Predicting the eight teams who will see their seasons end in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series on an annual basis isn't exactly a science.
Sure, Virginia was ranked preseason No. 1 this past season and played for the national title, and Vanderbilt was preseason No. 11 and reached the CWS, also winning its first national title. But there were more surprises than not, with Texas, Texas Tech and TCU both making the CWS despite finishing at the bottom of the Big 12 standings two seasons ago. Then, there's UC Irvine, which was one of the final four teams in the NCAA postseason, but found its way to Omaha by getting through the gauntlet otherwise known as Oregon State and Oklahoma State.
Though things absolutely could change with some potentially last-second signing deadline deals, players leaving after the fall, and whatever else could pop up between now and February, here's our educated guess at teams we see in Omaha in 2015, plus 10 more teams to watch as we head into the offseason.
2014 accomplishment: Reached the College World Series and finished the season as national runner-up.
Reasons to believe: The Cavaliers fell just short of a national title with a tough CWS Finals loss to Vanderbilt, but returns all the pieces needed to get right back where they finished the 2014 campaign. Virginia has the tough chore of replacing outstanding closer and All-American righthanded pitcher Nick Howard, along with Artie Lewicki and Whit Mayberry. But this pitching staff is still loaded with the return of all three weekend starters in All-American lefthander Nathan Kirby, lefty Brandon Waddell and righthander Josh Sborz. The Cavaliers also welcome back other talented arms such as sophomore Connor Jones, while the freshman class will give Brian O'Connor's club an infusion with righty Derek Casey (No. 122 by PG), who was up to 94 at PG National last year leading the way, along with very talented two-way players Adam Haseley (ranked No. 88 nationally) and Pavin Smith (ranked No. 137 nationally) ... Offensively, the Cavaliers must replace Mike Papi, Branden Cogswell, Derek Fisher and Brandon Downes, all guys who played key parts in Omaha, but I still think this will be a solid offensive club. Shortstop Daniel Pinero had a good freshman campaign and will be back, while the Cavaliers also return Kenny Towns, John La Prise, and the catcher combination of Robbie Coman and Nate Irving (though Irving was drafted in the 34th round by Arizona). In the outfield, athletic Joe McCarthy is back and should have a strong junior season. The Cavaliers absolutely can win a national title with this club, who, by the way, will be extra motivated in 2015.
2014 accomplishment: The Longhorns are a perfect example of what's expected isn't always what occurs. UT finished ninth in the Big 12 Conference two seasons ago, but reached the College World Series bracket title game against Vanderbilt this year.
Reasons to believe: The 'Horns thought 2015 might be the year they could make a move up the national ranks, but it happened in '14. With that said, though the 'Horns have the tough chore of replacing All-American outfielder Mark Payton, along with starting pitchers Nathan Thornhill and likely Dillon Peters and closer John Curtiss, too. But they still have all the personnel needed to make a run at the program's seventh national title. UT will have another solid pitching staff. Sources in Austin continue to maintain that righthanded pitcher Parker French will return for his senior season, while Morgan Cooper, Travis Duke, Chad Hollingsworth also are back. Sources also believe righty Lukas Schiraldi will sign by the deadline ... Offensively, the Longhorns welcome back a hefty amount of their offensive production. Shortstop C.J. Hinojosa, who shined in Omaha this year, is back for his junior season, while third baseman Zane Gurwitz, catcher Tres Barrera, athletic left fielder Ben Johnson and right fielder Collin Shaw return. UT also welcomes back excellent first baseman Kacy Clemens, who's expected to take a step forward from an offensive standpoint ... In terms of newcomers, redshirt freshman Bret Boswell is expected to have a strong season at the plate, while the 'Horns are excited about shortstop Travis Jones (ranked No. 154 nationally) and outfielder Patrick Mathis (ranked No. 250 nationally).
2014 accomplishment: The Commodores entered the season with high expectations and more motivation after a heartbreaking finish to a very good 2013 campaign. Well, the 'Dores finished a little business with the program's first national title.
Reasons to believe: Situations absolutely can change year-to-year, but on paper, the Commodores look like a club capable of winning back-to-back national titles. Vandy will have to replace righthanded pitchers Tyler Beede and Adam Ravenelle, while shortstop Vince Conde also is likely to sign, but most of the key cogs otherwise are back. For instance, offensively, the Commodores welcome back the third base combination of Tyler Campbell/Xavier Turner, second baseman Dansby Swanson, first baseman Zander Wiel, and the catcher combo of Jason Delay and Karl Ellison. The 'Dores also welcome back all three starting outfielders in left fielder Bryan Reynolds, Rhett Wiseman and CWS hero John Norwood ... On the mound, the weekend rotation will be outstanding with Carson Fulmer, Tyler Ferguson and Walker Buehler leading the way, while slider-heavy righthanded pitcher Hayden Stone gives the Commodores premier arm out of the bullpen ... In terms of newcomers, the 'Dores will really like outfielder Jeren Kendall, while righthanded pitcher Brendan Spagnuolo (ranked No. 110 nationally) is expected to be an immediate contributor.
2014 accomplishment: Following very much the same path as Texas this season, the Horned Frogs entered 2013 with high expectations, but failed in miserable fashion. The Frogs, though, like the 'Horns, responded in impressive fashion this season with a high finish in the Big 12 Conference and a trip to the College World Series.
Reasons to believe: This might be Jim Schlossnagle's best chance at a national title in his tenure with the Frogs. Sure, the Frogs have the tough chore of replacing ace lefthanded pitcher Brandon Finnegan, a first-round pick to the Kansas City Royals, but the rest of the weekend rotation is in stellar shape with the return of righty Preston Morrison and lefty Tyler Alexander. The Frogs might also move hard-throwing righty Riley Ferrell to the weekend rotation. But if that doesn't happen, there are plenty of other starting options. Either way, the return of Ferrell is big considering he's an All-American with even more potential than he's already shown. Trey Teakell, Alex Young and others are back on the mound, while the Frogs also welcome back Mitchell Traver, a talented arm who missed last season because of an injury ... Offensively, the Frogs must replace leader and solid catcher Kyle Bacak, but welcome back a majority of their key hitters in Boomer White, Cody Jones, Keaton Jones, Derek Odell and Garrett Crain, who really blossomed the last half of the 2014 campaign ... TCU also welcomes a solid recruiting class, which includes expected instant impact catcher Evan Skoug, a 34th-round pick to the Cincinnati Reds, who's going to college. Skoug was ranked No. 79 nationally out of high school, and has big-time power potential.
2014 accomplishment: Other than the NCAA postseason, the Gators put together quite an impressive spring that included a solid overall record and an SEC regular season championship, almost winning the SEC tournament as well, but dropping the title game to LSU. Florida was bounced in the Gainesville Regional after just two games.
Reasons to believe: The Gators were one of the nation's elite teams much of the 2014 college baseball season, but ran into a very good College of Charleston team in the Gainesville Regional, thus were eliminated from the postseason earlier than expected. Though that was disappointing, the Gators have a lot of reasons to be optimistic. Sure, UF must replace hard-hitting catcher Taylor Gushue, Casey Turgeon and talented reliever Ryan Harris, but otherwise, this is a loaded club moving forward. UF welcomes back several talented hitters, including Braden Mattson, Richie Martin, Peter Alonso, Josh Tobias and Harrison Bader, while youngsters such as Ryan Larson, John Sternagel and Buddy Reed promise to produce more in 2015 ... Meanwhile, the pitching staff again will be in excellent shape with the return of staff ace righthanded pitcher Logan Shore, along with lefties AJ Puk, Bobby Poyner, Kirby Snead and Danny Young, and righties Aaron Rhodes, Eric Hanhold and Dane Dunning ... If that's not enough, the Gators expect big contributions from several newcomers. Chipola JC transfer pitcher Taylor Lewis will have a major role, while freshmen such as JJ Schwarz (C, No. 58 nationally), Alex Faedo (RHP, No. 78 nationally), Michael Rivera (C, No. 181 nationally) and Dalton Guthrie (SS, No. 82 nationally) should make quick transitions.
2014 accomplishment: The Bruins were the defending national champions entering the 2014 campaign, and certainly had high expectations with the return of several players, However, injuries to Kevin Kramer, Eric Filia and others caused major setbacks offensively, and took their toll from an overall standpoint throughout the season, causing coach John Savage's to miss the postseason, entirely.
Reasons to believe: The Bruins had a tough time during the 2014 seasons, but should get back to business next season. For starters, the pitching staff is in excellent shape with the return of weekend starters James Kaprielian, Grant Watson and Cody Poteet, while the Bruins, for now, expect righthanded reliever David Berg, a 17th-round selection to the Rangers, to come back for his senior season. On top of that, the Bruins love incoming freshman righthanded pitcher Griffin Canning (No. 224 nationally), while Grant Dyer returns after logging some quality and important innings as a freshman last season ... The main question mark with this team going into 2015 certainly will be the offense. UCLA struggled at the plate last season, but much of that was the result of Eric Filia and Kevin Kramer, both expected big-time producers, getting lost for the season because of injuries. Both will be back next season, and most importantly, will be healthy. In terms of newcomers in the position player department, the Bruins expect big things from athletic third baseman Sean Bouchard (ranked No. 75 nationally) and middle infielder Nick Valaika (ranked No. 258 nationally), yet another talented brother in that Valaika player tree. The good money is on a John Savage-coached team returning to normal.
2014 accomplishment: With some heavy personnel losses two seasons ago, the Tar Heels were forced to put some talented, but very young, players at key positions last season. That caused all sorts of inconsistencies, and the Tar Heels narrowly made the NCAA postseason. Considering how things went at times last season, we'd consider that an accomplishment for that particular season.
Reasons to believe: Sure, the Tar Heels didn't have a 2014 campaign to remember, but this should be a vastly improved and more experienced club in '15. For starters, the Tar Heels welcome back a bulk of their offensive lineup with Wood Myers and Skye Bolt, among others, as headliners. But the biggest returning starter is Landon Lassiter, who hit .305 last season, and will return to college for another season after getting drafted in the 28th round by the Rockies. The Tar Heels are excited about the addition of Chipola JC outfielder Josh Merrigan, who hit .358 with two homers and 52 RBIs last season, while Ryder Ryan (No. 145 nationally) and Hunter Williams (No. 167 nationally) are two-way talents who should provide an immediate impact ... The Tar Heels will be strong on the mound next season. UNC welcomes back at least two weekend starters in Trent Thornton and Zac Gallen, while at this point, righthander Benton Moss is expected to return for his senior season. Moss was a 15th-round pick of the Giants, and his situation could change by the signing deadline. The Tar Heels will get Chris McCue back from an injury, while Trevor Kelley returns for his senior season and Reilly Hovis returns after tallying a 2.25 ERA in 64 innings last season. UNC also expects an immediate impact from freshman righthanded pitcher Jacob Bukauskas, who likely would've been a top two-round pick if not for his commitment to the Tar Heels. Bukauskas, who can get into the mid-90s with his fastball, was a 20th-round pick to the Diamondbacks.
2014 accomplishment: The Tigers put together a solid 2014 campaign and actually played well enough down the stretch to earn a top-eight national seed. However, the Tigers floundered in the Baton Rouge Regional and were unable to get back to Omaha as a result. Still, this team put together a good regular season and won the SEC tournament on the road to the NCAA postseason.
Reasons to believe: The Bayou Bengals will be hungry for success after falling just short of their ultimate goal in 2014. LSU will return a very solid offensive lineup from a team that finished last season with a .287 batting average. Andrew Stevenson, Alex Bregman, Conner Hale and Kade Scivicque are back, while speedy Mark Laird and Jake Fraley also are back in the mix. Offense definitely isn't a question mark for this club as it heads into the offseason ... There are question marks on the mound with the departures of All-American righthanded pitcher Aaron Nola and reliever Joe Broussard. However, the Tigers should be fine with Kyle Bouman, Jared Poche, Alden Cartwright, Zac Person and others back. LSU also gets an infusion of big-time prep talent in the fall with the additions of elite lefthanded pitcher Mac Marshall (ranked No. 21 nationally), righty Alex Lange (ranked No. 134 nationally), and potentially righty Jake Godfrey (ranked No. 64 nationally), who was a 21st-round pick to the Braves. Those young, premier, arms combined with some experienced returning arms should be a good combination for a team looking to take the next step.
TEN MORE TO WATCH (in no order)
Cal State Fullerton
FIVE POTENTIAL SURPRISES