Five things to watch for this season in college baseball:
1. Player of the Year Race
There is no once-in-a-generation pitcher, like San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg was in 2009, in the college ranks this season. Nor is there great depth of power arms, as was evident last year when the first three picks and nine of the first 20 selections in the MLB draft, including UCLA's Gerrit Cole, who went No. 1 overall to the Pirates, were college pitchers.
This is not to say the college cupboard is bare. It just isn't stocked with the top-tier talent of previous years. Stanford junior righthander Mark Appel is regarded as the prize pick among the pitchers. Florida catcher Mike Zunino, the SEC Player of the Year, and Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero are viewed as the top two position players. The 6-foot-5 Appel (6-7, 3.02 ERA, 86 Ks, 29 BB in 110 1/3 IP) didn't produce eye-popping numbers last season, but he has a fastball that touches 99 and sits in the mid-90s. His off-speed pitches are good and getting better. His key this season will be realizing some of the promise scouts have seen since he stepped on the Stanford campus.
Zunino has nothing to prove after leading Florida last season with a .371 batting average, 19 home runs and 67 RBIs. He'll just need to go out and do it again for the scouts, which include his father, Greg, who evaluates talent for the Cincinnati Reds. Marrero, meanwhile, didn't wow anyone with his offensive skills last year, when he batted .313 with two home runs and 20 RBIs. It was different on defense, where his glovework earned him Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honros. Marrero's defensive prowess is obvious to anyone who has seen him field just a couple ground balls, but he won't have any opportunities to show his stuff when it matters most. ASU is banned from the NCAA Tournament this year as a result of past transgressions.
2. The SEC is more than a football power
On the gridiron, Southeastern Conference Schools have won the past six national championships, and that dominance extends to the baseball field as well. It was an all-SEC final last year, with South Carolina defeating Florida in the championship series to win its second straight title and the third in a row for the conference. In 2009, LSU won the school's six title, all since 1991, and Georgia won it all in 1990.
This season there are a half dozen SEC teams that could make a serious bid to reach the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. Florida -- SI.com's preseason No. 1 team -- South Carolina and LSU will be joined among the top teams in the nation by Arkansas, Georgia and Vanderbilt. Florida is the favorite because the Gators return so many veterans from last year's runner-up team. But South Carolina has proven resourceful and resilient. The Gamecocks are bidding for a Threepeat, the first since that other USC (the one from Southern California) won five straight titles from 1970-74.
The SEC has produced a record nine NCAA Tournament teams on three occasions and could challenge that record this year. So strong is the SEC's pull that in the offseason Tennessee, bidding to get back in the mix, enticed Cal State-Fullerton head coach Dave Serrano to leave his alma mater, which just happens to be one of the nation's winningest programs, and take over in Knoxville.
3. Old faces in new places
Starting this year, the conference realignment driven by football will make a significant impact across the baseball landscape. The highest profile team to switch this season was Nebraska, which joined the Big Ten from the Big 12. Maybe it's the Big Ten's way of buying a trip back to the CWS. The Cornhuskers made the 50-mile drive from Lincoln to Omaha three times over the past decade, although they haven't been there since 2005. A six-year drought is nothing to the Big Ten, however. The conference hasn't been represented at the CWS since Michigan made it in 1984 (Ohio State's 1966 title was the last of the conference's six championships).
BYU and Utah moved this season from the Mountain West Conference to the West Coast Conference and the Pac-12, respectively. That left the Mountain West with just five teams, one shy of the NCAA requirement to receive an automatic postseason berth, tough the conference received a special dispensation for an automatic berth both this year and next. The MWC adds Nevada and Fresno State from the Western Athletic Conference in 2013, but it loses San Diego State (to the Big West Conference) and Texas Christian (to the Big 12). Also going to the Big 12 next year is West Virginia. Bigger news -- big surprise -- is in the SEC, which next year adds Missouri and Texas A&M, the latter of which was among the eight participants at last year's CWS.
4. Back in the swing of things?
All the talk at this time last year was about modifications to the bats, which added the acronym BBCOR ? for Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution ? to our baseball vocabulary. In simple terms, restrictions were placed on the bats to reduce their potency and curtail offensive output. According to NCAA figures comparing the 2010 season to 2011, team batting averages dropped from .305 to .282, scoring from 6.98 to 5.58 runs per game and home runs from 0.94 to 0.52 per game. The averages were the lowest since the mid-1970s, when the aluminum bat was introduced to the game. Obviously, the pitchers were the beneficiaries. Team ERAs dropped from 5.95 to 4.67, the lowest figure since 1980.
Year 2 of the BBCOR era bears watching mostly to see how well players have adjusted to the new bats and whether so-called "small ball" continues its comeback. There is this though: Prodded by Alabama, Nike this year is allowing every school it has under contract to swing the bat of its choice. So it will be interesting to see if the Crimson Tide and schools like Georgia, Kentucky, Miami, North Carolina and USC stay with the Swoosh or swing for the fences with another brand. And, more importantly, does it make any difference?
5. Upon further review
Replay comes to college baseball, although it will be limited to the College World Series and used only on questionable home run calls (fair or foul, homer or ground-rule double). Blame Florida's Brian Johnson, who had the audacity during the 2011 CWS to hit a ball to right-center at TD Ameritrade Park that should have been a home run but was ruled a double by the umpires. Replays showed the ball hit above the yellow home run line atop the outfield wall and bounced back on the field after striking a protective railing.
"I would prefer the umpire to make the call as opposed to another official," the NCAA's Dennis Poppe said at the time. "I don't want to take the human element out of this. But I don't want to lose something if it's something we can correct."
The NCAA has spent the past several years trying to figure out ways to speed up games, not slow them down, so don't expect this to expand to the regular season. The CWS is the only venue where enough cameras are in place to do such reviews, anyway.