This time of year, a hefty majority of all questions submitted in our weekly college chat, as well as those sent via e-mail or Twitter, center around the battle for postseason positioning. Our readers want to know how the races for national seeds, host sites and at-large bids are shaping up, so every Tuesday we’ll examine how the postseason picture has shifted over the weekend. Rather than get bogged down in the jigsaw puzzle that is a full field of 64 projection, we’re not going to worry about which regionals teams get sent to. We’re just looking at who’s in, who’s out, who’s on the bubble. This discussion is weighted much more toward performance and remaining schedule than projection based on talent, but it’s also not intended to show what the field would look like if the season ended today. We’re still looking ahead.
During this discussion, we will reference the NCAA’s official RPI report, which is released every Tuesday and is updated through the weekend’s games. And we’ll make use of records against the top 25, 50 or 100 in the RPI—there is some margin for error with those figures, but they are accurate enough to serve our purposes.
We’ll get to at-large chances in a bit, but let’s start with a look at which teams are on track to earn national seeds and which are on track to host regionals through the first 10 weeks of the season:
SECURE TEAMS: North Carolina, Louisiana State, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Cal State Fullerton, Oregon State
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): North Carolina State, Oregon
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Mississippi State, Florida State
One change from last week: North Carolina State replaces Florida State as a national seed. The Wolfpack was already trending up, but this past weekend catapulted it from the hosting bubble to good position for a national seed. N.C. State’s sweep at Georgia Tech, coupled with Virginia’s sweep of FSU, vaulted the ‘Pack into first place in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and from No. 19 to No. 8 in the RPI. With a 14-game winning streak, North Carolina State is hotter than any team in the nation except North Carolina, which also has a 14-game winning streak. Incidentally, those two teams face off in Raleigh this weekend, and a series win by the ‘Pack would solidify its place as a national seed.
We’re sticking with Oregon for the eighth national seed even after the Ducks lost a home series to UCLA, their fourth series loss this year against a team that currently ranks in the BA top 10. Oregon has not been swept in any of those series, helping them maintain a No. 9 RPI, and their 13-5 record in the Pac-12 is an asset. Mississippi State has a better record against the top 50 (13-8 vs. Oregon’s 7-9), but the Bulldogs have a much more difficult remaining schedule, with road series remaining against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, plus home sets against Alabama and South Carolina. It’s easier to envision the Ducks finishing stronger, as its two most difficult series left are at home (vs. Stanford and Oregon State), and it will be favored to win its two road series (at Washington State and Utah). Oregon has a clear path to the Pac-12 title, and that would be a very nice feather in its cap, coupled with its robust strength of schedule.
Florida State remains in the mix as well, but getting swept at Virginia was a setback. If the Seminoles can win the ACC Atlantic, we like their chances to earn a national seed, but they must go on the road to face N.C. State in three weeks, so at this point we’ll give the edge to the ‘Pack.
SECURE TEAMS: The eight national seeds listed above; Mississippi State, Florida State, Indiana
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): UCLA, South Carolina, Louisville, Arizona State, Oklahoma
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Miami
Changes from last week: North Carolina State and UCLA replace Arkansas and Georgia Tech as hosts.
UCLA boosted its stock in a huge way with a series win at Oregon this past weekend, helping the Bruins climb to 9-6 in the Pac-12 and seven spots to No. 16 in the RPI. The question is, can the Pac-12 produce four hosts if it is only a five- or six-bid league? That might be pushing it, especially since Cal State Fullerton already gives the West a fourth host. Oregon State and Oregon are very strong bets to host, but UCLA and Arizona State also have solid hosting resumes. The Sun Devils fell 11 spots to No. 20 in the RPI after a 2-2 week against Valparaiso and Arizona, but we still like their series wins against UCLA and Oregon, and their favorable remaining schedule should allow them to improve their 8-7 mark in the Pac-12. ASU’s two toughest series remaining are at home (vs. Stanford and Arizona), and it has three very winnable road series left at Utah, California and Washington. For now, we’ll stick the Bruins and Sun Devils both in the hosting column.
