After one year of being closed and covered with orange detour barrels, the Road to Omaha is back open for business. As you read this, eight college baseball teams are setting up camp in O-Town, seeking to be not the last squad standing but rather the only team dogpiling, stacked up on the infield grass at TD Ameritrade Park as college baseball’s 74th national champs.
Who makes up this year’s octet of teams trying for the title, how did they get to Omaha and which players are the best bets to have them in the hunt until the end? Turn your rally cap inside out, order up a medium rare whiskey filet from The Drover and read ahead as we present our Cliff (Gustafson)’s Notes preview of the 2021 College World Series.
No. 2 Texas Longhorns (47-15)
Road to Omaha: Big 12 regular-season champion; won Austin Regional and Super Regional by defeating Southern, Arizona State, Fairfield and South Florida
CWS history: 37th appearance (first all time); best finish: first, six times, latest in 2005
Key player: Ty Madden, RHP, Big 12 Pitcher of the Year
Storylines: So how does a team stumble in its conference tournament and still be named a No. 2 national seed? When that team is so loaded with talent that smart baseball people know it can’t be ignored. While the Longhorns certainly have no issue scoring runs, this team is built around the mound. The Horns boast the nation’s lowest team ERA (2.87). Ty Madden is the award-winning headliner, but Tristan Stevens (11-3) was also first-team All-Big 12, and redshirt freshman Pete Hansen is 9-1 with a 1.94 ERA that’s ninth-lowest in the nation. Meanwhile, All-Big 12 honorable mentions Tanner Witt and Aaron Nixon share 13 saves between them.
Tennessee legend Peyton Manning gets on a call with the school’s baseball coach, Tony Vitello, in preparation for the Volunteers’ trip to the College World Series.
No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers (50-16)
Road to Omaha: First place, SEC East; SEC tournament runner-up; won Knoxville Regional and Super Regional by defeating Wright State, Liberty and LSU
CWS history: Fifth appearance, first since 2005; best finish: second, 1951
Key player: 3B Jake Rucker
Storylines: The Vols have long been one of those “shouldn’t they be better at baseball than they are?” programs, curiously making only five CWS appearances despite a pretty rich tradition of pro baseball talent. The job head coach Tony Vitello has done in kick-starting this program in only four seasons has generated a lot of buzz in the college baseball world — a little too much for Vols fans, as his name has been attached to every big-time job opening this season. But for now, Tennessee is fully focused on winning in the town that its most famous athlete screamed at the line of scrimmage. “Omaha! Omaha! Omaha!”
No. 4 Vanderbilt Commodores (45-15)
Road to Omaha: Second place, SEC East; won Nashville Regional and Super Regional by defeating Presbyterian, Georgia Tech and East Carolina
CWS history: Fifth appearance, all since 2011; best finish: first, 2014 and 2019
Key players: RHPs Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, the best one-two pitching punch in Omaha
Storylines: The longest-tenured defending CWS champs (thanks, COVID) spent a big chunk of the early season right where they’d ended 2019, ranked No. 1. But this group of Vandy Boys was very heavy on the “boys” side, carrying a super-talented but super-young 2021 roster. That inexperience popped up throughout the year in the form of inconsistency, but the incredible coaching tenure of Tim Corbin has always been anchored with great pitching (see: David Price), and this year is no exception. Kumar Rocker was the wunderkind hero of the 2019 CWS but is now the grizzled veteran. He and Jack Leiter are college baseball’s odd couple, but all Omaha eyes will be on them, while all Omaha TV cameras will be pointed at their famous fathers. For more on these two, you should read this profile piece and this pitching breakdown feature, both written and/or reported on by a really handsome ESPN senior writer.
No. 5 Arizona Wildcats (45-16)
Road to Omaha: Pac-12 champions; won Tucson Regional and Super Regional by defeating Grand Canyon, UC Santa Barbara and No. 12 national seed Ole Miss
CWS history: 18th appearance and third since 2012; best finish: first, four times, latest in 2012
Key players: Two super freshmen, DH/3B Jacob Berry and C Daniel Susac
Storylines: Arizona was a CWS powerhouse back in the day, and after taking a long back seat to the teams of the Southeast, the Wildcats have once again become Omaha regulars. How? Offense, offense and more offense. They lead the nation in runs scored (510) and hits (701) and rank among the leaders in batting average (.327, fourth), doubles (131, second) and on-base percentage (.426, third). That engine is powered by Jacob Berry and Daniel Susac, who became the first freshman duo in UA baseball history to hit double-digit homers.
