Red River rivals headline Big 12

The Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma will for once have the most meaning on the baseball diamond.

The Longhorns and Sooners are the favorites to win the Big 12 this season. UT finished just short of returning to the College World Series last season, while Oklahoma shocked the nation by winning a road super regional over Virginia on the way to Omaha.

Both teams enter the spring with even higher hopes.

The Longhorns have a solid one-two punch on the weekend with Taylor Jungmann and Cole Green leading the way, while Oklahoma returns the conference’s best offense.

The heated rivals aren’t alone when it comes to solid Big 12 teams.

Texas A&M has enough pitching to make a run, Kansas State again is expected to reach the NCAA postseason and Baylor is a couple of pitchers stepping up away from becoming a serious conference contender.

Big 12 snapshot

Reasons for optimism: There’s no reason the Bears shouldn’t have one of the conference’s better lineups. They finished last season with a .304 average and welcome back seven of their top eight hitters. The Bears also have a solid foundation in their bullpen with Brooks Pinckard and Josh Turley leading the way. BU could be very good if it has a solid weekend rotation.
Reasons to worry:The Bears’ campaign boils down to the weekend rotation, which has some work to do with only Logan Verrett a returning starter. The Bears lost several capable starters after last season, including Shawn Tolleson, Craig Fritsch and Willie Kempf. Can the Bears piece together a solid weekend rotation? If so, this team could compete for a super regional appearance and more.

Reasons for optimism: The Jayhawks have some tough holes to fill at the plate, but have much potential on the mound. The ‘Hawks return a solid nucleus in the bullpen with the return of Colton Murray and Wally Marciel. They also have high hopes for the weekend rotation with the return of arms such as Tanner Poppe, T.J. Walz and Thomas Taylor. The Jayhawks disappointed on the mound last season, but it’s a new campaign and they have some talent to work with.
Reasons to worry: Kansas’ pitching has to be good this season because the offense could have issues scoring runs. The Jayhawks finished last season with a .304 average, but are without their top three hitters. They also must improve in the power department after finishing the ’10 campaign with just 41 homers. This team must greatly exceed expectations at the plate to make a splash.

Kansas State
Reasons for optimism: The Wildcats have some flaws this season, but their offense has a chance to be productive. They welcome back leading hitter Nick Martini, but must find a way to replace Carter Jurica, Adam Muenster and others. Experience won’t be an issue with this lineup. K-State’s pitching staff has holes, but its nucleus is solid with Evan Marshall, Kyle Hunter, Justin Lindsey and relievers Thomas Rooke and James Allen leading the way.
Reasons to worry: K-State still has some work to do at the plate and on the mound. Though the offense returns some hitters with upside, their power production must improve after finishing last season with 39 homers. On the mound, the Wildcats must develop more depth after ending ’10 with a 5.57 ERA. KSU exceeded expectations last season. Now it looks forward to likely returning to another NCAA postseason.

Reasons for optimism: The Tigers have some holes to fill in other areas, but there’s no reason why their bullpen shouldn’t be good this spring. The Tigers welcome back several relievers, including Kelly Fick, Phil McCormick, Jeff Emmens and Zack Hardoin. This unit certainly needs to be better, but the experience is there to have one of the league’s better bullpens. Will Missouri’s weekend rotation make the bullpen worthwhile?
Reasons to worry: Missouri will have some work to do on the weekend without ace pitcher Nick Tepesch. But most important, the offense will have a new look this season after losing a few key hitters from a lineup that finished last season with just a .288 average. MU must improve in the power department, as they enter the season without 28 of their 53 homers from last year. Conner Mach and others had strong falls. Will they elevate their game?

Reasons for optimism: NU coach Mike Anderson is a realist and really likes his team’s attitude entering the season. That could bode well for the Huskers. Though this team has much to prove in several areas, there’s enough young talent that a few players stepping up could turn the Huskers into an NCAA Regional contender. That’d be a huge step forward considering where this team finished last season.
Reasons to worry: The Huskers have a solid returning hitter in Cody Asche, but will have a tough time replacing leading hitters DJ Belfonte and Adam Bailey. More important, the pitching staff must make significant improvements. The Huskers finished last season with a 5.15 ERA and need a more consistent weekend rotation and bullpen. The program has some young talent, but will they make a quick transition?

