2024 Men's College World Series: What you need to know before the games begin Friday

From No. 1 Tennessee to unranked Florida, let's break down the MCWS field and the players to watch in Omaha

OMAHA — There’s nothing quite like the Men’s College World Series. The only thing more unpredictable than the Omaha weather is the baseball itself.

A year ago, we were treated to a particularly iconic edition. LSU, led by Paul Skenes and Dylan Crews and Tommy White, stampeded to an unforgettable championship. Skenes and Crews were generational talents drafted first and second overall the next month. Their scintillating performances on the national stage drew interest and eyeballs toward college baseball.

And while almost nothing will match the sheer quality of last year’s edition — that Skenes-Rhett Lowder elimination-game showdown was one of the greatest college baseball contests ever — each year’s mid-June trip to Eastern Nebraska brings a fresh batch of storylines and a new cadre of heroes to be crowned. This season’s crop is no different. There are two-way superheroes, future first-rounders, transfer-portal veterans and graduate students in their mid-20s. There’s nothing quite like it.

The College World Series begins this week, with Tennessee the favorite among the eight-team field. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)
The College World Series begins this week, with Tennessee the favorite among the eight-team field. But this event always tends to bring the chaos. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

Now, the most important thing to know about college baseball in 2024 is that offense is through the roof. A multitude of factors are at play: better bats, potentially juicier balls, older hitters, worse pitchers and small ballparks. Understand that you’ll see a home run or two that, off the bat, look a whole lot like flyouts. It gets a bit silly sometimes, but it also means that no game is ever truly out of reach. Fun! And chaotic!

This is also the most top-heavy CWS in history. Just two conferences, the SEC and the ACC, make up this year’s field. These leagues, considered by far the two best in the sport, have four teams apiece. It’s the first time since 1948 that only two conferences are represented in the MCWS; there were only two teams that year.

It’s a fitting finale for a sport that has gotten progressively more top-heavy over the past decade and looks set to amplify that trend with the dissolution of the Pac-12. But let’s shelve that macro debate until the confetti has long since fallen and, for now, appreciate the wonderful baseball ahead of us.

Use March Madness as a template. Like in college basketball, 64 teams make up the Division I college baseball postseason — a mix of at-large bids and conference tournament winners. But instead of the traditional bracket, baseball has 16 four-team, double-elimination regionals hosted on the campuses of the nation’s top 16 seeds. Those 16 winners are then paired up for best-of-three “Super Regionals” that halve the field and send the eight remaining clubs to Omaha for the big shebang.

The MCWS itself is structured in two double-elimination brackets, each with four teams apiece. The two winners then face off in a best-of-three series for all the marbles. There are two games per day until the teams get weeded out, and the whole thing takes about 10 days.

Got it? Good. Let’s go team by team.

National rank: 7

OPS rank: 20th (.940)

ERA rank: 15th (4.22)

Number of CWS appearances: 12, most recently in 2022

Number of national championships: 0

Pro prospect to remember: Vance Honeycutt is the rare high-risk, high-reward first-round college hitter. He has outrageous raw tools and a strikeout problem that MLB scouting directors will lose sleep over. The electrifying center fielder could be Brewers-era Carlos Gomez or never make the big leagues.

What you need to know: This group is battle-tested after surviving an avalanche of dramatic games so far this postseason. In the regional, they knocked off defending champion LSU in an extra-inning nail-biter. Then they won Game 1 of the Super Regional on a Honeycutt walk-off. They have a fun combo of youth and experience, with talented freshmen such as 3B Gavin Gallaher and C Luke Stevenson, plus old geezers such as grad transfer RF Anthony Donofrio and senior 1B Parks Harber. UNC has two dependable starters in Shea Sprague and Jory DeCaro. Sprague is a classic, changeup-heavy pitchability guy who can put the rock right where it needs to be. DeCaro, a long-limbed, baby-giraffe-looking freshman with a hammer curveball, could develop into a true ace in the future.

National rank: 16

OPS rank: 4th (1.004)

ERA rank: 88th (5.39)

Number of CWS appearances: 7, all since 2009. This is their third appearance in the past four years.

