College World Series: Even without the Vols, it's going to be an SEC party in Omaha
All year long, 13 SEC baseball teams dealt with living in the shadow of Tennessee.
Tennessee was a baseball unicorn with majestic power, brilliant pitching and nearly seamless good fortune. But after the SEC was generally assessed as UT and everybody else, a funny thing happened on the way to the Vols’ apparent coronation. They were sent home early, and if not everybody else, plenty of the SEC will continue their own parties in Omaha.
The College World Series will likely include plenty of “everybody else” kind of teams. Yes, the No. 1 overall seeded Vols will be absent. So will the No. 4 seeded Virginia Tech Hokies, and No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 Oregon State will go to Monday needing another win to stay alive. As it stands, 4 unseeded teams — including Arkansas and Ole Miss — already have booked plane tickets to Omaha. UConn could become the 5th.
Who are the new favorites? You could start with the No. 5 overall seeded Texas A&M Aggies, which punched the first ticket to Omaha on Saturday by outlasting Louisville in a pair of 1-run games. After spending most of the season looking up at other teams in the SEC West, A&M has a puncher’s chance to underline their continued improvement over the course of the season with a national title.
As it stands, Jim Schnossnagle and The Transfers are headed to Omaha in Year 1, a remarkably quick transformation after last season’s disappointing 29-27 (9-21 SEC) finish.
But if not the Aggies, how about Arkansas? After staving off a talented Oklahoma State team to win its regional, the Hogs’ pitching staff showed up in a big way in the Super Regional at North Carolina, holding a talented UNC offense to just 4 runs and 15 hits in 4-1 and 4-3 wins to punch their ticket to Omaha. If 2022 Tennessee has turned out to be 2021 Arkansas revisited (entering the Super Regional as the clear No. 1 team in the sport, only to fall short of Omaha), then 2022 Arkansas will be glad to battle A&M for the role of 2021 Mississippi State revisited — a good, but rarely great regular-season team with a knack for peaking at the right time.
Of course, if Tennessee’s sudden loss was unforeseeable, what about Ole Miss’s sudden dominance? The Rebels limped into the NCAA field as the 64th of the 64 selected teams. They were 14-16 in conference play, and dropped their first game in Hoover 3-1 to a fairly uninspired Vanderbilt team. Some (present company included) were critical of the selection of the Rebels for the NCAA field ahead of Alabama or Kentucky, winners of 14 and 15 SEC games, each of which looked much more impressive in Hoover than the Rebels.
After the Rebels put up 22 runs to thump Arizona and finish a regional sweep, the hitters could have taken this weekend off. No, Southern Miss’s offense won’t soon be mistaken for Tennessee’s or even Virginia Tech’s. But as a regional top seed, and the team that had outslugged LSU, Southern Miss was expected to put up more offense in the Super Regional at home than … 0 total runs. Yes, the Rebels held the host Golden Eagles to 0 runs on 7 puny hits.
So the last team in the NCAA field has now outscored NCAA opponents by a combined 46-11 margin in sweeping a path to Omaha. And the 9 seed in the SEC Tournament is now 1 of the last 8 teams fighting for college baseball’s ultimate prize.
Meanwhile, Auburn took a tough 4-3 loss to Oregon State late Sunday night, but that just extends that series to Monday night’s winner-take-all Game 3 (7:30 pm, ESPN2). And despite a brutal loss to open Sunday, the SEC has at least 3/8ths of the CWS field locked up, with another spot up for grabs on Monday. In a league that’s been billed as one dominant power and all the rest, it wasn’t a bad day for all the rest.