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Padding the Stats: Power Ranking Big Ten Nonconference Résumés

September 21, 2022

The nonconference, or as the players and coaches at Nebraska often refer to it, the “preseason,” is complete. Four weeks of volleyball is in the books, and now the Huskers and 13 other teams will dive headfirst into 10 weeks of Big Ten play.

Before conference play begins, however, it’s worth looking back to see how the league’s teams fared in the nonconference as it will dictate much of what happens once we reach the postseason.

As we exit the preseason, the Big Ten has six of the top 11 teams in the AVCA Coaches Poll plus three more among the others receiving votes. That gives the league nine of the top 31 teams in the country, an impressive percentage. The Big Ten is considered the best conference in college volleyball year in and year, and that is reflected in the way coaches have voted to this point.

However, looking across the schedules, the Big Ten went 13-16 overall against top-25 teams. That record includes a 2-8 mark against teams currently ranked in the top 10, though three of those losses came against the top-ranked Longhorns of Texas, a team nobody has managed to beat.

Let’s power rank nonconference résumés, shall we?

1) Ohio State (4-4)

At first glance, you’re probably wondering why Ohio State tops this list. Well, look closer at its schedule: seven of the Buckeyes’ eight nonconference matches were against ranked teams, and Ohio State won three of them.

Ohio State has the best win of any Big Ten team under its belt: a 3-1 win at Louisville, currently ranked second nationally. No other team has managed to beat the Cardinals, yet the Buckeyes did it on their home court.

Ohio State also has wins at No. 12 Georgia Tech and against No. 14 Baylor on a neutral floor, and it swept the only unranked team it faced in Tennessee. All four losses were to teams currently in the top 10 as well: twice against No. 1 Texas (0-3 and 1-3), once against No. 4 San Diego (0-3 on a neutral) and once at No. 10 Pittsburgh (0-3). It’s hard to hold those losses against the Buckeyes too much, though they do show Ohio State still has some ground to make up on the elite of the elite nationally.

Ohio State has the best setter in the Big Ten in Mac Podraza and a dynamic outside hitter in Emily Londot headlining a deep and talented roster, and the Huskers will see them on Saturday.

2) Penn State (11-0)

Penn State is the only Big Ten team to navigate the nonconference scheduled without a loss, an impressive feat for new coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley as she steps in for a legend in Russ Rose.

A closer look at the schedule shows the Nittany Lions didn’t test themselves quite as much as other Big Ten teams, but they made the most of their opportunities against tough opponents with a neutral site five-set win over No. 5 Stanford (the same Cardinal team two other Big Ten squads were unable to topple) and another neutral site five-setter against No. 21 Oregon, both in the same weekend as part of the Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge.

Beating every team they should have and knocking off the Cardinal (one of two Big Ten wins over current top-five teams) was enough to put the Nittany Lions in this spot.

3) Minnesota (5-3)

Six of Minnesota’s eight nonconference matches were against top-25 teams, and the Gophers went .500.

Minnesota beat No. 12 Florida and No. 21 Oregon at home plus No. 14 Baylor at a neutral site, all in four sets. 

The losses came at No. 1 Texas, at home to No. 5 Stanford and at home against No, 17 Pepperdine, all in four sets as well. Again, it’s hard to hold those Texas and Stanford losses against the Golden Gophers.

Minnesota has a stacked roster with a veteran setter (Melani Shaffmaster) and libero (CC McGraw), a talented outside hitter (Taylor Landfair) and the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class (Mckenna Wucherer) who has returned from injury to make a significant impact.

4) Nebraska (8-1)

Nebraska is the top-ranked Big Ten team in AVCA poll, but their preseason No. 1 ranking and the respect John Cook’s program has earned nationally has played a factor as the Huskers only faced four teams currently in the top 25 and lost to the only top-10 team they played.

Nebraska scored a sneaky good win during the first week of the season, sweeping then-unranked Pepperdine. Since that loss, the Waves have gone 7-1 with wins over Baylor, Washington and Minnesota and have risen up to No. 17 in the poll. Nebraska pulled out a gutty five-set win against No. 22 Creighton in front of nearly 16,000 fans at CHI Health Center. The Huskers also closed out the on conference with an impressive 3-0 win at No. 15 Kentucky.

Nebraska’s lone loss was to Stanford in four at the Devaney Center, more of a missed opportunity than something the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will hold against the Huskers come the postseason.

Nebraska’s success is even more impressive considering the constant lineup changes the team has had to go through as Cook has navigated injuries and positional experimentation. Despite using eight different lineups/systems/rotations in nine matches, Nebraska is tied for the conference lead in opponent hitting percentage at .127 and is fifth in hitting at .265.

5) Wisconsin (6-2)

The reigning champions come in second among Big Ten teams in the AVCA poll at No. 6, but again, that’s more of a nod to Kelly Sheffield’s program than what the Badgers have done this season.

Wisconsin went 2-2 against top-25 teams, none of which are currently in the top 10. Like the Huskers, the Badgers won at No. 15 Kentucky in a sweep. They also beat in-state rival and 19th-ranked Marquette in four sets at home.

Wisconsin’s losses came in five sets at the Kohl Center to No. 12 Florida (in a match the broke the attendance record Nebraska and Creighton set earlier in the season) and in five to No. 14 Baylor on a neutral floor.

The Badgers lost a lot from last season but also returned plenty of firepower and added an impact transfer in outside hitter Sarah Franklin. The Badgers are tied with Nebraska in opponent hitting percentage and are one spot ahead of Nebraska in hitting at .273.

6) Northwestern (11-1)

I’ll throw the Wildcats a bone here as the only other team in the conference who has scored a top-25 win. The Wildcats swept Pepperdine on a neutral floor and beat all nine unranked teams they faced.

Northwestern’s only loss came in four sets to No 18 Washington.

The Wildcats are second in the Big Ten in hitting percentage at an even .300 led by veteran pin hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara. Former Husker Megan Miller is leading the Wildcats’ defensive effort and is serving as a team captain this season.

Teams who didn’t score a top-25 win: Purdue (9-1, 0-1 T25), Illinois (5-5, 0-3 T25), Indiana (7-5, 0-1 T25), Iowa (6-5, 0-1 T25).

Teams who didn’t face a top-25 opponent: Michigan (9-1), Michigan State (9-2), Maryland (9-3), Rutgers (6-6).

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