Although the Big West Board of Directors met on January 19th regarding the start of spring sports, no official announcement was made by the Big West regarding the 2021 baseball schedule as of publication time. Just because they are not doing their job doesn’t mean we need to shirk our responsibilities. Today we’re taking a stab at predicting the 2021 Titan Baseball schedule.
The dearth of information coming out of the Big West’s Irvine, Calif. offices is not only frustrating but leaves one to ask, “are spring sports even a priority to them?”. The Big West’s silence has left the member Athletic Departments to their own devices to pseudo announce how a spring season will look.
On Friday, January 15th, Long Beach State Athletic Director Andy Fee released a very vague yet optimistic statement regarding the return of spring sports. On Tuesday, January 19th, Cal State Fullerton was the only Big West member school to release an official statement regarding the start of spring sports in 2021.
Those highlights include:
- Cal State Fullerton Athletics will compete in spring sports this semester.
- Non-conference competition is up to the school’s discretion.
- At this time, Cal State Fullerton is planning on playing non-conference opponents.
Per the Big West Conference Board of Directors, league schedules for spring sports should:
- Include only one opponent in a week in the conference schedule.
- Include all participating institutions scheduled to play against one another as a true round robin schedule.
- Designate the official start date of the master conference to be the latest date possible within this footprint with no built-in weeks reserved for makeups. The only byes shall be those that occur in the conference schedules regularly. (Tentative master schedule start dates: March 19/20 baseball & softball).
- Provide at least the minimum number of contests required for NCAA postseason.
- Non-conference competition at discretion of institution.
Let’s break down those statements and then predict how the Titan Baseball 2021 schedule will play out.
Include only one opponent in a week in the conference schedule.
Like a normal weekend series, the Titans will play one Big West Conference team in a single week, presumably Friday through Sunday. That could be the traditional 3-game series of Friday, Saturday and Sunday we all have grown accustomed to or a 4-game series. A four-game series format would include a 9-inning game on Friday, two 7-inning games on Saturday and a 9-inning game on Sunday. Not to jump too far ahead of ourselves, but we are predicting the Big West scheduling four-games series in 2021.
Include all participating institutions scheduled to play against one another as a true round robin schedule.
In 2021, the Big West has 11 schools that play baseball. in 2020, nine (Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Northridge, Hawaii, Long Beach State, UC Davis, UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara) schools played baseball but two more have joined this year. Cal State Bakersfield joins the Big West in 2021 as a full-fledged Division 1 member after playing in the Western Athletic Conference years prior. UC San Diego is transitioning to Division 1 after being a force within the Division 2 ranks for years. UCSD is not eligible to win the conference title in 2021 and must go through the transition process before it can win the Big West Conference title in any sport.
Since 11 Big West schools field baseball teams, that translates to the Titans playing a 30-game Big West Conference schedule should the weekend series remain three games on Fridays – Saturday. The Titans would play a 40-game Big West schedule should the conference choose a four-game schedule that includes two 7-inning double headers on Saturday.
Designate the official start date of the master conference to be the latest date possible within this footprint with no built-in weeks reserved for makeups. The only byes shall be those that occur in the conference schedules regularly. (Tentative master schedule start dates: March 19/20 baseball & softball).
Sticking with baseball, a March 19th start date would mean the Titans would play a conference opponent for 10 straight weeks without a bye, ending the weekend of May 21-23. Memorial Day 2021 is May 31st, which is typically “Selection Monday” when the NCAA Division 1 post-season selection committee reveals the 64 participants to play in the regional brackets. Playing straight through allows the Big West teams one weekend available at the end of the regular season to make-up a series that might be interrupted due to COVID-19 protocols.
Regarding bye weeks, in year’s past, Big West schools would have a bye week built into the schedule because the league had an odd number of members. Normally teams would schedule a Pac-12, Mountain West or WCC opponent in these slots. With Covid-19 still a concern, a bye week could be needed, especially for those teams selected to travel to Hawaii in 2021. The health and safety protocols for travelers to Hawaii as of now require a negative test prior to travel from a trusted testing partner A bye week before the Hawaii series could prove helpful in the age of COVID restrictions and compliance.
Provide at least the minimum number of contests required for NCAA postseason.
The maximum number of games an NCAA Division 1 baseball team can play in a season is 56 games. We tried to find the minimum number of games a team needs to play in order to be eligible for NCAA postseason play but could not find it listed online. Much like in a non-Covid season, college football requires a team to have at least six wins in order to qualify as eligible to play in a bowl game. It’s safe to assume that with 11 Big West members all playing baseball and at minimum each team playing 30 games, that meets the minimum number of contests required for NCAA postseason eligibility. If the minimum is 40 games and Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge already proclaiming they will play a conference only season, that indicates the Big West will implement the four-game weekend format with two double-headers on Saturdays.
