Commentary

Florida the favorite in Omaha

Originally Published: June 9, 2011
By Jeremy Mills | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeMike Zunino
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireMike Zunino and the Gators' powerful offense could make them the favorites in Omaha.

After some big upsets in the regionals, super regional weekend largely played out according to form. Six of the seven national seeds won, while Texas A&M, which just missed out on a national seed, exposed Florida State's lack of pitching depth to win in Tallahassee. California ended Dallas Baptist's Cinderella run, but has its own magical story in escaping from the brink of extinction. Will this be the year the favorites take care of business in Omaha, Neb., or will the first year at TD Ameritrade Park be another one for the underdogs?

Bracket One (No. 2 Florida, No. 3 North Carolina, No.6 Vanderbilt, No. 7 Texas)

Favorite: Florida. This one comes with an asterisk, which will be detailed later in the preview. With the possible exception of defensive stalwart Cody Dent, there are no holes in the lineup (strange but unimportant stat: Mike Zunino has 18 homers, the entire Longhorns roster has 17). The starting pitching is deep enough that Alex Panteliodis, last year's Friday night starter, spent most of the year as the midweek starter.

Darkhorse: Vanderbilt. In a bracket in which all the national seeds are still alive, it's tough to consider any team less of a favorite. The Commodores fit the bill for two reasons: They are the only team that hasn't been here in the past two years (at all, as a matter of fact), and they lost the season series to Florida and South Carolina. But boy, do they have some talent.

Overplayed storyline: First-time jitters. Vanderbilt is playing in its first College World Series, and no team has played for the title in its Omaha debut since Georgia Tech in 1994. But teams have been getting closer in recent years, with TCU coming within one win of the CWS Finals last year. The Commodores have a lot of similarities to last year's Horned Frogs and have one of the most balanced teams in the field. They lead the SEC in batting average, scoring and ERA, which tells you something about their talent.

Most important storyline: Florida's medical records. With such a balanced quartet, even small things can make a big difference; being without two key players would be monumental. The Gators survived the first two rounds of the tournament without starting DH/No. 2 starter Brian Johnson and first baseman/closer Austin Maddox. Johnson suffered a concussion in the SEC tournament, while Maddox sprained a foot during the regionals. Both could return for the CWS, but the Gators depth will be tested if either is still unavailable.

Bracket Two (No. 1 Virginia, No. 4 South Carolina, Texas A&M, California)

Favorite: South Carolina. The Gamecocks might not be the most talented team in the field, especially if Jackie Bradley Jr. is still sidelined with a wrist injury. But you would have said the same thing heading into the CWS last year, and these are the defending national champions.

Dark horse: Texas A&M. Despite losing ace John Stilson to injury, the Aggies still have two great starters in Ross Stripling and Michael Wacha. They'll be fine as long as they can stay in the winners bracket, but the 23-run outburst by Florida State Sunday points to some pitching depth concerns. Even with that outing, A&M is still 13th in the nation in ERA.

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireMichael Wacha has helped Texas A&M overcome the loss of starting pitcher John Stilson.

Overplayed storyline: The streaks. There will be a lot of talk about the ACC not winning a championship in baseball since Wake Forest in 1955. For the record, that's 37 trips to Omaha without a championship for the conference, which can't claim credit for Miami's titles as an independent. If that wasn't enough pressure, Virginia, the top overall seed, hasn't won a title since Miami in 1999. Most of this year's team was in Omaha in 2009 and relishes the chance to wipe those two talking points off the books.

Most important storyline: The heart of the champion. South Carolina came into the season with a target on its back and an entirely new weekend rotation. Most people had them a rung behind Vanderbilt and Florida in the SEC East pecking order. So the Gamecocks went out and won the weekend against both of those schools to finish tied atop the SEC East with the top seed for the SEC tournament. When the going gets tough, South Carolina shines -- the Gamecocks are 10-3 in one-run games, have won six games when they managed just two runs and once again have a shutdown bullpen (42-0 when leading after 6).

Prediction

Assuming Johnson and Maddox are cleared by the doctors, Florida is the team to beat this year. Virginia has just enough pitching, and experience from the CWS trip in 2009, to get past South Carolina in the other bracket. But the Cavaliers won't be able to break the ACC/top seed streak, as the Gators become the third SEC team to win a title in three years.

Jeremy Mills is a researcher for ESPN and is a contributor to ESPN.com's college baseball coverage.

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