In today’s NCAA Baseball Tournament bracket reveal, the Vols were the #3 overall seed. They’ll host an opening regional against Duke, Liberty, and Wright State, with a chance to advance at host a super regional against the team coming out of the Oregon regional. Tony Vitello took the Vols to the North Carolina regional in 2019, where they were vanquished by the Tar Heels. Before that, Tennessee’s last NCAA Tournament appearance was way back in 2005.
Those Vols were the #15 overall seed back then, but took down #2 Georgia Tech in the super regional to advance to the College World Series. In 2001 the Vols likewise went on the road in the super regionals, defeating East Carolina to advance to Omaha. You have to go back to the Todd Helton days in 1995 to find the Vols hosting the equivalent of a super regional; when that team advanced to Omaha they were seeded #5 overall.
So, at least in your bracket, this isn’t just a strong statement from Tony Vitello in his fourth year in Knoxville. This is Tennessee’s best on-paper chance to win it all in the modern era.
How does this opportunity translate on campus? Last week we looked at the relative difficulty of winning the SEC Tournament/Championship Game in the five major sports, something no one on campus has accomplished since the Lady Vols did it in basketball in 2014. That team represents the best on-paper chance any big five team has had to win it all until now, a #1 seed in an NCAA Tournament with the Final Four set for Nashville…but they were bounced by Maryland in the Sweet 16. They made it farther in the bracket the next two years, but fell in the Elite Eight as a #2 seed in 2015 and a #7 seed in 2016.
The softball team last made the Women’s College World Series in 2015 as the #8 overall seed. Their highest overall seed came in 2007 at #5 overall, the year they advanced to the finals and were a heartbeat away from winning the whole thing before falling to Arizona. They were also national runners-up in 2013 as the #7 seed; while the 2014 Lady Vol basketball squad had a better chance on paper, the 2013 softball team is as close as any big five Tennessee squad has come to a national championship once everything played out.
In men’s basketball, in 2019 the Vols were a #2 seed and fifth overall on the seed list. It’s the third time Tennessee has earned a #2 seed in the last 15 years, with the Vols still in search of their first Final Four and second Elite Eight.
What’s the closest comparison in football? Preseason polls are worth little, but the Vols did open the 2005 season at #3. On the field, Tennessee of course won the whole thing in 1998 and came close to playing for another one in 2001, second in the BCS going to the SEC Championship Game. Tennessee hasn’t carried any real opportunity for the national championship into November since 2006, or into October since 2016.
All that to say this: I’m not sure what’s going to happen from here, and this baseball team has already given us plenty coming out of the pandemic. But whatever a bracket is worth, this baseball team has the best chance to advance on paper of any major sport here since the Lady Vols in 2014. Only the Lady Vols can compete with this kind of national seed on campus in the last 20 years; it’s the best on-paper opportunity the baseball team has ever had, and an even better seed than the softball team was ever given.
The Vols are already a great story. But make no mistake: this is a real opportunity.