Don’t look now, but Penn State baseball is off to a tremendous start in 2019 as the Nittany Lions enter Big Ten play this weekend with a 13-3 record and winners of five straight. The Nittany Lions strong start has them rated as one of the top 50 teams in the country according to Warren Nolan’s RPI rankings. The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 41 in the country in the RPI rankings, making them the fourth highest-rated Big Ten team only behind Illinois (11), Nebraska (21) and Indiana (35). That being said, the Nittany Lions strength of schedule ranks 157th in the country.
The rise to No. 41 has been a long one for the Nittany Lions as they began the preseason at No. 240 before finally reaching the top 50, seven weeks into the season. For the program, three combined wins over Duke and UCF are two huge reasons they’ve reached the top 50 and have their sights on higher rankings.
When breaking down Penn State’s wins by RPI quadrant, it looks like this:
- Quadrant No. 1 (0-50): 2-1
- Quadrant No. 2 (51-100): 1-2
- Quadrant No. 3 (101-150): 3-0
- Quadrant No. 4 (151-297): 7-0
The two Quadrant No. 1 wins and lone loss came against the UCF Knights who are currently ranked No. 18 in the RPI rankings. In Quadrant No. 2, the program lost two to the Duke Blue Devils, but were able to salvage one game in the three-game series.
The Nittany Lions going 3-3 against UCF and Duke is amazing, especially where the program has been in the past. It shows that the program is making strides under head coach Rob Cooper. Additionally, their perfect 10-0 record against Quadrant No. 3 and No. 4 teams is great news as they’re beating the programs that they should be.
For the program, the hot start is notable because just a season ago, the Nittany Lions finished with a 15-34 record. In 2017, their record was 18-37. With a 20-win season, the Nittany Lions would have their fifth 20 win season of the decade and their second under head coach Rob Cooper. Under Cooper, the program has had just one winning season, that coming in 2016 when the program went 28-27.
The program is looking to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000 and the College Baseball World Series for the first time since 1973.
If they hope to get back to both, they’ll need to continue their hot play in conference play starting this weekend. Coming to town this weekend is the Minnesota Golden Gophers who are off to a miserable 5-13 start on the season. The Gophers have had one of the tougher schedules this season (No.30) but the Nittany Lions should take at least two of three from the Gophers this weekend.
Currently, Warren Nolan has the Nittany Lions projected to go 33-20 this season, meaning from this point on the Lions would be 20-17 which is still an improvement from the past. However, those projections usually just go off the higher RPI, so take them with a grain of salt.
If the program hopes to make the NCAA Tournament this season, they’ll have no room to struggle with a projected strength of schedule of 120 and a non-conference strength of schedule of 154. They’ll need to take care of business against the programs they should beat while holding their weight against the Quadrant 1 and 2 teams they’ll face. If they could push closer or above 40 wins, they’ll have a great chance of making an NCAA Regional.