I love watching the Super Bowl as much as the next guy, but we all know that the hoisting of the Vince Lombardi trophy signals the beginning of spring and for baseball to have the floor.
While the excitement of the trucks loading up across the country and heading to Florida and Arizona is added to this year by the World Baseball Classic, competitive high-level baseball games will begin this very week at colleges all across America. Friday, 17 February was Opening Day for D1 college baseball.
For many American sports fans, when you think ‘NCAA’ your mind will be cast to college football or perhaps March Madness basketball but there is a thriving college baseball scene up and down the country.
Let’s start with the basics: the season is a lot shorter than professional baseball, running from February until June, with the playoffs taking up the last month of the season. This culminates in the College World Series (CWS), which this year, will take place from 16-26 June at the traditional venue of Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Nebraska.
While MLB’s World Series is battled out between two teams, the CWS is the final tournament of the season, with the best eight teams in the country fighting for the title in two four-team brackets. The winners of each of these brackets square off in a best-of-three series for the title. Last year’s champions, the Ole Miss Rebels, defeated the Oklahoma Sooners in the final.
To get to the CWS, you must first navigate your way through the Regionals and then Super Regionals. Explaining all of this would be an article in itself, so I will let Matthew McGavic from si.com do it for you.
Another thing to note is the different conferences. For those of you that follow other college sports, you’ll be pleased to hear that they don’t change. The entire list of teams and conferences is here but the main powerhouse conferences in college baseball are the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Pac-12 and Big 10.
Teams are ranked throughout the season by the team at D1 Baseball, which goes a long way to deciding who hosts regionals down the line, and the pre-season Top 25 was released at the end of January. The full list can be found on their website but the top five going into play on Friday are:
- LSU Tigers
- Tennessee Volunteers
- Stanford Cardinals
- Ole Miss Rebels
- Texas A&M Aggies.
Outside of this top five, there are plenty of teams to look out for, including the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, who made it as far as a Regional last season but have come out of the relative wilderness with a crop of young talented players. They will be hoping this could take them all the way to their first CWS appearance since 1955.
Another team to watch is the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, who rank at 18 ahead of their more illustrious state rivals, Mississippi State, who do not even make the top 25. The former school of Brian Dozier are certainly going through a ‘golden’ generation.
Our whistle-stop tour of the college baseball season is almost complete, so I will give you some players to watch out for and some of the best Opening Day match-ups.
Five Pitchers to Watch
Chase Dollander – RHP – Tennessee – The unanimous pick for best pitcher in college baseball and could well lead No.2-ranked Tennessee far in the post-season and banish the ghosts of their surprise defeat to Notre Dame in the Super Regional last season. Did not lose a game last season, as he went 10-0.
Rhett Lowder – RHP – Wake Forest – Lowder is the head of the rotation for the Deacs and will be key if they are to live up to their No. 6 ranking.
Paul Skenes – RHP – LSU – The former Air Force Academy utility man also catches, but it will be his big arm that the Tigers will be relying on after his transfer over the winter.
Chase Burns – RHP – Tennessee – Part of the two-headed ‘Chase’ beast at the top of the Vols’ rotation with Dollander. Played for Team USA over the off-season with Skenes.
Hunter Elliott – LHP – Ole Miss – The freshman showed composure that belied his experience as he started the CWS clincher against Oklahoma last season and will be one of the more experienced men in the Rebels rotation this time around.
Five Position Players to Watch
Dylan Crews – OF – LSU – The big outfielder is regarded as the top talent in the college game this season and will look to lead his No.1-ranked Tigers to glory in 2023.
Jacob Gonzales – SS – Ole Miss – The Rebels’ shortstop has a superb glove and is the spark atop the defending champions’ lineup
Wyatt Langford – OF – Florida – A man who somehow snuck under the radar last season but hit 26 home runs and knocked in 61 runs. If he has another season like that, he could take the Gators a long way.
Carter Graham – 1B – Stanford – The No.3-ranked Cards are certainly the team to beat out west, and the key is their big bats. Carter Graham is one of those who will anchor the middle of their lineup.
Vance Honeycutt – OF – North Carolina – The centre fielders’ outfield play is even more spectacular than his name, as he produced Kevin Kiermaier-esque defensive play last season. He also came close to a 30-30 season with 25 homers and 29 stolen bases in 2022. A real lightning bolt for the Tar Heels.
Five Opening Day matchups to watch
Vanderbilt @ TCU – The only Top 25 matchup on Opening Day sees 2021 champions No.10 Vanderbilt ride into Fort Worth to take on the Horned Frogs of No.15 Texas Christian.
Delaware @ Ole Miss – The Rebels open up the defence of their title by welcoming the Delaware Blue Hens to the iconic surroundings of Swayze Field for a weekend series.
Texas @ Arkansas – Both of these rivals made it to Omaha last season, but the Longhorns have plummeted from Top Five regulars last season to completely out of the top 25 in pre-season. They go into the hostile Baum-Walker Field against the No.8 Razorbacks for what is sure to be a firecracker.
Tennessee @ Arizona – The Vols’ pitching rotation is the best in baseball on paper, and they were the best regular season team last year. They will look to put the Notre Dame Super Regional behind them, starting with a tough trip to Tucson against an Arizona team who could be aggrieved not to make the Top 25.
Maryland @ South Florida – The Terrapins are ranked at No.13 going into the season after hosting a Regional last year, but there is a real chance of an upset as they travel to Tampa to take on the Bulls. USF came close to the playoffs last year, and home advantage could give them an advantage here.
Such is the competitiveness of college baseball, where reputations mean nothing and anybody is capable of beating anybody, it was tough to pick just five for each of these categories. There are plenty who just missed each list, so all I can recommend is to follow along for the ride.
With coverage hard to come by in the UK and Ireland, some great resources include the guys at D1 Baseball, the 11.7 College Baseball Podcast, and College Baseball Gameday on Twitter. The YouTube channel Wheels posts extended highlights of some of the biggest games, and many colleges will also provide free radio commentary of games.
The rabid fanbases, the scenic ballparks and the ‘ting’ of the metal bat got me hooked, and it will do the same to any baseball fan. Join in for the ride to Omaha!
Featured image from TCU Athletics.
Mark Strange is the College Baseball correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. You can follow Mark on Twitter @RealMarkStrange