Southeastern Conference Preview

SEC looks to bounce back after unusual '07 season


Feb. 20, 2008

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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From the Big Dance snubs to another winless trip to Omaha to the firings of two CWS-caliber head coaches to the getting chastised for weak scheduling, 2007 was a pretty horrible year by SEC standards. Really, just five NCAA tournament teams? (That sound you heard was the Earth getting knocked off its axis.) Licking their wounds and learning from their mistakes, this year the Southern super-conference looks to patch up its image and make national waves again. Well if the recruiting prognosticators are to be believed, then this is the year the SEC dominates again, since the Fall 2005 list had seven SEC schools in the recruiting Top 12 (not a typo). That freshman class would be juniors now. Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and South Carolina look to be monsters for 2008. Question is, just like last year, is there any quality depth in the conference? My guess is yes.

 

Favorites: Vanderbilt, Mississippi, South Carolina

Contenders: Mississippi State, Georgia

Darkhorse: Kentucky

 

Eastern Division:

 

Florida (29-30, 15-15)

 

The Good News:

New coach Kevin O'Sullivan brings new energy to this sleeping giant. He also inherits one of the best young SSs in the country in Cole Figueroa (.332-11-50) and he'll team with 2B Avery Barnes (.293) to make a good double-play combination. Kyle Mullaney (4-2, 4.25) and Billy Bullock (2-7, 6.31) look to be the Friday-Saturday starters. Josh Edmondson (2-1, 3.83) and Patrick Keating (3-2, 5.79, 2 svs) will play huge roles.

 

The Bad News:

Really? Pat McMahon deserved to be fired? An SEC-worst 5.27 team ERA may have been a large part of the problem, sure. Losing players like Matt LaPorta and Brian Leclerc means losing two of the three guys with .300+ bats last year and two CWS vets. Bryan Augenstein and David Hurst were reliable pitchers that must be replaced.

 

The Intangible:

Remember me?

 

One pitcher that is still around from Florida's last trip to Omaha is LHP Steven Locke. He returns this season after sitting out all of 2006 with Tommy John surgery and then went 3-3, 6.95 last year. If he can revert back to his Freshman All-American form, that will be a huge boost. 2006 part-time starter Chas Spottswood (2-3, 8.01) also returns.

 

Schedule Note:

Except for a three-game trip to Miami in week two, most of the tougher games on the slate are mid-weekers with Florida State, USF and Jacksonville.

 

Georgia (23-33, 11-19)

 

The Good News:

There should be improvement all across the board. Nobody has as much pitching returning in the SEC as do the 'Dogs. The weekend rotation of juniors Stephen Dodson (4-6, 3.56), Nathan Moreau (6-2, 4.65) and Trevor Holder (2-3, 4.50), along with rocket-hurling relief ace Joshua Fields (4.46, 7 svs) all come back. Also, SS Gordon Beckham (.307-13-51) and OF Matt Olson (.317-5-43) will pace an offense that should improve its .279 average. Texas transfer Michael Dempario should make a huge contribution.

 

The Bad News:

The Dogs never established consistency last year and getting outscored by 33 runs from the 7th inning on was the biggest culprit. They also went 0-6 in extra inning games. As you know, hitting just .279 won't cut it in the SEC. Jonathan Wyatt was one of the better leadoff men in the country and has moved on to pro ball.

 

The Intangible:

The talented Mr. Fields.

 

Joshua Fields has added a new wrinkle to his game this year, apparently coach Dave Perno has decided to let him hit in the DH position this season too. Whether that hurts his mound work is uncertain. But if he can return to his 3-2, 1.80, 15svs status of 2006 on the hill, it will help a lot more.

 

Schedule Note:

This is a backbreaker of a schedule! Starting with No. 1 ranked Arizona and then going up to Portland to face off with two-time champion Oregon State. They also play Memphis and Florida State in pre-conference play. The Dawgs duck no one.

 

Kentucky (34-19-1, 13-16-1)

 

The Good News:

UK got off to its best start ever last year with a 19-0 spree. Every pitcher of note returns, including the rotation of Adrian Albers (6-5, 4.85), Chris Rusin (5-4, 4.90) and Greg Dombrowski (5-2, 5.12), who combined for just 63 walks in 329 innings. They just don't beat themselves. Senior RHP Aaron Lovett (3-3, 2.20, 7svs) provides support. The team hit a brisk .320 and returns four .300+ hitters, including seniors Brian Spear (.358-5-49) and Sawyer Carroll (.350).

 

The Bad News:

Oh sure, they started 19-0, but did you see who they played? The `Cats took it on the chin once SEC play began and even missed the SEC tournament. Once again, the non-SEC schedule isn't a real RPI builder. Leading hitters Mike Brown and Sean Coughlin and their .369 and .344 averages have left Lexington.

