Omaha has a Tennessee flavor as Vandy, Vols battle for state supremacy in College World Series
The road to college baseball glory apparently runs through Tennessee. But is that Knoxville or Nashville? With Mississippi State’s fate awaiting a Monday evening showdown, the Tennessee Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores are the only certain representatives of the SEC at the College World Series in Omaha. Is the state big enough for the showdown?
In-state battles for SEC sports supremacy generally evolve from a couple of pretty specific contexts. Alabama and Auburn love football, but not each other. Ole Miss and Mississippi State enjoy a good donnybrook or two. But most years, if UT and Vandy are having a showdown, it might be women’s basketball. Not the battle for the future of college baseball.
But here we are. It’s public versus private. It’s the academic powerhouse versus the athletic factory. It’s Music City versus the city in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. UT and Vandy might have been one of the more quiet rivalries in the SEC, but they’ll be making plenty of noise in the College World Series.
Honestly, the two Tennessee schools rolling into Omaha would have been unforeseeable in the recent past. Vandy’s baseball history was pretty modest before Tim Corbin came on board in 2003. At that point, Vandy had been to the NCAA Tournament 3 times, most recently in 1980, and had never been to the World Series. This season marks NCAA Tournament appearance No. 16 for the ‘Dores with Corbin, and now it’s their fifth College World Series appearance. And could end in their third national title. Starting pitchers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker are perhaps the most potent arms in the sport, and each seems to have major league stardom in his respective future. The Commodores are the defending champions in the College World Series.
For UT, the golden years (before now) were under coach Rod Delmonico. UT had only been to the NCAA Tournment once before Delmonico took the job before the 1990 season. He led UT to a trio of World Series appearances, the last coming in 2005. But after Delmonico was let go in 2007, UT had floundered. The hiring of Tony Vitello in 2018 looks like a turning point. The 2019 season marked their first post-Delmonico NCAA Tournament appearance, and this is their first World Series showing since that 2005 team.
It’s a UT squad that has found ways to win. The pitching staff lacks the star power of Vandy’s group, but it was 2nd in the SEC in ERA behind the ‘Dores. UT walked the fewest batters in the SEC, and Vol hitters took the 2nd-most walks in the league. The Vols led the SEC in doubles and were 2nd in homers and stolen bases. Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck are in the SEC’s top 5 in RBIs, and Jake Rucker leads the league in doubles. The Vols have sailed through NCAA play, on the heels of edging out Vandy for the SEC regular-season East Division title.
And after all the build-up, Omaha is the grounds to settle the in-state quarrel. Vandy won 2 of 3 games in Nashville back in April, when the potential for a rematch was far away. By Monday night, there will be 8 teams still standing. How wild would it be if UT and Vandy were the last 2 standing? Forget college football’s November showdowns or basketball’s March meetings. A few hot June afternoons might just define the hottest in-state rivalry in the SEC. Both UT and Vandy have earned nothing less.