THE BEST IN THE WEST
LSU is a favorite to win the SEC and play into the final rounds at Omaha. The preseason No. 2 in the Baseball America poll, the Bayou Bengals come off a season where they started slow but then won 16 straight to finish the regular season, roared through the SEC tournament with four consecutive wins and went 5-1 in the regional and super-regional round of the NCAA tourney before being knocked out of Omaha in three games. The favorite to challenge LSU, oddly enough, is Ole Miss, who finished a disappointing 15-15 in conference play last year.
BATTLE FOR THE EAST
The odds-on favorite in the Eastern Division is Georgia, BA No. 14, though Florida is expected to make some noise in the division as well. Georgia, you might recall, kind of staggered through the end of the season before regrouping in the regionals and ending up just one victory short of the College World Series crown, victims of either another brand of Bulldogs -- Fresno State -- or bothersome bats, depending on to whom you listen.
Call C&F a homer, but he's going with South Carolina. The Gamecocks, unranked and almost overlooked, lose a great deal of talent off the 2008 team that went down in the regionals after a rough end to the regular season. But Ray Tanner has reeled off nine straight tournament appearances and could surprise after last year's team arguably underachieved.
LOOK OUT FOR ...
Position player: Rich Poythress, the returning SEC player with the highest batting average last year (.374) and a solid 1.087 OPS. (Numbers tend to be a bit higher in the college game because of the aluminium bats, for pro fans who think Poythress' numbers are unbelievable. They're great, don't get me wrong, but there were even better OPSs in 2008.) Poythress has pretty good power -- 15 homers last year -- and was a member of the SEC All-Defensive team.
Pitcher: James Paxton, the Team Canada member who became a starter in the middle of last season and compiled a 4-2 record and a 2.92 ERA, the lowest among SEC pitchers with at least 10 starts. Ole Miss reliever Scott Bittle, fresh off turning down the Yankees, was absurd in 2008, striking out 130 men in 70.2 innings and compiling a ludicrous (for college) 1.78 ERA.
THE KEY QUESTION
How many NCAA team will the SEC get? Not as many as it needs, according to Baseball America.
The SEC has no such weak patch, as all 12 teams should be very competitive. Auburn and South Carolina are two of the toughest omissions from the field of 64, but the SEC will not get nine bids this year because the ACC will be stronger in the middle than it was in 2008, when UNC, Miami and Florida State dominated but the league got just six bids.
BA also sees a more level Pac-10 in 2009.
In any case, someone is going to get left out. Perhaps Auburn and South Carolina, perhaps another team. The SEC just has too many good teams -- a problem in a certain other sport.