College World Series Preview: Power Ranking the National Title Contenders

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All eight teams that made it to Omaha have a reasonable shot at celebrating under the lights at TD Ameritrade Park in two weeks’ time, but some of them seem more built for the journey to that dog pile than others. Below, we rank the likelihood that each remaining team wins the national championship, counting down from the leading two-and-‘cue candidates to the squads that should accept nothing less than a championship series appearance.

8. Washington

The only No. 3 seed to make it to Omaha had to knock off the 2016 national champions (Coastal Carolina) during regionals and survive a nail-biter against a perennial postseason factor (Cal State–Fullerton) in a road Super Regional to get there. In the clinching Game 3 win, the Huskies blew a two-run lead in the ninth, scratched across a run in the bottom of the ninth to tie it back up, lost the lead in the top of the 10th and then finally walked off on a long sacrifice fly in the bottom half of that frame.

Washington’s great equalizer is righthander Joe DeMers, who in February threw the first perfect game in school history and in Sunday’s victory made it into the seventh before allowing his first baserunner. Although there isn’t much swing-and-miss stuff in his arsenal (the same could be said for the staff as a whole, which ranks 201st nationally in K/9 rate), he is certainly capable of neutralizing any of the lineups in Washington’s half of the bracket. The Huskies can’t run DeMers out there every day, though, and they’re already pushing him as it is—he’s thrown 23.2 more innings than anyone else on the team.

7. Texas Tech

The Red Raiders are in their third College World Series in five years, but they have won just one game over the course of their first two trips. The challenge for Texas Tech’s offense, which finished third in the nation with 8.4 runs per game during the regular season, is figuring out how to score in Omaha the way it does in Lubbock. That job will fall in large part to Freshman All-American Gabe Holt, who hit .538 over the course of Texas Tech’s three-game Super Regional against Duke, and leftfielder Grant Little, whom the Padres made the 74th pick in the draft last week.

The biggest problem facing Tim Tadlock’s team is the bracket. The Red Raiders open against defending national champion Florida and will follow that with either Texas or Arkansas, two teams that went a combined 1–4 against in the regular season. If the Gators send them to the brink of elimination on Sunday night, they will be hard-pressed to prevent another short stay.

6. North Carolina

The Tar Heels are one of two teams that haven’t lost yet in the NCAA tournament, cruising through their regional as the No. 6 national seed and sweeping Stetson last weekend in Chapel Hill. Their reward for that success is an opening weekend matchup with Oregon State, the other unbeaten team this postseason. (More on the Beavers below, but the fact that you haven’t seen them yet in these rankings should help explain why you’re seeing North Carolina this early in the countdown.)

UNC used an assortment of Friday night starters during the season but never really found an ace, which could quickly become a problem against the lineups looming in this College World Series. Cooper Criswell, Gianluca Dalatri and Austin Bergner have each briefly laid claim to being the team’s most reliable starter at some point this year; the Tar Heels have to hope that they can string together a handful of good starts to give them a shot at a second weekend in Omaha.

5. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs shouldn’t be this high on the list, but after spending a month reeling from the surprise exit of their coach Andy Cannizaro three games into the season and starting SEC play 2–7, it’s a stunner they’re in Omaha at all.

After losing to Oklahoma by 10 in their tournament opener, they were saved by an Elijah MacNamee walkoff home run that knocked regional host Florida State out of the loser’s bracket and ran the table the rest of the weekend in Tallahassee. Another MacNamee walkoff placed them on the precipice of a CWS bid in the Super Regionals against Vanderbilt, but they had to play 11 innings of a do-or-die Game 3 in Nashville to put away the Commodores for good. And did we mention that interim coach Gary Henderson has directed this entire postseason run amid inescapable rumors that the Bulldogs have reportedly pursued multiple top names to replace him after the season?

To jump on the Mississippi State bandwagon, you need to get familiar with Jake Mangum, the fiery junior centerfielder and leadoff hitter whose .432 OBP and 14 steals set the tone for a lineup short on game-changing power. You also need to get familiar with the rally banana:

And while they have flirted with disaster this month, the Bulldogs swept both regular season series against the other two SEC teams in Omaha.

