The 2016 College World Series was the first ever to require all if-necessary games to be played and, fittingly, still needed an extra day to be decided, thanks to poor weather. But, at the end of it all, Coastal Carolina defeated Arizona to be crowned national champions for the first time in school history.
The 2016 season was an unpredictable one. Coastal Carolina entered the year ranked No. 23, but the Chanticleers were far from national title favorites. Arizona was picked ninth in the preseason Pac-12 Conference coaches' poll and was not expected to even make the NCAA tournament in coach Jay Johnson's first year.
Needless to say, when Baseball America looked ahead to the 2016 CWS following the conclusion of the 2015 CWS, as it does every year, Coastal and Arizona were not in those predictions. With only three national seeds reaching Omaha, it was an especially tough year for predictions. We correctly picked just two CWS teams—Florida and Miami—and two others—Oklahoma State and Texas Christian—were identified as super regional participants. But Arizona, Coastal, Texas Tech and UC Santa Barbara were nowhere to be found.
As this year illustrated, making predictions a year in advance for any sport isn't easy, and college baseball presents its own unique challenges. The draft changes the complexion of teams every year and, while many players have already signed, the signing deadline is still 10 days away. Until that deadline passes July 15, there is still time for surprises to alter the landscape. Even then, the coaching carousel may still have a few spins left in it, and teams will continue to be shaped by injuries and the developmental steps players take.
All that means our preseason rankings in January will look a bit different from this far-too-early list. But it makes for a fun thought exercise as we ponder seven months without college baseball games that count.
The Pirates nearly made their first trip to Omaha this year, winning the first game of the Lubbock Super Regional and advancing the game-winning run to third base in the 12th inning of Game Two. But Texas Tech found a way to stave off the upset with a pair of victories, dashing East Carolina's dream. From that team, however, the Pirates will return everyone but the five seniors on the roster. ECU had no players drafted, which means it won't have the most prospect-laden roster in the country next year, but it will have one of the most experienced. One of the lessons from this year's NCAA tournament seems to be that veteran teams have a distinct advantage (see: Coastal Carolina), and the Pirates will have 12 seniors next season, including ace Evan Kruczynski and catcher Travis Watkins. Their top three hitters return, including electric outfielder Dwayna Williams-Sutton (.360/.455/.551), a Freshman All-American. Kruczynski will again lead the rotation and closer Joe Ingle provides a talented arm at the back of the bullpen. Coach Cliff Godwin has done a great job in his first two years back at his alma mater, and you can count on him getting the most out of his team. The Pirates program has made 28 regional trips without getting to Omaha—the longest streak in the country, two ahead of South Alabama for the most in the country. Next season sets up to be the year.
Ranked No. 1 coming into the year, the Gators were the most talented team in college baseball and the No. 1 national seed, but their season came to a quick end in the CWS. They had five players drafted in the first 64 picks: starting pitchers Logan Shore and A.J. Puk, relief ace Dane Dunning, center fielder Buddy Reed and first baseman Peter Alonso. Three other players were drafted in Rounds 3-10, including closer Shaun Anderson. And, yet, Florida's 2017 team has a chance to be special as well. The Gators had a young lineup this year, and will bring seven of nine starters back. On the mound, they will run out a rotation of junior Alex Faedo and sophomores Jackson Kowar and Brady Singer, all of whom are likely first-rounders over the next two years. Four Gators were invited to USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team this summer (Faedo, shortstop Dalton Guthrie and catchers Mike Rivera and J.J. Schwarz, though Schwarz is not playing with the team). While Florida's recruiting class doesn't have the star power of last year's, when it brought in three top 100 players, it should provide some immediate impact talents in Andrew Baker and Austin Langworthy, who are both expected to play outfield and pitch. With Kevin O'Sullivan coaching that kind of talent, Florida should again be competing for a national championship.
The Seminoles have not been to Omaha since 2012, the third-longest drought of coach Mike Martin's career. Florida State came close the past two years, but lost to Florida in the Gainesville Super Regional each time. The good news for the Seminoles is that of the 22 players they used in super regionals this year, all but four return for 2017, with third baseman John Sansone representing the biggest loss. Florida State heavily relied on underclassmen this year, including several members of its sixth-ranked recruiting class. Among the freshmen, outfielder Jackson Lueck and catcher Cal Raleigh formed the heart of the Seminoles' offense by the end of the season, and Tyler Holton and Cole Sands proved to be solid starters. Righthander Drew Carlton and shortstop Taylor Walls took steps forward as sophomores and will be counted on for big years again as juniors. To that mix, Florida State will add another solid recruiting class, headlined by infielder Drew Mendoza, who ranked No. 43 on the BA 500. He will be one of the highest-ranked players in the country to make it to campus and could immediately step in at third base. The Seminoles will need to sort out their bullpen, but the pieces are there for them to return to the CWS.
