College World Series: Will the upsets keep coming in Omaha?
College baseball's turbid, unremitting thrill ride of a national tournament begins its final stage in Omaha, Neb. this weekend. It has taken 121 games to trim what was once a bustling field of 64 down to an elite eight of Arizona, Coastal Carolina, Florida, Miami, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech and UC Santa Barbara. Those eight schools have been split up into bracket groups of four, which will compete for the right to play in the national championship series. Over the next week and a half, they'll battle it out at TD Ameritrade Park to decide college baseball's best team.
All eight teams open double-elimination group play this Saturday, with the best-of-three finals beginning on Monday, June 27.
Before we jump into the impending chaos -- let's run through the biggest questions of the College World Series.
1. Will the underdogs keep scoring upsets?
After a relatively tame first round, the tourney got flipped upside down in the super regionals. Only three of the final eight clubs are national seeds, and half of the Omaha field started this tournament playing in someone else's regional. UC Santa Barbara and Coastal Carolina, both of which got to Omaha via walkoffs against national seeds, are here for the first time ever. Just four years removed from a national championship, Arizona doesn't really fit the Cinderella mold, but nobody gave the Wildcats (who were floundering in the mediocre Pac-12 midseason) a chance to make it this far.
2. Will the ball keep leaving the yard in Omaha?
We saw a big boost in power numbers last year after the NCAA introduced a new, hitter-friendly baseball, but 2016 has taken it to the next level. We saw more home runs (170) in this year's regional round than we did in the entire 2015 tournament (and nearly double the amount from 2014, before the new ball). Another 34 balls left the yard in the supers, including the walkoff grand slam to carry UC Santa Barbara past tournament favorite Louisville.
But the real test comes at Omaha's TD Ameritrade, a cavernous ballpark perched on a hill with the wind blowing in. This isn't a particularly powerful group, either: Coastal Carolina is second in the country in homers per game, but none of the other eight teams rank in the top 50.
2. Can the SEC and ACC save face?
Those two conferences started this tournament with a combined 17 teams, 13 of which were regional hosts and seven of which were national seeds. They're down to two: No. 1 overall seed Florida and No. 3 overall seed Miami. Louisville, LSU and Mississippi State, each of which were thought to be legit title contenders, were all swept away by regional two seeds in the supers. Still, the Gators and Canes are in different bracket groups, meaning there's still a pretty decent chance we get an SEC-ACC final for the third year in a row (Vandy faced Virginia in both 2014 and 2015).
4. Can Florida's A.J. Puk find consistency?
The Gators odds to reach the finals get a lot better if their insanely talented but frustratingly erratic lefty can finally find his groove. Standing 6'7 with high-90's velocity and electric stuff, the No. 6 overall pick in the MLB Draft has the size and arm talent to be a shutdown starter. But he's just 2-3 with a 3.05 ERA this season, a major reason why he wasn't drafted No. 1 as expected. Half of his 16 starts have gone less than five innings, including a sloppy, six-walk outing against Florida State in Game 3 of the Gainesville super.
Florida doesn't need Puk to pitch well in order to win the title -- the Gators have the deepest pitching staff in the country and use Puk as their No. 3 starter -- but they'll become damn near unbeatable if he's on his A game.
This article was written by Jeff Gray from SB Nation and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.