Number of national championships: 1 (2014)

Pro prospect to remember: Griff O’Ferrall is a scrap-dog shortstop who checks all the old-school scouting boxes and then some. A three-year starter at short, O’Ferrall has outstanding contact skills, and he added a squeeze of juice to his game this season, which should get him picked late in the top two rounds.

What you need to know: Virginia made its ascension in the college baseball world behind pitching, but these are not your father’s Cavs. This might be the single most talented position-player group in UVA history, as there are future big leaguers up and down the lineup. Also, Jay Woolfolk is a cool story on the mound. He was UVA’s starting quarterback for a bit but fully committed to baseball this season. The undersized, hyper-athletic righty wasn’t great this year, but he elevated his game with two sensational starts in the postseason. He’s a huge X-factor for the Cavaliers in Omaha.

Jay Woolfolk of the Virginia Cavaliers pitches against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Baseball Championship on May 25 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
Jay Woolfolk of the Virginia Cavaliers pitches against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Baseball Championship on May 25 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

National rank: 1

OPS rank: 2nd (1.029)

ERA rank: 3rd (3.83)

Number of CWS appearances: 7. This is their third in the past four years.

Number of national championships: 0

Pro prospect to remember: Christian Moore is just one of the five Volunteers projected in the top few rounds, but you can learn about Billy Amick, Drew Beam, Kavares Tears and Blake Burke on your own dime. Moore is a Brooklyn-raised second baseman already built like a big leaguer. His physical strength, which powered 32 bombs this season, is Samson-ian. That said, there are some hit tool worries, which will be amplified if he can’t move up the defensive spectrum.

What you need to know: No No. 1 overall team has won it all since Miami in 1999, but these Vols aren’t a prototypical juggernaut top seed like we’ve seen in some recent years. They hoover up outs, but the pitching lacks high-end velocity and can get a little patchwork beyond Beam, who is a very dependable presence. The offense, however, is fearsome and magnificent. Led by Moore, Burke, Amick and Tears, this group set a program record with a Div. I-leading 173 homers. Edgy skipper Tony Vitello has his lovers and his haters (side note: I’m incredibly pro-Vitello), but there’s no doubting that he has built a powerhouse in his image. This team is passionate, ferocious and out to prove that it entered the postseason ranked No. 1 for a reason.

National rank: 10

OPS rank: 6th (.975)

ERA rank: 48th (4.86)

Number of CWS appearances: 24, third-most in the history of the sport. This is their first since 2019.

Number of national championships: 0 (Yes, FSU is 0-for-24 in Omaha.)

Pro prospect to remember: James Tibbs is built like a pro wrestler and slams like one, too. The hulking, stocky outfielder had a historic season in Tallahassee, with 28 homers. Tibbs has all the offensive traits teams love to see and will go in the top half of the first round.

What you need to know: Florida State holds a very important yet odd place in the history of college baseball. Let's move chronologically. Until last season, they had reached the postseason every year since 1977 and were the only program to post a winning record in every season of its existence. That’s a remarkable level of consistency. For most of that modern history (1980-2019), the Seminoles were led by legendary skipper Mike Martin, who handed off the reins to his son, Mike Martin Jr., in 2020. That went incredibly poorly, so before 2023, Martin Jr. was replaced by FSU grad Link Jarrett, who turned Notre Dame into an ACC power. After Jarrett’s first season with FSU was a catastrophe, the ‘Noles are back with a vengeance and still looking for their first title. Jamie Arnold, a loose-goosey sophomore lefty who moves like Nick Lodolo, is the best pitcher left in the field. Third baseman Cam Smith is a likely first-rounder this year and might be the most improved player in the country.

National rank: 2

OPS rank: 52nd (.900)

ERA rank: 52nd (4.95)

Number of CWS appearances: This is their first.

Number of national championships: 0

Pro prospect to remember: Ryan Waldschmidt suffered a torn ACL last summer in the Cape Cod league but came back this year a new-and-improved version of himself, shooting up draft boards like a heat-seeking firecracker.

