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Tar Heels are on top but SEC poised for another big year

Photo: /AP

Kent Emanuel returns as the ace of North Carolina's talented starting rotation.

The SEC has dominated college baseball for more than a decade, annually accounting for more NCAA Tournament berths in the 64-team field than any other conference. With the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M this season, it would not be surprising if a record 10 schools from the conference were selected for the tournament.

But just like last year, when Arizona upset two-time defending champion South Carolina to win the title, the SEC is no guarantee to finish the year on top. The biggest challenges to the SEC's dominance could expected from the ACC, starting with a number one team that has become fixture at the College World Series but is still searching for the first national championship in school history, and the first for the ACC since 1955.

1. North Carolina

2012: 46-16, lost in Chapel Hill Regional

Depth, talent and motivation are all ingredients that make North Carolina a good bet to get back to Omaha for the sixth time in eight years.

The Tar Heels are still smarting from last season's home regional upset loss to St. John's.

"We have the capability of being a better offensive team, but time will tell with that," said North Carolina coach Mike Fox. "Hopefully, all the guys from last year and a few freshmen will surprise us with some production and we'll be better offensively.

"We've got a really challenging schedule and some great arms, so we may have some low scoring games, then it's about pitching and defense."

Four players ? third baseman Colin Moran (.365, 3 HR, 35 RBIs), outfielders Chaz Frank (.293, 39 RBIs, 16 SB) and Parks Jordan (.270, 31 RBIs) and first baseman Cody Stubbs (.258, 5 HR, 35 RBIs) ? return who each had at least 30 RBIs last season. Moran, limited last season by a broken hand, is among the nation's top hitters. Two freshmen, shortstop Landon Lassiter and outfielder Skye Bolt, have moved into the starting lineup.

On the mound, Carolina returns 60 of its 62 starts from last season. Lefthanders Kent Emanuel (8-4, 1.96, 100 SO in 110 IP) and Hobbs Johnson (7-1, 1.56, 69 SO in 58 IP) and righty Benton Moss (7-2, 1.94, 83 SO in 79 IP) comprise a weekend rotation that put up some of the best numbers in the nation. Florida State is the only team in the country with more starting rotation wins (25) returning.

Sophomore reliever Mason McCullough pitched just nine innings last season, but is ready to bid for the closer's role with a fastball that touches 98 mph and sits in the 92-96 mph range.

2. Arkansas

2012: 46-22, reached College World Series

Arkansas may have been a year ahead of schedule when it advanced to the CWS last season. This Razorbacks team looks to return with an experienced group bolstered with reinforcements from back-to-back recruiting classes that were among the nation's best.

Arkansas didn't have a particularly potent offense last year. The Razorbacks hit .271 as a team, but they made up for it with execution and timely hits.

Junior second baseman Dominic Ficociello (.290, 6 HR, 41 RBIs) possess the most power in a lineup that will look for increased production from catcher Jake Wise (.244, 2 HR, 25 RBIs), outfielder Jacob Morris (.236, 3 HR, 23 RBIs) and third baseman Brian Anderson (.283, 2 HR, 11 RBIs).

Junior RHP Ryne Stanek (8-4, 2.82) is the team's top returning starting pitcher. The rest of the rotation will take shape in early-season games, although it appears last year's closer, junior RHP Barrett Astin (3-5, 1.99, 11 SV), will move into the rotation.

The key for Arkansas is getting the game in the hands of perhaps the nation's deepest bullpen. LHP Jalen Beeks, a sophomore transfer, is expected to replace Astin in the closer's role. Righties Colby Suggs, Brandon Moore and Trey Killian and lefties Trent Daniel, Michael Gunn, Cade Lynch and Tyler Wright give coach Dave Van Horn options for every occasion.

3. Vanderbilt

2012: 35-28, lost in Raleigh Regional

Vanderbilt featured one of the most balanced teams in the nation two years ago when it reached the CWS for the first time in school history. This year's team is similarly balanced and comes into the season with aspirations of getting back to Omaha.

"If you ask me what our strength is, it's some leadership and older guys who have been around," said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. "I trust how they're going to play and I trust what their output will be."

