If Nebraska fans listed the five Husker sports they follow most, it’s likely that football, volleyball, men’s/women’s basketball and baseball would routinely make the list. The Huskers’ competition in volleyball and basketball is now stronger than it was in the Big 12, and football’s isn’t too far off.
However, where the Big 12 offered a chance to play against premiere southern baseball squads, the Big Ten offers a veritable dumpster fire of both teams and home stadiums. The conference’s 2011 RPI caused it to be ranked sixteenth in baseball according to Boyd’s World and Warren Nolan. This pales in comparison to Big 12’s ranking of third.
Even more shocking, using that same statistic, the Creighton Bluejays now play in the better baseball conference. The Missouri Valley Conference’s RPI ranked seventh at the end of 2011. Needless to say, the Huskers aren’t playing in the big leagues of college baseball anymore.
Four out of the last six years, the Big Ten has only been represented in the NCAA tournament by the conference tournament champion. The last Big Ten team to play in the College World Series was Michigan. The Wolverines last took the field in Omaha 28 years ago.
Despite Nebraska’s rough stretch over the past few years, an unproven skipper and large amount of young/untested talent, the Huskers were still picked to finish fourth in the conference by its coaches.
On one hand, that might seem disrespectful. On the other, it could just be a sign that Nebraska is a huge question mark to most. This goes both ways as many Husker fans are as unfamiliar with the Big Ten’s overall baseball play as any other sport they’ve come across.
The Fighting Illini were the Big Ten’s sole representative in the NCAA tournament last year. They took the conference tournament and a share of the regular season title with a 15-9 record.
Picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten this season, the Illini lost five of their every day starters and two weekend pitchers. The Illini play at Illinois Field, one of the nicer facilities in the conference with 1,500 seats and a FieldTurf playing surface.
The Spartans grabbed a share of the Big Ten regular season title in 2011 and are the coaches’ preseason favorites in 2012. Michigan State returns with the preseason Baseball America Pitcher of the Year in senior right-handed pitcher Tony Bucciferro (8-3, 3.38 ERA in 2011) and key outfielder Thorsten Boss (.370 average in 2011) who moved from third base.
However, the Spartans still have some major holes to fill. Michigan State plays at Drayton McLane stadium which features a capacity of 4,000 and a forest behind the outfield wall.
Baseball America picked the Boilermakers to win the conference this season. Purdue was one game out of the conference championship last season, a shame as they haven’t won the league title in over a century. The Boilermakers sport the preseason Baseball America Conference Player of the Year in catcher Kevin Plawecki (.341 average in 2011).
The lineup returns nearly every player, and the starting nine on opening day are expected to be all upperclassmen. The pitching staff is just as seasoned. The Boilermakers play on natural grass at Lambert Field, which will see its last season as Purdue’s home before the team moves to John and Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Field next season.
The Gophers went to the NCAA tournament a couple of seasons ago, and have been working to replace some squad-wide losses over this past offseason. Despite that, they were picked to finish third in the Big Ten by the coaches. They return five position players, but more importantly, two key pitchers and draft prospects are back.
Right-handed pitcher TJ Oakes (6-5, 3.26 ERA in 2012) and left-handed All-Big Ten Tournament pitcher Tom Windle (1.52 ERA in 41.1 innings in a relief role) will anchor down the Minnesota weekend rotation. The Gophers will play the
majority of their home games this season at the Metrodome.
The Buckeyes feature last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Josh Dezse, who pitches and plays first base. He is one of the top prospects in the conference, but won’t be draft eligible until next season.
One of the top recruits brought into Ohio State is left-handed pitcher Brian King, who comes from Paradise Valley Community College in Arizona. The Buckeyes play at a fairly new facility, Bill Davis Stadium, in front of 4,450.
The Rest of the Conference
These five teams should contend for the Big Ten’s baseball crown along with Nebraska. Last season’s cellar-dweller, Michigan, is expected to bounce back from its 7-16 record.
The Penn State Nittany Lions play in one of the Big Ten’s nicest facilities outside of Haymarket Park. Indiana, Northwestern and Iowa represent the bottom tier of Big Ten schools with Northwestern playing at a glorified sandlot. Wisconsin doesn’t field a baseball team.
The Big Ten has some talent and a couple of teams that could be dangerous in a weekend series, especially the seasoned veterans from Purdue.
Still, the overall level of competition that Nebraska faces in the Big Ten is more what the Huskers have been used to during a weekday series, rather than the grueling Big 12 weekend schedule.