Indiana's next challenge at the College World Series is trying to defeat a team from the Southeastern Conference.
OMAHA, Neb. (WDRB) – You don't have to be Nick Saban to argue there is a gap between football in the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten. Well, the gap between SEC and Big Ten baseball is even larger.
Larger than Steve Spurrier's visor collection. Bigger than Gordon Gee's mouth. A Big Ten team has not beaten an SEC team in the College World Series since 1956.
That's the mammoth gap the Indiana University baseball team will step into – and try to close – when the Hoosiers play Mississippi State tonight at 8 in the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Stadium.
Have the Indiana players heard the stories that the scoreboard tilts toward Starkville, Baton Rouge and the other jammed SEC venues?
"Everywhere we go," said IU outfielder Casey Smith.
Even during their visit to Omaha?
"A little bit," Smith said. "And honestly, we're going to ride it out. We love it. If they still want to doubt us, it makes us play a little harder."
The SEC cranked out a two-pound press packet for Louisiana State and Mississippi State, its two College World Series representatives.
In that packet you will discover than since 1990 SEC teams have now won 96 games and nine national championships in Omaha. The runner-up conference during that stretch has been the Pac-12, with 67 wins and four titles.
"The two traits of SEC baseball teams are they're good and they're very good," IU coach Tracy Smith said.
And the Big Ten? The Big Ten has won one – game.
It happened Saturday night. Indiana 2, Louisville 0. Even Gordon Gee, with his muzzle removed, cannot make a case for Big Ten baseball in this debate. Indiana is the first Big Ten team to be spotted in Omaha without tickets since 1984. Minnesota was the last Big Ten team to beat an SEC team here. The Gophers handled Ole Miss, 13-5, on June 11, 1956.
Here is another pitch under the chin of the Big Ten: The top five teams in nation for attendance this season were SEC programs. Eight SEC teams averaged more than 3,200 fans per game. No Big Ten team averaged 2,900.
In the SEC, there is pressure to get to Omaha – and win. Trust me. The breakfast area at my hotel here was packed with sullen LSU fans this morning after the Tigers made two dreadful errors and lost their CWS opener to UCLA Sunday night. In the Big Ten, there are crossed fingers.
"I'm sure we're at the bottom of the totem pole because northern baseball doesn't really get much respect," said IU first baseman Sam Travis. "Down South they have the mentality of winners. You don't see that all the time up North."
This Indiana team has changed some of that. Now IU faces the opportunity to change it even more. After four games in two days, this College World Series is taking applications for a new favorite. LSU, North Carolina and Oregon State, the three national seeds remaining in the eight-team tournament, lost their openers and face elimination games.
The Hoosiers are playing well – and have been playing well since February, even though some have asked to check Indiana's credentials here. The Hoosiers have been ranked in the Top 25 since early March. They have won a school record 49 games. They are unbeaten in six NCAA Tournament games, outscoring opponents 49-26.
Indiana split four games against SEC opponents this season, winning two of three at Florida and then losing at Kentucky in May.
But the Hoosiers have never played Mississippi State. Why would they? The Bulldogs have more baseball tradition than the entire Big Ten.
Mississippi State baseball is Jonathan Papelbon, Rafael Palmeiro and Buck Showalter. Indiana baseball is Mickey Morandini and other names I'd have to research to explain to you.
Mississippi State baseball has averaged more than 6,000 fans for 12 consecutive seasons. Indiana baseball set a record this spring when the Hoosiers finally moved into a facility with room for more than 2,250.
"You're talking about a team (IU) coming out of a conference that I don't think gets a lot of respect nationally," Tracy Smith said. "I think every time we take the field, people are like: ‘Should they be here? Are they for real? Is this a fluke?' "
Annoying? Silly? Unfair?
"That's fine," Smith said. "I don't care."
Smith absolutely cares. So do his players. They understand every stitch of what this game and this College World Series mean to Indiana baseball -- and the Big Ten.