Big Ten won't be easy for Nebraska

Kendall Rogers

Nebraska might soon find out that things aren't always as great as they might seem.

The Huskers sent a statement around the country earlier this summer when they abruptly announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten next fall. Many Nebraska officials and fans were ecstatic it decided to leave Texas and the Big 12 behind.

Others viewed the move as a potential massive mistake for some sports, particularly the baseball program. Those concerns are warranted.

Since the Big 12 formed in the 1990s, the Huskers have enjoyed being in a conference with a high RPI. Even last season, when the Huskers finished at the bottom of the league with a .500 overall record, they still had an RPI of 60.

The days of having a good RPI with a mediocre record will be over when they officially leave the Big 12 after the 2011 season. The Big Red will be faced with a future that must include incredibly difficult non-conference schedules for the program to have a chance for a solid RPI and opportunity to host an NCAA regional.

"Let's be honest, this whole process was based on football and the Big Ten's revenues, plain and simple," Nebraska coach Mike Anderson said. "I'm the baseball coach at Nebraska and we moved to the Big Ten, so dang right I am going to like it. If I'm going to continue as the coach here at NU, I'm going to have to like moving to the Big Ten."

Deep down, Anderson should be concerned.

Some Big Ten universities have made a stronger effort the past few seasons to improve their baseball programs. Penn State has an excellent facility, Michigan State just completed a new facility and Indiana is in the process of building a new facility. But the conference still has a plethora of roadblocks and poor recent history to overcome.

Take last season. While the Huskers finished the year at the bottom of the Big 12, Minnesota, the Big Ten's automatic qualifier to the NCAA postseason, had a dismal RPI of 92. Michigan, meanwhile, which compiled a respectable 35-22 overall record, finished the year with an RPI of 71, 11 spots behind the Huskers.

The strikes against the Big Ten don't stop there. The conference finished last season with a conference RPI of 12. It also finished the '09 and '08 seasons, respectively, with RPIs of 15 and 14, behind conferences such as the Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic Sun.

Furthermore, Minnesota's 40-18 finish in '09 was the conference's highest team RPI the past few three seasons: 26. Also worth noting, Michigan, which defeated top national seed Vanderbilt in the '07 Nashville Regional title game, only ended that campaign with an RPI of 36 after a super regional loss to Oregon State.

Anderson, who usually is on the southern side of the RPI and weather debates, has had to change his tune since the Huskers announced their move. He has to know the move could turn out badly.

"We're going to have to work at it to be a premier team in the Big Ten. We must create great non-conference schedules, and that needs to be conference-wide," Anderson said. "In the end, though, the Big Ten has some serious disadvantages. Some programs are forced to be on the road the first 20 games of the season. The NCAA needs to create more equality in all regions."

Unlike some northern coaches, Anderson is ahead of the curve and is willing to take chances when it comes to putting together a schedule that could lead to a regional host or more.

The Huskers have exchanged interest with programs such as Cal State Fullerton, UCLA and Fresno State for future series. More marquee names also have surfaced and could be on upcoming Nebraska schedules.

"Louisville is a program that has earned a national seed as a northern program by scheduling good non-conference series," he said. "I'm really amazed at some of the programs calling me and wanting to play. That leads me to believe one thing: Can we win big in the Big Ten and be a national seed type of program? I think we can."

Having the rest of the Big Ten improve non-conference schedules also would be beneficial.

Louisville's RPI last season was aided by the Big East taking a huge step forward. The conference finished the year with an RPI of six and had five programs with RPIs better than Minnesota, the Big Ten's best RPI.

"The Big 12 really started to take a step forward when programs such as ours, Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State started playing better non-conference schedules and getting better RPIs," he said. "I really look at the Big Ten and think the same thing. If you get some of those bottom programs in the mix in terms of scheduling, you really could have some progressive things happening."

For now, the Huskers are one of few determined to schedule tough opponents.

It may or may not pay off.

Recruiting creates challenges

For years Anderson had become accustomed to giving recruits reasons to play at Nebraska and in the Big 12, and certainly not in the Big Ten. Now, the longtime Huskers coach must change his tune.

The Huskers now are one of Big 12 coaches' biggest northern targets. They're trying to find ways to make the Big Ten a more attractive option to potential student-athletes.

"The schools that you would think are negatively recruiting against us are doing so. It's more of a ‘southern’ school knocking a northern school and the Big Ten," he said. "To be honest, we're already used to it. I'm too positive and optimistic to let it bother me. If a player wants to shy away from the Big Ten because of that stuff, then so be it."

Previously in the Dave Van Horn era and now in the Anderson era, the Huskers have made a living on junior college and high school players from around the Big 12 region, specifically Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado and certainly Nebraska.

That recruiting niche will be tested in the Big Ten.

No longer will the Huskers be a short bus ride from Kansas State and Kansas, and serviceable rides to Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, is the closest Big Ten school and it's over four hours away.

The next nearest schools? Northwestern and Illinois, each over eight hours drive.

"There are more schools than ever that think they're going to come into Nebraska and take kids away from us. That hasn't been the case so far," he said. "From the commitments we have right now, not much has changed. We're still getting players from the same base we've always had."

Interestingly, it's just a coincidence the Huskers have recruited Big Ten country more extensively the past few seasons. That new frontier could help combat some potential recruiting issues in Big 12 country.

"We're always about Nebraska first then the rest of the Midwest, but we've really made a strong commitment the past two years to recruit the Chicago area," he said. "With all the other areas we have to recruit from, we really think moving to the Big Ten is going to help us in that area and others, too."

Trouble could be on the horizon if it doesn't.

Expectations higher than ever

After finishing last season near the bottom of the Big 12, Anderson and the Huskers never have been under more watchful eyes.

That only will increase when the program plays its first Big Ten season in '12.

The Big Ten hasn't had a representative at the College World Series since Michigan in '84. By comparison, Nebraska has reached the CWS three times in the last 10 seasons.

"The Big Ten isn't a bad conference and you can't just roll in there with an arrogant attitude. With that said, we're going to be very confident about ourselves," he said. "There is a perception out there that we're going to dominate everyone. I hope we're successful and the league gets three or four teams in the NCAA tournament every season."

No one knows what the future holds for Nebraska or the Big Ten. The Huskers may serve as examples and help the Big Ten take a step forward. The Huskers also could take a huge step back and become just another Big Ten program and northern casualty.

Time will tell with the Huskers, but they should be careful with what they ask for.

"We're hoping that we help the Big Ten become a better league," he said. "I think the Big Ten has what it takes to take the next step. We'll see what happens."