The Commordores field one of the most experienced lineups around, led by senior outfielders Mike Yastrzemski (.286, 6 HR, 41 RBIs, 14 SB) and Connor Harrell (.241, 7 HR, 26 RBIs) and juniors Tony Kemp (.261, 31 RBIs, 21 SB), Conrad Gregor (.328, 3 HR, 35 RBIs, 10 SB) and Spencer Navin (.298, 3 HR, 27 RBIs).

The weekend rotation returns with righthanders T.J. Pecoraro (2-4, 3.40) and Tyler Beede (1-5, 4.52, 68 SO in 72 IP) and LHP Kevin Ziomek (5-6, 5.22, 79 SO in 79 IP). Their numbers didn't sparkle last season, but Corbin expects their talent to take over this year. Sophomore righty Brian Miller (0-2, 3.26, 5 SV) is at the back of a solid bullpen.

4. LSU

2012: 47-18, lost in Baton Rouge Super Regional

The players on LSU's talented roster are fueled by memories of falling short last season, when they were stunned by Stony Brook, the Cinderella that advanced to the CWS instead of the Tigers.

LSU has come to regard Omaha as a second home over the past three decades. The Tigers have reached the CWS 15 times and won six national championships. Only USC (12) has won more titles than LSU.

The Tigers' last CWS appearance ? and national title ? was in 2009. It will be unacceptable to their demanding fans if the team doesn't return this season. And it should.

Seniors Mason Katz (.320, 13 HR, 52 RBIs, 8 SB) and Raph Rhymes (.431, 4 HR, 53 RBIs) and juniors Ty Ross (.292, 3 HR, 41 RBIs) and JaCoby Jones (.253, 4 HR, 29 RBIs, 11 SB) are the core returners on what should again be among the nation's most productive offenses.

Righties Aaron Nola (7-4, 3.61, 89 SO in 90 IP) and Ryan Eades (5-3, 3.83) anchor the starting rotation. The biggest question is who slides into the open closer's role? The early indication is that senior lefty Chris Cotton (7-0, 1.59), who was outstanding in 36 appearances out of the bullpen last season, will finish.

5. UCLA

2012: 43-16, reached College World Series

UCLA has won more national championships (108 at last count) across all sports than any school in the country. There are no baseball titles among them, although Bruins coach John Savage has elevated the program into a national contender in recent years.

UCLA has made the CWS two of the past three years and lost in the finals against South Carolina in 2010.

If the Bruins are to return this season, it will be behind a starting rotation that includes junior righthanders Adam Plutko (10-3, 2.48, 99 SO in 120 IP) and Nick Vander Tuig (10-4, 4.43) and sophomore southpaw Grant Watson (9-2, 4.45).

"The core strength of our team is pitching," said Savage, who knows it will have to carry the Bruins until the offense gains some experience.

UCLA took a hit in the field from draft losses ? two catchers and three outfielders signed ? but returners in shortstop Pat Valaika (.266, 39 RBIs), first baseman Cody Regis (.239, 25 RBIs), second baseman Kevin Williams (.302, 21 RBIs), third baseman Kevin Kramer (.281, 13 RBIs) and catcher Shane Zeile (.371, 10 RBIs) form a good nucleus.

6. Stanford

2012: 41-18, lost in Tallahassee Super Regional

Stanford this season commemorates the 25th anniversary of its last CWS championship. The Cardinal won the school's only titles back-to-back in 1987 and '88, though the team has been back to Omaha nine times since then.

Stanford coach Mark Marquess believes this team could return to the CWS behind a strong pitching staff.

"When all's said and done, the game is about pitching," said Marquess. "You need to have pitching if we're going to go as far as we'd like."

Stanford can start with senior righty Mark Appel (10-2, 2.56, 130 SO in 123 IP), who is regarded as the nation's top pitcher. Appel was selected by the Pirates at No. 8 overall but didn't sign and so is back to anchor the Cardinal's rotation. Sophomore LHP John Hochstatter (3-3, 4.53) should be a strong No. 2 starter after emerging late last season. The third starter for the weekend rotation could emerge from among five freshmen who are part of one of the nation's top recruiting classes.

The Cardinal lost five starters in the field to the draft last season, but returns a pair of preseason All-Americans in junior outfielder Austin Wilson (.285, 10 HR, 54 RBIs) and junior first baseman Brian Ragira (.329, 5 HR, 50 RBIs). Junior shortstop Lonnie Kauppila (.280, 13 RBI) is healthy again after missing the last two months of the 2012 season with a knee injury. Two-sport athlete Zach Hoffpauir bears watching. The freshman, who played strong safety for the Stanford football team, could start in the outfield.

