ACC has trio of potential national title contenders

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Maybe this is the year the ACC finally silences doubters about its inability to win national titles.

Sure, the conference hasn’t won a national title since Wake Forest accomplished the goal back in 1955. But several ACC teams enter the spring more than capable of winning a national title.

Those teams are Virginia, Florida State and Georgia Tech.

Virginia was the nation’s hottest team outside of LSU at the end of last season. The Cavaliers welcome back several outstanding pitchers and every key position player.

Florida State once again welcomes back a solid offensive lineup. But most impressive is that FSU returns a solid weekend rotation with Sean Gilmartin, Brian Busch and Mike McGee leading the way. The bullpen once again is a concern for the ‘Noles.

Georgia Tech also is an intriguing team to watch. The Yellow Jackets return a productive offense and a fantastic ace pitcher in Deck McGuire. However, the rest of the weekend rotation and bullpen must rise to the occasion to compete for the national title.

The ACC would love nothing more than to finally get over the hump.

HOW THEY STACK UP

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State – It should come as no surprise the Seminoles once again are loaded. A solid weekend rotation and productive offense is the recipe for success.

Photo Mike Freeman and Clemson hope to find a way to return to Omaha this season.
(Clemson)

2. Clemson – The Tigers lost Ben Paulsen to the draft, but welcome back eight position starters and a plethora of talented pitchers, too. This team is loaded.

3. Boston College – The Eagles showed the nation they could play with the best last season. Now comes the hard part of establishing consistency.

4. N.C. State – The Wolfpack is optimistic this season won’t progress the way last season did with the return of several players with high ceilings.

5. Wake Forest – The Demon Deacons could surprise in Tom Walter’s first season with the return of six position starters and several talented arms.

6. Maryland – We believe new coach Erik Bakich eventually will get it done, but the Terrapins have an extremely tough road ahead this season.

Coastal Division

1. Virginia – The Cavaliers couldn’t have higher expectations entering the season. This team certainly has the ingredients to completely live up to its hype.

2. Georgia Tech – The Yellow Jackets welcome back a solid crop of offensive contributors. They’re a couple more pitchers away from competing for the national title.

3. North Carolina – The Tar Heels have some big questions to answer at the plate, but once again will have a solid pitching staff. They won’t take too much of a step back.

4. Miami – The offense certainly is a concern, but the return of starting pitcher Eric Erickson gives the ‘Canes a very solid weekend rotation this spring.

5. Virginia Tech – The Hokies return seven position starters and a talented crop of pitchers. Can the Hokies make a regional just as Boston College did last season?

6. Duke – The Blue Devils return plenty of talented pitchers, but the offense definitely is a concern entering the spring. Some guys must rise to the occasion.

ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

C Yasmani Grandal, Miami

1B Tony Plagman, Georgia Tech

2B Phil Gosselin, Virginia

SS Stephen Cardullo, Florida State

3B Steven Proscia, Virginia

OF Jarrett Parker, Virginia

OF Tyler Holt, Florida State

OF Jeff Rowland, Georgia Tech

DH Mike McGee, Florida State

SP Deck McGuire, Georgia Tech

SP Danny Hultzen, Virginia

SP Sean Gilmartin, Florida State

RP Kevin Arico, Virginia

RISING STOCK

Boston College coach Mik Aoki – There are few coaches that have done better jobs the past few seasons than Aoki. Aoki has transformed BC into a respectable program in just three short seasons. The Eagles took a huge step forward last season by earning an NCAA regional berth and finishing the season with a 34-26. Now, they want more.

Virginia’s Brian O’Connor – O’Connor became a celebrity in the city of Omaha during the College World Series last summer. He may as well get used to the attention, as the Cavaliers are expected to return to Omaha this season. O’Connor has experienced a wealth of success at Virginia and finally is getting the credit he deserves. A national title would be icing on the cake.

Miami catcher Yasmani Grandal – Grandal headed to Miami with high hopes as a freshman. But he didn’t make a statement until he finished last season with 16 homers and 45 RBIs. Now, without several key hitters from last year’s club, the Hurricanes look for Grandal to improve his batting average. Grandal is a prime candidate to have a breakout season as a junior this spring.

Florida State outfielder Tyler Holt – There certainly were plenty of eyes on Holt last season, but the versatile outfielder has a chance to win National Player of the Year honors this spring. That wasn’t the case last season as North Carolina’s Dustin Ackley dominated the race from the start. Holt is coming off a fantastic campaign that saw him hit over .400. He is an absolute treat to watch.

Virginia Tech – It wouldn’t surprise us if the Hokies pulled a Boston College and found a way to reach an NCAA regional this season. The Hokies finished last season with a 32-21 record, but didn’t have enough marquee wins to make a regional. Now, the sky is the limit with the return of hitters such as Steve Domecus and Austin Wates. Tech coach Pete Hughes finally is getting this program headed the right direction. Perhaps it’s a reason he decided to turn down overtures from Washington last summer.

FALLING STOCK

N.C. State – It’s an extremely important year for the Wolfpack. They took a step forward two seasons ago with an NCAA super regional appearance, but took a giant step back last season with a dismal campaign. The Wolfpack return several key players this season, but that’s from a team that ended last season with a .265 batting average and a 5.16 ERA. The Wolfpack has the talent to bounce back this season, but even a slight improvement won’t be enough to contend for a regional berth.

North Carolina’s offense – There’s still a decent chance the Tar Heels surprise at the plate this season, but this unit has some issues on paper. The Tar Heels finished last season with an impressive .313 batting average, but enters the spring without Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Garrett Gore and Mark Fleury. UNC welcomes back just one hitter – Ben Bunting – that ended last season with a batting average better than .300. UNC has plenty of talent, but it’s a matter of putting everything together.

Maryland – You know what they way, Rome wasn’t build in a day. That also will be the case with the Terrapins. New Maryland coach Erik Bakich has assembled an impressive coaching staff and certainly is expected to get things turned around. But after finishing last season with a fourth place finish in the Atlantic Division and a 27-27 overall record, the Terps definitely are expected to head back to the cellar with several important holes to fill. The Terps must be patient with Bakich.

Miami’s offense – It will be a surprise if the Hurricanes have a very productive offense this season. The ‘Canes finished last season with just a .294 batting average, and must find a way to replace three of their four hitters that finished last season with batting averages better than .300. Second baseman Scott Lawson is the only returning hitter that hit over .300 last season. Miami will have a solid pitching staff, but its offense is a major concern entering the season.

BEST PITCHER

RHP Deck McGuire, Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets have a chance to compete for the national title this season with the return of McGuire and other seasoned players. McGuire has had a sensational career at Georgia Tech and hopes to have a fantastic junior campaign. The talented right-hander made 16 starts last season, had an 11-2 record and tallied a 3.50 ERA in 100 1/3 innings. He also struck out 118 and walked 41 and limited opposing teams to a .232 average. McGuire will begin the season as an All-American.

BEST HITTER

OF Tyler Holt, Florida State

Holt may not tally the impressive power numbers that a guy such as Virginia’s Jarrett Parker brings to the table. But it’s impossible to diminish his status as one of the nation’s premier hitters. Holt is extremely versatile and is a fire starter for the FSU offense. Holt finished last season with a .401 batting average, 23 doubles, two triples, five homers and 28 RBIs. He also slugged .578 and had an amazing .520 on-base percentage. Also worth noting, Holt walked 54 times as opposed to just 47 strikeouts. He also finished the year 34-for-39 in stolen bases. Holt is a complete player for the Seminoles.

REGIONAL CONTENDERS

Florida State, Clemson, Boston College, Virginia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech

It will be an incredibly exciting season if many ACC teams meet expectations. Florida State, Virginia and Georgia Tech are expected to compete for national seeds. Virginia and FSU are the most likely national seeds while Tech is not far behind. North Carolina, Miami, Clemson and Boston College are other teams expected to reach an NCAA regional. Virginia Tech is the odd team out. The Hokies will be much improved this season. But with the ACC slated to earn seven bids, it will be tough for Tech to warrant the committee giving the conference eight bids. It could happen, though.