That leaves the SEC (which is projected to send nine teams to regionals) with just four hosts, but remember that the SEC is top-heavy this year, with two teams dominating their respective divisions (Vanderbilt leads the East by five games, and LSU enjoys a four-game cushion in the West). We still like Arkansas’ talent and expect the Hogs to finish strong, but a disappointing 2-3 week against Nebraska and Texas A&M dropped them to No. 60 in the RPI. A power-conference team like Arkansas probably needs to climb inside the top 20 to have a good shot to host. That could still happen—the remaining schedule features three winnable road series, which award extra RPI points, plus a sweepable home series against Tennessee—but last week put the Razorbacks behind the eight-ball a bit.
Ole Miss is in better RPI shape (No. 19, down five spots from last week), but the Rebels have a more challenging schedule remaining, with series left against Kentucky, Mississippi State and at LSU, as well as a road set at Auburn. An 8-4 finish against that slate could be enough for the Rebels to dislodge a Pac-12 team or Oklahoma as a host, but for now we’ll leave them on the wrong side of the bubble.
The Sooners are an interesting case; they tumbled 18 spots to No. 40 in the RPI after a 3-2 week against Arkansas-Little Rock and New Orleans. The Big 12 is down and might send just two teams to regionals, so its champion isn’t necessarily assured of hosting. But geography helps the Sooners, as no other teams are projected to host in Texas or Oklahoma. OU needs to get its RPI into the 20s to have a shot, but we like its chances to win its remaining series because it is clearly the most talented team in the Big 12. We expect the Sooners to pull away in the Big 12 and boost their RPI enough to snag a host spot.
The ACC earns four hosts in our projection, with Georgia Tech, Miami and Clemson competing for a potential fifth host. Miami’s case is propped up by its RPI (No. 12) and its series win against Clemson this weekend, but it remains below .500 in the ACC (10-11) and has lost too many series for our taste. Clemson is right behind in the RPI at No. 13, but losing the Miami series was a setback. Georgia Tech dropped to No. 22 in the RPI after getting swept at home by N.C. State. The Jackets still control their own destiny—they have series left at Clemson and Miami, plus home against UNC and Coastal Carolina, so if they finish strong they will host. But right now we don’t have a lot of confidence in their ability to do so, because they have been inconsistent, at best, over the last five weeks.
There are 30 automatic bids awarded to conference champions, and these 17 are safe bets to be one-bid leagues:
America East, Atlantic 10, Horizon, Ivy, Metro-Atlantic, Mid-American, Mid-Eastern, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Southland, Summit, Southwestern, Western Athletic.
We are moving the SoCon and the Southland into the one-bid category, because the SoCon’s top RPI team is now No. 69 The Citadel, and the Southland has just one team in at-large range in the RPI—No. 32 Central Arkansas, which is tied for sixth place in the league at 8-7. Because of their RPI and their strong nonconference performance, the Bears do have a chance at an at-large bid if they finish strong and fail to capture the Southland’s automatic bid. So does Austin Peay State, which ranks No. 25 in the RPI but sits in fourth place in the OVC at 11-6.
For the purpose of this exercise, we will assume that all 17 of those conferences wind up as one-bid leagues.
Below is a conference-by-conference look at which teams are on track to make the field in potential multi-bid leagues, and which teams are on the wrong side of the bubble through nine weeks. Here are the changes from last week, in a nutshell:
IN: Nebraska, Kansas State, Alabama, Pittsburgh, Louisiana-Lafayette, Ohio State
OUT: Baylor, Sam Houston State, Texas A&M, Seton Hall, Loyola Marymount, Florida Gulf Coast
BARELY HANGING ON: William & Mary
JUST MISSED: Troy, Houston, Campbell, North Florida
Atlantic Coast Conference (8 total bids)
SAFELY IN: North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Clemson, Miami
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Virginia Tech
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): None
No changes from last week.
