College Baseball 2023: Ole Miss Is Defending National Champion, But LSU And Tennessee Are The Overwhelming Early Favorites

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One would think Ole Miss would get a little more of a home run trot.

The Rebels did win the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, last June, and made it look easy. Ole Miss went 10-1 in NCAA postseason play and held opponents to one run or less five times during that run.

Their highest preseason ranking in the four major polls, though, is No. 4, and they didn’t make the top 10 in one. The SEC coaches even picked Ole Miss to finish fourth in the SEC West.

“Probably the most asked question since last June 26 has been, ‘How do you put the championship behind you?’ The truth of the matter is it hasn’t been that difficult,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.

Never mind it took him 23 seasons in Oxford to do it for the first time in Ole Miss history.

“It has been pretty easy when you walk into the first team meeting, and 20 of your 40 players weren’t here last year,” he said.

Mike Bianco Lost Much From His National Title Team

College baseball, which for decades has had an inane, NCAA-mandated 11.7-scholarship limit, has basically always had the NCAA Transfer portal. College baseball coaches have long dealt with what their football and basketball brethren have been hyperventilating about for just two years now – how to turn over a roster in a year.

“There has always been a lot more attrition in baseball,” Bianco said.

The Rebels open the season at 4 p.m. Friday at home against Delaware on SEC Network +.

Ole Miss lost much from the 2022 national championship team. Try first baseman Tim Elko (24 home runs, 75 RBIs, .300 average), left fielder Kevin Graham (11 home runs, 51 RBIS, .335 average) and third baseman Justin Bench (42 RBIs, 17 2Bs, .316 average). Ace Dylan DeLucia (8-2, 3.68 ERA) is also gone along with closer Brandon Johnson (12 saves).

The Rebels do return one of the top prospects for the 2023 draft in junior shortstop Jacob Gonzales (18 HRs, 52 RBIs) and sophomore pitcher Hunter Elliott (5-3, 2.70 ERA, 102 strikeouts in 80 innings). Junior outfielder Calvin Harris, who led the team in average last year at .336, is back along with junior designated hitter Kemp Alderman (.286, 11 HRs).

But Bianco need only look to his west and north to LSU and Tennessee, respectively, so as not to get overconfident. LSU is No. 1 in all four polls and was picked to win the SEC. Tennessee is No. 2 in three of the four. Meanwhile, Bianco’s SEC neighbors Florida, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and Arkansas are all in the top 10.

LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson’s team is ranked No. 1 in four preseason polls and picked to win the Southeastern Conference this season. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Second-year LSU coach Jay Johnson had back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes in 2021 and 2022 and has done well in the Transfer Portal. That explains the lofty expectations after a so-so first season in which he did not reach a Super Regional.

“Talent’s significantly improved in my opinion,” he said. “Excited about what I think this pitching staff can do. I feel much better about the pieces and how we can align them. We have more options and more flexibility on offense and with pitching.”

LSU has not won a national championship since 2009 and has not reached Omaha since a runner-up finish in 2017 under coach Paul Mainieri. He left Johnson two of the best players in the SEC. Those are junior center fielder Dylan Crews and first baseman Tre Morgan. Crews, the projected second pick of the 2023 draft, was the SEC player of the year last season with a .349 average, 22 home runs, 72 RBIs and an SEC-high 73 runs scored. Morgan hit .324 with 54 RBIs.

Johnson has added North Carolina State transfer second baseman Tommy White, who was the Atlantic Coast Conference freshman of the year in 2022. He hit an NCAA freshman record 27 home runs and drove in 74 while hitting .362.

LSU Pitching Has Improved

LSU lacked power starting pitchers last season, and Johnson found two – Air Force junior transfer right-hander Paul Skenes and true freshman Chase Shores. Skenes is a projected first round pick who has thrown in the high 90s. Shores is 6-foot-8 and is the No. 5 right-hander in the nation by Perfect Game out of Lee High in Midland, Texas.

The Tigers did just lose projected starting pitcher Grant Taylor for the season with an arm injury. But there is talent everywhere.

