If the Gators have any shot at dethroning South Carolina, it's going to take a heroic effort from Mike Zunino.
Few sporting events can capture majesty and greatness quite like the College World Series, and as fans descend on the new symbol of the CWS, TD Ameritrade Field, they'll have so many great storylines to keep them entertained.
For starters, there are two squads making their first appearances, Kent State and Stony Brook. The local natives always seem to adopt a team during the final round of eight, and have a particular tendency to favor the teams making their debuts, often inspiring said squads with even more confidence.
While both the Golden Flashes and Seawolves are phenomenal stories, the favorites heading into the tournament are no doubt two perennial powers from the SEC, Florida and South Carolina. The Gators have been the consensus No. 1 team for the majority of the season, while the Gamecocks are looking to capture their third consecutive college title.
Toss in a few other baseball powerhouses (UCLA, Arizona, Florida State and Arkansas) and this year's CWS has all the makings of a truly exciting affair.
Let's take a closer look at the eight squads competing and how they rank in terms of the likelihood of bringing home the championship trophy.
Coach: Dave Van Horn (nine years)
Conference: eliminated by Ole Miss in the SEC quarterfinals
CWS appearances: seven (last in 2009)
Path to the CWS: defeated Sam Houston State (5-4, 5-1), defeated Rice (1-0), defeated Baylor (5-4, 1-0)
Thanks to a game-winning RBI single by backup catcher Jake Wise, the Arkansas Razorbacks are headed back to the CWS for the first time since 2009.
The Razorbacks have one of the most impressive rotations of any team in the CWS, led by talented sophomore Ryan Stanek. Stanek could have been a top-10 draft pick this year, and he sure pitched like one, going 7-4 with a 2.81 ERA. He is joined by the team's Friday night starter, D.J. Baxendale (7-5, 3.18).
The bullpen is anchored by right-hander Nolan Sanburn, who struck out 46 batters in 38.1 innings, holding batters to a sub-.200 average, and closer Barrett Austin, who whiffed 59 batters in 54.1 innings and picked up 10 saves.
The Razorbacks' offense doesn't get as much love, seeing as how they only have three hitters above .300, but they have come up with some pretty timely hits this year.
Third baseman Matt Reynolds has led the way, racking up 20 doubles, seven homers and a team-leading 43 RBI. His OBP of .449 is highest on the team by more than 40 points, and he's even shown some sneaky speed, stealing 15 bases. First baseman Domonic Ficociello (.306, 6 HR, 40 RBI) and shortstop Tim Carver (.305, 30 RBI, 14 SB) are both threats.
Defensively, the Razorbacks are one of the worst squads headed to Omaha. Reynolds, Carver and second baseman Bo Bigham each have fielding percentages below .951.
Coach: Scott Stricklin (eight years)
Conference: defeated Central Michigan in the conference championship game
CWS appearances: one
Path to the CWS: defeated Kentucky (7-6, 3-2), defeated Purdue (7-3), defeated Oregon (7-6, 3-2)
The last team to clinch a spot in the final round of eight, the Kent State Golden Flashes are riding a hot streak that has seen them win 22 of their last 23 contests, the lone defeat coming against Oregon, who they beat twice en route to their first-ever berth in the CWS.
The strength of this Golden Flashes squad is without a doubt their offense. As a team, they're hitting .303. Five members of their lineup have on-base percentages of .396 or higher, and those same four hitters have slugging percentages of .500 or better.
Led by shortstop Jimmy Rider (.362, 28 2B, 55 RBI), the school's all-time leader in hits, and first baseman George Roberts (.369, 8 HR, 64 RBI), Kent State has averaged nearly seven runs per game.
The generous run support has allowed the team's top three starters to flourish. Senior southpaw David Starn (11-3, 2.21 ERA), and right-handers Ryan Bores (9-3, 3.35) and Tyler Skulina (11-2, 3.84). Each threw more than 95 innings this year, and their experience will be relied upon to guide a squad that will no doubt have some nerves making their debut on college baseball's biggest stage.
