College World Series field preview: First-time winner seems likely in ACC-SEC invitational

There are a couple of ways to look at this year’s College World Series field. On one hand, it isn’t exactly a national event with only two conferences represented.

But despite the SEC and ACC monopolizing all the reservations to Nebraska, it’s likely that a first-time champion will be crowned. The Omaha octet can claim a total of just two past championships, one each for Florida (2017) and Virginia (2015). The other six are trying to hoist the trophy for the first time. That includes perennial bridesmaid Florida State, yet to win the whole thing despite making its 24th CWS appearance, second only to Texas.

There’s no disputing that the SEC comes in with recent history on its side, having claimed each of the last four CWS titles. But none of the four programs responsible for those are in this field. Schools representing the ACC, on the other hand, have left Omaha as champions just twice, with UVa adding to Wake Forest’s lone title way back in 1955 – just the third year of the league’s existence.*

*Miami (Fla.) won four CWS titles, but all occurred before the Hurricanes joined the ACC.

So can one of the ACC squads break through, or will the SEC’s dominance continue? Let’s take a look at the matchups.

First, here’s a quick reminder of the College World Series format. And here’s what to know about the participants:

No. 4 North Carolina (47-14) vs. No. 12 Virginia (46-15)

TIME/TV: Friday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN

The festivities begin with this renewal of ACC acquaintances. The Cavaliers took two out of three from the Tar Heels in Charlottesville back in April, a series that featured a total of 53 runs scored. This one might also be a high-scoring affair given the potency of both lineups, though the confines here at Charles Schwab Field tend to be more friendly to pitchers. Experience might also be on the side of the Cavaliers, who still have a number of key contributors from last year’s squad that reached Omaha. The Tar Heels, however, have demonstrated the clutch gene during the postseason, winning three games in their final at-bats. Overall pitching depth as well as outfielder Vance Honeycutt, arguably the best all-around player in the tournament, could also work to UNC’s advantage.

No. 1 Tennessee (55-12) vs. No. 8 Florida State (47-15)

TIME/TV: Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Seminoles’ years of Omaha heartbreak are well-documented. But the Volunteers are up against a different sort of history as they look to become the first overall top seed to win the championship since Miami in 1999. Tennessee is one of only two teams that needed a third game to prevail in its super regional, although the seven homers the Vols pounded out in their decisive contest against Evansville removed any suspense. As mentioned, the ball doesn’t generally fly out of this stadium as readily, and likely Florida State starter Jamie Arnold (11-3, 2.77 ERA) is quite capable of silencing Tennessee’s bats. The Vols have enough arms to win in this setting but might not have a true staff ace, so they’ll have to be opportunistic to avoid having to come through the losers’ bracket.

No. 2 Kentucky (45-14) vs. No. 10 North Carolina State (38-21)

TIME/TV: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN

Somewhat surprisingly, the Wildcats have never been here. The Wolfpack have, and they’ll be eager to erase the memory of how their last trip to Omaha ended when COVID-19 positives sent them home one win from the championship series. N.C. State fans are enjoying quite a ride this spring after both the men’s and women’s basketball teams reached the Final Four. The top end of the Wolfpack batting order, featuring Alec Makarewicz and Garrett Pennington, is as formidable as any. But Kentucky does a lot of things well, and its winning formula relying on speed and defense could serve well at this venue. The Wildcats lead the CWS field with 118 stolen bases, led by Emilien Pitre (25) and Ryan Waldschmidt (24).

No. 3 Texas A&M (49-13) vs. Florida (34-28)

TIME/TV: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Gators, the lone unseeded squad to make it this far, exemplify that old adage about getting hot at the right time. Florida did take two of three from the Aggies in SEC play, but that series was in Gainesville and was played in early March before the Gators’ mid-season swoon that nearly kept them out of the NCAA tournament altogether. Florida has undeniable talent, and it goes way deeper than two-way standout Jac Caglione, but their lack of pitching consistency will make them underdogs in Omaha. A&M, however, arrives in town shorthanded from its super regional sweep of Oregon. Slugging outfielder Braden Montgomery sustained a season-ending ankle fracture in a home-plate collision, and game two starting pitcher Shane Sdao will also not be available. The Aggies are still capable of scoring a lot of runs and might have to this week to get through its loaded half of the bracket.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College World Series preview, schedule: ACC, SEC face off in Omaha