With the Big Ten reportedly being one of two Division I baseball conferences to prohibit nonconference games, the Nebraska baseball team will have a lot of work ahead of it to earn a spot in the postseason.
A respectable Ratings Percentage Index, or RPI, is crucial when deciding which teams advance into the NCAA Regionals. RPI combines a team’s overall record and strength of schedule, with the goal of providing a more comprehensive analysis of the best teams in the country. Without non conference play, teams are left scratching and clawing for a postseason spot, as there’s no true baseline for how good the conference is.
“Where it impacts you is you don’t have an RPI since you’re only playing conference opponents, so you don’t see where your conference stacks up,” Nebraska baseball head coach Will Bolt said in last Friday’s media availability. “With no out of conference opponents, the RPI is basically nonexistent, which is the biggest issue with this situation.”
In 2019, the last full season for the Big Ten, five teams made the tournament: Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State — with the Buckeyes earning an at-large bid. All five teams had RPI rankings within the top 64, with Nebraska ranking 40th. The Huskers’ strong RPI ranking earned them a three seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
In 2019, the Big Ten finished seventh out of 30 conferences with an out-of-conference record of 201-170. Through 15 games last year, Nebraska ranked 187th out of 301 teams in the RPI rankings. This was largely due to the Huskers’ 7-8 start and the fact they had faced few marquee opponents before the season shut down.
Recent years have seen four to five Big Ten teams advance into the postseason, but this year could be vastly different. The top two or three teams in the Big Ten will more than likely be shoe-ins for the NCAA Tournament. However, with conference-wide attrition and no real comparison to other teams due to a lack of out-of-conference play, the Big Ten may be hard-pressed to send any more than that.
“Without a rating, then you’re going by the eyeball test hoping there is some separation in the top of the league, with the top three or four teams,” Bolt said. “We’ve averaged four teams here in the recent years, so when it’s all said and done I hope the Big Ten has a shot to get that many in.”
That is what makes it so critical for Nebraska to play against other conferences. As a rebuilding team with a second-year head coach, the Huskers could finish close to the tournament bubble. With Nebraska projected to finish the conference in eighth according to D1 Baseball’s Big Ten preview, it makes having a higher RPI that much more important.
Nebraska grabbed an at-large bid in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019. Each time it made the NCAA Tournament, it had an RPI varying from 26-47. As a team known for making some noise in the conference recently, this year remains the Huskers’ toughest challenge yet to impress the selection committee while separating themselves from the pack.
Nebraska still waits patiently for a schedule and is ready to play when it's finalized, as it remains the only league besides the MAAC to play in conference only.
“As far as when, I would hope that maybe in the next two weeks at the latest, we’ll find out who we’re going to play and when,” Bolt said. “It’s probably going to be four game weekends, no games midweek which is a big change.”
As Bolt enters his first full season as head coach, he will face the unenviable task of having to keep his player’s minds straight and focused on playing the game. In a season full of so much uncertainty, a quick start will be important to give players confidence and energy right away.
Every game will matter in a league where teams are consistently beating up on each other and facing familiar foes. With no Big Ten teams in the Top 25 preseason poll, it will be a tough task for Nebraska to produce enough convincing wins to make the field of 64.