I wonder how many times people think of Peyton Manning when they shout “Omaha!”

Never mind the fact that it’s been the home to the College World Series since the Harry Truman administration. Also, Omaha in general? An underrated, comfortable downtown with great surrounding neighborhoods. For those who will be there over the course of the next weekend, soak it in. It’s a truly unique experience wherein fans without a team will show up and go all in with a particular school of choice.

Oh, but back to the initial question — how many times people think of Manning when they shout “Omaha!”

I don’t have an answer to that question, nor do I know how many connections would’ve been made to Manning’s alma mater, Tennessee, had it made a return trip to Omaha.

I also don’t know the answer to these questions, but ahead of Friday’s opening round games, they’re worth asking:

1. When will a favorite emerge?

Admittedly, I don’t spend a ton of time on baseball gambling odds, so I try to put it in these terms. Can you imagine going into conference championship weekend of the college football season and the favorite to win a national title was … +450? That’s nuts. Meaning, you’re getting at least 4.5-to-1 on your money for any future placed going into the College World Series.

These are the odds to win it all (via FanDuel):

  • Stanford: +450
  • Texas: +450
  • Notre Dame: +550
  • Arkansas: +550
  • Texas A&M: +550
  • Auburn: +700
  • Ole Miss: +1000
  • Oklahoma: +1200

If Tennessee had made it to Omaha as the No. 1 overall seed, I have to imagine the Vols would’ve been much closer to +200 to win it all. But that didn’t happen because Notre Dame pulled off the upset of the year with some late-inning heroics in Knoxville.

So does that mean the Irish should be the new favorites? Perhaps. But still, there’s not a single 50-win team in Omaha. Stanford might have the most favorable odds, but we saw the Cardinal barely escape its own regional against Texas State, and then it won 2 elimination games against UConn (the Huskies’ last CWS trip was in 1979) in its Super Regional just to reach Omaha.

Meanwhile, fellow “favorite” Texas needed that 5-run comeback late against East Carolina to avoid elimination in the Super Regional. Neither team is what you’d call a juggernaut. Arkansas might be closer to that level just because it was the No. 1 overall seed last year, but like Tennessee this year, the 2021 Hogs couldn’t get out of their own Super Regional. The Hogs are also a few weeks removed from failing to win a single game in the SEC Tournament before catching fire as an unseeded team in the NCAA Tournament.

We don’t know if anybody will emerge as a true favorite until the semifinals, whereas Tennessee would’ve been in that spot as long as it was in the field.

Speaking of the Vols …

2. Will Notre Dame’s giant-killer status continue?

After what the Irish pulled off in Knoxville, that old “we can beat anyone” cliché absolutely applies. The Irish got timely hitting, and sort of lost in the shuffle of the stunning upset was how good the Notre Dame pitching staff did at holding off the No. 1 offense in the country. I’m not sure we appreciated just how incredible it was that Jack Findlay dialed up 5 innings of 1-hit, shutout ball against that Tennessee lineup with Drew Gilbert in an elimination game.

Maybe it should be irrelevant that Notre Dame is making its first trip to Omaha in 2 decades. If this squad wins, it’ll have “team of destiny” vibes.

The question is whether it used up all of that magic in Knoxville. Can Jack Brannigan and the Irish bats stay hot? Leaving 1 guy on base and scoring 7 runs is a pretty good postseason formula, which was why the Irish clawed back against the Vols. It’ll be easier said than done to ride that momentum into Omaha, where, as I already outlined, there aren’t really any giants left. I suppose Notre Dame will have to settle for taking down betting odds favorite Texas in the opening round.

3. What does Omaha experience do for Jim Schlossnagle and Dave Van Horn?

In a CWS field that lacks a manager with a title, Schlossnagle and Van Horn are the elder statesmen. Break it down by total CWS victories and it’s not even close:

  • Jim Schlossnagle, A&M: 11
  • Dave Van Horn, Arkansas: 8
  • David Pierce, Texas: 3
  • Mike Bianco, Ole Miss: 2
  • David Esquer, Stanford: 2
  • Butch Thompson, Auburn: 0
  • Link Jarrett, Notre Dame: 0
  • Skip Johnson, Oklahoma: 0

Of course, all of Schlossnagle’s victories in Omaha came with TCU. This is his first year at A&M, where he took a team that finished last place in the SEC West in 2021 and turned it into a legitimate national title contender. That was with the help of 11 transfers. Go figure that the last time A&M was in Omaha was when Schlossnagle, then at TCU, ended the Aggies’ season in 2017.

It’s a different set of circumstances for Van Horn, who could finally be set up to get it done. His team couldn’t make it out of the Super Regional last year but is starting to have “redemption season” vibes after walking off in the Super Regional to beat UNC in Chapel Hill. There’s also the 2018 runner-up redemption angle. Van Horn is the only manager in the field who has coached in a national championship series.

If Schlossnagle or Van Horn get over the hump, we’ll play the results and say that experience in Omaha won it all … even though that’ll be an afterthought if they come up short.

4. Can anyone cool down those Texas bats?

Texas is:

  • A) The No. 1 offense in the CWS
  • B) No. 1 home runs/game among CWS teams
  • C) Averaging 8.8 runs per game in the NCAA Tournament
  • D) Led by “The Hispanic Titanic”
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

That’ll be put to the test with the larger dimensions of Charles Schwab Field. The aforementioned “Hispanic Titanic,” AKA Ivan Melendez, is the BBCOR-era single-season home run king with 32. Last year in Omaha, he hit a 3-run bomb to take the lead against MSU in the semifinals. But ultimately, that MSU pitching staff silenced the Texas bats to advance to the national championship.

This year, Texas will get to face a Notre Dame team that just quieted the most dynamic offense in the sport in Knoxville. Fire up the old “something’s gotta give” analogy.

5. How dangerous is Auburn if it gets Blake Burkhalter a lead?

After what the Auburn closer did in the Super Regional, I’m not breaking any news by saying falling behind against the Tigers is a bad formula. With 2 on and 1 out in do-or-die game, he entered and set down 8 consecutive batters to close out Oregon State in the Super Regional.

The rubber-arm reliever has a ridiculous 66 strikeouts in 44 innings, and he’s No. 2 in the country with 15 saves. It’s never a bad thing to have a lights-out closer with the season on the line.

The question isn’t whether there’s a formula to beat Auburn (pitching around Sonny DiChiara is also part of that plan). It’s avoiding a scenario in which Burkhalter gets the ball with a late lead. Easier said than done.

6. Which version of Ole Miss will be on display?

From March 13-May 1, Ole Miss went 11-18 with non-SEC losses to Oral Roberts, Southeastern Louisiana and Southeast Missouri State. Since May 6, however, Ole Miss is 13-3 with those 3 losses coming to Vandy and fellow CWS participant A&M. Mike Bianco’s squad started that stretch at No. 2 in the country and got up to No. 1 in mid-March, only to fall out of the Top 25 altogether by late-April.

So naturally, that team has yet to lose in the NCAA Tournament and outscored its 5 opponents 46-11. Oh, and Ole Miss had 5 different winning pitchers.

One of those was freshman Hunter Elliott, who was masterful in a shutout win against Southern Miss to close out the Super Regional. Fresh off 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball in the Super Regional, Dylan DeLucia will get the start in Game 1. He was part of those midseason struggles with an ERA of 6.15 in mid-April. Could he also be part of the continued turnaround in Omaha?

Clearly, the oddsmakers are skeptical of the Ole Miss turnaround with just +1000 odds to win it all (second-worst), but it was a preseason top-10 team. Perhaps Bianco, in what’s somehow just his second trip to Omaha, is about to lead Ole Miss to its first national title in program history.

7. Who will be that dominant, takeover Omaha ace?

You know there’s gotta be 1. Last year, it was Mississippi State’s Will Bednar (Landon Sims was also brilliant in relief). In 2019, Vandy’s Kumar Rocker stole the show. In 2018, it was Oregon State freshman Kevin Abel. It feels like we always see that dominant pitching performance highlight the College World Series, especially in the post-Rosenblatt Stadium days. Who will be that guy this year?

Stanford’s Quinn Mathews transitioned into more of a long reliever/closer role, and he actually leads the qualified CWS pitchers in ERA (2.62). He could be this year’s version of Sims.

The aforementioned Elliott could be what Abel was for champion Oregon State as a freshman in 2018. In Elliott’s last 7 starts, he scattered 11 earned runs and struck out 53 across 40 innings of work. Perhaps the fresh-faced southpaw will continue dealing.

Maybe the ace of Omaha will be Arkansas right-hander Connor Noland, who has been lights out in the NCAA Tournament so far How wild it would be to watch a Chad Morris-era quarterback become the driving force behind an Arkansas national title on the diamond.

Compared to recent memory with those loaded Vandy and Oregon State pitching staffs, it does feel like the unofficial title of “best pitcher in Omaha” is very much up for grabs.

8. Can anyone stop the SEC from making history?

What’s the history on the table, you ask?

The SEC can match its record for most teams by one conference in the semifinals (3), which it did in 2011.

If an SEC team wins it all, it’ll mark the first time in CWS history that 3 different programs from the same conference claimed 3 consecutive titles. With MSU and Vandy both at home, any SEC team winning it all would accomplish that feat. What a flex that would be for the SEC after it just accomplished that in football.

There’s a path for the school year to close with the SEC’s best College World Series in its rich history. Something tells me we’ll hear about that if and when it happens.