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Four Traditional Powers Facing Long Odds For NCAA Tournament

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Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Life as a traditional power program in college baseball has never been tougher.

Just ask Miami, a 25-time College World Series participant and four-time national champion that missed the postseason for the first time in 44 years back in 2017 and then missed out again in 2018.

Or you could ask Arizona State, which hadn’t gone more than six years between CWS appearances between the 1960s and their last trip to Omaha in 2010, but which is now fighting, like Miami, to get into a regional for the first time since 2016.

Maybe you could ask Rice, more of new kid on the block among college baseball powers. Under Wayne Graham, the Owls made 20 consecutive regional appearances, until missing out last season.

And no one knows how tough it is more than Southern California, a program that won seven national titles from 1968-78 but has also only made one regional appearance since 2005.

In 2019, with the struggles of programs like Cal State Fullerton, Florida, South Carolina and Texas, we’ve got a fresh batch of evidence that this is the case. All four teams made super regionals last season and Florida and Texas were in Omaha.

The Titans haven’t missed the postseason since 1991, but they will this season. With six games left in their Big West season, they are seven games behind first-place UC Santa Barbara, eliminating them from contention for the league’s automatic bid. With an RPI above 100 and no more resume-building opportunities ahead of them, they are also not going to come anywhere close to the bubble.

Fullerton has flirted with this fate quite a bit in recent years. Last year, for example, they were 10-15 as late as March 31, only to rally to win the Big West regular season title by three games and then advance all the way to a super regional, where they were a couple of defensive miscues away from advancing to Omaha.

The difference in the past has been the ability to ride workhorses on the pitching staff, such as Colton Eastman in the rotation and Blake Workman in the bullpen last year. This year, with a 5.18 team ERA, the Titans haven’t had that luxury. They have also been victimized by a more competitive Big West. Both UCSB and UC Irvine are enjoying resurgent seasons, which has created less margin for error for Fullerton.

If there was a program in college baseball that appeared most likely to go on a regional appearance streak like we’ve seen in the past from Miami or Cal State Fullerton, or the current one enjoyed by Florida State, it would be Florida.

But at 10-17 in SEC play, the Gators need something close to a miracle to get into a regional this season and continue a postseason streak that began in 2008.

If Florida sweeps its series at No. 21 Missouri this weekend and then does some damage at the SEC Tournament, it can get back into the at-large discussion. But that’s a big ask for a team that is just 4-12 away from Gainesville this season.

Year after year, the Gators have re-tooled on the mound as well as any program in the country. Lose Logan Shore on Fridays? Come on down, Alex Faedo. Faedo departs for pro baseball? Slide in Brady Singer, and then pair him with Jackson Kowar.

They just haven’t been able to pull it off this season. As a team, Florida has a 5.40 ERA and no pitcher with more than two starts has an ERA below 5.00, and as a result, it hasn’t been able to slow opposing offenses down in SEC play.

There have also been a myriad of struggles for another program that prides itself on producing pitchers, and that's Texas.

One season after getting to Omaha in David Pierce’s second season as head coach, the Longhorns find themselves in need of a miracle not only to get into a regional, as is the case with Florida, but also in need of help just to qualify for the Big 12 Tournament.

At 6-14 in the league, Texas is 1.5 games out of the eighth and final spot in the field. In short, it needs to, at minimum, win its upcoming series against Oklahoma, and then hope to catch a break elsewhere.

Its season ending up this way would have seemed downright unfathomable back on March 17, when Texas got its Big 12 slate underway with a series win over Texas Tech and was only two weeks removed from sweeping Louisiana State.

But since that point, the Longhorns have gone 10-18 overall and are still waiting for their second Big 12 series win.

South Carolina has a similarly difficult path to the conference tournament that begins with having to capture at least one game on the road this weekend against a piping-hot Mississippi State team, a difficult feat on its own, and then getting some losses from Alabama and Kentucky, the two other teams in contention for the final spot in Hoover.

The Gamecocks’ season peaked in week three, when they won their rivalry series against Clemson. But it has been tough sledding since then, and their postseason hopes, outside of that miracle run in the SEC Tournament, were reduced to nothing more than longshot status weeks ago.

A large contingent of key upperclassmen leaving due to graduation and the draft after last season’s super regional run is a big reason for the downturn, as are injuries, including to pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski, who was set to lead the rotation coming into the year.

South Carolina has missed the postseason in recent seasons, including in 2015 and 2017 under Chad Holbrook, but they’ve not often had a tough season like this. Even with a sweep of Mississippi State to end the season, the Gamecocks’ 10 SEC wins would be the fewest since joining the conference prior to the 1992 season. And if they don’t get to Hoover, it would be the first time since 1996 that they won’t be participating in the SEC Tournament.

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