Miami moves into the “safely in” category after taking two of three from Clemson. Virginia Tech earned a much-needed series win at Maryland, but at 9-12 in the ACC, the Hokies still have some work to do to firm up their position. They remain strong in the RPI (No. 15), and the remaining schedule is very favorable after this weekend’s home set against Virginia, with finishing series at Boston College (0-20 in the ACC) and home against Wake Forest. The Hokies should be fine.
Atlantic Sun (1 bid)
SAFELY IN: Mercer
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): None
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Florida Gulf Coast, North Florida
One change from last week: FGCU drops out of our field. The Eagles fell 14 spots to No. 47 in the RPI after taking two of three from South Carolina-Upstate (No. 214) last week, and their RPI figures to continue to slip with five games left against teams outside the top 270 in the RPI (Northern Kentucky and Florida A&M), plus six other games against teams in the 190s (Jacksonville and Stetson). The bottom of the A-Sun is an anchor on the conference RPI (No. 16), making this a likely one-bid league unless Mercer fails to capture the automatic bid.
North Florida is in first place at 11-4, and its RPI is on the rise (up 13 spots to No. 62 this week), but the Ospreys have nine games left against Jacksonville, Stetson and South Carolina-Upstate, so they face the same RPI concerns as FGCU.
Big 12 (3 bids)
SAFELY IN: Oklahoma
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Kansas, Kansas State
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas
One change from last week: Kansas State replaces Baylor in our field. Going 1-3 last week against Texas State and TCU likely doomed the Bears, who fell back to .500 overall (20-20) and tumbled 23 spots to No. 85 in the RPI.
Kansas State’s schedule is backloaded, with series left against TCU and Oklahoma at home, Texas and Kansas on the road. But the Wildcats actually climbed 13 spots to No. 39 after last week’s 2-2 showing against Wichita State and Oklahoma State. Their combination of a strong overall record (28-13), a respectable conference mark (7-5), a decent RPI and an acceptable 4-3 record against the top 50 earns them the benefit of the doubt.
And Kansas remains in our field thanks to a more manageable remaining schedule, a 9-6 conference record (second place), and an RPI that is still right on the edge of at-large range (No. 51).
Texas isn’t really on the bubble right now after losing each of its first five conference series to fall to 5-10 in the Big 12. Only its RPI (No. 54) keeps it on this list. Oklahoma State’s RPI shot up from No. 118 to No. 76 after it took two of three from Kansas State, but it still has a ways to go, and the Cowboys remain just 7-7 in the Big 12, tied for fifth place.
Big East (3 bids)
SAFELY IN: Louisville
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Notre Dame, Pittsburgh
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Seton Hall
One change from last week: Pittsburgh replaces Seton Hall in our field. The Pirates fell 14 spots to No. 50 in the RPI after going 3-1 against Iona and Georgetown, and their their RPI figures to continue to slide in the next two weeks with nine straight games against teams outside the top 200. A 7-5 conference record and a 1-5 mark against the top 50 don’t help SHU’s case.
Pitt remains behind the Pirates in the RPI (No. 59), and its schedule also includes RPI-draining sets against Cincinnati, Georgetown and Villanova. But it also finishes at Louisville, which should help. And the Pirates are in better shape in the conference standings (second place at 9-3), with an excellent sweep of Notre Dame under their belts.
The Irish remain in our field for the reasons stated last week: a strong nonconference schedule, a strong RPI (No. 28), and our expectation that they will finish strong and dramatically improve their 4-8 conference record.
First-place South Florida is red-hot, with wins in each of their last 12 games, but they remain mired at No. 96 in the RPI, which torpedoes their case.
Big South (1 bid)
SAFELY IN: None
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Coastal Carolina
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Campbell
No change from last week. Coastal’s footing got more precarious after it lost a home series to Radford last week, but 11 games against the top 50 help the Chanticleers maintain a No. 43 RPI, and we still expect them to finish strong. A road series at Georgia Tech in two weeks will be good for the RPI.
Campbell’s remaining schedule does not feature an RPI booster like that, but it does contain three games against No. 269 New Orleans and just one game left against a team inside the top 100. That means Campbell’s No. 46 RPI figures to drop, especially with 11 of its last 14 games at home. The Camels are just 0-1 against the top 50, which also undermines their case, which is built around a 35-8 overall record and a 14-4 conference mark.
Big Ten (4 bids)
SAFELY IN: Indiana
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Nebraska, Michigan State, Ohio State
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Illinois, Minnesota
Change from last week: Nebraska and Ohio State join our field, making the Big Ten a four-bid league. The Cornhuskers paid their dues against a rigorous nonconference schedule, but their 3-9 mark against the top 50 (with all but three of those games on the road) helps them in the RPI, where they shot up from No. 68 to No. 35 after going 5-0 last week against Arkansas and Purdue. Nebraska is still just 19-19 overall, so there isn’t much margin for error, but they have a strong 11-4 record in the No. 6 RPI conference, and they are hot. Just as importantly, there are no RPI-killing games left on the schedule, as 12 of their last 15 games come against teams inside the top 100, including three against No. 14 Indiana (at home, which helps Nebraska’s chances to win that series).
Michigan State is in even better RPI shape (No. 23), thanks to a 7-5 record against the top 50 that includes a sweep of Indiana two weeks ago. Improving a 5-4 conference record would help, but the Spartans got in last year despite finishing in fifth place (13-11) in the Big Ten, so their RPI and strength of schedule gives them some breathing room.
Ohio State is also in good RPI shape (No. 38), with nine home games remaining against top 25 RPI teams Georgia Tech, Oregon, Louisville and Indiana. Just playing those games will help the Buckeyes, because the committee clearly weights nonconference strength of schedule heavily. We think the Buckeyes need to win at least three of those games to feel good about their chances, which won’t be easy because all of those teams are very good. But Ohio State is playing well at the right time, with back-to-back quality series wins against Nebraska and Illinois. The Buckeyes get the benefit of the doubt.
The RPI (No. 89) submarines Minnesota, which is 7-2 in the conference and owns a series win against Ohio State. But the Gophers are finally healthy in the weekend rotation, and they are a real threat to win the conference tournament. That would probably bump one of the other teams out of an at-large spot, rather than make the Big Ten a five-bid league.
Big West (3 bids)
SAFELY IN: Cal State Fullerton
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Cal Poly, UC Irvine
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): None
No change from last week. The Big West maintains a tenuous grip on three bids, with Fullerton the only team that can feel good about its chances. Cal Poly actually climbed 22 spots to No. 41 in the RPI after losing two of three at home against the Titans, and we expect the Mustangs to play well down the stretch and improve their 7-5 conference record.
UC Irvine fell 25 spots to No. 66 in the RPI, but the Anteaters have series remaining against Poly and Fullerton that should help their RPI, plus midweek games against UCLA and San Diego. Like the Mustangs, Irvine is good enough to finish strong and make the Big West a three-bid league.
Colonial Athletic Association (2 bids)
SAFELY IN: UNC Wilmington
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): William & Mary
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Delaware
No change from last week. William & Mary barely holds on to a spot in our field after getting swept by Old Dominion. The Tribe remains strong in the RPI (No. 30), but it has little margin for error down the stretch, especially since three games against No. 246 George Mason figure to hurt its RPI this weekend. But three road games at UNCW in three weeks help offset that.
