Storylines abound as new season arrives

Living up to the 2010 campaign will be a tall order as we usher in the 2011 season.

The ’10 season was about new programs taking huge leaps forward. It began with Connecticut putting together a magical campaign and finishing the season with an NCAA Regional host. It continued with TCU and UCLA getting to Omaha, and the Bruins reaching the national title series.

The season ended with South Carolina winning its first national title in the final College World Series played at historic Rosenblatt Stadium.

Michael Roth and South Carolina hope to find a way to repeat as national champions.
(Getty Images)

Can this season live up to that? It’s possible.

Omaha welcomes state-of-the-art TD Ameritrade Park as the new home for the CWS, and TCU, UCLA and South Carolina again will be in the national title discussion. Connecticut, meanwhile, is expected to take another step forward.

The ’11 season is anticipated for plenty of other reasons, too.

There’s a chance this could be California’s final season on the diamond, at least for a while. The new BBCOR bats, some coaches believe, will change the dynamic of the sport. There’s a fantastic MLB draft class of pitchers and several coaches hope for instant success at new stops at big-name programs.

Storylines are abound as we begin our 2011 College Baseball Preview.

NCAA ushers in new BBCOR bats

Many college coaches were frustrated before the fall when the NCAA mandated use of the new BBCOR bats, which function more like wood bats than any aluminum bat of the past. Opponents of the new bats believe they will change the game in a negative way. The NCAA, though, believes the bats are needed from a safety standpoint. Time will tell if the BBCOR bats are good for the sport. There are plenty of valid opinions on both sides of the debate. Perhaps the new bats will lead to the sport eventually moving to wood bats.

Connecticut the new northern hype

Critics of ours say we always point to a northern team each season that will take a huge step forward and reach the CWS. We’re not confident enough to say the Huskies will be in Omaha, but they certainly have the potential with several elite prospects including George Springer and Matt Barnes, among others. The Huskies also have the luxury of having postseason experience after hosting an NCAA Regional last season. Will Connecticut go the way of northern savior or Ohio State from last season? Time will tell, but coach Jim Penders has his program ready to roll and it’s not fluke.

One last season for California?

We sincerely hope this isn’t the case, but there’s a decent chance the Golden Bears won’t have a baseball team when ’12 arrives. That makes the upcoming ’11 campaign especially important to coach Dave Esquer and his team. The Golden Bears have played baseball since 1892, but school officials might’ve jumped the gun last fall when they announced the program would be dropped following the ’11 season. Interestingly, several Cal alums have helped get millions of dollars in pledges, perhaps putting the program in position to be saved. This season will be an emotional roller coaster for Cal.

George Horton begins Year Three at Oregon

Raise your hand if you thought Horton was crazy for leaving plush Southern California for the Pacific Northwest and Oregon a few years ago. If you just did, you were one of many that thought that way. Horton raised eyebrows when he became the Ducks’ coach. There then was some speculation about his happiness after his first season with a team that finished last in the Pac-10 with a 4-23 league mark and 14-42 overall record. Horton brushed those rumors aside and guided the program to an unlikely NCAA Regional and 40-24 record last season. Now, with an arsenal of arms and an improved offense, Horton hopes to increase the shock by leading the Ducks to Omaha.

Anthony Rendon’s junior campaign

He’s the most dynamic college position player since Pedro Alvarez manned third base for Vanderbilt. It just so happens Rendon also is a third baseman. Rice coach Wayne Graham calls Rendon arguably the best offensive player he has ever coached, which should raise eyebrows considering Lance Berkman and other stars played at Rice. Rendon was simply sensational his first two seasons with the Owls, hitting .388 and .394, respectively in 2009 and ’10. He also combined for 46 homers and 157 RBIs in the two seasons. Rendon is expected to improve even more as a junior. He also is expected to be the top college player taken in the ’11 MLB draft. Keep an eye on one of the best hitters in the sport’s history.

South Carolina aims for a repeat

The Gamecocks entered last season expected to reach an NCAA Super Regional and nothing more, but parlayed a solid SEC finish into a trip to Omaha and the program’s first national title. Now, the Gamecocks must deal with life as the nation’s most hunted program. How will they deal with it? We’ll soon find out. The Gamecocks welcome back a talented offensive lineup that includes outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and infielder Christian Walker, but have some restructuring to do on the mound after losing weekend starters Sam Dyson and Blake Cooper. South Carolina is more than capable of repeating as national champs, but piecing together a solid rotation is the biggest goal between now and late February.

Florida finally ready to compete for a national title?

