Purdue that starts Saturday at Haymarket Park.
In early April, Nebraska was swept at Maryland, which has slipped lately, suffering a sweep at the hands of Indiana last weekend. Ohio State took two of three games in Lincoln, and Iowa swept NU with wins in 10 innings and 4-3.
The Huskers carry a 2-9 record against teams in the top 50 RPI and a 6-9 record in true road games. Nebraska has slipped from a No. 12 RPI (combination of winning percentage, opponent’s winning percentage) to No. 28 partly because road wins against quality opponents weigh more than ever.
Nebraska coach Darin Erstad takes all the air (mostly hot) out of the “what if?” for his Nebraska baseball team.
“We’ve got to win games,” Erstad has said often this season. “That RPI, the ratings, I just don’t do. I know we have to win to get to postseason play. We have to get in the Big Ten Tournament first. We have to win to get into the NCAA Tournament.”
The Huskers have six regular-season games left. The three with hapless Purdue (15-33, 2-16) in Lincoln on Saturday, Sunday and Monday are must-wins for Nebraska. The final three are at 18th-ranked Illinois the following week. The Illini are riding a 21-game win streak and sit on top of the Big Ten.
“Win that series and no problem on the Big Ten or the NCAA tournaments,” said Kendall Rogers of D1Baseball.com. “The wins against the top 50 are not there, but they are 16-4 against teams in the top 100 and they have a great strength of schedule.
“It wasn’t their fault Texas is having a terrible year and Cal State Fullerton isn’t as good as they usually are,” he said. “Add the fact that the Big Ten is crazy good, better than ever and Nebraska has a lot of tough work ahead.”
The Big Ten has six teams in the top 50 RPI and has five teams (not including Nebraska as of now) projected to make the NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten has never had more than three and often just one team makes it. As of today, Illinois is No. 8 in RPI, Ohio State, 20th; Iowa, 26th; Nebraska, 28th; Michigan State, 42nd; Maryland, 50th.
“Nebraska is not in good shape,” said Jim Shonerd of Baseball America.com. “Their RPI is fine. The 8-10 conference record, sitting in eighth place in the Big Ten, are big problems. They probably need to go 5-1 the last two weekends to feel good about their chances. It might come down to the Illinois series.”
Collegiate Baseball editor Lou Pavlovich said the strength of the Big Ten is surprising a lot of people, “But they’ve made the great coaching hires, put money into facilities and they are recruiting harder,” he said. “I’ve been at this since 1971 and I have never had the Big Ten this strong."
College Baseball Daily’s Tyler Freeman added that Nebraska should get into the Big Ten Tournament, but that NU could still be in eighth place and Illinois in first, with the two teams meeting in the first round of the tournament in Minneapolis.
“If they sweep Purdue and win the series with Illinois, they most certainly will make the NCAA regardless of what happens in the conference tournament,” he said. Then, echoing Erstad, “The simplest thing for those Nebraska boys to do is WIN!”
Boyd Nation, whose Boyd’s World follows college baseball, said Nebraska’s biggest risk is missing the Big Ten Tournament.
“Finish 4-2 in the final six games and they are in, and Purdue is a good way to get healthy quickly.”
Minnesota (19-26, 7-11) is the closest contender for the last of the eight spots in the Big Ten tourney. The Gophers play at Iowa this weekend and face Michigan State the final weekend.
The current RPI for the rest of the Big Ten: Michigan 77, Northwestern 151, Minnesota 159, Penn State 163, Purdue 197, Rutgers 202.
Rogers noted that many in Nebraska regretted NU's move to the Big Ten because of baseball strength. He added that the Big 12, once the beacon of college baseball in the Midwest, "is miserable. After TCU and Oklahoma State, there isn't much to talk about."