Opinion by Lincoln Arneal
We shouldn’t be having this conversation.
It’s too soon. Nebraska isn’t experienced enough. The Big Ten is too tough.
With no seniors on its roster, Nebraska wasn’t supposed to be ready for its close-up and be one of the primary teams in the discussion for national championship contention.
Yet, here the Huskers are. Nebraska volleyball doesn’t care about timelines.
After going through the first eight weeks of the season, the Huskers are still undefeated. They excelled at Kansas State and Stanford. They survived road trips through Indiana and Michigan and looked dominant against Penn State and Kentucky.
The freshman class has proven to be ready for the spotlight and has provided a backbone with their group, proving they don’t just belong but are thriving. Harper Murray is one of the better outside hitters in the nation, Andi Jackson is one of the most efficient middle blockers and Bergen Reilly has elevated the Huskers’ offense to elite.
The dangerous part about this year’s NU squad is their belief in themselves. They are talented, deep and ruthless. The more wins they pile up, the more their confidence grows.
“At the end of the day, if we play our game and we play Nebraska volleyball, no one’s gonna stop us, and we’re gonna plow through whoever is put in front of us,” junior co-captain Merritt Beason said.
Nebraska is on track to host regionals based on what has unfolded so far this season. It’s not a sure thing yet, but with the quality wins already on their ledger, the Huskers have built a resume that should impress the selection committee.
All this comes with a caveat. The one enormous test left is the Huskers’ nemesis for the last few years – Wisconsin. NU will play the Badgers for the first time this Saturday, and that will be the showdown that could define the Big Ten championship race and the national championship picture.
The Badgers are the closest thing to a dominant team this year. They dropped just eight sets in the nonconference and started the Big Ten schedule with eight sweeps, showing few vulnerabilities.
However, even in the worst-case scenario for Nebraska – failing to beat Wisconsin in either matchup – it would still be in excellent position to host. The most significant tests left will be matches at Penn State and Minnesota.
The Big Ten appears to be down this year. Only three teams are looking likely to host first- and second-round matches: Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State.
A couple of others could sneak in. Purdue has been impressive at times but has a couple of head-scratching losses. Indiana appears to be on the rise, with its only league setbacks against the top three teams. Minnesota and Ohio State are struggling and need to regroup to ensure they have a spot in the tournament.
The transfer portal has evened out the talent pool as programs manage the extra glut of players available because of the COVID years. Also, conference network television money has prompted several schools to invest more resources into volleyball and are starting to see dividends.
Texas appears to be the toast of the Big 12, as the Longhorns have already swept the season series against BYU and Kansas. If they win out, UT should be another likely regional host.
Stanford has returned to the top of the Pac-12 and is another favorite to be a top-four seed, but three teams are chasing the Cardinal: Washington State, Oregon and Arizona State. The Cougars have the next best chance to knock off Stanford, but already lost in five at home.
Louisville won the first round with Pittsburgh for ACC supremacy and is loaded again for a deep postseason run. Georgia Tech appeared to be fighting for a path but had some puzzling losses.
The SEC is a jumbled mess. After losing All-American setter Alexis Stucky to a knee injury, Florida isn’t the same. Kentucky also stumbled early this year and has lacked the same punch as they’ve had recently. In their place, Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn have climbed their way to the top of the league standings.
With more than a month left in the regular season, teams are starting to sort into tiers. While a lot can change and there is a lot of uncertainty, the one thing that we’ve learned so far is Nebraska is ready for prime time and will be a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the season.