The Men’s College World Series is set, but the team everyone was expecting to see in Omaha didn’t make the trip.
Tennessee, the undisputed No. 1 team in the country, was upset by Notre Dame in the super regionals at Knoxville, leaving a wide-open field to battle for the national championship.
The eight teams are split into two four-team, double elimination brackets, with the winners of each bracket facing off in the best-of-three finals scheduled to begin June 25. All games will air on either ESPN or ESPN2 and are available on the ESPN App.
Play in the first bracket begins Friday with Oklahoma facing No. 5 Texas A&M (ESPN, 2 ET) in the opener, and Notre Dame taking on No. 9 Texas (ESPN, 7 ET) in the nightcap.
In the other bracket Saturday, Arkansas plays No. 2 Stanford (ESPN, 2 ET) and Ole Miss meets No. 14 Auburn (ESPN2, 7 ET).
To get you ready for all the action, we asked our college baseball experts Ryan McGee, Mike Rooney, Chris Burke and Kiley McDaniel to break down the contenders, top storylines and make their picks for the last two teams standing.
Before we dig in on the Omaha field, what is your biggest takeaway on No. 1 Tennessee losing in the super regionals?
Ryan McGee: You mean, other than my college friends and in-laws — heck, my wife! — calling and yelling at me because they’ve run out of people to yell at? Honestly, this is just how it is for the No. 1 national seed. The looks on the faces of the Vols were the same stunned expression that Arkansas had one year ago and UCLA had in 2019. That’s three in a row the top team has lost in the supers, and the No. 1 seed hasn’t won the CWS since Miami in 1999! Maybe Tennessee can take consolation knowing they are in great company. Oh, who am I kidding?
Mike Rooney: This was an enormous upset with two caveats: 1) This is the third year in a row that the No. 1 overall seed has been upset in the supers. 2) Notre Dame has been one of the best teams in the country over the last three seasons. That said, it was shocking to see a historic Vols team lose twice in Knoxville. Notre Dame felt slighted by the committee with its seeding, but in hindsight, maybe it was Tennessee that drew the short straw.
Chris Burke: Tennessee losing in the supers is just more proof that carrying the weight of being No. 1 all year is the hardest thing to do in college baseball. The fact no team has been able to win it all as the No. 1 seed this century is a trend that is impossible to ignore.
Kiley McDaniel: Baseball is a little too random to ever feel secure about predicting how a few games will go. That, and Notre Dame has a lot of solid pitching.
Who do you think is the team to beat in Omaha?
McGee: There is so much momentum from so many teams right now, but I never gave up on Texas midyear like a lot of folks did. The Longhorns were the preseason No. 1, and they are back on track big time. They were never rattled at East Carolina, and that series should have ended Saturday. They looked like a machine one year ago in Omaha. Now they are a machine with Omaha experience.
Rooney: Texas feels like the favorite given that they were the preseason No. 1 team. That position player group is special, and Pete Hansen may be the most accomplished starting pitcher in the field.
Burke: I can’t remember a year where the CWS felt more wide open. That said, I’ve been asked to pick a favorite, and I’m going with Arkansas. I picked them to win the title to start the year (I admit I switched midseason to the heavy favorite Tennessee) and I’m going to stick with them now that we are here. The offense, top to bottom, is the best it’s been all year, and Connor Noland’s performance in the supers makes me think he’s ready to lead this team to its first natty.
McDaniel: With Tennessee eliminated, there isn’t a clear favorite. I’ll take Arkansas due to its mix of depth, youth and pro prospects, but I think Stanford and Texas are right there with Arkansas on pure talent.
Which storyline most intrigues you?
McGee: The SEC West makes up half of the field, and two of the other four teams are joining the conference sooner than later, perhaps as early as the 2024 baseball season. It’s truly mind-blowing. But in the short term, on the field this year there is a lot of rival familiarity. And that also means some good old-fashioned rivalry grudges. Bring it on.
Rooney: The fact that there is no clear favorite. This CWS could go in a million different directions. Also, will the power we saw in the first two rounds of the tournament carry over to the Omaha?
Burke: Staying on the Arkansas theme, I’m most interested in whether we will see the “team after the team” continue to win it all. Think about this: Vandy 2014, Virginia 2015, Oregon State 2018 and Mississippi State 2021, you could make a case that each of those teams won it the year after they were “supposed” to. If Arkansas wins it this year, that will be an interesting trend to follow moving forward.
McDaniel: For all the conversation about what the postseason may prove about conference strength, the SEC schools (and soon-to-be SEC schools) account for six of the eight spots in Omaha. And that’s after the best team in years (also from the SEC) lost at home in a super in a huge upset, along with Florida losing a home regional.
What players are you most excited to watch?
McGee: Thicc King (Auburn’s Sonny DiChiara) and the Hispanic Titanic (Texas’ Ivan Melendez)! All those two do is mash and look cool and have amazing nicknames and love the game. If they sold loud NASCAR-style T-shirts with their nicknames on them, I would buy both immediately.
Rooney: Oklahoma’s Peyton Graham can take over a game in multiple ways. He has developed into an outstanding defender at shortstop. And we don’t often see three-hole hitters who can impact the game with power, speed and a pure hit tool. Graham is all of that.
Burke: We have a whole bunch of dudes here in Omaha, but there are two who really stand out to me (and McGee, apparently): Sonny DiChiara and Ivan Melendez. Two of the best hitters in the country and they each carry all-time great nicknames. Sonny D and the Hispanic Titanic are “must-see TV” when they step into the box.
McDaniel: I like homers, so Oklahoma shortstop Graham and Texas first baseman Melendez go to the top of my list. Also, keep an eye on Arkansas third baseman Cayden Wallace and Stanford third baseman Drew Bowser.
Which two teams will square off for the title?
McGee: Horns and Hogs. Speaking of T-shirts, if Texas and Arkansas end up in the championship series, I’m going to have to find an old Southwest Conference iron-on logo three-quarter sleeve jersey, circa 1987. I was in Fayetteville for the Texas-Arkansas football weekend in September. It was total chaos. I can’t imagine what it would be like with a national title on the line.
Rooney: I will take Stanford and Texas in the finals.
Burke: Although I think a case could be made for all eight teams, I’m going with Texas vs. Arkansas in the finals. Two teams that were preseason Top 5 because of their uber-talented rosters have both weathered some tough patches in their season and arrive in Omaha playing their best ball. This CWS is setting up as a classic.
McDaniel: Texas and Arkansas.