UPDATE: Arkansas Fight has gotten their answers in. The delay was a clerical error on my part and I feel very badly about it.
(Editor’s Note: All six of the sites that cover this weekend’s participants hoped to contribute to our mega preview, but the extenuating weather circumstances in Texas and the South made that challenging for some. If they are able to get their answers in, we will update this post.)
Spring isn’t exactly in the air, but college baseball is back regardless of the temperatures. Luckily for TCU Baseball and five other top ten teams, they’ll take their first hacks in the pleasantly weather-controlled luxury of Globe Life Field, where the inaugural State Farm College Baseball Showdown will kick-off Saturday morning.
Taking part in this six team, round-robin tournament are six of the country’s preseason Top Ten teams: three each from the SEC and Big 12, two of the best college baseball conferences in the sport. We spoke with some of our SB Nation brethren to find out just what we need to know about this marquee event, and which teams will be the favorites to come out of the weekend unscathed — or to rematch this summer in Omaha.
For the last several years, the Big 12 and the SEC have vied for College Baseball Conference bragging rights during the regular season. How important are these “challenge” tournaments both from a competition standpoint and for fans?
Arkansas Fight: Hog fans have learned to adopt the mindset of our coach, which is to see the early part of the season as a time to move parts around and see what (and who) works best. No question that starting the season with back-to-back-to-back top ten teams gets everyone ramped up and hyped up quickly. Opening with a low-major team at home doesn’t have quite the same energy.
Frogs O’ War: TCU might be ranked in the top ten, but they are still kind of an unknown when it comes to the season ahead. With so many young players expected to play a significant role, and a bunch of players who have only a handful of Division I games under their belt, facing off against a field like this will certainly be a measuring stick and a wake up call for those who have never been through the grind of a Big 12 season. I think it will be critical for the pitching staff especially — it’s a luxury to put guys in a pressure cooker like this right off the bat and see who has a taste for the bright lights. I think it’s equally as exciting for fans too, who got robbed of conference play after such a promising start to last season. To open the 2021 campaign at a Big League ballpark, in front of 15,000 (hopefully mask-wearing) fans, with nothing but top ten teams in the field? What more can you ask for in college baseball? Or even college sports in general?
For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: I would classify this tournament as a “Setting the Stage” type of tournament. Unlike many first game tournaments, this trip will require all cylinders to be hitting due to the competition. These “challenge” tournaments are definitely more important for fans and bragging rights, more so than the players. The players will have time to reboot if this tournament doesn’t go exactly the way they want. It’ll take more time and more wins for fans (at least Mississippi State baseball fans) to get back on their feet.
Red Cup Rebellion: These early season tournaments, in my opinion, are to battle test rosters early and to give the coaching staffs an idea of what kind of identity and/or mindset their team has. Is this a team that is going to operate with machine-like precision and never waver in the face of adversity against a weekend against top-10 competition? Or is this a team that may not be ready for primetime and is going to need to find themselves over the course of the next few months?
Viva the Matadors: I would say the fans do, especially when these events are so early in a season. Teams are just starting to feel out their rotation and lineups, it is just too soon to get any meaningful conclusions for a staff to evaluate. However, fans get to flex and talk trash and try to claim bragging rights. While this kind of event is awesome competition for the teams, the fans get a lot more out of it for the long haul.
Who are a couple players on your team that opposing fans should know/are worth the price of admission to watch?
Arkansas Fight: Second baseman Robert Moore was an early enrollee last year who quickly found a toe-hold in the college game. He plays smart fielding, batting, and running the bases. He makes the double-play turn as well as anyone. Our other hoss is center fielder Christian Franklin. He was ready to make the leap from good to great last year before the season ended abruptly.
Frogs O’ War: The Horned Frogs have a local product in freshman Elijah Nunez who seems like the kind of player that is going to make people take notice this spring. He, coupled with Tommy Sacco (a defensive wizard at shortstop) and hard-hitting Gene Wood at first, should be entertaining ones to watch. As far as pitchers, Haylen Green is arguably the best swiss army knife arm in the sport, Johnny Ray has serious Big League stuff, and Austin Krob might be the best pitcher this weekend that no one has heard of. TCU hasn’t yet identified where the star power will come from this season, but hopefully we will have a better idea after this weekend.
For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: Some vets. Tanner Allen returns for his senior season looking to make a statement. He’s been a dominant batter, as well as performing wherever you need him in the field. His bat will be what makes the most noise this weekend though. Rowdey Jordan also returns for his senior season looking to be the guy on base. In previous years, Rowdey would find a series rhythm where he was your guy to get on base. He’s got wheels, the bat, and the glove to draw the attention of MLB scouts this year.
Red Cup Rebellion: The weekend rotation has an argument to be the best in the country. Doug Nikhazy on Friday is going to be electric from the left side, changing speeds, and giving hitters fits with his location. Gunnar Hoglund is your prototypical MLB Draft buzz robot. Big, physical presence on the mound, mid-90’s fastball with a ton of movement, and a hammer offspeed pitch to put you away. And rounding out Sunday is Derek Diamond, an uber-aggressive competitor who is just starting to truly come into his own with his four-pitch mix.
Viva the Matadors: Dylan Neuse is all that and a bag of chips. He is probably going to do a lot of the consistent offensive lifting, and his fielding doesn’t see much of a drop-off in talent either. Micah Dallas is a potential ace for this bullpen, and looks to solidify himself as the dominant arm in crunch time. These two guys are basically the most well known Red Raiders across the country, and with good reason. On a squad poised for another conference championship and a run to Omaha, they lead the pack.
