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What does regular success look like in baseball?

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The baseball Vols are deep in our hearts now, the general joy of advancing to the program’s first super regional since 2005, and the specific atom bomb of Drew Gilbert’s walk-off grand slam against Wright State to begin that journey last weekend. Baseball may not earn the crowds or the currency of men’s basketball, but this team is already making you feel the feels in ways only the Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield group did, both in terms of dramatic wins and the opportunity to advance. As we pointed out before the regional, a #3 national seed puts this baseball team in territory no big five sport on campus has entered since the Lady Vols were a #1 seed in 2014.

Between winning the East and advancing to the super regional, these Vols have already achieved their share of history. Get through LSU this weekend, and they’d become just the fifth Vol squad to ever advance to Omaha, and likewise the first since 2005. The present is glorious, and the future likewise so long as the Vols can keep their shoved-a-fan-but-in-the-good-way coach.

The strength of the SEC makes Tony Vitello’s accomplishments even more significant. It also provides some context for what kind of fun we might expect every summer, and how to set healthy benchmarks for Tennessee’s program.

Making the NCAA Tournament itself is a regular expectation; nine SEC programs made the field of 64 this year. Hosting a regional requires a Top 16 seed; six SEC teams accomplished that this year, plus South Carolina by way of Old Dominion’s lacking facilities. Under Vitello, the Vols played in the Chapel Hill region in 2019 before hosting this year.

Anything can happen in the regional, but the cream tends to rise to the top. So while you can’t always use, “How far did they advance?” as the best benchmark in March Madness, in baseball it’s a fair comparison, especially in the SEC. The current super regional format came into play in 1999; in these last 22 years, here’s how often SEC programs have advanced.

Super Regional appearances (since 1999)

  • 15: LSU (last in 2021)
  • 13: South Carolina (2018)
  • 10: Florida (2018), Mississippi State (2021), Vanderbilt (2021)
  • 9: Arkansas (2021)
  • 8: Texas A&M (2017)
  • 7: Ole Miss (2021)
  • 4: Georgia (2008)
  • 3: Alabama (2010), Auburn (2019), Tennessee (2021)
  • 1: Kentucky (2017)
  • 0: Missouri

You can see a break between essentially a top half and bottom half of the league from Ole Miss on up, though Auburn made the College World Series in 2019 and, of course, the Vols are currently two wins away. No one is getting to this weekend every year, and at best it’s done two-thirds of the time. That helps me appreciate where the Vols are right now even more. Advancing to the round of 16 becomes somewhat of a similar benchmark for Tennessee’s men’s basketball and baseball programs: if you’re doing it right, you get this far more often than you don’t.

College World Series appearances (since 1999)

  • 8: Florida (last in 2018), LSU (2017)
  • 6: Arkansas (2019), South Carolina (2012)
  • 4: Georgia (2008), Mississippi State (2019), Vanderbilt (2019)
  • 3: Texas A&M (2017)
  • 2: Tennessee (2005)
  • 1: Alabama (1999), Auburn (2019), Ole Miss (2014)
  • 0: Kentucky, Missouri

In the last decade, half the league made the College World Series multiple times. Six of those teams have made at least one appearance in the last three fields in Omaha. The best of this league is getting to Omaha 36% of the time overall; again, “We should get to Omaha every year,” is an unrealistic goal. But the idea that every player who steps on your campus should have a chance to go during their time wearing the orange? That’s a good promise.

National Championships (since 1999)

  • Florida (2017)
  • LSU (2000, 2009)
  • South Carolina (2010, 2011)
  • Vanderbilt (2014, 2019)

Six of the last 11 national championships have come home to the SEC. Consider this list doesn’t include Arkansas, current #1 and with six trips to Omaha since 1999. Or Mississippi State, with 10 super regional appearances in the last 22 years. This league is deep.

One thing at a time, of course, though the #3 Vols have plenty of opportunity ahead of them. Get through to the super regionals more often than not, give all your players the real possibility of getting to Omaha at least once during their time…and once you’re there, who knows what could happen…

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