Yes, it's that time of year, when baseball rules supreme. The World Series is coming up in short order, and while Michigan doesn't have any horses in the playoffs, that doesn't mean that the Wolverine baseball team isn't making news. That news, at least for today, is the announcement of Michigan's 2011 schedule.
The University of Michigan baseball program and head coach Rich Maloney announced on Tuesday (Oct. 12) the 2011 schedule, which features games against at least four teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, a mid-week home series against Texas Tech, and the full 27-game Big Ten slate.
Looking over the schedule, this year seems a little bit harder than in years past, and that's saying quite a bit. The big weekend series of the non-conference, at Stanford March 18-20, will be a giant test for the Wolverines; we've known about it since last year's season opening podcast.
Michigan did upgrade some of their other series as well, particularly in the mid week. Along with the annual home and home with Notre Dame (May 3-4), the Wolverines will play host to Texas Tech (May 10-11), marking the first time Michigan has hosted a Big XII opponent.
Coach Rich Maloney on bringing on the tougher schedules:
"I think you want to play a challenging schedule so that when you're coming to Big Ten play, you're ready to challenge yourself," Maloney continued. "Hopefully, you have worked on some things that maybe you hadn't worked on as much. But you've had experience against quality teams so you've been challenged. […] We felt it was a benefit to our kids because you learn about your team and yourself when you battle through the rigors of a tough non-conference schedule and this will be no different. We're going to have to play well to win those games early in the schedule, but ultimately it will prepare us for the Big Ten season."
Other non-conference opponents include a three-game series with a Rutgers (February 25-26) team that just missed the NCAA tournament last year, a weekend at Winthrop (2 games vs Winthrop, 2 against Stony Brook), a four-game weekend in at Sam Houston State (March 4-6, which I undoubtedly will be attending at least Saturday and maybe Sunday), and the season-opening Big Ten/Big East Challenge, with matchups yet to be determined. Michigan is also continuing their series with Florida Gulf Coast, who had a great Michigan alumni showing last season.
As for the conference season, Michigan misses Michigan State during the official Big Ten season, but like last year, the two schools have managed to secure a series against each other. Unlike last year, the schools will play a three-game weekend series (March 25-27) in place of the tomato cans both would usually face in their respective home openers. The Wolverines will host Friday and Sunday, with the Saturday game in East Lansing. I love this scheduling tactic as it eliminates the annual RPI vacuum surrounding IPFW, Oakland, or worse.
In the REAL conference season, Michigan does get two of the toughest series at home, with Indiana in week one of conference play (April 1-3) and Minnesota near the end of the season (May 6-8). They will also host Illinois and Penn State. That leaves road series at Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State, and Northwestern. That's a pretty tough road schedule, with Purdue and Iowa returning plenty of talent and Ohio State having a new, aggressive coach.
Unlike last year's schedule, I'm not sure I can even get close to predicting a win goal for Michigan right now. Questions are a plenty in the starting rotation and in the outfield. I want to put out a guess around 36-19 overall and 15-9 in conference, but that's a lot of guessing. If that were to come true, Michigan would almost have to win the Big Ten Tournament to make the NCAA. Right now, until I see our starting rotation prove themselves, I think that's probably a reasonable baseline -- neither too high nor too low, but also not a concrete floor.
UPDATE: According to Chris Webb of Buckeye State Baseball, Michigan's Big East opponents in the challenge are UCONN, St. John's, and Louisville. That's three tournament teams from last year added to the schedule and one tough weekend to open the season.