Conference USA (2 bids)
SAFELY IN: None
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Rice, Southern Mississippi
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Houston
No change from last week. Rice helped its cause significantly with a series win at Houston, helping the Owls jump from No. 72 to No. 45 in the RPI. Southern Miss won its fourth straight series, at Memphis, to remain in first place in C-USA and help it leap from No. 108 to No. 77 in the RPI. We continue to expect the talented Golden Eagles to finish strong, helping their RPI climb into at-large range.
Houston is trending in the other direction, with three straight series losses. Now the Cougars must play back-to-back road series at UCF and Tulane, and there is no time to waste—they must reverse their negative momentum. UH is down to No. 63 in the RPI, and every game becomes critical from here on out.
Pacific-12 (6 bids)
SAFELY IN: Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Arizona, Stanford
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): None
No change from last week. Stanford did what it needed to do last week, taking two of three at home from Arizona, and its RPI leapt from No. 119 to No. 82. It figures to continue to rocket up over the next three weeks, with road series against Oregon and Arizona State on the docket, followed by a home set against Oregon State. It’s a daunting stretch, but the Cardinal has won four straight series, and we like think it is headed in the right direction.
Arizona also has its work cut out for it, with a No. 63 RPI that could take a hit with three games against Alabama State (No. 254) coming up this weekend. But road series against UCLA and Arizona State will help enormously, provided the Wildcats can stay afloat in those series. They also need to sweep home sets against Washington and USC.
Southeastern Conference (9 bids)
SAFELY IN: LSU, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Alabama
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Texas A&M
One change from last week: Alabama replaces Texas A&M in our field of 64. The Crimson Tide did what it needed to at home against LSU, avoiding the sweep by winning Sunday’s game in extra innings. That series helped ‘Bama climb six spots to No. 33 in the RPI, and a series this weekend against A&M is critical. But give Alabama the edge in that series at home, especially since the Aggies have lost four straight series and 11 of their last 15 games overall. Alabama (9-9 in the SEC) also enjoys a two-game cushion over A&M (7-11) in the standings.
Florida is still just three games above .500 overall, but we’re moving the Gators into the “safely in” category after their road series win at Missouri. Florida is up to 10-8 in the SEC, and it has played a whopping 28 games against the top 50, going 13-15 in those contests. The strength of schedule is a huge asset for Florida.
Sun Belt (3 bids)
SAFELY IN: South Alabama
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida Atlantic
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Troy
One change from last week: Louisiana-Lafayette joins our field of 64 after taking two of three from Florida Atlantic, helping the Ragin’ Cajuns climb to No. 29 in the RPI. The Cajuns are still just 10-8 in the Sun Belt (tied for fifth place), but series wins against FAU, Troy and Southern Miss (on the road) look good on their resume.
FAU holds onto an at-large spot thanks to an 8-7 record against the top 50 and a No. 36 RPI. The Owls are tied with Troy at 11-7 in the Sun Belt, but the Trojans are farther back in the RPI (No. 57), just 3-4 against the top 50, and have tough road series remaining at FAU and South Alabama. Still, this could wind up being a four-bid league, and Troy is very much in the mix, especially if it holds its own in those two road sets.
West Coast Conference (2 bids)
SAFELY IN: None
ON THE BUBBLE (IN): Gonzaga, San Diego
ON THE BUBBLE (OUT): Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine
One change from last week: Loyola Marymount drops out of our field of 64. The Lions do own quality series wins against Gonzaga and San Diego, but they are still just one game over .500 overall (20-19), and their No. 42 RPI figures to drop with six games left against Portland (No. 196) and Santa Clara (No. 277). And at No. 12 in the conference RPI, the WCC doesn’t seem likely to send three teams to regionals.
Gonzaga boosted its RPI from No. 71 to No. 52 after winning a road series at Pepperdine. The Zags sit comfortably atop the conference standings at 13-5, and they have positive momentum, with 11 wins in their last 12 games.
The Toreros have been up and down this season, but they have the WCC’s best RPI (No. 31) and are tied for second place in the standings at 9-6. The remaining schedule is favorable, and we expect them to finish strong.