No. 7 Mississippi State Bulldogs (45-16)
Road to Omaha: Second place, SEC West; won Starkville Regional and Super Regional, defeating Samford, VCU, Campbell and No. 10 national seed Notre Dame
CWS history: 12th appearance and third straight; best finish: second, 2013
Key player: OF Tanner Allen
Storylines: In the power-packed SEC, most of the national attention seems to always focus on someone other than State, whether it be the Vandy Boys winning nattys or Arkansas not (sorry, too soon?). But this will be the third straight CWS played beneath the clanging of the Bulldogs’ cowbells. It was legendary Mississippi State coach Ron Polk who once said to me, “You give me one slugger, one ace and one closer and I like my chances.” Well, this roster includes SEC Player of the Year Tanner Allen and his .392/10/62 numbers, Will Bednar and his 7-1 record and Golden Spikes finalist Landon Sims and his 4-0 record with 10 saves. So, Coach Polk, that’s a check, check and check.
No. 9 Stanford Cardinal (38-15)
Road to Omaha: Third place, Pac-12 regular season; won Stanford Regional and Lubbock Super Regional by defeating North Dakota State, UC Irvine and No. 8 national seed Texas Tech
CWS history: 17th appearance, first since 2008; best finish: first, 1987 and 1988
Key player: OF Brock Jones, who crushed three homers in Stanford’s super regional clincher
Storylines: The Cardinal used to be an Omaha regular, winning back-to-back titles in 1987 and ’88 and making five appearances in the ’80s, four in the ’90s and five in the first decade of this millennium. But this marks their first visit in 13 years and their first without legendary head coach Mark Marquess pacing the dugout. Now they are coached by a hero of those title-winning teams, David Esquer, who needed only four seasons to get his alma mater back to the banks of the Missouri River.
NC State Wolfpack (35-18)
Road to Omaha: Second place, ACC Atlantic; ACC tournament runner-up; won Ruston Regional and Fayetteville Super Regional by defeating Alabama, Louisiana Tech and No. 1 national seed Arkansas
CWS history: Third appearance, first since 2013; best finish: third, 1968
Key player: OF Jonny Butler
Storylines: Remember all that stuff we told you about, how it’s so hard to believe that Tennessee hasn’t been to Omaha more than it has? Well, multiply that disbelief by five when it comes to NC State. How in the world can a program that sits in the middle of a hardball-talent-rich state like North Carolina and a team that has produced dozens of big leaguers (including Carlos Rodon) just now be making its third trip to Omaha? This slump-busting crew that upset top-ranked Arkansas in Fayetteville is packed with sluggers. Butler (.377/13/48) is one of six Pack hitters with 10 or more homers and at least 35 RBIs.
Virginia Cavaliers (35-25)
Road to Omaha: Third place, ACC Coastal; won Columbia Regional and Super Regional, defeating Jacksonville, South Carolina, Old Dominion and Dallas Baptist
CWS history: Fifth appearance, all since 2009; best finish: first, 2015
Key player: LHP Andrew Abbott
Storylines: UVa made it back to Omaha for the first time since making back-to-back finals in 2014-15, and the Cavaliers did it the hard way, dropping their opener in both the regional and super regional but fighting their way back, even when COVID protocols forced them to play their super 5½ hours away from home in Columbia, South Carolina. I suppose this is where we should give you a detailed breakdown of the Hoos’ lineup, but instead we’d like to remind of you two things: 1. UVa head coach Brian O’Connor is a native of the Omaha area, a hero of Creighton’s legendary hometown 1991 College World Series run, and he is also one of the players featured in the famed Road To Omaha statue in front of TD Ameritrade; 2. UVa relief pitcher Stephen Schoch is a national treasure, and you should read this Q&A he did last week with that same handsome ESPN senior writer we mentioned earlier.