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Layman: It's the College World Series title or bust for No. 1 Vols

NCAA Tournament Baseball
Posted at 5:48 AM, May 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-31 06:48:41-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Baseball Tournament and the prohibitive favorite to win the program’s first-ever national championship in the sport.

Make no mistake. It’s a national title or bust for these Vols.

Before Tony Vitello tries to fight me, let me explain. While normally statements like that are just hyperbolic — a push to the extreme with two equally likely outcomes — what this team has done through 60 games has been historic and, frankly, absurd.

At 53-7 overall, Tennessee enters the NCAA Tournament with more victories than any team in the history of the SEC, which, if you haven’t checked, is pretty good at baseball. The Volunteers went 25-5 in conference play, running away with the regular season crown by a record six full games. They led the league in hits, runs, doubles, triples, homers, walks, batting average, on base percentage, runs allowed, ERA, opponent’s batting average and strikeouts.

Then they went to Hoover and won four straight by a count of 35-10, including Sunday’s 8-5 victory over red-hot Florida in the finals, to capture their first SEC Tournament title since 1995 and avenge last year’s title game defeat to Arkansas. And they’ve done it all with a “come and get us” type of swagger that’s made them fun to watch and miserable to play against.

This is as complete of a team as you will find in college baseball. Tennessee is the first program since 1996 to rank in the top five nationally in runs scored and in pitching ERA in the same season. Led by Trey Lipscomb’s 21 home runs, the Vols have mashed an incredible 141 dingers this season. That’s 13 more than any other team in the country and the most since significant modifications more than a decade ago supposedly limited bats’, and offenses’, firepower.

The bat changes had their desired effect until this season. But, while the offense is up throughout the country, what Tennessee has done is ridiculous. And they keep doing it. That’s why — in a sport full of perennial powers and increasing parity — this up-and-coming program may be producing the greatest college baseball team of at least the modern era.

And it’s why as you look at the 64-team bracket released on Monday you would be wise to take the Vols against the field.

That type of debate used to be reserved for Tiger Woods in a major or Rafael Nadal at the French Open, and has only been sparingly used in team sports. The Heat and Warriors “super teams” in the NBA come to mind, and a super team is exactly what this Tennessee squad has been from the opening weekend of the season when it swept Georgia Southern, a team good enough to be given the No. 16 national seed Monday and a potential Super Regional opponent, by a combined score of 33-3.

Now all this isn’t to say Tennessee will definitely dogpile near the mound of the newly-renamed Charles Schwab Field in Omaha come late next month. Upsets happen in this tournament all the time. One great (or terrible) pitching performance can spoil a run that requires at least 10 victories to be crowned a champion.

That’s part of the reason why the No. 1 overall seed hasn’t won this tournament since Miami did it back in 1999. A year ago it was a dominant SEC champ in Arkansas that was sent home for the summer after losing to N.C. State in a Super Regional at home, one week after squeaking out a winner-take-all regional final against Nebraska.

When you’re the top dog there’s a bullseye on your chest and you’re going to get everyone’s best shot. Handling that pressure — and the stage — is part of the challenge. The Vols made it to Omaha last year for the first time since 2005 and the moment seemed too big for them as they struggled mightily at the plate in losses to Texas and Virginia. Nothing has seemed too big for this team.

That’s part of the reason there was no dogpile Sunday in Hoover. There’s more to accomplish. And for Tennessee that includes the opportunity to not just win the program’s first national championship, but also to become the first college baseball team to win 60 games since the 80s and the first champion to finish with fewer than 12 losses since 1995. Those are the numbers that put this team squarely in the conversation of best ever.

For the record, the best college baseball team I’ve seen play up until now was Vanderbilt’s 2019 national champions that swept the SEC regular season and tournament and rolled to a College World Series title with an overall record of 59-12. This Tennessee team has a chance to supplant them, in my mind and many others.

Even Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin seemed impressed after the Vols’ pounded his Commodores 10-1 last week in Hoover.

“They’re attacking. And they’re attacking from all areas,” the two-time national champion coach said. “I’m not just saying offensively. They’re attacking on the mound. They’re attacking defensively. And they’re attacking offensively. One of the better teams I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been around, without question.”

Now it’s time for the Vols to prove it. Because all the superlatives of this season will get lost if it doesn’t end with a national championship trophy.

It’s the cruel reality of sports that seasons are ultimately judged by the postseason, but that is how and when we define true greatness. We’ll see if they’re up to the task.

Everything we’ve seen up until now suggests these Vols will finally get their dogpile beneath the championship fireworks in Omaha in a Big Orange Celebration as grand as we’ve seen in a while.