With high hopes entering the 2020 College Baseball season, it was all too good to be true as the COVID-19 pandemic shut the season down with under twenty games played. While impact players depart from the collegiate baseball level, new faces and new teams look to make their way up the power rankings.
As Vanderbilt still sits atop the throne from the 2019 season, the Commodores look to hoist the trophy again in Omaha this season. But the preseason favorites, Florida Gators, look to make a deep postseason push led by top prospect Jud Fabian. Other top teams in the hunt include UCLA, Texas Tech and Ole Miss as they all look to make a chase towards Omaha.
While much can change until the first pitch on February 19th, here are the top teams heading into the 2021 season:
- Florida Gators – SEC, Last Season: 16-1
The Florida Gators have secured their spot as the unanimous No. 1 in the preseason rankings poll. Landing as the top team from D1Baseball.com, Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, Baseball America and Perfect Game, it’s safe to say the Gators are better than ever. Searching for their third title since 2017 and led by Head Coach Kevin O’Sullivan, Florida looks to be an easy lock to make it to Omaha.
The Gators, who concluded the shortened 2020 season with a 16-1 record, were the top team to beat in Division I baseball last season. An easy favorite above the rest of the competition, Florida returns eight of nine position starters in addition to all three of their weekend starting pitchers from last year’s roster. Outfielder and top draft prospect Jud Fabian had a tremendous 2020 season and looks to repeat again this year. Expect Fabian to be selected in the top-five in the 2021 MLB Draft. Catcher Nathan Hickey and outfielder Jacob Young will bring some noise in the lineup as well. First baseman Kendrick Calilao provides a strong defensive glove as well as a power bat at his position. The Gators’ offense will surely have great production all throughout the lineup at Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field.
The 2021 Gators’ starting rotation receives a big boost from the shortened Major League Baseball draft as top-tier starting pitchers Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich went unselected and look to return back to Gainesville. With a strong supporting staff through the front innings, expectations were among the best even without the two standout arms. Equipped with rising freshman Hunter Barco and others, the Florida Gators’ rotation is among the best in Division I baseball.
2. UCLA – PAC-12, Last Season: 13-2
The UCLA Bruins, led by Head Coach John Savage, bring great energy heading into the 2021 season. With the focus on hoisting the trophy in Omaha for the first time since 2013, the Bruins will be more than ready to conquer what’s at stake. Coming off a hot 2020 season, which looked like a special season for the Bruins, the team lost a few key stars that were selected in the MLB Draft. First-round pick Garrett Mitchell and closer Holden Powell are among the top departing names. Though, UCLA does bring back a strong core of weapons for the 2021 season.
Arguably the second best team in the nation behind Florida, the Bruins are equipped with fire-power potential all throughout the starting lineup. Redshirts sophomore shortstop Matt McLain and junior right-handed pitcher Zach Pettway look to lead the way as the duo were named Preseason All-Americans. McLain is coming off a dominating year which led him to second-team All-American honors. The proven leader in the Bruins lineup will be a top name off the board this June in the upcoming draft. Accompanied by JT Schwartz, Pat Caulfield and Jake Moberg in the lineup, the Bruins will have no problem battling PAC-12 competition.
A strong and eager starting rotation led by All-Americans Zach Pettway and Nick Nastrini, UCLA’s arms are among the elite. The Bruins bring a load of experience and confidence at the forefront of the rotation that cannot be topped. Pettway, last season’s Opening Day starter, was named D1Baseball’s PAC-12 Pitcher of the Year in 2020. And as for Nistrini, he’ll be taking the number two and slide in as the Saturday starter for the Gators. Head Coach John Savage projects trust and confidence in the right-hander Nastrini’s work. Other impact arms include Jesse Bergin, Jared Karros and Sean Mullen. With proven names all across the roster, UCLA will have no setbacks during conference and postseason play.
3. Texas Tech – BIG 12, Last Season: 16-3
For the fourth consecutive year, the Texas Tech Red Raiders will enter the season in the top-five nationally ranked team, per D1Baseball. The Red Raiders will be returning to the field after going an impressive 16-3 with wins over No. 9 Florida State, No. 15 Stanford and Houston during last year’s shortened season.
Entering his ninth year as head coach, Tim Tadlock has cemented his legacy at Texas Tech as a collegiate baseball powerhouse. Tadlock has led the Red Raiders to three Big 12 titles in the last four years, in addition to three College World Series appearances. Tadlock will enter the 2021 season fully loaded in his lineup. Junior Dylan Neuse and redshirt freshman Cal Conley will lead the Red Raiders at the top of the lineup. The two sluggers finished 2020 with a combined average .363 in 19 games last season. Freshman Nate Rombach will look to make a big jump and prove himself this coming season. Brother of top draft pick and Texas Tech alum Josh Jung, Jace Jung brings a strong bat into his sophomore campaign. Cody Masters and Dru Baker look to make an impact on the diamond this season as well.
On the rubber, Tech holds an experienced array of arms that can be slotted into the starting rotation. Many options are available for Tadlock as top starting pitchers Clayton Better and Bryce Bonnin were selected in the recent MLB Draft. A rotation consisting of midweek starters Hunter Dobbins and Mason Montgomery could be in the works for the Red Raiders. Besides the pair of arms, a handful of rising freshman and JuCo transfers will look to make an impact. Through the back end of games, Tadlock will call upon his dominant and trustworthy closer, Micah Dallas. Dallas was excellent out of the bullpen last season with a 0.57 ERA, 23 strikeouts and just one walk in 15.2 innings. With a strong set of weapons entering the 2021 season, Texas Tech will be more than ready to battle under the bright lights in Omaha.
4. Vanderbilt – SEC, Last Season: 13-5
The defending champions led by Head Coach Tim Corbin hold a substantial target on their backs. With the 2020 College World Series postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, opposing teams and players are primed to dethrone the ‘Vandy Boys’. Slotted between Florida and Ole Miss in the top-five rankings, Vanderbilt will have to go through the thick of the SEC conference during the regular season.
The Commodores concluded the shortened 2020 season as 13-5 while finishing sixth in the nation. Despite losing an SEC-best four MLB Draft selections and two free agent signings from last year’s team, Vanderbilt returns a handful of highly-regarded draft prospects. The number one overall prospect, right-handed ace Kumar Rocker, leads the way as Jack Leiter, ranked number two overall follows shortly behind. The two generational talents were both named All-Americans as they look to be selected numbers one and two in the upcoming MLB draft. The dynamic duo of Rocker and Leiter look to take the reins of the Vanderbilt starting rotation and hope to push the ‘Dores back to where they belong, in Omaha.
With 17 newcomers — 16 freshmen and one transfer — Tim Corbin’s ball club looks to get the gears turning early as they face a grueling SEC schedule. With seven other top-25 SEC teams, Vanderbilt will have to be on the top of their game in order to come home with the gold. Despite losing star players such as Austin Martin, Harrison Ray, Tyler Brown, Jake Eder and Ty Duvall, the Vandy Boys will have to call upon fresh faces to fufilling greater roles during the season. Isaiah Thomas, the 27th ranked draft prospect per D1Baseball, and Hugh Fisher, the 57th ranked prospect, pave the way for the team. Shortstop Carter Young will look to shine in his first year as a starter. Sophomore catcher CJ Rodriguez will look to have a breakout year as well. More impact players include Luke Murphy, Matt Hogan, Thomas Schultz and Dominic Keegan. With one of the best coaches in the SEC, if not the in the nation, Vanderbilt will be firing on all cylinders come February.
5. Ole Miss – SEC, Last Season: 16-1
The Ole Miss Rebels were one of the hottest teams in college baseball with a near perfect 16-1 record last season. With the bar set high to make a deep Omaha run, it was all too good to be true for the Rebels as the shutdown went into effect before SEC conference play. Transitioning into 2021, Ole Miss enters with fresh faces but the same underdog mentality. The Rebels look to pick back up right where they left off last season led by Coach of the Year, Mike Bianco.
Headlining the star-studded pitching rotation is Friday Night starter Doug Nikhazy. Nikhazy posted a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings pitched last season including a heavyweight battle with No. 1 Louisville that resulted in Ole Miss’ only loss of the season. The rising junior brings a chip on his shoulder and will surely lead Ole Miss to fulfilling season. Gunnar Hoglund will slide into the number two spot in the rotation as he intends to build off of his 1.16 ERA in 23.1 innings pitched last season for the Rebels. This one-two punch of Nikhazy and Hoglund will be a sight to see in Oxford this season. Rounding out the rotation as the Sunday starter is Derek Diamond. Diamond, sophomore, had a solid-yet-rough freshman campaign. Taking on a starting rotation role as a freshman in a Power-Five conference isn’t easy as Diamond was giving up runs and hits left and right. But through it all, Diamond showed grit and potential to be a star. Expected to make a jump in his skillset, Diamond could be a valuable asset for the Rebels down the homestretch. Other notable arms that could be utilized in the starting rotation or the bullpen include Jackson Kimbrell, Brayden Forsyth and Taylor Broadway.
Powered by the electric arms in the Ole Miss pitching staff, the offense is the key for the Rebels to have a successful season. Hayden Dunhurst leads the infield as one of the top backstops in the country. A freshman All-American in his 2020 season, Dunhurst is a “guy that can do it all”, stated Bianco. A leader around the diamond will certainly look to showcase his talents under the bright lights. The middle infield will be the duo of Jacob Gonzalez at shortstop, and Peyton Chatagnier at second base. The pair of energetic and talented stars will both look to take bigger roles in 2021. And at the corners, the Rebels will feature Cael Baker and captain Tim Elko at first and third, respectively. Baker is described as a “leader” from coach Bianco as he looks to build on his 2020 campaign. Elko, on the other hand, is a veterean in the Rebels lineup who has been through it all. Compiling together a pair of strong seasons at Ole Miss, Elko has been a mainstay in the middle of the Rebel lineup for prior years. Other notable names include Justin Bench, Cade Simmons, Hayden Leatherwood and Kevin Graham. When Ole Miss gets rolling, there’s no stopping them as a trip to Omaha could be in sight.
6. Louisville – ACC, Last Season: 13-4
7. Mississippi State – SEC, Last Season: 12-4
8. Arkansas – SEC, Last Season: 11-5
9. TCU – Big 12, Last Season: 11-4
10, Texas – Big 12, Last Season: 14-3
Image: Florida Athletics