With the competitive super-regional round in the books, college baseball's eight best teams will converge at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, this weekend for the start of the 2015 College World Series.
Since past champions such as Vanderbilt, LSU, Cal State Fullerton and Miami (Fla.) remain in the mix, there is little doubt that the double-elimination portion of the tournament will feature plenty of thrills. That will begin Saturday and Sunday as teams attempt to avoid slipping into the losers' bracket.
Here is a look at each of the first-round matchups in the 2015 College World Series, along with predictions for how each game will ultimately play out.
College World Series First-Round Schedule
|2015 College World Series Weekend Schedule|
|Saturday, June 13||3 p.m.||Arkansas||Virginia||ESPN|
|Saturday, June 13||8 p.m.||Florida||Miami (Fla.)||ESPN|
|Sunday, June 14||3 p.m.||LSU||TCU||ESPN|
|Sunday, June 14||8 p.m.||Cal State Fullerton||Vanderbilt||ESPN|
Predicting the Weekend's Games
Arkansas vs. Virginia
Perhaps the most evenly matched game of the first round will pit Arkansas against Virginia. They are the only teams remaining that weren't No. 1 seeds in the regionals, and they are both playing loose baseball as well.
That is especially true of the Razorbacks, who weren't even supposed to be here. They overcame an 11-12 start to the season to go 40-23, and head coach Dave Van Horn believes that is a big reason why they're playing so well currently, per Eric W. Bolin of the Times Record:
This team is close. Probably because...we've been through a lot of adversity early. We lost every which way we could, whether it was bad offense or bad defense that day or hitting batters or walking hitters. We just kept finding a way to lose. They stuck together and pulled it out. I think it got them closer as a team.
Arkansas is on a major roll right now, but the Cavaliers can't be discounted, as they went 3-0 in the regionals before sweeping Maryland in the super regionals. With that said, the Razorbacks certainly have one big advantage over their opponents.
That is the presence of sophomore outfielder Andrew Benintendi. He's leads the nation with 19 home runs and is hitting .380 on the season, which forces the opposition to be mindful of him and change the way it approaches the Arkansas lineup.
Perhaps the Cavs won't let Benintendi beat them, but that will open up opportunities for Arkansas' other hitters, which will lead to a 5-3 win for the Razorbacks.
Florida vs. Miami
In what could be the highest-scoring game of the first round, in-state rivals Florida and Miami will lock horns Saturday.
Both the Gators and Hurricanes are stacked with high-quality hitters, which means there will be plenty of opportunities for offensive fireworks. Infielder David Thompson and catcher Zack Collins have combined for 34 home runs this season for Miami, while Florida has gotten a total of 33 dingers out of catcher JJ Schwarz and outfielder Harrison Bader.
The teams aren't purely built on power, though, as Hurricanes infielder George Iskenderian is hitting .367, and Florida infielder Josh Tobias is 30th in the nation at .373.
Florida has never won the College World Series, but it has come close on multiple occasions with runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2005.
This may be the Gators' year, though, because of their offensive acumen, and Bader is among those who believe they can go all the way, per Nick de la Torre of GatorCountry.com:
Florida may not be able to blow Miami out of the water like it has many teams this year, but on the surface, it seems as though the Gators have a bit more to offer in terms of their lineup.
That slight edge should allow them to grind out an exciting 7-6 contest Saturday.
LSU vs. TCU
While Florida and Miami figure to engage in a shootout, that won't be the expectation when LSU and TCU meet Sunday, as both teams are adept at grinding out low-scoring games by virtue of great pitching and timely hitting.
Although both head coaches have been tight-lipped about their pitching situations entering the first round of the College World Series, the Tigers appear to be in line to start fantastic freshman Alex Lange, who is among the best newcomers in the nation.
He has a 1.89 ERA to go along with a perfect 11-0 record and 121 strikeouts in 105 innings. He has been as dominant as almost any hurler in college baseball, and LSU head coach Paul Mainieri has the utmost confidence in him, per Jacques Doucet of WAFB.com:
Neither the Tigers nor the Horned Frogs boast a particularly dominant hitter who can take over a game like most other teams in the College World Series, but TCU does have senior outfielder Cody Jones, who is hitting .371.
If Lange can work around him and turn in his typical performance, then look for LSU to emerge victorious by a 2-1 score.
Cal State Fullerton vs. Vanderbilt
As the defending College World Series champs, there is most definitely a target on Vanderbilt's back, and College World Series stalwart Cal State Fullerton will look to deal the Commodores a big blow Sunday.
Vandy has been perfect thus far in the tournament, while the Titans are coming off a win over Louisville in a decisive Game 3 to get to this point. That could help Cal State Fullerton as it goes up against the favored Commodores, but it is tough to pick against Vanderbilt at this point.
That is largely due to the fact that Vandy boasts a power-laden lineup led by shortstop Dansby Swanson, infielder Zander Wiel and outfielder Rhett Wiseman, who have combined for 43 home runs in 2015.
Offensive depth is a strength for Vanderbilt, but Swanson is the headliner. He was selected No. 1 overall in the 2015 MLB draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. That came shortly after the Commodores advanced to the College World Series, and it set off a raucous celebration, as seen in this Vine, courtesy of SportsCenter:
It is clear that Vandy is a tight-knit team, and after tasting College World Series glory last year, it is better prepared that any other team in Omaha to win it all.
The Commodores are in a great position to repeat as champions, and they will start their title defense with an 8-2 win over Cal State Fullerton Sunday.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter