The 2015 College World Series has a lot to live up to based on the results thus far from the NCAA tournament. Fortunately, the eight teams fighting for a championship are a diverse group that can win games in multiple ways.
This year's Super Regionals were ridiculously entertaining. TCU needed 16 innings to defeat Texas A&M, and Cal State Fullerton had two walk-off wins against Louisville. Meanwhile Florida, Vanderbilt and LSU have yet to lose in the tournament.
Finding one favorite at this point in the tournament isn't easy, yet someone is going to make history in Omaha, Nebraska.
Here's the full bracket for the College World Series, as well as predictions for what will happen over the next two weeks.
College World Series Bracket (via Around The SEC)
The Sleeper: Virginia Cavaliers
The top half of the bracket features two ACC vs. SEC matchups right out of the gate. Florida vs. Miami is the marquee battle on Saturday, which is why it's in the prime-time spot.
Virginia vs. Arkansas is the only matchup between two teams that didn't enter the College World Series as a No. 1 seed, with the Cavaliers being the only No. 3 seed left standing.
Making this run even more improbable is the fact Virginia lost a lot of talent from last year's national runner-up squad. Derek Fisher, Mike Papi and Nick Howard were all top-40 picks in the 2014 draft whom head coach Brian O'Connor had to replace.
Kendall Rogers of D1Baseball.com noted how Virginia's young roster has evolved as this season has gone on:
Matt Thaiss and Pavin Smith are consistent offensive threats, while veteran Kenny Towns could be primed for a strong showing at the CWS. On the mound, lefthander Nathan Kirby could return to action, while Connor Jones and Brandon Waddell are talented and give the Cavaliers experience in the rotation, and Josh Sborz has the back-end of the bullpen in good hands.
Nathan Kirby figures to be the key for Virginia's pitching staff. The left-hander started the season as one of the best pitchers in the country after posting a 2.06 ERA with 112 strikeouts in 113.1 innings as a sophomore, but he wasn't as consistent in 2015 despite posting a 2.28 ERA with 30 walks to go along with 75 strikeouts in 59.1 innings.
Kirby suffered a lat strain in April that's kept him out for nearly two months. He's expected to return for the College World Series after throwing a simulated two-inning session on Monday, per Andrew Ramspacher of the Daily Progress.
Getting an impact starting pitcher back can make all the difference for a young team that's exceeded expectations after losing so much talent following a deep run last year. Kirby has to be around the strike zone more often against the best teams in the country, but his presence will be a big boost to this group.
The Powerhouse: Florida Gators
It doesn't take long to find the power in this year's College World Series. The traditional powers are all here, most of them from the SEC, but the standout in the group is the Florida Gators.
The Gators have been on this stage four times in the last six years, reaching the championship series in 2011 only to fall short of grabbing that brass ring.
Freshman star JJ Schwarz has played well beyond his years in the NCAA tournament, as Kevin Brockway of GatorSports.com noted on Twitter:
The Gators aren't a one-tricky pony carried by Schwarz, as they have one of the best offenses in the nation, ranking sixth with 450 runs in 65 games.
One underwhelming aspect of the team is a 3.22 ERA, which ranks sixth among the eight teams in Omaha and 30th overall. However, the Gators do have an excellent righty-lefty starting duo in Logan Shore and A.J. Puk.
Shore is the craftsman in the group, posting a 2.50 ERA with 74 strikeouts in 101 innings. Puk doesn't have that same consistency with a 3.96 ERA, but has power-pitcher numbers with 99 strikeouts and 55 hits allowed in 72.2 innings.
Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan told Ian Cohen of NCAA.com after the Super Regionals against Florida State that Puk's turnaround from where he was before the tournament with a 4.20 ERA has been key to the Gators' ascent:
There was just something missing, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it. Maybe it was just more consistency more than anything else. We’d show flashes for a week or so and then we would back off a hair. Maybe some of it had to do with injuries … but probably a lot of it had to do with getting A.J. going.
Those two dominant starting pitchers and a powerful offense give the Gators the necessary ingredients to win in the double-elimination environment that Omaha presents. This is as good as any team O'Sullivan has had during his eight-year tenure and worthy of raising the banner when the season ends.
The Pick: Vanderbilt Commodores
The four teams that stand above the rest of the field in Omaha are Miami, Florida, LSU and Vanderbilt. There are legitimate cases to be made for all of them winning a title, but the Commodores have the perfect blend of impact talent and experience to make it happen.
Head coach Tim Corbin finally got his program over the hump last year with an NCAA championship after making the tournament nine of the previous 10 years. He returned star players from that run, such as Dansby Swanson, Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler and Rhett Wiseman.
Swanson has already had a big week, being taken first overall in the MLB draft minutes after Vanderbilt clinched a berth in the College World Series, but now the microscope will be on him more than ever.
Michael Baumann of D1Baseball.com wrote after Vanderbilt got out of a bases-loaded one-out jam against Illinois in the Super Regional that the job Corbin has done restocking the roster year after year remains one of the most impressive things in college baseball:
Last year, bases-loaded, one out in the eighth would’ve been the providence of Adam Ravenelle, who went pro, or Hayden Stone, who got hurt. Instead it was freshman Kyle Wright, who’d posted a 1.09 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings, like that’s something freshmen do routinely in the SEC, who got the call.
The SEC has more talent top to bottom than any other conference in the country. Vanderbilt is the best of the bunch, producing three top-25 picks in this year's draft. The Commodores have rolled through the NCAA tournament, going 5-0 and beating an Illinois team that ranked ninth in RPI on the road in Champaign.
Until a team steps up to knock off Vanderbilt, it has to be considered the favorite in the NCAA tournament. The last team to repeat was South Carolina in 2010-11, so it's fitting that another SEC program would be the next one to do it.
Stats and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com.