When people think about power schools, they often focus on the perceived power conferences. Leagues like the ACC and SEC wield unholy amounts of power in college sports, and as a result, they have the most recognizable brands across the landscape. It's something that's driven primarily by football and basketball, but it's something that's spilled into lesser followed sports like lacrosse, soccer, and baseball.
Like some of the other sports, however, college baseball is known to have schools known as baseball schools playing in baseball conferences. The Big West, for example, is known as a baseball hotbed with its roots in beautiful California settings. Cal State Fullerton's won four national championships, and both Long Beach State and UC-Irvine have trips to Omaha on their resume.
Conference USA was another of those leagues. C-USA boasted teams like Rice, Southern Mississippi, East Carolina, Houston, and Tulane. Among them, Rice won the 2003 national championship, while Tulane made the College World Series in 2001 and 2005.
It's that Tulane team that's operated below the radar of the major college sports beacon for a number of years, and it's that Tulane team that meets Boston College on Friday. A top-20 team in winning percentage last decade, the move out of C-USA and into the reconfigured American Athletic Conference is keeping the Green Wave as one of the nation's preeminent baseball powers - all while it operates without the glamour of a power conference affiliation.
In 1996, Tulane joined Conference USA after spending six years as a member of the Metro Conference. They immediately began making an impact, winning no less than 40 games in their first four years. In 1998, they played in virtual home games as part of the South II Regional, upset by fifth-seeded Harvard in the Third Round. It was the start of nine straight trips to the tournament, including two trips in (2001 and 2005) to Omaha in the College World Series.
But following a loss in the 2008 Tallahassee Regional Finals, the Green Wave failed to win more than 35 games all but one year, finishing under .500 in their last year in C-USA. After changing coaches in 2015, they regained their mojo in the AAC, drawing a three seed and the right to play in Louisiana in the Baton Rouge Regional. Though a dream matchup never materialized with LSU, they went 1-2, losing only to UNC-Wilmington.
A team like Tulane may lose some style points because the American isn't the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it doesn't have to be. The AAC is a very good league. Even its last place teams, USF and UCF, came within 10 games of finishing .500. Only one team, Memphis, really had a tough season, finishing 17 games under .500. The rest of the league either competed well in the conference or competed well out of the conference.
Last year, the AAC sent four teams to the national tournament, more than the Big 12. Tulane was among them. This year, they won the regular season title in their league and came within a victory of both the conference championship game and 40 wins. Placing them against Boston College is a loud challenge to both teams.
For BC, it's a challenge to go out and beat a top-tier team from a lesser league. Before they can step up and challenge the likes of Ole Miss, they'll need to beat the top contender from a league that's not the SEC. It's a lot like fighting a Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun before moving to Las Vegas to fight at Mandalay Bay in that regard.
For Tulane, it's the same storyline with a different twist. Giving them a #2 seed is recognition of what they've accomplished, but with Boston College's resume, it's a challenge to overcome a team capable of beating anybody. It's far from a gimme game for the Green Wave, just as it's far from a gimme game for the Eagles.
Tulane is a storied baseball team, one that even made an NCAA Tournament the year that Hurricane Katrina ravaged its campus in New Orleans. They're a team that knows how to get to this level, and they know how to win at this level. That makes them a mid-major team that's far from the middle of the pack.