Non-conference competition at discretion of institution.
Although it was listed as the last item, this appears to be the most important, especially for Big West teams.
The ability to go outside of the conference and build a positive RPI is crucial to all mid-major programs, not just Big West teams. Titans Head Coach Rick Vanderhook has done a great job of scheduling tough, non-conference opponents. This gives his squads’ the best opportunity to build RPI and place themselves in a better position to receive an at-large bid. Hook’s philosophy is two-fold: 1) Wins vs. tough non-conference opponents build RPI. 2) Playing tough opponents also prepares the team for the rigors of the conference schedule and eventually the postseason. Playing Stanford each year to open the season has been a stalwart of the Titans’ schedule recently. Same goes for playing Arizona State in a two-game mid-week series.
The statement, “At this time, Cal State Fullerton is planning on playing non-conference opponents”, is great news. As a result of COVID, the travel restrictions and smaller budgets compared to years past, many of those non-conference games will most likely come from local teams. That said, there are plenty of top notch teams within driving distance of Goodwin Field that can help boost RPI should the Titans win those games.
Here’s how we see the 2021 Titan Baseball schedule breaking down:
Prediction: Titan Baseball will not play Stanford to open the season
February 19th is the earliest start date of the 2021 NCAA Baseball season. That weekend typically sees the Stanford Cardinal come back to Fullerton after playing up on the Farm in Palo Alto in 2020, a series the Titans won two games to one. Because the Pac-12 seems to be just as inept as the Big West, it appears that the Stanford series will take a one year hiatus. Whether the series follows the odd years at Fullerton and even years at Stanford pattern remains to be seen next year.
The rationale behind not playing on the February 19th opening weekend is believed to be due to the lack of time the pitchers have to prepare for the season. Keep in mind, the Pac-12 still hasn’t said what a Pac-12 baseball season will look like. Pac-12 schools still don’t know if the conference will let them play non-conference games. That reason alone is probably why the Stanford vs Cal State Fullerton series will not happen in 2021.
Pitchers need to follow a specific regimen in order to properly prepare to throw a high number of pitches at high velocity. Without following these steps, pitchers risk injury and also their performance could suffer as a result. By waiting this long, the Pac-12 has robbed college baseball fans of one of the best opening weekend series in college baseball. It appears that with the ambiguity of the start of the baseball season, Stanford Head Coach Dave Esquer made the call that his pitchers won’t be ready by February 19th.
Our prediction remains that the Titans may not have enough time to schedule an opponent for the opening weekend with many team’s dance cards filling up quickly.
Prediction: Titan Baseball will play the Lion’s Share of non-conference games in California
Cal State Fullerton’s California location within the COVID-19 pandemic is a double-edged sword. A major disadvantage is that California’s COVID-19 cases are larger than in other states. Many states have travel restrictions on those arriving from California. That translates into college baseball programs choosing to schedule other programs outside of California. LSU is a prime example. On Tuesday, LSU’s schedule originally included a three-game series vs. UC Riverside. Now Tigers’ head coach Paul Mainieri is already adjusting the regular season schedule he released on Tuesday.
Mainieri said Wednesday COVID-19 concerns will prohibit UC Riverside from traveling to Baton Rouge this season in a three-game series February 26-28 in Alex Box Stadium. Instead, LSU will play Youngstown State on Friday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. CT, and then face both Youngstown State (2 p.m. CT) and Nicholls (6:30 p.m. CT) on Saturday, Feb. 27.
Cal State Fullerton was originally scheduled to go to College Station in 2021 and take on the Texas A&M Aggies in Blue Bell Park. The Aggies released their schedule and the Titans were not on the list.
The positive side to this double-edged sword is that there remains plenty of quality college baseball programs within driving distance of Goodwin Field. D1Baseball.com ranks UCLA No. 2 pre-season. If the Titans play the Bruins and get a number of wins, that will result in a huge RPI bump. San Diego State, a likely opponent for the Titans to start the season February 26-28th is no slouch either. Pepperdine is getting a lot of pre-season praise along with USC. Cal Baptist in Riverside has made a name for themselves and has transitioned nicely to the Division 1 game. Loyola Marymount and University of San Diego are both viable opponents to help build RPI.
Sadly, Fresno State just released their schedule which includes a number of Big West schools as non-conference opponents. The Titans are not one of them. UC Irvine opens the season hosting Fresno State while Cal Poly will play three mid-week games vs. the Bulldogs.
