Bubble Watch: Early Look At How Schedule Strength Could Shape 2023 Field Of 64

Image credit: Iowa slugger Keaton Anthony (Photo courtesy of Iowa)

This weekend’s biggest non-conference series sees Iowa (10-1) travel to No. 25 Texas Tech (12-2).

It’s an exciting on-field matchup, as the Hawkeyes have a powerful rotation and their pitching staff ranks 14th nationally in team ERA (2.70). The Red Raiders, meanwhile, have pitched nearly as well (3.20 team ERA) and their offense is averaging 10.1 runs per game (18th nationally). It’s the kind of inter-conference weekend that not only delivers with star power and excitement, but also promises to shape the postseason picture.

If it seems like it’s too early to be framing weekend series in terms of NCAA Tournament resumes, that’s because it mostly is. The college baseball season is three weeks old and teams have played only about a fifth of their schedules. Basketball’s Selection Sunday is much more top of mind than Selection Monday and Memorial Day. Almost nothing that happens this weekend can’t be straightened out over the next two months—on this weekend a year ago, Auburn lost a home series to Middle Tennessee State, which finished sixth in Conference USA. The Tigers hosted a regional anyway.

Acknowledging all of that, this weekend in Lubbock still feels like a massive series, particularly for Iowa. The Hawkeyes won’t see a non-conference opponent as good as the Red Raiders the rest of the season and it’s possible Big Ten play won’t provide a similar matchup either. Texas Tech still has midweek series at Stanford and against Grand Canyon to play, but this again might be the Red Raiders’ best opportunity to make a non-conference statement after going 1-2 last weekend in the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic and seeing their Opening Weekend four-game sweep of Gonzaga lose luster as the Zags are off to just a 1-10 start.

We don’t typically spend a lot of time analyzing schedule strength in college baseball. But after last year’s selection committee used non-conference scheduling as an important factor while building the Field of 64, it might be time to start. The committee’s emphasis last year helped Dallas Baptist, Grand Canyon and Liberty get into the field and pushed East Carolina and Georgia Southern up the host line. On the flip side, teams like North Carolina State and Rutgers were punished for non-conference slates that ranked in the bottom half of the country.

Because strength of schedule relies on RPI, which needs more than the dozen or so games most teams have played to normalize, it isn’t yet a reliable metric, so we can’t determine what teams might be similarly impacted this year. And, at this stage, we’re still learning how good every team is.

But if we look at how many games a team scheduled against opponents that finished in the top 100 of RPI in 2022, we can get a rough sketch of who might rate well in strength of schedule come May.

For reference, over the last five NCAA Tournaments, teams that received at-large bids played an average of 33.3 games against top-100 competition, with a median of 35. If you break out non-conference competition specifically, last year’s at-large teams played an average of 12 non-conference games against top-100 competition.

Looking at this year’s schedules, a few teams with at-large aspirations that are off to impressive starts stand out for less aggressive schedules. Iowa, South Carolina, UC Santa Barbara and Washington scheduled relatively few games against top-100 teams from 2022. The Gamecocks and Gauchos already have series wins against Power Five opponents (Clemson and Oregon, respectively), giving their resume the flair it might need to overcome an underwhelming strength of schedule mark.

Now, Iowa will get its chance this weekend. The Hawkeyes already own a neutral-site win against top-ranked Louisiana State (the Tigers’ only loss so far), but a series win at Texas Tech would be an even bigger boost. Iowa has just six non-conference games scheduled against teams that finished in the top 100 a year ago and won’t have any left after this weekend. The Big Ten’s sluggish start to the season means conference play may not afford the Hawkeyes many more such games. A series win in Lubbock would be a strong, lasting statement on Iowa’s tournament resume.

On the flip side, we can start to see what teams from outside the power conferences might get a boost from their aggressive scheduling—this year’s DBU or Grand Canyon. Coastal Carolina (8-4) hasn’t sprinted out of the gates, but it has 45 games scheduled against last year’s top-100 teams, 24 of which are in non-conference play. No team in the country is slated to play more teams that finished 2022 in the top 100. Georgia Southern has a similar schedule to what it played a year ago, when it ranked third in non-conference strength of schedule, helping push it onto the host line. Mercer beefed up its schedule this year after it won 40 games last year but ranked No. 178 in non-conference strength of schedule and 60th in RPI, metrics that pushed it off the tournament bubble.

While we can draw some early conclusions based on this data, it’s important to remember that the selection committee won’t be thinking about resumes in these terms. It’ll spend more time looking at strength of schedule and RPI, rather than the raw number of games a team has played against strong competition. And not every top-100 RPI game is created equal. Road games are worth more than home or neutral site games and a win against a top-25 RPI team is naturally more valuable than one against a team rated in the 80s or 90s.

Most importantly, teams that are chasing at-large bids need to win games. Even a top-10 non-conference schedule can’t save a team that doesn’t win enough games. Nevada, for instance, last year had the fifth-toughest non-conference schedule and finished second in the Mountain West. But because it was 29-26, including a 10-12 non-conference mark, it wasn’t even in bubble range on Selection Monday.

As the season continues and we start to more closely examine the NCAA Tournament picture, however, it will be worth keeping an eye on where teams rank in strength of schedule. Expect it to again play a key role in this year’s postseason selections.

So, with all that in mind, cast an eye toward Lubbock this weekend. Not only will you get to see Iowa slugger Keaton Anthony, the 2022 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Texas Tech catcher Hudson White, the Big 12 freshman of the year, and stars on the mound like Iowa’s Ty Langenberg and Brody Brecht and Texas Tech’s Brendan Girton and Mason Molina, you might also get some early insights into this year’s NCAA Tournament discussion.

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