In fact, when World Series champion Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman returned to his alma mater for the preseason banquet last month in Baton Rouge, he had a succinct message for Johnson.

“Congratulations on a great first season last year,” he said. “Now, let’s go win a national championship this year, coach.”

The Tigers open at 4 p.m. Friday at home against Western Michigan on SEC Network +.

Tennessee coach Tony Vitello’s team won the SEC regular season last year by six games at 25-5 and finished 57-9 overall with the SEC Tournament title as well, but did not reach Omaha. (Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Tennessee may not have finished No. 1 last season. It did not even make it to Omaha because of a shocking Super Regional loss to Notre Dame, two games to one at home. But it was No. 1 in the polls for virtually the entire season. For the last two seasons, the Volunteers have dominated the SEC, only to not finish. They reached Omaha in 2021, but went 0-for-2.

Tennessee remains one of only seven SEC schools not to win the national championship in baseball.

“You guys will fairly write about how we didn’t carry on or didn’t win a national championship, which was in my opinion, far from our mind,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said after a 7-3 loss to Notre Dame ended what was a magical 2022 season. “Ask any team in the country that gets there (to Omaha), or has ever played there, or has ever come up short. It’s not automatic.”

The Vols open the season Friday at 8 p.m. on the MLB Network against Arizona in the MLB Desert Invitational in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Tennessee Must Replace All Position Players

Tennessee loses all its starting position players from last season, including outfielders Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck who went in the first round of the 2022 draft. But Vitello has recruited very well, too, for years.

Sophomore first baseman Blake Burke would have started regularly virtually anywhere else in the nation last year. He hit .326 with 14 homers, 32 RBIs and an unreal .821 slugging percentage in just 22 starts as a freshman. Junior shortstop Maui Ahuna is a transfer who hit .396 with 48 RBIs at Kansas last year. Sophomore outfielder Jared Dickey returns after an injury-riddled season in which he still hit .380 in 40 games.

TENNESSEE LOOKED LIKE CHAMPIONS LAST YEAR

The Vols return much of their pitching that led the nation in ERA last season at 2.51 – nearly a full run less than its closest competitor. Junior Chase Dollander (10-0, 2.39 ERA) leads the way and is expected to be the firs pitcher taken in the 2023 draft, if not the first player. Also back is sophomore Chase Burns (8-2, 2.91 ERA), sophomore Drew Beam (8-1, 2.72 ERA) and senior Camden Sewell (7-1, 2.52). Dollander struck out 108 in 79 innings last year with only 13 walks. Burns fanned 103 in 80 innings with 25 walks.

β€œThis team is this team. I like the unique challenges this team has,” Vitello said.

Maybe too much of a challenge at No. 2 in the nation with zero position starters back, though.

“This team probably has been bolstered up a little bit too much,” Vitello said. “We need to center our attention on not do we fit in that top crop because first of all you are not going to know until conference play anyway.”

SEC play begins the weekend of March 17.

Tennessee At LSU Could Be Huge

Circle March 30-April 1 on your calendar – a Thursday through Saturday clash of LSU and Tennessee. The Tigers have not hosted the Vols at Alex Box Stadium since 2018, which was Vitello’s first season and LSU swept. Tennessee has won six straight since, including the 2021 Super Regional in Knoxville and in the SEC Tournament last year.

Could LSU and Tennessee both still be No. 1 and No. 2 by then? ESPNU will televise the opener on Thursday night with the next two on SEC Network. LSU plays at Ole Miss in what could be another top five or 10 showdown April 21-23 with ESPN2 televising the Saturday game.

Chances are, several SEC teams will be in Omaha and an SEC team will win it all.

Since 2009, six SEC programs have won national championships – LSU in 2009, South Carolina in 2010 and ’11, Vanderbilt in 2014, Florida in 2017, Vanderbilt again in 2019, Mississippi State in 2021 and Ole Miss in 2022. And there have been seven SEC runner-ups over that span – Florida in 2011, South Carolina in 2012, Mississippi State in 2013, Vanderbilt in 2015, LSU in 2017, Arkansas in 2018 and Vanderbilt in 2021.

Who’s next?

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

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