Prediction: Titan Baseball will play one of the Arizona Pac-12 schools on the road
It appears that Arizona State would be the most likely opponent for the Titans in the early non-conference schedule. ASU has played at Goodwin Field two years in a row and the last time the Titans traveled to Arizona State was in 2018. Look for the Titans to travel to Arizona State the March 5-7 weekend.
Depending on how relaxed Arizona’s COVID restrictions become, that road trip may be the only opportunity Titan fans have to see their team in person. Which leads us to our next prediction:
Prediction: No fans at home games
Another downfall of Titan Baseball’s location in California is the high likelihood of games at Goodwin Field being held in front of empty stands. Almost assuredly, Titan Baseball fans will consume games not in person but rather via a streaming device. This is not a problem exclusive to Cal State Fullerton but most California teams will be doing this.
This situation leaves the Titan ticketing office in a precarious position on what to do with season ticket holders. Many 2020 season ticket holders chose to apply the remainder of their unused 2020 tickets, roughly 2/3rds of the home dates, to the 2021 season. If the 2021 season goes off without fans, what happens to that money? Can they apply it to the 2022 season which expects to be two full years removed from the pandemic? Will fans request a refund thus putting the already cash-strapped athletic department in a bind?
Prediction: Titan Baseball will play in the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic
Many of the other college baseball tournaments have come out and announced the participants in their respective brackets with teams that will not have to travel very far. The Round Rock Classic just announced that Baylor, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Auburn having to travel the furthest, will be the 2021 participants. The field for the 2021 Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic will feature six Texas programs in Rice, Sam Houston State, TCU, Texas A&M, Texas State and Texas Tech.
Last season, the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic hosted UCLA, USC, USD and Michigan. It’s likely that this tournament will stick with local teams with USC and UCLA as the anchor programs. The Titans make a strong case for getting an invitation and possibly a team like Pepperdine or LMU could round out the field. Sadly, this tournament is looking like it will be played in front of empty seats as well.
Prediction: Four-game weekend series expected
If you listened to Episode 35 of the 1544 Miles to Omaha Podcast, you heard that Pitching Coach Dan Ricabal alluded to the possibility of playing a four-game series Big West Conference schedule. We believe that is where the Big West is leaning. If it comes to fruition, block out your Saturdays and get your “Honey-Do” list items done early. You could be watching two 7-inning games that day. Again, only a prediction but it makes sense seeing how a few teams already have opted out of playing non-conference games. An extra 10 games for those teams could prove beneficial to their chances of gaining an at-large bid to the NCAA postseason.
Prediction: Fullerton opens conference play with UC Santa Barbara
The Big West Conference slate is a bit murky because Big West teams did not play conference contests in 2020 before the season was canceled. Will the home-away schedule revert to even-odd year schedules of the past or will the conference schedule from 2020 just get moved to 2021?
Assuming 2020 was just a lost season, expect the Titans home and away opponents to look like the 2019 season.
Home: UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, UC Davis, Long Beach State
Away: Cal Poly, Hawaii, UC Riverside, Cal State Northridge
If the Big West cuts and pastes the 2019 conference schedule into 2021, expect the Titans to host UC Santa Barbara that first weekend of conference play starting on March 19th. They did it in 2019 and far be it from us to expect the Big West to put in more work than is absolutely necessary.
The wildcards remain Cal State Bakersfield and UC San Diego. Since they are new to the conference in 2021, it’s safe to assume the Titans will host one and travel to the other. This remains up to the Big West schedulers but apparently they would rather release staff promotions or Esports announcements than declare what the schedule will look like in 2021.
Prediction: Fullerton will schedule a full 56-game season
It appears that Titan Baseball is poised to play a 56-game schedule in 2021, the maximum allowed by the NCAA. Playing a good mix of Big West opponents along with local non-conference teams puts the Titans in the best possible position to gain an at-large bid even if they do not win the conference. Other Big West teams like Long Beach State, UC Irvine, Hawaii, Cal State Northridge and D1Baseball’s pre-season ranked No. 11 UC Santa Barbara on the slate, the Titans will not just waltz into the postseason unabated.
Despite California lock downs and Coronavirus restrictions, the silver lining remains that the State of Nebraska and Omaha expects to be wide open and available for visitors and college baseball fans come June. With the nucleus of a strong pitching staff already in place, if the Titans can improve their offensive hitting performance from 2020, the City of Omaha may see the Titans once again for the 19th time in program history.
Check back soon for our preview of the projected pitching rotation and batter line-up for the upcoming 2021 season.