Omaha: How close are we now?

Tennessee’s last three trips to Omaha went like this:

  • 1995: The #5 overall seed had Todd Helton and R.A. Dickey, and beat Clemson in the opening game. Then they ran into one of the clearest cases of, “Yep, that team’s better than us,” in any of Tennessee’s postseason history: #1 seed Cal State Fullerton beat the Vols 11-1. Tennessee rebounded to win 6-2 over Stanford in the loser’s bracket, which brought them back to Fullerton, where they fell 11-0 in the rematch. Cal State then won it all by beating Southern Cal 11-6.
  • 2001: The Vols won at #7 East Carolina in the super regional to advance to Omaha. Back in the, “These bats might actually kill someone,” days, the Vols fell to Miami 21-13 in the opening game in Omaha, then had the pleasure of eliminating Georgia 19-12 in the loser’s bracket. The Vols took out #3 Southern Cal next to again be one of the last four teams standing. And again, they were vanquished by the eventual champs: Miami won 12-6, then beat Stanford 12-1 to win it all.
  • 2005: The Vols had no trouble coming out of Lindsey Nelson in their regional, but caught #2 Georgia Tech in the super regionals…where the Vols swept the Jackets in Atlanta. That was as good as it got: a 6-4 loss to Florida in the opening round in Omaha, then eliminated by Arizona State 4-2.

So three wins in Omaha, or advancing to the championship series in the current format, is the next bar for the 2021 Vols to clear in terms of school history. With Arkansas out, the Vols enter the field as the second-highest-seeded team.

So this is all great fun and will be no matter where we go from here. But make no mistake: we’re closer to the throne than we often get. There’s a real opportunity here.

In football, of course, the Vols won it all in 1998, and were 30 minutes away from another shot at it in 2001. In the last 20 years, the Vols went into November in the back half of the Top 10 in 2003, 2004, and 2006, but losses, injuries, and an unfortunate three-way-tie for the SEC East in ’03 meant they never really got close to the prize.

In men’s basketball, Tennessee has been among the last eight standing only once, now 11 years ago in 2010. The extended feelings we’re feeling right now in baseball would really require a trip to the Final Four to replicate, since making the Elite Eight by winning the Sweet 16 requires you to turn around and play 48 hours later. The 2019 Vols were the #5 overall seed and an overtime + Ryan Cline away from the Elite Eight, but would’ve faced eventual national champion Virginia; the route and the obstacles seemed more challenging than what awaits in Omaha.

The Lady Vols won Pat Summitt’s seventh and eighth titles in 2007 and 2008. Holly Warlick’s 2014 squad was the last to earn a #1 seed, but fell in the Sweet 16. The Lady Vols actually advanced to the Elite Eight in each of the next two years, but fell to #1 seed Maryland in 2015 and as a #7 seed in 2016. They’ve probably been closer than anything on the men’s side with the possible exception of the 2019 Rick Barnes squad, but I’m not sure if they ever felt like they could win it all given the top-heavy nature of women’s college basketball.

It’s softball that’s been closest to the promised land before this: seven trips to the Women’s College World Series in 11 years from 2005-2015, 60 feet away from the title in 2007, and back in the championship series in 2013. They fell to Oklahoma in 12 innings in game one, and were shut out in game two. That, now eight years ago, is the closest Tennessee has been in any of the big five sports since the Lady Vols won it all in 2007-08. Tennessee’s last trip to the WCWS in 2015 ended immediately with two straight losses.

I would argue this baseball team is as close to a national championship as any big five Tennessee sport has been since 2013 softball. Lady Vol basketball would’ve still had a UConn problem had they reached the Final Four in 2015-16. The 2019 men’s team went out with 16 teams left, and would’ve had to beat Virginia even if that Purdue game went the other way. And there’s no remote comparison at the moment in football.

So yeah. Happy to be here. But there’s more happiness out there yet.

Go Vols.

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