NASHVILLE — A showdown between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at the College World Series with a national championship on the line would have all the emotions of their in-state rivalry bubbling up like a family brawl.
The Southeastern Conference schools separated by 179 miles of Interstate 40 are on opposite sides of the CWS brackets, so a championship matchup is possible. It also makes it easier for both baseball teams' coaches to shower each other with compliments about what it means in the state for the Volunteers and the Commodores to be in Omaha, Nebraska, for the eight-team College World Series that begins Saturday.
"It creates energy inside of this state for an 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-old that looks up and sees Tennessee on TV, Vanderbilt on TV, and it inspires kids to want to play, and that's all that matters," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said.
His Commodores are the reigning national champs as the winners of the 2019 CWS — it was not held last year due to the coronavirus pandemic — and Corbin said he's happy the Vols, coached by Tony Vitello, are among the three SEC teams in Omaha. Mississippi State, the No. 7 national seed for the NCAA tournament that started with 64 teams early this month, will also be at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. Tennessee (50-16) is the No. 3 seed and Vanderbilt (45-15) is No. 4.
Corbin said he knew after his Commodores won the lone series between the teams during the regular season, 2-1 in Knoxville, that the Vols would reach Omaha. Corbin said that's why he looks past the rivalry between the programs.
"Tony's done such a good job with his team," Corbin said. "When we played them, I think I made mention to, might've been the players but certainly the coaches, how that's going to end up being an Omaha team. You could just feel it. They were very aggressive, tenacious. They played hard."
Corbin said a team being good enough to make the CWS doesn't mean they will make it there. Just look at No. 1 Arkansas, which was eliminated by consecutive one-run losses to North Carolina State last weekend after winning 21-2 in the opening game of the Fayetteville Super Regional.
"It's a tough, tough deal, and we all recognize the difficulty of getting to Omaha," Corbin said.
It's easy for Corbin, who took over the Nashville program starting with the 2003 season, to be gracious. All five of Vanderbilt's CWS berths have been earned during his tenure, with the first in 2011, and already the Commodores have two national titles, having also won in 2014.
This is the first time for Vitello bringing a team to Omaha as a head coach, and the former Arkansas assistant is only in his fourth season at Tennessee, including a 15-2 start in 2020 wiped out by the pandemic. The Vols hadn't been to the CWS since 2005 until clinching this berth with a super regional sweep of LSU last weekend.
Vitello said he only wishes Corbin had told him April 18 to improve his mood after a 10-4 loss to Vanderbilt in Knoxville. He said that series helped his Vols get better, and he sees only positives about both teams reaching the CWS because of what it means for the entire state.
The population boom in Nashville has helped improve baseball with new facilities being built in Tennessee. Vitello sees the Vols and Vanderbilt reaching the CWS in the same year as the next step creating more interest.
"To me, this should be another spark for yet another flame in the communities that we're all surrounded by, and bleeding all the way down into west Tennessee and closer to Memphis," Vitello said. "It should spark even another age group or maybe another wave of improvement in the baseball in our state."
However, the Commodores and Vols won't face each other until next season unless each advances out of the double-elimination brackets to reach the best-of-three championship series that begins June 28.
The CWS begins this weekend with a doubleheader of first-round matchups each day. On Saturday, surprising N.C. State (35-18) faces ninth-seeded Stanford (38-15) at 2 p.m. Eastern, and Vanderbilt takes on No. 5 Arizona (45-16) at 7 with ESPN televising both games. ESPN2 will televise Sunday's games: Tennessee plays Virginia (35-25) at 2 p.m., and Mississippi State (45-16) goes against No. 2 Texas (47-15) at 7.
Tennessee has been doing its part to fan the flames of attention its baseball program is receiving. Peyton Manning, the former Vols quarterback and five-time NFL MVP who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, taught Vitello the proper way to say "Omaha" in a video shared Tuesday on social media.
"He's hosted 'Saturday Night Live,' for gosh sakes, and I've got no idea what I'm doing," Vitello said. "And I know anything that Peyton's in is going to get attention."