10 Surprise Standout College Baseball Teams Midway Through 2021
Believe it or not, the midseason mark of the regular season in college baseball has come and gone, so it’s time to look up and spend some time taking stock of what we’ve seen.
Throughout the season so far, a number of teams have greatly improved their fortunes, either compared to what we saw in the truncated 2020 season or going back even further through several years of down seasons. Here are 10 that stand out as the best stories at the midseason mark.
Charlotte is in the early stages of a unique rebuilding effort by second-year coach Robert Woodard and his staff. The 49ers brought back a healthy portion of their 2020 team and added to that group a massive recruiting class heavy on junior college pitching. Now, it appears the rebuild is beginning to bear fruit, as the 49ers are 22-9 and off to an 11-1 start in Conference USA play. That hot start means they have already tied the 11 conference wins they had in all of 2019 and it places them squarely in the discussion to make their first postseason appearance since 2011.
When we last saw a full season of Kentucky baseball, it went 7-23 in the SEC. Through four weekends of SEC play this season, the Wildcats already had six conference wins, and more than that, they’ve been extremely competitive each time out. Four of UK’s six losses in its 6-6 SEC start have been by one or two runs, including a pair of one-run losses to Mississippi State on the road. Finishing strong will be the key to Kentucky fighting for a spot in the postseason, but what it has done so far is lay the foundation for that kind of run to be possible.
Because the Ragin’ Cajuns are in the middle of a very clear rebuild being engineered by coach Matt Deggs and his staff, it was hard to know what to expect from them this season, but after weathering the storm in a challenging nonconference slate, they’ve taken off. At 20-12 and 7-2 in league play, they have to be considered the favorite in the Sun Belt right now, and thanks to some early-season wins over some of the better teams on the schedule, they are also building a credible at-large resume on top of it.
Last season, in coach Link Jarrett’s first year in South Bend, Notre Dame showed big improvement, going 11-2 out of the gate, but it never got a chance to prove it in ACC play. The Irish got that chance this season and they’ve proven that they’re here to stay. Through seven weeks of ACC play, Notre Dame leads the conference with a 14-6 record, and at this point, going to the postseason for the first time since 2015 seems like a foregone conclusion. The better question is whether the team can keep it going long enough to host for the first time since 2004.
If Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech are the teams in the Conference USA that we’re not surprised to see in the postseason mix, Charlotte and Old Dominion are the interlopers who have surprised us along the way. At 24-6 overall and 10-2 in C-USA with an RPI hovering around the top 30, the Monarchs are already in great position to break into the postseason for the first time since 2014. Eight consecutive conference games between Charlotte and ODU over a two-week period in late April and early May looms large for both teams.
Pittsburgh hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1995, but that streak is in serious peril this season. The Panthers made a loud statement to start ACC play by sweeping Florida State in Tallahassee and since then, they’ve proven to have some staying power with series wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia and a sweep of Miami, making them the first team to sweep both FSU and UM in ACC play since Clemson in 2006. At 18-10 and 12-9 in the ACC, it’s not an overstatement to say that Pitt has its best team in a generation on the field right now, and that’s something to celebrate.
The Toreros got off to a 13-5 start in 2020 and appear to have carried that momentum over into 2021, with the team on track for its best season since 2017, when it went 35-18-1 and 18-9 in the West Coast Conference. Through its first 27 games of this season, USD is 20-7 overall and 6-3 in the WCC, and with arguably the most talented roster in the conference, it’s clear that the Toreros are built to hang around as contenders in the conference.
The Cardinal were incredibly young in 2020, starting as many as seven freshmen in the lineup last season on the way to a 5-11 record. But the payoff for those struggles is seeing a completely different team on the field so far in 2021. A dynamic offense led by outfielder Brock Jones and the versatile Tim Tawa has pushed Stanford to a 19-6 start and 6-3 mark in the Pac-12, and a healthier pitching staff over the second half of the season could make this team even better as time goes on.
In its 14 pre-conference games this season, Villanova went 12-2, and while that didn’t come against the toughest competition, for a program that has struggled to the degree that Villanova has in recent years, it’s still very much an accomplishment worth celebrating, even as the Wildcats were swept by Creighton in their first Big East series. With three more wins, the Wildcats will have the most victories they’ve had in a single season since winning 20 games in 2016 and with five more wins, they will have more wins than they’ve had in five of the last seven full seasons. Competing in the Big East will require another step up, but Villanova looks readier to make that step than it has in a long time.
At this stage of the season, Samford and Mercer still look to be the favorites in the Southern Conference, but Western Carolina has announced itself as a contender in the league with its start to 2021. The Catamounts are 18-8 this season, including a road series win over Charlotte, and they are 6-2 in SoCon play. WCU, one of the historical powers in SoCon baseball, has finished ninth and eighth in the conference standings in each of the last two full seasons, but it seems intent on getting back to its winning ways this season, and with an RPI that is holding steady in the mid 30s, it’s quickly building an intriguing postseason resume.