LSU REPEAT? THREE-PEAT?
One of the most tradition-rich programs in college baseball goes for back-to-back national championships after winning 56 game and the College World Series last year. The Tigers will also be playing for the first repeat regular-season league championships since 1996-97, when back-to-back titles were won by ... LSU. Assuming they make the SEC tournament -- which is almost a given -- they'll be in the running for a three-peat after winning the playoff each of the last two years. No team has won three straight tournaments since the event began in 1977.
The Tigers lose OF/1B Ryan Schimpf, who batted .336 with 22 home runs and 70 RBIs, and 2B D.J. LeMahieu (.350, 5, 43), while returning former DH/OF and new 1B Blake Dean (.328, 17, 71). Also gone is Louis Coleman, he of the more than six-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio and 14-2 record with a 2.93 ERA. Anthony Ranaudo returns after going 12-3 with a 3.04 ERA.
In the West, LSU's chief opponent appears to be Arkansas -- the only other team in the SEC with three preseason Baseball America All-Americans. Ole Miss, who split the championship with LSU, is expected to be rebuilding this year, Alabama has a rookie head coach and the injuries are stacking up for Auburn, even though the Plainsmen are still only at threat level Bo. Mississippi State -- thank you for playing, but no one fears a team that went 9-20 in SEC play last year.
FLORIDA FAVORED IN THE EAST (WHERE HAVE WE HEARD THAT BEFORE?)
In the East, Florida is the preseason favorite after winning the division last year en route to a berth in the BCS ti-- Sorry, wrong Florida. This team is led not by Tim Tebow but by Preston Tucker, he of the .364 batting average, 15 home runs and 85 RBIs. Also returning are walk specialists Josh Adams, who in fairness has a .342 average to go with his 40 BBs, and Matt den Dekker, who walked 34 times to help offset the .296 average.
Of course, there are other teams in the East in baseball this year. (Unlike football.) South Carolina, the winningest SEC team of the past decade and holder of the longest run of consecutive NCAA appearances in the league (10), rarely has a down year. David Perno's program at Georgia can never be counted out -- though a difficult schedule could cause problems (I promise, this is baseball -- not football) -- and Vanderbilt surprised more than one baseball observer by being the last team standing against LSU in last year's tournament. And I don't want to say anything negative about Tennessee or Kentucky, so -- Hey! How 'bout John Wall! And Tennessee's got a 5 seed, right?
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
In what could be the most controversial clock rule not beginning with 3 and ending with e in recent college sports history -- okay, so that's probably a little overstatement there -- the SEC has decided to introduce a pitch clock in the SEC tournament this year, with the potential for in-season use in 2011. The pitcher best not go Steve Trachsel on everyone, or another ball will be added to the count. Some less controversial changes will also begin tournament games earlier and have less time between them in the hopes of preventing fans from having bloodshot eyes after the first two days of play.
BASEBALL, BASEBALL EVERYWHERE
Part of that is because of television, with the SEC's official deal putting 46 regular-season games on television, in addition to whatever other time individual programs can get on the air. (Remember how Arkansas and South Carolina are supposed to be contenders? Yeah, good luck finding them in the official schedule, though the Gamecocks at least are trying to fix that.)
FIVE SERIES YOU WON'T WANT TO MISS
LSU at Florida, April 30-May 2
This shouldn't need much of an explanation, but the SEC regular-season title could very well come down to who wins this series.
Florida at South Carolina, May 20-22
The last series of the regular season between two of teams expected to do well in the SEC East. A potentially decisive series on the final weekend. What more could you want?
Arkansas at LSU, March 19-21
How about a key series on the first weekend of the season? We won't know for two months after this game who will actually win the West, but this series could go a long way toward setting the tone.
Georgia at Florida, May 14-16
The World's Second-Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, which comes the week before the Florida-South Carolina showdown, could also shape the SEC East.
Vanderbilt at Florida, April 2-4
If the Commodores are going to show that last year's SEC tournament success wasn't a fluke, this could be their first chance in league play.