Reasons for optimism: After having a special 2010 campaign that ended with a trip to Omaha, the Sooners are looking to accomplish even more. It could happen. The Sooners will have one of the nation’s best offenses with seven of their top eight hitters back. They also return a solid defensive club and a pitching staff that has strong points with Michael Rocha, Bobby Shore and Ryan Duke leading the way. This team has very few question marks.
Reasons to worry: Though the Sooners return several solid relievers, including Duke, they still will miss Jeremy Erben late in games. Additionally, the Sooners must replace Zach Neal, who started 18 games last season. OU will be in fantastic shape if only a couple of unexpected pitchers rise to the occasion.

Oklahoma State
Reasons for optimism: The Cowboys aren’t in great shape at the plate but can take solace in the return of their top four hitters. More important, the Cowboys have very high hopes for their incoming class of newcomers. OSU recruited well last season and has a talented crop of youngsters this spring. The Pokes could make some significant noise if their newcomers make an immediate impact.
Reasons to worry: Mike Strong, Andrew Heaney and Brad Propst give the Cowboys a solid nucleus of pitchers to work with this season, while it’ll be interesting to see if Randy McCurry can return from an injury that sidelined him last season. But overall, the Pokes must greatly improve on the mound after finishing ’10 with a 5.56 ERA. OSU has the talent to compete for a postseason berth, but some things must improve.

Reasons for optimism: The Longhorns received an early Christmas present last August when starting pitcher Cole Green decided to return for his senior season. Green teams up with Taylor Jungmann to formulate one of the nation’s best one-two punches on the weekend. The Longhorns also will enter the season with an excellent pitching staff with coach Skip Johnson again leading the way. Look for the Longhorns to have another solid defensive squad, too. No team will be more motivated than Texas.
Reasons to worry: It has been the case lately, and it will be the case again this year: everyone wonders if the Longhorns can hit at a high clip down the stretch. UT produced some legitimate power last season and finished the campaign with a .286 average. However, it must find a way to improve even more without four of its top five hitters. Those losses could be difficult to overcome.

Texas A&M
Reasons for optimism: The Aggies have some question marks in the bullpen, but their weekend rotation is in good shape with the return of Michael Wacha and the addition of John Stilson to the weekend rotation. Stilson has been a starter during his baseball career, but served as closer for the Aggies last season. Wacha and Stilson give the Aggies a solid one-two punch, while Ross Stripling, if he doesn’t move to closer, gives them three solid starters. Offensively, the Aggies have several players, such as Adam Smith and Tyler Naquin, with much upside.
Reasons to worry: The Aggies almost reached an NCAA Super Regional last season with some flaws, so it’ll be interesting to see where they improve this season. The Aggies must improve in the field after finishing last season with a .964 fielding percentage. They also have work to do at the plate with only two returning starters that finished last season with batting averages better than .300. Additionally, the bullpen could be a concern if the Aggies choose to move fireballer John Stilson to the weekend rotation.

Texas Tech
Reasons for optimism: The Red Raiders have some holes to fill at the plate, but are excited about their returning nucleus, which includes Barrett Barnes, Nick Popescu, Scott LeJeune and Jamodrick McGruder. The presence of coach Dan Spencer also gives the Red Raiders some optimism. Though Spencer has yet to guide the Raiders to an NCAA Regional, he has done a fantastic job of instilling his ideas and culture. It’s only a matter of time before Tech returns to the postseason.
Reasons to worry: The Tech pitching staff could be in for a rebuilding campaign. It lost stud pitchers Bobby Doran and Chad Bettis to the draft last summer, and returns few proven arms from a staff that finished last season with a 6.68 ERA. Tech isn’t making a big climb forward until its pitching staff improves. Will this season be the tide turner?

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 10, 2011