What you need to know: The Wildcats are plucky, fierce and feisty. They play a very aggressive style of offense built more around stolen bases than the long ball, a rarity in this era of college baseball. Their pitching is a bit hodgepodge right now behind their No. 1 starter, crafty workhorse Trey Pooser. UK will need other arms, in the pen and in the rotation, to step up like they did in the Super Regional against Oregon State. But the Wildcats’ dugout, a high-energy circus act (in a good way), is the star of the show. There is chanting, chirping, coordinated clapping, choreography and a Spiderman-meme home run celebration. Head coach Nick Mingione is an affable, fun-loving cat who has grown Kentucky from SEC afterthought to consistent contender. He sets the tone and makes these Wildcats a very fun watch.

National rank: 12

OPS rank: 56th (.893)

ERA rank: 156th (6.11)

Number of CWS appearances: 4, most recently in 2021

Number of national championships: 0

Pro prospect to remember: Jacob Cozart is a well-built, defensive-oriented catcher with questions about the bat. He’s a likely pick in the first two rounds and a probable big leaguer, albeit one with a limited ceiling.

What you need to know: In 2021, the Wolfpack rolled into Omaha as a Cinderella story and swiftly knocked off the heavily favored Stanford Cardinal and Vanderbilt Commodores. Then a massive COVID outbreak rocked NC State’s club, leaving them with just 13 healthy players for a rematch with Vandy. They lost that game in heroic fashion and were denied a second bite at the apple when the NCAA declared the winner-take-all game a COVID-influenced forfeit. Only a handful of players from that team remain, including ace Sam Highfill, but head coach Elliott Avent remembers. He leads a team with a very bizarre flavor of unfinished business. This NC State team is paced by two graduate-student transfers at the corners in 3B Alec Makarewicz and 1B Garrett Pennington.

Sam HIighfill and the NC State Wolfpack have some unfinished business in Omaha. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
Sam HIighfill and the NC State Wolfpack have some unfinished business in Omaha. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

National rank: 3

OPS rank: 7th (.974)

ERA rank: 6th (3.94)

Number of CWS appearances: 8

Number of national championships: 0

Pro prospect to remember: Sophomore Jace Laviolette is a 6-foot-6, left-handed hitter with a sweet swing who can play center field. Athletes like that don’t come around often. He’s not draft-eligible until next year, but he’s an early contender to be the No. 1 pick in 2025.

What you need to know: The big news here is that Braden Montgomery, A&M’s junior center fielder and a likely top-15 pick, broke his ankle during the Super Regional and is out for the season. There’s no replacing a true dynamo such as Montgomery, so other hitters, including Laviolette, freshman 3B/likely 2026 first-rounder Gavin Grahovac and graduate-transfer catcher Jackson Appel, will have to pick up the slack. Lefty Ryan Prager is a true ace for the Aggies, and they have a really fun bullpen behind him, led by junkballing lefty Evan Aschenbeck, low-slot joker Brad Rudis and flame-throwing cheesemonger Chris Cortez.

National rank: NR

OPS rank: 57th (.893)

ERA rank: 158th (6.16)

Number of CWS appearances: 14, 10 of them since 2010

Number of national championships: 1 (2017)

Pro prospect to remember: Jac Caglianone became "sports famous" because he hits ‘em 450 feet and can throw ‘em 100 mph. But while he’s Florida’s No. 2 starter, most teams see him as a hitter only at the next level. Still, he’s a likely top-10 pick next month, with a cathedral ceiling and raw power that would already grade out among MLB’s best. Whether he can hit enough to let the magic shine? That’s a different question.

What you need to know: Florida snuck into the 64-team postseason field with a record just one game over .500, thanks to the country’s best strength of schedule. It was a disappointing season from a perennial power that, despite an uber-talented roster, never got rolling. That led to a whole lot of discourse about “what makes a good team?” and “is college baseball too top-heavy?” Then Florida went out and won the regional as a 3 seed before beating Clemson twice on their field to reach Omaha yet again. One college baseball person described it all as “glutinous,” which is spot-on. But the Gators earned their way here and want to rectify the bad taste in their mouths after finishing runners-up last year.