Luckily, the Flashes have a strong bullpen to rely on as well, led by lefty Brian Clark (4-0, 1.37) and righties Josh Pierce (2.93, two saves) and Casey Wilson (3.64, seven saves). An incredibly stingy bunch, their entire staff has allowed only 15 home runs all season.
Their secret weapon, however, very well may be their strong defense.
With a combined .974 fielding percentage, they rank as one of the top defensive squads in the CWS. The play of catcher David Lyon (.985, 42 percent CS) has been particularly impressive, especially considering his team-leading 10 home runs.
Coach: John Savage (eight years)
Conference: won a share of the Pac-12 regular season conference title
CWS appearances: four (last-2010)
Path to the CWS: defeated Creighton (3-0, 13-5), defeated New Mexico (7-1), defeated TCU (6-2, 4-1)
UCLA enters the CWS winners of 18 of their last 20 contests and one of the hottest teams in the country. Who would have thunk they would have been this good after losing Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, each of whom was drafted in the top three picks of last year's MLB draft.
Despite losing Cole and Bauer, pitching has been the primary strength for the Bruins. Right-hander Adam Plutko has emerged as a true college ace, leading the squad with 11 wins, a 2.56 ERA and 92 strikeouts. Toss in southpaw Grant Watson and right-hander Nick Vander Tuig and UCLA's three-man rotation has a combined 30-7 record.
UCLA's bullpen is anchored by three elite relievers, including closer Scott Griggs, who has 15 saves and 64 strikeouts in just 36.2 innings. Right-handers Ryan Deeter (0.94 ERA) and David Berg (1.58) have also been dominating, with Berg appearing in 47 contests, five away from setting a new NCAA record for appearances in a single season.
On the offensive side of things, UCLA is a small-ball club, much like their conference rival and fellow CWS squad, Arizona.
They've only hit 23 homers as a team, and 11 of those have come off the bat of outfielder Jeff Gelalich, who also leads the squad with a .365 average. Catcher Tyler Heineman has emerged this season as an offensive presence as well, hitting .343 with a conference-best 16 sacrifice hits.
All but three of UCLA's lineup regulars are hitting above .310, including outfielder Beau Amaral, who is the team's best speed threat. He has five triples and 13 steals on the season.
Defensively, UCLA thrives off of the leadership of Heineman, one of the best defenders in the country. Heineman has thrown out 47 percent of baserunners this season. He was at his best against TCU in the super regionals, making numerous highlight-worthy plays.
Coach: Andy Lopez (11 years)
Conference: won a share of the Pac-12 regular season conference title
CWS appearances: 16 (last in 2004)
Path to the CWS: defeated Missouri (15-3), defeated Louisville (16-4, 16-3), defeated St. John's (7-6, 7-4)
One of the unlikeliest of the eight CWS teams, Arizona has actually been the most dominating during their five-game run through the regionals and super-regionals. They scored 47 runs in three games against Missouri and Louisville, and then got gutsy performance from right-handers Kurt Heyer and Konner Wade in a two-game sweep of St. John's.
There's no doubt that the strength of this Wildcat squad is its starting pitching.
Few were better than Heyer in 2012. The durable, rubber-armed right-hander tossed seven complete games, went 12-2 and held down a 2.28 ERA. The No. 2 and No. 3 starters, Wade and fellow righty James Farris, combined for another seven complete games, and together the three combined to go 28-8.
Arizona's bullpen hasn't been that good, but with three of the most durable starters in the country, they haven't needed to rely on the pen in clutch situations that often.
Offensively, the Wildcats rely on a small-ball approach that has left them as one of the top two hitting teams in the country.
No member of their lineup has more than six home runs, but they have four players with 10 or more stolen bases, led by outfielder Joey Rickard's 18. Their best hitters so far have been outfielders Johnny Field, who's hitting .385/.495/.558 with 17 doubles and seven triples, and Robert Refsnyder, who's hitting .356/.448/.549 with 19 doubles, four triples and six bombs.
