Arizona State, Florida, Nebraska and Tennessee will take the field at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., Friday, when the College World Series gets under way. The quartet will compete in Bracket 1 with the winner meeting the Bracket 2 winner (Baylor, Oregon State, Texas or Tulane) in the best-of-three championship series, which begins June 25.
Here's a quick look at the Bracket 1 teams.
Arizona State Sun Devils (39-23)
Arizona State, which advanced to Omaha for the first time since losing the 1998 national championship game to Southern California, wasn't supposed to make it this far in 2005. The Sun Devils ended the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons at Cal State Fullerton's Goodwin Field but upset the defending champion Titans this year as a heavy underdog in the super regional. ASU battled back after a controversial balk call cost it Game 1 of the best-of-three series, its only defeat in the last 10 games.
Coach Pat Murphy's young team showed that tremendously competitive nature all year. A rigorous schedule put Arizona State at 11-11 before it finished tied for third place in the Pac-10.
While the combination of a thin, mix-and-match pitching staff and an offense with little power outside of Jeff Larish (20 homers, 63 RBI) doesn't look particularly scary here in print, there's a special feel surrounding this team. It's speedy, scrappy and likes to take risks (125 steals). Throw in the baggy old-school uniforms, and the underdog-lovers at Rosenblatt Stadium might just have a team to back.
Florida Gators (45-20)
Florida proved the best team in the Southeastern Conference during the regular season because of its depth across the board. Matt LaPorta, who is tied with Clemson's Kris Harvey for second in the nation in home runs with 24 and also ranks among the national leaders in slugging (.706), leads a powerful offense that boasts four players with double figures in home runs and five with 10 or more doubles. The Gators have scored six or more runs 38 times, winning 35 of those games.
The pitching staff doesn't feature a dominant starter, but it's a crew of solid strike-throwers led by veterans Alan Horne, Tommy Boss and Bryan Ball that can eat plenty of innings. They hang tough to allow the offense to grab a lead before turning things over to rubber-armed relievers Connor Falkenbach and Darren O'Day. Combined, that pitch-everyday duo has appeared in 77 games and helped Florida to a 38-4 record when leading after six innings.
Coach Pat McMahon went 1-2 in Omaha with Mississippi State in 1998, and he has a club that could finish better this year.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (56-13)
Nebraska returns to Omaha for the third time in five seasons the first time under coach Mike Anderson. Nebraska won 19 of its first 21 games, but a team that finished eighth in the Big 12 a year ago still needed to prove itself in conference play. Sharing the regular-season conference title and winning the tournament accomplished that. Nebraska hits Omaha on a hot streak, having won 15 of its last 16 games.
The Cornhuskers rank second in the nation in ERA (2.61) thanks to adding newcomers Joba Chamberlain and Johnny Dorn to the front of the rotation. Its offense has proven much more than just a bunch of guys batting around Alex Gordon. Nebraska found consistency at the plate during the second half of the year when freshmen Ryan Wehrle, Andy Gerch and Ryan Bohanan won regular jobs.
Add in one of the nation's best fielding defenses, and Nebraska should at least earn its first win in Omaha. With strong local support in the stands, there's no reason the Huskers can't win a few more than that. The championship series looks realistic.
Tennessee Volunteers (46-19)
Few predicted Tennessee's second-place finish in the Southeastern Conference before the season, though coach Rod Delmonico himself might not have been able to foresee statistical improvement for nearly the entire roster and standout performances from a trio of freshmen.
While juniors Chase Headley and Eli Iorg emerged as All-Americans in the middle of the order, Josh Alley and Eric King improved to enjoy great seasons as table setters. Freshmen J.P. Arencibia and Julio Borbon stepped right in to complete a explosive starting lineup that leads all CWS teams in batting (.333) and ranks behind only Tulane in runs per game (8.1).
James Adkins joined Luke Hochevar as an ace who can rack up the strikeouts (151) while keeping opponents off the scoreboard. After them, third starter Craig Cobb and closer Sean Watson are the only real dependable arms on a top-heavy staff.
That lack of pitching depth means the Volunteers could win their first two games before bogging down thereafter unless the offense wins some slugfests. Delmonico called this the best club he's coached at Tennessee. His two previous trips to Omaha with the Vols ended in a 2-2 finish, which seems about right for this club as well.
Will Kimmey covers college baseball for Baseball America.