Which game are you most looking forward to and why?
Arkansas Fight: Beat Texas forever.
Frogs O’ War: These are all great matchups, but the Saturday afternoon game with Ole Miss is the one I am most looking forward to. They are the highest rated SEC team in the field and it’s a team the Frogs have seen before (in Houston at the Shriners’ College Classic). I also hope there is some revenge against Arkansas Sunday, who beat TCU in the Fayetteville Regional back in 2019.
For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: Tough question… I would say many Mississippi State fans are excited to face off against TCU, who we have never played in program history. It’s always exciting to play another solid college baseball program that you’ve never faced off against.
Red Cup Rebellion: To be honest, it’s hard to pick a favorite. We always love mixing it up with our friends from the Big 12. Although, we aren’t exactly partial to the last time we played the Longhorns.
Viva the Matadors: Probably Mississippi State or Arkansas. Tech has more recent history with those two, and did not come out well from the series last time with the Bulldogs. So I would be leaning towards the MSU game, but all of them are going to be great.
TCU skipper Jim Schlossnagle said that he could see “a team go 0-3 [this weekend] and still make the CWS”. What does that say about this field and how accurate do you find that statement?
Arkansas Fight: The Razorbacks have seen all of the Big 12 teams in the postseason over the last two full seasons. I wouldn’t give up on the Hogs if they went 0-3 over the weekend, and I wouldn’t expect any of the other teams to do that, either.
Frogs O’ War: Oh absolutely. The odds say that not all of these teams will be together again in Omaha, of course, but I wouldn’t be shocked if 3-4 teams find themselves in Nebraska this summer. These are well coached teams with incredible talent, veteran-laden rosters, and elite level pitching staffs. Every single one of them can claim that their goal is to play for a National Championship without it sounding hyperbolic.
For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: This crew of teams competing this weekend could very well make the CWS. Many of these teams know how and when to find their rhythm before the postseason. I wouldn’t base everything on this upcoming weekend.
Red Cup Rebellion: That’s a fact. It’s very possible that three or four teams from this weekend’s event make it to Omaha.
Viva the Matadors: It is so early in the season that statement would be true no matter what, but especially with the competition this weekend. While all the teams are going to be breaking in their squads, the rust will hide someone’s true potential I guarantee it. All these teams are going to be in the thick of their conference races, which makes this such an insane field. If Vegas offered the odds, I’d be reasonably comfortable betting one of these teams wins it all.
Who do you expect to ‘win’ the Showdown?
Arkansas Fight: I want to say Hogs, but I keep my expectations low over the early part of the season. If they go 2-1, then I’ll feel like I won. The Rebels could use some unreal hype, so I’ll say they make it out 3-0, looking like a title contender.
Frogs O’ War: I want to go with the homer pick and choose TCU, but I think Texas Tech is primed to come out of the weekend 3-0. The Red Raiders are going to be a big, giant pain in the you know what come Big 12 play this spring, and the Horned Frogs are lacking a little in the experience department, so they could struggle early in the season as they get their lineups and their chemistry right.
For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: I imagine most of our authors here will go with the obvious: Themselves… or in my case, the DIAMOND DAWGS.
Red Cup Rebellion: It’s tough to say so we’ll go with the easy answer: Rebs
Viva the Matadors: I expect Tech to put on quite the show. These challenges are great because it is always theoretically best-on-best matchups. Tech’s best is really darn good, it is tough to see a scenario they aren’t 3-0 when all is said and done. My numero dos option would be TCU, they can prove a lot with a dominant showing in this shindig and they are a tough squad.
What is the realistic expectation in 2021 for the program that you cover and why?
Arkansas Fight: CWSs from here on out, boys and girls. I can’t conceive of realistic expectations.
Frogs O’ War: TCU followed four straight CWS appearances with two down seasons (by their high standards at least), missing the postseason altogether in 2018 and limping out of the Fayetteville Regional in 2019. Last year had the makings of a team that could make a run, but that season, as we all know, was over before it truly even began. Well, every single senior on that roster elected to return and TCU lost just one recruit to the MLB Draft, so the expectations for 2021 are through the roof. This is a team that expects to get to Omaha, and win once they are there. The Horned Frogs have been so close to winning it all too many times… maybe this is the season they can finally get over the hump.
For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: The expectation for Mississippi State baseball is to make it to Omaha. That’s the expectation every single year and it doesn’t change in 2021. The expectation may even rise this year because of the returning + recruited talent that is all over the Mississippi State 2021 roster.
Red Cup Rebellion: At this point, it’s hard to give the canned “Omaha or bust” response, but Mike Bianco and Ole Miss have built a nationally-relevant program that is on the cusp damn near every year. With the aforementioned rotation and a ton of offensive production back, I would be lying if I said I don’t expect this bunch to be in a Super Regional somewhere with a great chance to go to Nebraska.
Viva the Matadors: Losing Hunter Dobbins is a blow that potentially lowers the ceiling for the Red Raiders. Omaha is all about pitching depth, and Dobbins was a big piece of that equation for Tech. Still, there is definitely the sense that Tadlock is due his first national title and I don’t think that’s unrealistic as a goal for this season. This team is as good as any, the question becomes can someone step in and give enough high quality innings to minimize losing a weekend starter in preseason.
Thank you so much to everyone that was able to participate. We have an incredible weekend of college baseball ahead!