Defensively they had a rough year. Four players committed 10 or more errors, including backstop Riley Moore, who had 13 and another 22 passed balls.
Coach: Matt Senk (22 years)
Conference: defeated Maine to win the America East conference championship
CWS appearances: one
Path to the CWS: defeated Miami (10-2), defeated Missouri State (10-7), defeated UCF (12-5, 10-6), defeated LSU (3-1, 7-2)
The winningest team in college baseball this season, the Stony Brook Seawovles upended traditional powerhouse LSU on the way to their first CWS berth. And they did it in stunning fashion, coming back after a two-day marathon in Game 1 that they ended up losing after having leads in the bottom of the ninth, tenth and eleventh innings.
The credit for Stony Brook's success falls on the shoulders of one man, head coach Matt Senk, who has guided this program from the depths of Divsion III to the pinnacle of college baseball.
Stepping out of the dugout, the Seawolves have to give credit to their infield-outfield combination of Maxx Tissenbaum and Travis Jankowski. The latter has been one of the nation's best players all season long, putting together a .417/.481/.631 line with 11 triples and 36 steals.
Tissenbaum, on the other hand, has been the toughest hitter to strike out in the country. Literally. He has only gone down on strikes seven times in 230 at-bats. Third baseman Willie Carmona has also been a major factor, leading the squad with 12 homers and 71 RBI, while also hitting .395.
The Seawolves got some epic pitching performances during their run to the CWS, none bigger than ace Tyler Johnson's (12-1, 1.94 ERA, 5 CG) complete-game three-hitter in Game 2 of the super regionals, a performance in which he outdueled the No. 4 pick in this year's draft, Kevin Gausman.
Sophomore right-hander Brandon McNitt (8-3, 2.50) and senior right-hander Evan Stecko-Haley (7-3, 3.47) have provided more than enough backup.
Their bullpen has been strong, although no one player dominated during the regular season. A true team effort resulted in four pitchers picking up at least three saves.
Defensively the Seawolves are very strong. Eliminate the third baseman Carmona (14) and shortstop Cole Peragine's (16) defensive miscues, and the team only committed 19 errors this year.
Especially impressive has been the performance of Jankowski, who has committed just one error the past two seasons, and first baseman Kevin Courtney, who posted a .994 fielding percentage and made several amazing plays during the series against LSU, including one that earned the top spot in SportsCenter's top plays.
Coach: Mike Martin (33 years)
Conference: eliminated by Virginia in the ACC semifinals
CWS appearances: 21 (last-2010)
Path to the CWS: defeated UAB (2-1), defeated Samford (8-1, 5-2), defeated Stanford (17-1, 18-7)
With back-to-back throttlings of Stanford in the super regionals, the Seminoles clinched a spot in the CWS for the 21st time. They are still looking for their first title, however, and this might be just the team to do it.
Offensively, you can make the case that the Noles have never been better. They have two legitimate superstars in outfielder James Ramsey (.390, 13 HR, 57 RBI) and first baseman Jayce Boyd (.389, 21 2B, 57 RBI). Only one other regular is hitting above .300, and aside from Ramsey and Boyd only second baseman Devon Travis has more than 35 RBI.
Pitching has been key for the Noles, who have gotten tremendous campaigns out of right-hander Mike Compton (11-2, 2.78) and left-hander Brandon Liebrandt (8-2, 2.58). Right-hander Hunter Scantling has been a valuable pitcher in relief, notching five victories in 28 appearances, spanning 46 innings.
Right-hander Robert Benincasa has been tremendous as the team's closer, posting a miniscule 1.29 ERA while racking up 15 saves. He has struck out 48 batters in 35 innings and walked just five. Batters are hitting .167 off of him.
