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Why Tennessee's Dominance Might Not End In A College World Series Title



Editor's Note: Tulane's result in 2005 has been corrected.

If you are picking a favorite to win the NCAA College World Series this year, it’s hard to pick anyone other than Tennessee.

The No. 1-ranked team in the nation has everything you could want in a national championship contender.

Consistent success? Tennessee is 53-7 this year. The Volunteers lost one series. Their longest losing streak is two games. Their run differential this year is +401. They outscored their opponents 561-160.

The Vols allowed five or more runs just nine times this year. Tennessee scored five or more runs in 49 of its 60 games. Tennessee never allowed more than eight runs in a game this year. Tennessee scored nine or more runs 31 times.

Power? The Vols lead the nation with 141 home runs. The last team in the Southeastern Conference to hit that many home runs was Louisiana State in 1997 and 1998, in the middle of the gorilla ball era.

Remember that the Vols only allowed 160 runs all year. They almost hit as many home runs as their opponents scored runs.

That may understate how powerful the Vols have been. Tennessee also leads the nation with a .604 slugging percentage. A .604 slugging percentage in the SEC? That doesn’t make sense unless drop-five bats have been legalized again. No team in Division I baseball has slugged over .600 since the College of Charleston did so in 2008 (the apex of the bat-rolling era). Tennessee did it in one of the toughest conferences in the country.

Pitching? Its 2.35 ERA leads the nation as well.

Again, that probably doesn’t suitably explain the Vols' dominance. Tennessee’s 2.35 ERA is far and away the best in the nation. Southern Miss (3.16) is the only other team in the country within a run of Tennessee’s ERA. There are only 16 teams in the country with an ERA under 4.00. Of the 301 teams in Division I, 236 had an ERA more than double that of the Vols' mark.

The Vols not only dominated on the mound this year, they did so with outstanding depth. The Vols have nine different pitchers who threw at least 25 innings while striking out a batter an inning or more. Tennessee had 11 different pitchers who threw at least 25 innings this year while holding opponents to a sub-.225 batting average.

So the Volunteers have a lineup that wears out pitchers from the first to the last spot (nine different Tennessee hitters had nine or more home runs this year). They have the deepest starting rotation in college baseball.

Their bullpen includes the hardest-throwing pitcher in college baseball history—righthander Ben Joyce has touched 105 mph and sits over 100 pretty much every time he takes the mound, and he may not be the team’s best reliever.

Joyce isn’t the closer. Redmond Walsh is and he holds the program’s career saves record. Walsh has seven saves this year. That’s not because he wasn’t effective; it’s because Tennessee was winning by too large a margin to have save situations. It has only had 13 wins all season by three runs or less. Tennessee's opponents had two saves all year.

The Volunteers are as dominant a force as we’ve seen in college baseball in years. They are a truly amazing team.

And if past history is any guide, they likely will end this season wondering how it all fell apart.

It sounds impossible. How could a team that has everything you could want in a title contender not be expected to win it all?

The answer is easy. The path to the dogpile in Omaha is an incredibly difficult one. We’ve seen it time after time. On the ESPN Selection Monday broadcast, the question was asked whether to take Tennessee or the field. When it comes to college baseball, it’s always smart to take the field.

The last time the No. 1 seed won the College World Series was 1999 when Miami won it all. That was the first year that the NCAA seeded the tournament before it began. No. 1 seeds under the current format have won once in 22 tries.

From 1988-1998, the NCAA seeded the eight teams that made it to Omaha. So that meant that even just based on random chance, the No. 1 seed had a 12.5% chance of winning it all and a 25% chance of making it to the championship game.

The actual numbers were worse. Cal State Fullerton’s win in 1995 was the only time the No. 1 seed won it all. The No. 1 seeds won one of the 11 College World Series (9%) played under that format and made it to the finals one other time (18%).

Why is it so hard for No. 1 seeds? There are no easy answers. We've seen teams with deep rotations fall short. So have teams with incredible bullpens. So have teams with massive power, as have teams with great defense. There's no one clear answer as to why it's so hard to win it all as the prohibitive favorite.

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But the simplest answer may be this: to win the College World Series, a team has to win at least 10 games against the best teams in college baseball, knowing that a two-game losing streak at any point along that path will send the team home unhappy. That's just very hard to do.

Just last year, Arkansas was a dominant No. 1 seed. It came into the tournament with a 46-10 record, having mashed its way through its SEC schedule. The Razorbacks didn’t make it to Omaha.

In 2019, No. 1 seed UCLA was 47-8 coming into the tournament. The Bruins failed to make it to Omaha. The 2017 Oregon State Beavers were arguably the most dominant regular-season team of the 21st century (until this year’s Vols came along). Oregon State was 49-4 coming out of the regular season. It did make it to the semifinals, but lost twice to LSU and failed to make it to the College World Series finals.

No. 1 UCLA was 40-12 heading into the tournament in 2015. It didn’t make it out of the regional. The same was true of 2014’s No. 1 seed Oregon State.

You can point at team after team that seemed poised to cruise to a national title and fell far short. There hasn’t been a No. 1 seed in the championship series since Texas did it in 2009. The only other No. 1 seed in a finals this century was Texas in 2004.

Since 2014, only two No. 1 seeds have even managed to win a game in Omaha.

That’s also the good news for Tennessee. It’s a punishing, fraught path to get from regular season dominance to an Omaha dogpile. But if the Vols do manage to win it all this year, their place among the best teams in college baseball history will be assured.

No Love For No. 1 Seeds
Here's a look at how the No. 1 seeds have fared from 1998 to present. From 1988-1998, teams were seeded once they reached Omaha. From 1999 to present, teams are seeded before the tournament begins.
YearNo. 1 SeedReached
2021ArkansasSuper Regional
2019UCLASuper Regional
2018FloridaCWS semifinal
2017Oregon StateCWS semifinal
2016Florida0-2 in Omaha
2015UCLARegional
2014Oregon StateRegional
2013North CarolinaCWS semifinal
2012Florida0-2 in Omaha
2011VirginiaCWS semifinal
2010Arizona State0-2 in Omaha
2009Texas
CWS Runners-up
2008MiamiSuper Regional
2007VanderbiltRegional
2006Clemson1-2 in Omaha
2005Tulane1-2 in Omaha
2004Texas
CWS Runners-up
2003Florida StateSuper Regional
2002Florida StateSuper Regional
2001Cal State FullertonCWS semifinal
2000South CarolinaSuper Regional
1999MiamiCWS champion
1998Florida0-2 in Omaha
1997AlabamaCWS semifinal
1996Alabama1-2 in Omaha
1995Cal State FullertonCWS champion
1994Miami1-2 in Omaha
1993Texas A&M1-2 in Omaha
1992MiamiCWS semifinal
1991Florida State0-2 in Omaha
1990StanfordCWS semifinal
1989Florida StateCWS semifinal
1988Arizona State
CWS Runners-up



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