College Baseball Preview

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1. Mississippi Rebels

Of the eight teams that made it to Omaha last year, six considered pitching as one of their most significant strengths. If the Rebels make a run through the NCAA tournament, it will be on the back of a pitching staff that is both deep and top-heavy. Anchoring the rotation are Lance Lynn and Cody Satterwhite -- two of SIOC's top 20 prospects -- and Scott Bittle is a dangerous bullpen arm. In the first weekend of the season, the lineup showed its meddle, averaging 15 runs a game against a solid Minnesota ballclub.

2. Arizona Wildcats

The Wildcats combine a deep pitching staff with good defense and enough power to hit with any team. The rotation features Preston Guilmet -- who is returning after a 12-2, 1.87 ERA sophomore season -- on Friday nights. Closer Jason Stoffel is among the best in the nation, and the team has great bats, including juniors T.J. Steele, Brad Glenn and senior C.J. Ziegler; all are generating interest from MLB clubs.

3. North Carolina Tar Heels

After two-consecutive trips to the College World Series, North Carolina faces the challenge of making a third straight trip. The Heels have a deep lineup and talented pitching staff. Dustin Ackley won opening weekend ACC Player of the Week honors, and the sophomore first baseman faces the impossibility of improving upon his .402/.448/.591 freshman season. The pitching staff has a few arms destined for the first round in ace sophomore Alex White and freshman Matt Harvey and Nate Striz.

4. Arizona State Sun Devils

On Friday, Arizona State was just outside my top eight because I wasn't sure they would have enough pitching. After all, the team just lost two members of their bullpen -- Jason Jarvis and Devin Fuller -- to academic ineligibility. But after ASU beat top 10 teams Vanderbilt and Oregon State handily, it appears they might not have to pitch. The nation's best offense very well could bash their way back to Omaha, and if everyone can stay eligible, their staff is better than a year ago.

5. UCLA Bruins

Coach John Savage faces a difficult challenge this spring as his team has the talent to compete, but many of his players have yet to put it together. Shortstop Brandon Crawford is one of the nation's best players, but his last two seasons haven't accurately reflected his ability. The same could be said about starter Tim Murphy, a southpaw with dangerous stuff and a career of high ERAs. Before arriving at UCLA four seasons ago, Savage built the UC-Irvine program into one of the nation's elite, so you can bet a trip to Rosenblatt is on his wish list.

6. Vanderbilt Commodores

You could argue last year's Vanderbilt team -- which featured two top 10 draft picks in David Price and Casey Weathers -- had a better chance of getting to Omaha than this year's squad. The Commodores certainly don't have the pitching depth of last year's club. This season, however, the team has the nation's top player, Pedro Alvarez, and an enviable lineup and an ace in sophomore Mike Minor who promises to continue Price's tradition of Friday night victories.

7. Miami Hurricanes

The Hurricanes let me down a year ago when I predicted a run to Omaha before the team faded due to injuries and an ineffective pitching staff. With the team healthier and one year older, the 2008 'Canes look more poised than ever for big things. The lineup contains three of SIOC's top 25 prospects (Yonder Alonso, Dennis Raben, JemileWeeks) and solid bats throughout. The pitching staff looks better than ever, especially with freshman Chris Hernandez, who threw six scoreless innings in his college debut.

8. Baylor Bears

The Bears are the biggest sleeper pick on this list, but the talent is undeniable. Sophomore ace Kendal Volz and two-way star Aaron Miller lead the charge while junior Beamer Weems and senior Nick Cassavechia provide veteran leadership. The key for coach Steve Smith will be making sure the team's young players stay consistent and avoid a late-season collapse, especially the offense.

9. Missouri Tigers

Missouri has two of the Cape Cod League's best summer talents on its pitching staff -- Aaron Crow and Kyle Gibson -- who opened last weekend by striking out 17 and walking zero in victories over UConn and Stetson. Veteran southpaw Rick Zagone is another valuable starter, giving the Tigers one ofthe nation's most dangerous pitching staffs. The question will be the offense, particularly the depth beyond stars Jacob Priday and Trevor Coleman.

10. Oregon State Beavers

In opening weekend losses to Vanderbilt and Arizona State, the two-time defending champion Beavers learned the hard way what it will be like to play the season with a target on their backs. Last year, many thought it would be impossible for the Beavers to return to Omaha given the talent they had lost. Though this year's squad has a talented group of freshman, there are enough holes in the lineup to suggest coach Pat Casey's improbable stretch may end.

11. Michigan Wolverines

Even without ace Zach Putnam on the mound last weekend, the Wolverines dominated Villanova in a three-game sweep. But Putnam wasn't invisible -- his bat helped lead the charge. The Wolverines have a veteran club on both sides of the ball and represent the Big Ten's best team in about a decade.

10. South Carolina Gamecocks

Like Arizona State, the Gamecocks are always going to hit -- and this year is no exception. Justin Smoak is a top 10 talent and shortstop Reese Havens and third baseman James Darnell make up the nation's best left-hand side of the diamond. The biggest question is the pitching staff, which was hit hard against East Carolina last weekend.

13. Long Beach State Dirtbags

Only 10 runs were scored total in the three-game series between Long Beach State and Rice last weekend, proving good pitching can beat even aluminum bats. The keys for Long Beach were eight shutout innings from command-artist Andrew Liebel, a healthy return from starter Vance Worley and a fantastic debut start for freshman Jake Thompson. If this team shows it can hit outside the confines of its spacious home field, their pitching staff will lead them a long way.

14. Texas Longhorns

On Sunday, Texas saw its most promising development in two years: 6-foot-10 starter Kenn Kasparek returned from Tommy John surgery to pitch five shutout innings. The addition of Kasparek to a questionable rotation is valuable because this Texas team -- led by two potential first-round outfielders Kyle Russell and Jordan Danks -- can hit like nobody's business.

15. Rice Owls

The Owls were disappointed not to win the national championship last season, but don't count them out this year. The team boasts a fabulous weekend rotation with the return of former All-America southpaw Cole St. Clair from injury. The offense will come around after a slumping weekend, leaning heavily on blue-chip recruit Rick Hague up the middle.

16. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Mark it down: Transfer Matt Hague -- a third-baseman that moved to Stillwater from the University of Washington -- will be the biggest newcomer of the year. The key for the Cowboys is whether they can pitch, and after allowing just seven runs in a four-game sweep of Gonzaga, it appears they can. Keep your eye on sophomore ace Andy Oliver and two-way closer Jordy Mercer as the top arms on an usually deep staff.

Cal State Fullerton: Coach Dave Serrano is looking to find the same magic that led UC-Irvine to Omaha a year ago.

Clemson: Despite the turnover to Jack Leggett's roster, the Tigers have enough talent to win the ACC.

Fresno State: The veteran pitching staff is similar to Louisville's of 2007, but with more talent such as Tanner Scheppers.

Kentucky: The return of 2007 injury victims Colin Cowgill and Scott Green should propel the Wildcats to a new level.

San Diego: The Torreros struggled in the opening weekend, but their pitching depth is admirable.

Tulane: A good outfield and ace Shooter Hunt will depend on a hoard of transfers and freshman to succeed.

Virginia: Ace Jake Thompson is one of the nation's best, and pitching depth behind him is very good. But will they hit?

Wichita State: Good pitching depth with a capable lineup led by Cape Cod League star Conor Gillaspie.