Defensively, the Noles are solid. Ramsey and fellow outfielder Josh Delph have each failed to commit a single error so far, while shortstop Justin Gonzalez (20 errors) has accounted for nearly 30 percent of the team's error total.
Coach: Kevin O'Sullivan (five years)
Conference: lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC semifinals
CWS appearances: eight (last in 2011)
Path to the CWS: defeated Bethune-Cookman (4-0), defeated Georgia Tech (6-2, 15-3), defeated NC State (7-1, 9-8)
The Gators came into the season touted as one of the top teams of all time. They began the season playing like one, winning 23 of their first 25 contests. They hit a big of a snag once the entered conference play, at one point losing five of seven, before rebounding to finish the regular season 40-16.
They were upended by Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament, but still managed to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Offensively, there is no more impressive team in the country. Catcher and third-overall pick in this year's draft, Mike Zunino (.322, 27 doubles, 19 HR), and outfielder Preston Tucker (.319, 16 HR) combine to form the most dangerous power-hitting duo in college baseball
Shortstop Nolan Fontana (.405 OBP) and Daniel Pigott (.389 OBP) provide excellent on-base capability. Pitcher/first baseman Brian Johnson (six HR, 41 RBI) also provides some much-needed pop.
The rotation was much heralded coming into the season, but left-hander Brian Johnson (8-4, 3.56) has for the most part underperformed. Right-hander Hudson Randall (9-2, 2.61) continues to be their best big-game pitcher, and they have gotten an impressive late-season run from right-hander Jonathan Crawford, who tossed a no-hitter against Bethune-Cookman in the regionals.
The bullpen is anchored by closer Austin Maddox (2.50, 12 saves), who like Brian Johnson was selected by the Red Sox in this year's draft, and lefty Steven Rodriguez (2.19, 80 K in 61.2 IP), who went in the second round to the Dodgers.
Defensively, the Gators thrive off the leadership of Zunino, who has thrown out 31 percent of baserunners and committed just three errors, and Fontana (.977), who is arguably the top defensive shortstop in college baseball.
Coach: Ray Tanner (16 years)
Conference: eliminated by Florida in the quarterfinals
CWS appearances: 11 (last-2011)
Path to the CWS: defeated Manhattan (7-0), defeated Clemson (5-4, 4-3), defeated Oklahoma (5-0, 5-1)
It's hard to expect anyone else to win the CWS championship, considering the Gamecocks have claimed the past two titles. As such, they've gotten off to a strong start, winning four straight, including two one-run contests against in-state rival Clemson. They've now won 20 consecutive NCAA tournament games.
South Carolina is never flashy, but they simply get things done.
As such, only two members of their starting lineup are hitting above .300. One of those happens to be first baseman Christian Walker, who paces the team with a .315 average, 11 homers and 54 RBI, and is also one of just two players with an on-base percentage over .400.
Third baseman LB Dantzler (nine HR, 45 RBI) is pretty much the only other offensive threat in the lineup.
On the mound the Gamecocks benefit from having a handful of pitchers who are pitching in their third CWS. Left-hander Michael Roth has been the rock, winning seven of his 17 starts while holding down a 2.68 ERA.
Right-hander Colby Holmes has been underrated, and has also won seven games. If they need to they can also throw out freshman lefty Jordan Montgomery, who made 12 starts and posted a 4.05 ERA.
As usual, their bullpen is their best strength. Closer Matt Price continues to show he's one of the most dominating late-inning men in baseball history. He has 11 saves this season and now has 41 for his career. Southpaws Tyler Webb (6-1, 1.91) and Nolan Belcher (4-2, 2.17) have also been key pieces for South Carolina, who has a 3.14 team ERA.
Seeing as how the Gamecocks thrive on fundamental baseball, it's no surprise that they're one of the top defensive teams in the country. Only one player (shortstop Joey Pankake) has more than five errors, and the team's top two outfielders (Tanner English and Evan Marzilli) have combined for nine outfield assists and just two errors.