Long Beach State
The Big West Conference has had a team in Omaha in each of the past three years, with a different team making the trip each time. After making a regional final this year and returning most of that team, Long Beach will be aiming to keep the Big West's streak going and reach the CWS for the first time since 1998. The Dirtbags will have to replace shortstop Garrett Hampson, who was the focal point of the team this season, and may sweat out a decision from righthhander Chris Mathewson, who was taken by the Dodgers in the 19th round as a draft-eligible sophomore. If he returns, the Dirtbags will once again have the formidable one-two punch atop their rotation of Mathewson and righthander Darren McCaughan, the Big West pitcher of the year. Beach also returns outfielders Brock Lundquist and Luke Rasmussen, as well as closer Chris Rivera. Having finished second in the Big West, pushed Miami in the Coral Gables Regional and begun renovations to Blair Field, the Dirtbags are carrying positive momentum into what could be a big year.
The Tigers this season had to replace eight regulars from their 2015 CWS team. After some growing pains, LSU got its offense on track and reached super regionals. The vast majority of that team will be back for 2017, including ace righthander Alex Lange, a potential top-10 pick. LSU would receive a boost if lefthander Jared Poche' decides to return to school after being drafted in the 14th round by the Padres. But pitching coach Alan Dunn will have good arms at his disposal regardless. The bulk of the lineup will return, including outfielder Antoine Duplantis (.327/.404/.419) and first baseman Greg Deichmann (team-best 11 homers). With another year of growth from the hitters under assistant coach Andy Cannizaro, Lange at the front of the rotation and Hunter Newman at the back of the bullpen, LSU has the pieces in place for another Omaha run.
The Beavers were probably the biggest snub from the NCAA tournament after going 35-19 and finishing in a three-way tie in the Pac-12 with Arizona and Arizona State (both of which made the tournament). Most of that team returns, including Freshman All-American Nick Madrigal and first baseman K.J. Harrison. Oregon State will have to replace catcher Logan Ice and shortstop Trever Morrison, as well as righthander Travis Eckert. The Beavers' past three recruiting classes have ranked in the top 12, however, giving them a solid core of young players to lean on. Oregon State could also receive a midseason boost if righthander Drew Rasmussen is able to return to full health following Tommy John surgery. If the Beavers can avoid the injury bug that plagued them this year, they look primed to make a deep postseason run.
After missing the NCAA tournament in 2015, South Carolina rebounded with a strong 2016, winning the SEC East and reaching super regionals. The Gamecocks return many key pieces from this year's team, beginning with ace Clarke Schmidt and outfielder Alex Destino, who led the team with 10 home runs. South Carolina was built on its pitching and defense this year and that will likely continue next spring. In addition to Schmidt, No. 3 starter Adam Hill is back, and righthanders Wil Crowe and Cody Morris will be healthy after missing this season due to Tommy John surgery. Lefthander Josh Reagan returns at the back of the bullpen, and righthander Tyler Johnson gives the Gamecocks a power arm capable of starting (as he showed in regionals) or relieving (nine saves). South Carolina will need to replace three of its four leading hitters—Destino is the lone returner who hit better than .300—but if it can get some instant impact from its newcomers or if returners such as Jonah Bride and Chris Cullen can take a step forward at the plate, it has the pitching staff necessary for a deep postseason run.
This was supposed to be something of a rebuilding year for the Horned Frogs after losing three of their four starting pitchers, their closer and five regulars from their 2015 lineup. Instead, TCU made its third straight trip to the CWS with a roster largely composed of underclassmen. Because of its youth this season, nearly the entire team will return next year. That includes eight of nine regulars in the lineup and every pitcher who started a game, with the probable exception of righthander Mitchell Traver, who was drafted in the 17th round by the Reds. With so much talent coming back having gotten experience in the CWS, expectations will be sky-high for TCU. With coach Jim Schlossnagle at the helm, the Horned Frogs should be able to withstand the pressure and become the first team to make four straight CWS appearances since North Carolina made four straight trips from 2006-2009.
Eight More For Super Regionals
Clemson, Louisville, Nebraska, Texas Tech, UC Santa Barbara, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Washington