Why one ESPN analyst thinks Tennessee baseball has championship potential in 2023, too | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

I never expected to see the Tennessee Vols ranked No. 1 in August.

But I never saw Tony Vitello coming, either.

That’s right. I’m talking college baseball in August, which is ground-breaking for this column.

I realize football season is near, and Tennessee fans are more concerned about how good freshman wide receiver Squirrel White could be in coach Josh Heupel’s offense than how Cincinnati transfer outfielder Gavin Merritt might fit into Tennessee’s batting order.

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But I can’t resist.

Don’t blame me. Blame Vitello. He’s the one who sparked my interest in college baseball. In five seasons, the first-time head coach has turned an SEC weakling into a national powerhouse.

Never mind that the Vols season came up a game short of the College World Series. Their 57-9 season was historic. What came next is also head-turning.

The Vols’ eight starting position players have departed. Their pitching depth has taken a hit, too. But guess what? They’re still ranked No. 1 in a couple of “way too early” Top 25 polls for 2023. Those polls accounted for most of Tennessee’s losses to the MLB Draft as well as transfer comings and goings at UT and elsewhere.

Now, back to a more familiar August topic.

Notice how Alabama football under coach Nick Saban is always ranked in the top four in preseason regardless of how many stars and starters it loses from its previous season.

Georgia under Kirby Smart is perceived similarly after winning a national championship. So what if it lost 15 players to the NFL draft. It’s still a favorite to win the SEC East and make the College Football Playoff.

Tennessee's Head Coach Tony Vitello during game two of the NCAA Knoxville Super Regionals between Tennessee and Notre Dame at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, June 11, 2022.

You know you have arrived as a program when your status is minimally affected by player turnover. That characterization now applies to Tennessee baseball.

“They’re coming off one of the best regular seasons ever,” said former Vols star Chris Burke, now a baseball analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network. “Even though the names change, the winning formula is in place.

“I think they will be a preseason top three. Maybe No. 1 if LSU hadn’t just destroyed the transfer portal. I think Tennessee will have the best pitching … Pitching is still king.”

LSU added UCLA pitcher Thatcher Hurd, power-hitting Tommy White from N.C. State and catcher/relief pitcher Paul Skenes from Air Force. White and Skenes will add two more home run threats to a lineup that already includes All-American Dylan Crews.

The Vols also have benefited from the transfer portal. They have added three surefire starters – Maui Ahuna, an All-Big 12 shortstop at Kansas; Merritt, the AAC player of the year; and Alabama third baseman Zane Denton, who totaled 23 home runs the past two seasons while making the All-SEC defensive team.

The Vols will return designated hitters Blake Burke and Christian Moore, who combined for 24 home runs as freshmen, and outfielder/catcher Jared Dickey, who batted .380 in 40 games but missed a third of the season with a leg injury.

But starting pitching is where Tennessee could separate itself from the competition. Starters Chase Dollander, Chase Burns and Drew Beam all could become first-round MLB Draft picks.

“You know what you have in Dollander, Burns and Beam,” Burke said. “Dollander has a chance to go first (in the draft). Burns is going to throw 100.

“I think Drew Beam has a chance to be the pitcher of the year. He just looks like he’s made of all the right stuff to be a completely lights-out college starter. And he’s just going to get stronger.”

You might say the same for Tennessee baseball.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or Follow him at: