Wiedmer: This CWS Looks Like A Tennessee Waltz

  • Friday, June 14, 2024
  • Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer

At 7 o’clock tonight atop Omaha, Nebraska’s Charles Schwab Field, top-seed Tennessee will begin its quest to win its first baseball national championship against Florida State. The College World Series is a double-elimination event, so the Vols don’t have to beat the Seminoles tonight. But coming out of the loser’s bracket makes it tougher.

Yet for every athletic conference in the country save the Southeastern and the Atlantic Coast, what might be toughest about this CWS is that its makeup of four SEC teams and four ACC teams may be a glimpse into the future of college athletics, where the wealthiest leagues have all the fun and win all the championships.

Everyone already knows the emphasis the SEC schools place on baseball.

They’ve won five of the last six CWS staged and the last four in a row. They have the nicest stadiums, the most passionate fans and the geographic area _ particularly the states of Georgia and Florida _ produce an obscene amount of high school talent.

Even Kentucky, the northernmost school in the SEC, counts six native Floridians and four native Tennesseans on its roster. Other than Texas and California, if you want to find good baseball players, head to the Southeast.

But it’s this new era of NIL and the transfer portal that most seem to favor the SEC and ACC. And this won’t just be the case in baseball. The SEC has long dominated the college football playoffs, even as Big Ten member Michigan won the 2023 title. This past Final Four saw the ACC’s N.C. State reach the Final Four for the first time since 1983 and Alabama of the SEC get there for the first time ever.

This may become a trend moving forward and if it does, how does the rest of the country combat it? Can the other leagues compete with the SEC and ACC? Because the Big Ten goes coast-to-coast after its recent campus grab of former Pac 12 schools Oregon, Southern Cal, UCLA and Washington, it would seem the Big Ten will comfortably compete with the ACC and SEC for all meaningful championships.

Everybody else? Perhaps not so much, other than UConn in college basketball and Notre Dame in football. There’s just too much working against them, mainly money.

So as the rich get richer, everyone else seems to be playing for second. Or third. Or out of the mix altogether.

But that’s a concern for further down the line, beginning with the 2024-25 school year. For the next few days, all of college baseball’s focus is on four schools from the SEC _ Tennessee, Florida. Kentucky and Texas A&M from the SEC and Florida State, North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia from the SEC.

It’s hard not to see the Vols winning this. They’ve hit a nation’s-best 173 home runs.There’s no threesome in Omaha more deadly for a pitcher to face than UT’s trio of Christian Moore, Blake Burke and Billy Amick at the top of the Vols; lineup. And trying to get through that group four times with minimal damage is next to impossible.

Merely look at their six NCAA games to date. They’ve scored 64 runs. Their one loss _ 10-8 to Evansville in the second game of the Super Regional _ came when Moore flew out with the bases loaded. Their average margin of victory in their five wins has been 7.2 runs.

Yes, no team since Miami in 1999 has entered the College World Series as the No. 1 seed and left as the champion. But these Vols _ who are making their third CWS appearance in four years are wired to win it all.

Not that UT coach Tony Vitello is acting like the Vols are the favorites.

"First of all, it's difficult to get here, and once you're here, it's even more difficult to win," Vitello said during Thursday’s press conference. "The seeding, to me, kind of evaporates.”

Nor do the Vols players seem to be taking anything for granted, knowing, for instance, that Friday’s opponent, Florida State, outscored fellow SEC member Florida 45-15 during regular-season play.

The No. 1 seed can beat the No. 8 seed, or a team that isn't ranked at all can beat the No. 1 seed,” said outfielder Hunter Ensley in the same Thursday press conference. “We've seen it before. The only thing we can control is going out there and playing our game, and if we play our game, hopefully we can come out with a win."

Any of the eight can win with the right breaks. As ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson said earlier this week, “If any of these teams win it, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

But down the stretch of the SEC season, Tennessee was the best team, and the only league team to take a weekend series from co-champ Kentucky on its own field.

Because of that, expect the Vols to advance to the championship round, where they’ll beat SEC brother Florida in three games, running the league’s dominance to five straight titles.

* * *

Mark Wiedmer can be reached at mwiedmer@mccallie.org

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