Rob Foldy-US PRESSWIRE
But Kevin O'Sullivan is in charge, so only people who feel lucky should bet on anything but another solid year
Last Year: Kevin O'Sullivan steered Florida to its fifth straight NCAA appearance -- the Gators have never missed the tournament under O'Sullivan -- and its third straight appearance in the College World Series. It was also the third time in a row Florida went to Omaha and came back empty-handed. Florida started off hot -- they didn't get a second loss until the first game of the South Carolina series a month after the season started -- and got hot again in the postseason before getting knocked out of the College World Series in two straight losses.
What's Changed: In the last week? Whether or not Karsten Whitson will be part of the team's pitching rotation. Whitson was 4-0 in 14 appearances (10 starts) and had a 3.51 ERA in 2012. In the broader sense of what's changed since last season: Brian Johnson's gone. Johnson .307/.350/.460, which is impressive enough in its own right. Add that he was 8-5 with a 3.90 ERA on the mound, and it starts to get a little bit ridiculous. And Johnson is not the only loss on either side -- Florida drops 355.2 innings of pitching experience and four position players who appeared in at least 66 of the Gators' 67 games, including club HR leaders Mike Zunino (19) and Preston Tucker (16). In fact, every Florida player who hit more than five home runs last year is gone. (Zack Powers, who redshirted last year, did hit seven in 2011).
What's the Same: Jonathon Crawford is back after going 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA. Oh, and he he threw the first NCAA tournament no-hitter in 21 years. And while Casey Turgeon (.281/.368/.407) is the only returning position player with more than 50 starts last year, five other players played in at least 50 games. So there might be some new starters to break in -- the official count by the program is that there are four returning starters -- it's not like the entire lineup is going to be playing college baseball for the first time.
The Schedule: Outside of games against Duke, Indiana and Georgia Southern, most of the nonconference schedule is the usual round of games against in-state programs. That includes three games each against No. 20 Florida State (Baseball America) and a generally tough Miami (Fla.) program. The Gators draw the two Mississippi teams, LSU and Auburn from the West -- which makes for a pretty tough interdivision road. South Carolina and Kentucky do have to go to Gainesville, but what could be a division-deciding series against Vanderbilt is set in Nashville.
Prognosis: Common sense tells you that the losses will set this team back a bit, but it would be pretty foolish at this point to bet too heavily against O'Sullivan. Setting up Florida as the chief competitor to Vanderbilt in the East right now might be a bit early, and the College World Series would be a mighty tall order, but the Gators are going to have their say in who wins the SEC this year. A visit to the NCAA tournament is far more likely than not, and once you get there, strange things can and often do happen.