 

The Intangible:

The maximum CCs.

 

Junior OF Collin Cowgill, who hit .298-16-61 as a sophomore in 2006, was forced to sit out the '07 season with an unlucky preseason injury. He's back now and fully healthy, ready to wreak havoc on the rest of the SEC again.

 

Schedule Note:

The Wildcats don't play much of a tough slate before SEC play begins again. South Alabama, Purdue and Eastern Michigan will be modest tune-ups at best. The UK also plays tough roadies at Vanderbilt and South Carolina in conference.

 

South Carolina (46-20, 17-13)

 

The Good News:

All those great recruiting classes (No. 1 in three of the last four years) should translate to a trip to Omaha. It's pick your poison for throwing to these guys, with jack-hammers like 1B Justin Smoak (.315-22-72), 2B Andrew Crisp (.283-8-28), 3B James Darnell (.331-19-63) and C Phil Disher (.328-15-68). Seven starters in all come back to Columbia. They should be able to outscore anybody, whether the arms step up or not, that is.

 

The Bad News:

The pitching that SoCar lost has been names that were around the program for a long, long time - Harris Honeycutt, Arik Hempy and Jeff Jeffords. The returning arms must be a lot more effective. Catcher Tony Kline handled the staff well but is gone. RHP Jay Brown, an expected heavy-contributor, will miss the season with Tommy John surgery. Longtime assistant coach and key recruiter Jim Toman has moved on to take over the Liberty program.

 

The Intangible:

Pitch. Pitch. Pitch.

 

Again, this team's only missing link is getting high-quality innings and starters going later into games. RHP Mike Cisco (6-2, 3.84), RHP Blake Cooper (7-2, 4.48) and LHP Will Atwood (2-2, 4.81) have good upside. Now, will there be top flight arms to back them? If so, say hello to Omaha.

 

Schedule Note:

It's good to see the Gamecocks and Clemson keep the weekend home-and-home battles going. (Though they should go ahead and make it a three-gamer.). If you believe the SEC prognosticators, then the back end of the conference schedule gets easy, with LSU, Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee to close things out.

 

Tennessee (34-25, 13-15)

 

The Good News:

After an ultra-successful run as Western Carolina's head coach, Todd Raleigh brings an infusion of excitement to Knoxville. He'll have one of the best two-way players in the country in Jeff Lockwood (.315 and 2-2, 4.44, 8 svs), who was a Freshman All-American. He'll play catch with C Yan Gomes (.310-8-47) and have OF Andy Simunic (.333, 29 SB), to back him. Watch for SS Danny Lima (.280, 11 SB) to emerge after a good summer on the Cape.

 

The Bad News:

Really? Tony Delmonico deserved to be fired? Otherwise, yes, there is a lot of bad news here, including the loss of all three weekend starters and three of the top four hitters. Names like James Adkins, Craig Cobb, Julio Borbon, J.P. Arencibia and Tony Delmonico will be tough to replace.

 

The Intangible:

The all-conference transfer sophs.

 

Tennessee got an influx of capable transfers in RHP Steve Crnkovich, a Frosh All-American from UIC and 3B Tanner Moore, who hit .328 in A-Sun play for East Tennessee State. These two should play key roles in the reloading project.

 

Schedule Note:

Just like last year, the Vols will play only one tough weekend in pre-conference, although it will be at the Minute Maid Classic against Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma. They'll also avoid Ole Miss in the SEC schedule rotation.

 

Vanderbilt (54-13, 22-8)

 

The Good News:

Still a lot of talent in Nashville and probably a whole bushel-full of incentive to make amends for last year's stunning Regional flame-out. LHP Mike Minor (9-1, 3.09) will become the next mound stud and has RHP Nick Christiani (5-3, 4.11) and reliever Brett Jacobson (6-3, 3.15). The offense is scary-good. Three of the top four hitters in the SEC return in 3B Pedro Alvarez (.386-18-68) a national player of the year candidate, OF Dominic De La Osa (.378-20-62, 20SBs) and SS Ryan Flaherty (.381-4-57), who make a formidable murderer's row. Also watch 2B Alex Feinberg (.317), a good defender, and OF David Macias (.300, 10SBs). C Shea Robin (.286) is a Bench Award candidate. Yep, coach Tim Corbin has his cupboard well-stocked.

 

The Bad News:

I don't care who you are, any team that loses David Price and Casey Weathers as first round draftees off its pitching staff is going to have a hard time replacing them. Building up the pitching depth is job one for Coach Corbin. Other than that, there's not much more to do but throw the ball out and let 'er rip.