QUICK HITS

• There was some movement on the ACC coaching carousel during the offseason. Maryland and Wake Forest decided to make personnel changes. The Terrapins made a surprisingly solid hire with the addition of former Vanderbilt recruiting coordinator and assistant Erik Bakich. Bakich is a fiery competitor and fantastic teacher. But even more impressive is the fact Bakich was able to reel in pitching coach Sean Kenny from Pepperdine. That was the most impressive assistant coup of the offseason. Wake Forest, meanwhile, hired Tommy Walter away from New Orleans to replace Rick Rembielak. Walter is a fabulous coach and had a wealth of success in turning UNO around. He is expected to have success at Wake, too.

• With area schools such as North Carolina and N.C. State making stadium renovations the past few seasons, Duke was forced into action. The Blue Devils actually got a good deal, as they are scheduled to play 18 home games at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. An agreement beyond this season hasn’t been announced, but moving several home games to a Triple-A park gives the Devils additional recruiting power. It was a very smart by the Duke athletic department to make the move.

• Boston College has at least one shakeup entering the spring when it comes to the pitching staff. Junior right-handed pitcher Kevin Moran served primarily as a reliever last season, making 27 appearances and just one start for the Eagles. But this season, the Eagles will utilize Moran as the No. 2 starter. Moran tallied an impressive 2.81 ERA in 51 1/3 innings last season. He also struck out 36 and walked 26.

• Miami welcomes back a solid weekend rotation with Eric Erickson and Chris Hernandez leading the charge, but it has some issues to resolve in the bullpen. The Hurricanes don’t expect to have relievers Travis Miller and Michael Rudman in action until mid-March or early April. Miller is having some issues with his ulnar nerve and Rudman is trying to get over a dislocated shoulder. Also worth noting, the ‘Canes are moving David Gutierrez from the starting rotation to the closer’s role.

• Virginia Tech will be without right-handed pitcher Kyle Cichy this season as he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Cichy made 15 appearances last season and compiled a 6.75 ERA in 22 2/3 innings. He also struck out 21 and walked seven.

• North Carolina has a couple of pitchers recovering from injuries this spring. The list includes Jimmy Messer and Nate Striz. Messer is recovering from an ankle injury sustained during fall workouts. Striz, meanwhile, is recovering from elbow surgery. The Tar Heels expect both pitchers to be ready to throw by Opening Day.

• Maryland has some tough injuries to handle this spring. The Terrapins will be without starting first baseman Curtis Lazar, who will miss the spring with an injury. Also, the Terrapins expect Tyler Bennett to only serve as designated hitter as he recovers from offseason Tommy John surgery. The Terps say Bennett can swing the bat, but still is unable to throw the baseball.

• N.C. State had several pitchers miss fall workouts with injuries. Most of them will be ready to go this spring, but at least one is a lost cause. Dane Williams had Tommy John surgery and will miss the season. Those expected to return to full force this season include John Lambert, Alex Sogard, Rey Cotilla and Danny Healey.

• Florida State received bad news when reliever Jack Posey had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow during fall workouts. Posey could’ve had a more important role in the bullpen this season, but obviously will miss the campaign. He made 15 appearances last season and compiled a 4.08 ERA in 17 2/3 innings. He also struck out 16 and walked nine.

• Virginia coach Brian O’Connor threw me for a surprise a few weeks ago when he unveiled that the Cavaliers would keep Tyler Wilson in the bullpen. Instead of putting him in the weekend rotation, the Cavaliers will look to junior right-handed pitcher Cody Winiarski to fill the spot. Winiarski had an excellent fall and is a pitcher O’Connor feels very confident about.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. 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 Thursday, Jan 28, 2010