After a successful stint as an assistant at Clemson a few years ago, coach Kevin O’Sullivan decided to try his hand as Florida’s head coach. So far it has been a pleasurable experience for both parties. Now, O’Sullivan is aiming for a national title. The Gators were upset in super regional action by Southern Miss two seasons ago before finally punching through to Omaha last season with a super regional series win over Miami. Florida didn’t play well in Omaha and had a short trip to the nation’s heartland. Now, with an incredibly loaded pitching staff that includes first-rounder Karsten Whitson, the Gators are aiming for the program’s first national title. Sound familiar, anyone?

Another year, another loaded Pac-10

The Pac-10 was loaded last season with Arizona State and UCLA leading the way. Unless an appeal to the NCAA is successful, the Sun Devils won’t be postseason eligible this season. However, the Bruins are postseason eligible and again have their sights set on a national title with the return of star pitchers Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole in addition to other talented arms. The Bruins aren’t alone in the Pac-10. Oregon, Arizona, California, Stanford and Washington State all are capable of getting to Omaha, while Oregon State is capable of surprising and USC and Washington have potential. The Pac-10 again will have much to be proud of this season, but will the year end with a national title?

Rebuilding time for the SEC West

The SEC West typically is the conference’s strongest division, but that isn’t expected to be the case this season with several teams perceived to be heading back to the drawing board and the eastern division in great shape with Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt leading the way. Auburn has some talented pitchers to replace this season, Arkansas must replace its entire weekend rotation, Mississippi must replace All-American pitcher Drew Pomeranz and weekend starter Aaron Barrett, Alabama has several hitters to replace, Mississippi State hopes to rebound from a horrendous campaign and LSU needs several newcomers to step up to make a significant splash. All these teams are working with some talent, but their holes simply could be too much.

Red River rivals spearhead the Big 12

Oklahoma has experienced much success in the Big 12 during the coach Sunny Golloway era, but it had never achieved elite status as it did last season with a trip to Omaha. The Sooners’ expectations only will be greater this season with the return of several talented hitters and a crop of solid pitchers. The same goes for OU’s rival, Texas, which returns a phenomenal one-two punch on the weekend with Taylor Jungmann and Cole Green, and overall, a talented pitching staff. The Big 12 has some good teams entering the season, but UT and OU clearly are the cream of the crop. Can we go ahead and fast forward to the late April series between the heated rivals?

New coaches take over

It was a busy offseason for several athletic directors around the country as some intriguing jobs opened and were filled. Historic power USC parted ways with Chad Kreuter and hired Frank Cruz on an interim basis, Boston College lost Mik Aoki to Notre Dame and hired Virginia Tech assistant Mike Gambino, Houston hired stud recruiter Todd Whitting away from TCU, Long Beach State’s Mike Weathers retired to give way to heralded pitching coach Troy Buckley and Ohio State’s Bob Todd retired to give way to Greg Beals. It’ll be interesting to see how each of these coaches transition into their new roles. Many eyes are on Cruz, Whitting and Buckley for good reason. All three are at programs with national names.

ACC still searching for a national title

This always seems to be one of the hottest topics entering each season, which begs the question: when will the ACC win a national title? Clemson came close to reaching the national title series last season, but fell just short in the semifinal round against rival South Carolina. Florida State reached the CWS but was unable to advance to the bracket final. Clemson will have a solid lineup this spring, but must improve on the mound to compete for a national title. Florida State again will have a good offense, but will its pitching staff finally rise to the occasion? There also are teams such as Virginia, Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina that could get into the mix with vast improvements in different areas. On paper, the ACC appears to be top heavy with the Tigers and Seminoles leading the way.

What a great MLB draft class of pitchers

If you’re a fan of elite pitching, you won’t be disappointed with the college baseball landscape this season. There are several outstanding pitchers to watch the next few months. UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole leads the draft class with outstanding size and amazing power, while TCU left-hander Matt Purke isn’t far behind after having a fantastic freshman campaign. Other pitchers to watch include Texas’ Taylor Jungmann, Connecticut’s Matt Barnes, Virginia’s Danny Hultzen, UCLA’s Trevor Bauer and Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray. It’ll be fun to watch how each pitcher jockeys for draft position.

College World Series continues at new TD Ameritrade Park

Rosenblatt Stadium served as home to the CWS for many seasons, but sometimes change is good. The NCAA welcomes TD Ameritrade Park as the host of the CWS beginning this season. The sparkling new $127 million facility, which has a capacity of 24,000 with the ability to expand to 35,000, mimics an MLB stadium and will be the gem of downtown Omaha. South Carolina won the final national title at Rosenblatt. Who will win the first national title at the new ballpark? The race has begun.

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 Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011