 

The Intangible:

Coach Corbin.

 

The guy talks confidently, walks confidently and has intensity written all over him. And his teams play that way as well. As one of the good young coaches in the country, don't worry 'Dore fans, last year was probably more of a blip on the screen. You'll see him taking questions from behind the dais in Rosenblatt.

 

Schedule Note:

Similar to last year's Minute Maid Classic, the Commodores open with a weekend at the DiMarini Classic against powers Oregon State and Arizona State. The SEC schedule lightens up on the back end with Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

 



 
 

Western Division:

 

Alabama (31-26, 15-15)

 

The Good News:

Coach Jim Wells flirted with retirement for a couple of hours last summer, but returns to Tuscaloosa in a better frame of mind. He's got some arms to work with too, including weekend starter Miers Quigley (4-7, 4.88) and two versatile arms in Austin Hyatt (5-1, 3.07, 2 svs) and Will Stroup (3-1, 4.65, 2 svs). The two main power sources of the offense return in C Alex Avila (.296-14-61) and 1B Matt Bentley (.299-12-36).

 

The Bad News:

After a 12-2 start to 2007, the Tide went on a 6-12 slump which kickstarted a poor finish. There are lots of losses. No more Bernard Robert or Tommy Hunter on the mound nor the offensive spark plug Emeel Salem. Some big time offense must be found from new sources, since Kent Matthes (.308-8-45) is the only .300-plus hitter back.

 

The Intangible:

Is this the end?

 

Since coach Wells was looking to retire last summer, then didn't. Does that mean that it will happen after this season? And does that mean expected replacement Mitch Gaspard will still stick around and await his turn if it doesn't?

 

Schedule Note:

That initial weekend hosting Cal Poly is an interesting lidlifter. `Bama will get SEC heavies Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Mississippi State at Sewell-Thomas Stadium.

 

Arkansas (43-21, 18-12)

 

The Good News:

With four of the top five hitters back in the fold, the offense should be capable. 3B Logan Forsythe (.347-9-55) and OF Casey Coon (.312-9-71) are RBI machines and C Jeff Nutt (.274) had only two errors behind the dish all season. LHP Dallas Keuchel (6-3, 5.88) should better his numbers and hope Shaun Seibert (0-1, 3.79) does the same.

 

The Bad News:

The Hogs went just 8-9 from the beginning of May on, last year. Say goodbye to Nick Schmidt, one of the best pitchers in SEC history, and Jess Todd, a reliable Saturday guy. Those two are part of the three-man weekend rotation that has moved on. In fact, most of the quality pitching is gone from a year ago. Only two batters hit better than .300, in an offense that hit just .288.

 

The Intangible:

Don't get bracketed with Oklahoma State.

 

Yeah, I know, that's something that's completely out of their control, but the Cowboys have been the burr in the saddle of the Razorbacks for two years in a row now, eliminating UofA in the regional round of the NCAA tournament.

 

Schedule Note:

Dave Van Horn is never afraid to schedule up to say the least. This year is no different, as they'll go to the Domino's Classic at Texas A&M, and play mid-week roadies at Arizona State and at his former home, Nebraska.

 

Auburn (31-25, 10-20)

 

The Good News:

Auburn hopes to emulate last year's amazing 17-2 start, which included two wins over Arizona State. Three .300+ hitters return, led by OF Mike Bianucci (.326-14-51) who returned after getting drafted in the 23rd round by the Angels, and by 3B Joseph Sanders (.333) and UTL Luke Greinke (.314). Most of the mound staff returns as well. Look for big seasons from Evan Crawford (5-6, 5.91) and Taylor Thompson (5-2, 5.89). Reliever Scott Shuman (4-1, 2.00, 3svs) should have an increased role.

 

The Bad News:

An 0-8 start to SEC play turned AU's season upside-down last year, leading to its last place finish. The defense was second-worst in the conference. Losing Josh Donaldson means Bianucci is the lone power source on the team.

 

The Intangible:

One returns, another goes down.

 

Auburn will welcome back the pitching services of Luke Greinke (0-0, 3.76, 6svs), who only threw 10 innings in 2007, but could play a starters role. But RHP Paul Burnside (7-1, 3.06) who was 6th in the SEC in pitching, suffered a shoulder injury in pre-season and it is not known when he will be able to return.

 

Schedule Note:

If there's such a thing as "easing" into SEC play, Auburn comes close, opening with three straight non-Regional teams in Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee, the last two being home series.

