The Oxford Regional is widely recognized as the NCAA Tournament's "Group of Death." In one corner is the host school, the seventh-seeded team in their conference who finished fourth in their division. That team made the conference semifinals in what might be the nation's most talented conference, and they'll have the advantage of playing before a wild and raucous home crowd.
In another corner stands a regular season conference champion, a team that has something to prove after being ousted in their conference tournament. They're a baseball power from a mid-major league, and they bring with them a resume befitting anyone from a power league. They know how to win, and, perhaps more importantly, they're capable of doing it.
In a third corner is the team that won't quit. The preseason underdog, they do one thing exceptionally well, perhaps better than anyone else in the regional. Nobody in their right mind thinks they're capable of winning it all, but that's the type of team this group is. When everyone doubts, they rise to the occasion. They've been proving people wrong all year, and they've been proving them wrong in the nation's best league.
And the fourth team is the team that has a poor record and otherwise poor resume. You really can't bet on them because, head-to-head, they don't have the record. But they won a power conference, and while that conference isn't what it used to be, it's still worth noting. Name another regional, after all, whose worst-seeded team is a power conference champion.
Four teams all harbor the same dream. Let's look at each and size why each of them win and lose this weekend as the Road to Omaha begins.
1) Ole Miss Rebels
Why They Win: Ole Miss is arguably the best overall team. They enter the weekend with a .279 batting average, and although they aren't the most powerful team, they're the most capable of scoring runs. That offsets their pitching staff, which struggles at times with keeping guys off base (.260 opp. average)
Ole Miss wins this regional because they draw the right matchups. Their lineup should be able to beat Utah in the first game, setting up a second game where they avoid the ace of both Boston College and Tulane. That opens the door for their lineup to put some runs up against the second starter, coasting into the final game with no losses. Spotting a loss sets them up to play against someone's depth starter on Monday or against an ace on short rest. If Ole Miss can win the first two games, who would bet on them to lose two straight games?
Why They Lose: The pitching staff is good but not great, and both Tulane and BC have good to elite pitching staffs. Even if they can get past Utah, that second starter might not provide the drop-off that you might expect. At the same time, Utah isn't a sure thing; the Utes have the highest batting average and slugged their way to the Pac-12 title. If Ole Miss stumbles in the first game, that could be a major issue and setback for the hosts.
2) Tulane Green Wave
Why They Win: Tulane is a good baseball team that would've hit 40 wins if they hadn't slipped up in the conference tournament. They have a resume boasting a good chunk of wins over power conference teams, including two out of three they won at Texas. They have the tools and the talent to wipe the floor with the regional, provided everything comes together.
What makes Tulane so dangerous to this regional is that they have arguably the deepest pitching staff on the mound. If they defeat Justin Dunn, they'll get past the guy who might be the best individual pitcher, but they can follow up Emerson Gibb with any one of several solid options.
Why They Lose: As our friends over at Red Cup Rebellion pointed out, this team is very boom or bust. They can mash the ball, and they have three guys in double digit homer numbers. They do not, however, have more than one guy hitting .300 or better. Facing a guy like Dunn, if the ball stays in the yard, they could lose the first game and wind up in an elimination game where anything is possible. Remember that teams that lose in the first round seldom even force a deciding game in their bracket, let alone win it.
3) Boston College Eagles
Why They Win: Tulane might have the deepest overall staff, but the Eagles have the best starting pitching and pitching, as the adage goes, wins championships. BC is built around what might be the best starting rotation in the entire tournament.
On any other staff and even within his own, Mike King would be pitching the first game of the weekend, but because BC has Justin Dunn, King is pushed back to the second game. That means the Eagles are coming at the first two games with front-of-the-rotation starters. If that pilots them to two wins, that sets them up to play with house money in the Regional Final.
This tournament berth also means more to BC than it does to any other team. Everyone in the nation is hearing about the chemistry and togetherness that exists within this roster; that makes them incredibly dangerous since there's the chip on their shoulder and a refusal to lose consistently.
Why They Lose: The offense rebounded to hit well enough by the end of the year, but it's still a gaping hole. They hit well at times, but they don't hit well consistently. They're not very adept at scoring runs, and with runs at a premiums, losing a 1-0 game somewhere along the line is always a possibility.
For BC's sake, "happy to be here" needs to shift into "our time" by first pitch too. They've become the toast of Boston in a normally dead media time (save for Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz and their inability to throw strikes), and it's brought a lot of very good publicity to the program. To advance further, they have to put the good vibrations on the shelf and get back to having that chip on their shoulder and swagger that comes with being a northern team that once shoveled out its batting cage for practice.
4) Utah Utes
Why The Win: Utah has by far the worst pitching in the regional, and their top starter, Jayson Rose, would either be a depth arm or end-of-the-rotation starter for the rest of the programs. But since he's at least decent, he's capable of spinning a very good outing. He's also going to be playing with house money since his team is facing the host school on their lawn.
If pitching devolves in this regional, it may actually favor the Utes, who are hitting .281 as a team. If they can get guys on base, anything is possible, right?
Why They Lose: Had they not won their conference, they wouldn't have even come close to touching the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, the Pac-12 was a bad league this year, which is a big reason why a sub-.500 winds up winning the whole damn thing.
I don't necessarily know what to make of Utah. Power conference teams scare me in any setting, and I think they have a lot to play for because everyone is going to be saying they don't belong. But they won their league in a down year - and that league doesn't have a conference tournament.