7. South Carolina

2012: 49-20, lost to Arizona in CWS finals

Ray Tanner, who coached South Carolina to the first two national titles in the history of the school in 2010 and '11, became the school's AD soon after last year's CWS, turning the team over to assistant Chad Holbrook. It should be a seamless transition for the Gamecocks, who have enjoyed nearly unprecedented success over the past decade.

"Coach Tanner's fingerprints will be all over our program," said Holbrook. "He has been terrific in helping me with this transition. It has been a whirlwind, and it has been a lot of fun."

South Carolina has reached the CWS six times in 11 years, playing for four national championships and winning those back-to-back titles.

Obviously, there has been some turnover after three straight championship series appearances, but the pieces are there to maintain a high level of success.

"I don't talk to our team about Omaha and the pressures of getting back to the College World Series," said Holbrook. "I talk about, 'Hey, let's be good today.' "

The Gamecocks should be real good, led by first baseman and cleanup hitter LB Dantzler (.262, 10 HR, 48 RBIs). Shortstop Joey Pankake (.264, 27 RBIs) and centerfielder Tanner English (.298, 23 RBIs, 12 SB), both sophomores, will make the team strong up the middle.

Senior righthander Colby Holmes (7-2, 3.05) and sophomore lefty Jordan Montgomery (6-1, 3.62), a freshman All-American, will anchor the weekend rotation. Senior lefty Tyler Webb (6-1, 1.56, 3 SV), who appeared in 39 games last season, becomes the full-time closer.

8. Oregon State

2012: 40-20, lost in Baton Rouge Regional

It's been six years since the Oregon State won back-to-back national championships ? making it the only Northwest school to win the CWS ? but the Beavers remain among the country's elite programs.

Longtime coach Pat Casey has eight position starters returning along with 10 pitchers who accounted for 38 of the team's 40 victories.

The offense is led by sophomore outfielder Michael Conforto (.349, 17 HR, 76 RBIs), who last season had one of the finest debut's in school history. Shortstop Tyler Smith (.343, 39 RBIs), catcher Jake Rodriguez (.290, 28 RBIs) and outfielder Dylan Davis (.247, 30) are the team's other top returning run producers.

The weekend rotation returns intact with lefties Ben Wetzler (8-2, 3.10) and Jace Fry (5-3, 2.45) and righty Dan Child (6-4, 2.95).

Eight others to watch

Florida (47-20, reached College World Series) ? The Gators have the talent to make a fourth straight trip to the CWS, but the task will be taller with junior righty Karsten Whitson (shoulder) sidelined for the season.

Florida State (50-17, reached College World Series) ? The Seminoles have reached the NCAA Tournament 35 straight years. Righty Mike Compton (12-2, 2.87) and lefty Brandon Leibrandt (8-3, 2.82) aim to lead them to their 22nd CWS berth.

Kentucky (45-18, lost in Gary Regional) ? The Wildcats broke the school record for wins last season. They hope to break through in the postseason this year, led by sophomore centerfielder Austin Cousino (.319, 9 HR, 41 RBIs, 15 SB, 61 R).

Louisville (41-22, lost in Tucson Regional) ? Six years removed from the school's only CWS appearance, the Cardinals are primed to make another run at it with eight position players (including DH) returning from a team that averaged 6.8 runs a game last season.

Mississippi State (40-24, lost in Tallahassee Regional) ? Another team that returns nearly its entire starting lineup. It's a group that won the SEC Tournament last season and has similar aspirations this year.

North Carolina State (43-20, lost in Gainesville Super Regional) ?Lefty Carlos Rodon (9-0, 1.57), the ACC Pitcher of the Year as a freshman, leads an outstanding sophomore class for the Wolfpack.

Oregon (46-19, lost in Eugene Super Regional) ? An upset loss to Kent State that prevented a trip to the CWS provides major motivation for seven returning position starters and four returning starting pitchers.

TCU (40-22, lost in Los Angeles Super Regional) ? The Horned Frogs move to the Big 12, where they will be more tested than in the Mountain West they left behind. Righties Preston Morrison (9-2, 2.08) and Stefan Crichton (9-2, 3.41) boost a pitching staff backed by a strong offense.

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