4. Texas

Roger Clemens was on the mound when Texas won the 1983 national championship, and if the Longhorns are going to win a seventh title, his son Kody will be in the center of it. The younger Clemens, Texas’s starting second baseman, has hit five homers in six tournament games, including one in all three games of the Longhorns’ 2–1 series win over Tennessee Tech in the Austin Super Regional. The Tigers made him the first pick of the MLB draft’s third round, but before Clemens heads to pro ball, he will continue to set the pace for a lineup that he leads in average by 59 points (.356), in on-base percentage by 35 points (.449) and in slugging percentage by 243 points (.745).

Texas’s top three starters Nolan Kingham, Chase Shugart and Blair Henley have each made relief appearances this tournament, so don’t be surprised if head coach David Pierce gets creative to ensure his best arms handle the highest-leverage outs in Omaha. Will enough burnt orange bats follow Clemens’s lead to give that rotation the run support it needs to succeed? We’ll know early on, as Texas meets Arkansas for the most intriguing matchup of the opening weekend.

3. Florida

The top tier of this year’s College World Series field is pretty tightly packed, starting with the Gators, who advanced past Auburn thanks to one of the strangest walk-off home runs you’ll ever see:

Tigers outfielder Steven Williams gifted the defending champs their latest escape in what’s been a heart-stopping tournament so far in Gainesville—a spunky Florida Atlantic team also took the No. 1 national seed to a do-or-die Game 7 in regional play. But now the Gators are in the final eight, with two starting pitchers selected in the first round of the MLB draft, Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, scheduled to take the ball in their first two games.

After knocking around No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize for six runs in five innings, it’s safe to say the Gators won’t back down from any pitching matchup, but the offense has clearly not been at full power without senior catcher and team captain J.J. Schwarz, who suffered a small fracture in his hand in May. (Backup catcher Jonah Girand became a breakout star with three home runs on opening weekend, but he went hitless with eight strikeouts during Super Regionals.) Schwarz, who hit .325 with 12 home runs in 55 starts this year, is expected to return for the College World Series, settling into the cleanup spot just behind No. 5 overall pick Jonathan India, who leads the team with 20 homers.

2. Arkansas

South Carolina pushed the Razorbacks to a Super Regional Game 3, but that accounted for just about all of the drama in Fayetteville over the past two weeks: They beat the Gamecocks by six and 10 runs in the other two games and trailed for only three and a half innings during regional play.

This may not have been the best lineup in the SEC this season, but it was probably the most complete one. Arkansas hit .300 as a team and finished third in the nation with 88 home runs—the first six hitters in the order have between eight and 14 apiece. The Hogs are patient at the plate and make the most of their limited stolen base attempts, on which they are 39 out of 50 for the year. Blaine Knight, a third-round pick by the Orioles, carries a spotless 12–0 record into Omaha and headlines a staff that boasts a top-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Razorbacks have everything working—including a fan determined to psyche out umpires and ESPN camera operators. If you want the safest pick to advance out of the tougher of this year’s two four-team pods at the College World Series, here’s where to look.

1. Oregon State

This year’s Beavers have been virtually untouchable in their quest to avenge the would-be national championship run that was shockingly cut short by LSU last year in Omaha. After two cathartic beatdowns of the Tigers in Corvallis by a combined score of 26–1 and a tidy Super Regional sweep of Minnesota, Oregon State sits in the less daunting half of the CWS bracket with a rested pitching staff and an offense led by first-day draft picks in second baseman Nick Madrigal (No. 4) and rightfielder Trevor Larnach (No. 37).

Two-time Pac-12 pitcher of the year Luke Heimlich has been stellar in both tournament starts, and the Beavers have been too good on offense to force their bullpen into any extended stressful work behind Bryce Fehmel or Kevin Abel, who have started the other three tournament games. It will take a loaded lineup and at least two herculean efforts from opposing starting pitchers to knock Oregon State off track the way LSU did in 2017.

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