 

LSU (29-26-1, 12-17-1)

 

The Good News:

The best recruiting class in the country comes to Baton Rouge this season, including an amazing nine players that were drafted by the pros last June. OF Blake Dean (.316-7-46) was a Freshman All-American and teams with 3B Michael Hollander (.279-5-26) for a high-potential pair of sticks. CF Jared Mitchell (.258) has great range in the outfield and Sean Ochinko (.277-7-32) is rock solid behind the dish. Friday stud/Sunday closer Jared Bradford (10-4, 4.21, 5svs) has proven he can handle a heavy load. I would write something about the newcomers here, but there are too many good ones to mention.

 

The Bad News:

Well obviously, a 29-win season doesn't cotton well with rabid Tiger fans, nor will the .256 batting average. And that large insurgence of youth could mean another roller-coaster season. Bradford was used so much last season because there wasn't much quality depth. Ryan Byrd (6-2, 4.74) and Louis Coleman (2-3, 5.59,4 svs) will have to post even better numbers out of the pen.

 

The Intangible:

No pressure coach.

 

When coaches like Brian O'Connor of Virginia and Ron Polk of Mississippi State come out and say "Mainieri will have that program back in Omaha in no time," it must be true, right? We'll see. But the truth is, the pedigree is there. I mean really, it's not just any ole Joe who could lead Notre Dame to 12 straight 40+ win seasons.

 

Schedule Note:

A full 13 of the 17 midweek games will come against Louisiana schools. Most of the non-conference games are fairly breezy, but we'll give coach Mainieri a pass on the easy schedule, since his team is rebuilding and his teams usually play the best when they can.

 

Mississippi (40-25, 16-14)

 

The Good News:

If pitching and power are any indication, this team is primed for huge things, making it possibly the best Rebel squad in coach Mike Bianco's seven years. The dual arms of righties Lance Lynn (8-5, 2.85, 146Ks) and Cody Satterwhite (4-4, 3.31, 4svs) are high on scouts lists and should throw even better this year. Wicked bats like OF Jordan Henry (.376, 12SBs) and 2B Zach Miller (.368) were both Freshman All-Americans and make a great one-two punch in the order. OF Logan Power (.292-11-56) lives up to his name and 3B Cody Overbeck (.288-15-58) is a bona fide, 90's style SEC power stick. This team has what it takes to get to Omaha.

 

The Bad News:

Ex-Rebs Justin Henry and Zach Cozart were two of the better all around players in the SEC, and a big reason why Ole Miss was 4th in the nation in fielding last year. Losing Friday starter Will Kline was huge as he was the most consistent arm on the staff and nearly pulled out a W in game one at the Tempe Super Regional vs. Arizona State. Like Florida State, the Rebels are having a tough time putting it all together at the right time and making the field of eight in Omaha, losing the last two Super Regional matuchups.

 

The Intangible:

Beware the sophomore slump.

 

You never know how 19-20 year olds will react to expectations. So players like Henry and Miller will be an interesting study this year. Especially Henry, who will play this season without the comfort of having big brother Justin around to lean on.

 

Schedule Note:

Unlike last year, this schedule isn't quite as light - and that's a good thing. Interesting season opener with Minnesota and then that beauty-of-a-trip to TCU in the third week of the season should be tell-tale signs.

 

Mississippi State (38-22, 15-13)

 

The Good News:

Typical Ron Polk, in 2007 he brings his team to Omaha when people least expected him to. Lots of experienced arms are back, led by starters LHP Justin Pigott (7-7, 4.51) and RHP Chad Crosswhite (8-5, 4.69) and two serviceable relievers RHP Ricky Bowen (5-2, 3.00, 5 svs) and RHP Aaron Weatherford (3-2, 3.53, 5 svs). SS/2B Brandon Turner (.399) and 3B Connor Powers (.306-8-37) are part of four returning field starters that should translate into good offense and dependable defense.

 

The Bad News:

There are a lot of team leaders that were lost off last year's squad, including do-it-all Jeffery Rea, Mitch Moreland, Brian LaNinfa and C Ed Easley. All of whom were All-SEC types. The No. 3 spot in the rotation will need to be filled after the departure of handyman Josh Johnson.

 

The Intangible:

The Punk Rock coach.

 

Since coach Polk wrote that 18-page open letter to all of college baseball, and in turn remained a burr in the saddle of the NCAA, will that translate into unfair treatment by the NCAA come Selection Monday? Remember how good they were by awarding them the Super Regionals last year? This should be interesting.

 

Schedule Note:

Strangely, there's one SEC team this new change of season won't affect at all. The Bulldogs. They generally start their seasons at the end of February anyway. So no biggie. Although, don't you find that trip to North Florida to open the season a little bit odd? Good, but odd.

 

 

 

 

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