Eight for Omaha: Looking ahead to 2011

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The 2011 college baseball season won’t be ushered in for seven months, but it’s never too early to look into the crystal ball and dissect which teams might return to the College World Series or finally make a trip to the sport’s promised land.

UCLA, Florida, TCU, Florida State and Oklahoma reached the CWS this past season. All five teams are expected to return to Omaha next season, too.

The other teams on our list include Vanderbilt, Cal State Fullerton and Texas.

Vandy welcomes back a plethora of key cogs both at the plate and on the mound and returns stud ace pitcher Sonny Gray. Fullerton fell just short of making it back to Omaha last season and returns a fabulous pitching staff and enough offensive cogs to compete for the national title. There also is Texas, which returns a serviceable lineup and one of the nation’s best weekend starters in junior right-hander Taylor Jungmann.

Some draft decisions may determine where these teams sit entering the spring.

For now, we take an inside look at the eight teams we would expect to see in Omaha if the season started today.

Cal State Fullerton

The expectation at Fullerton is always to reach the College World Series. So, when the Titans fell short of another Omaha trip with a super regional series loss to UCLA this past season, it made them even more motivated. That is something to consider with the ’11 season on the distant horizon. The Titans will have the tough chore of replacing offensive cogs Christian Colon, Gary Brown and Corey Jones. But they also expect big-time campaigns from Carlos Lopez, Tyler Pill and Nick Ramirez, among others. On the mound, the Titans could be in golden shape with the return of starters Pill and Noe Ramirez. Daniel Renken also could decide to return to the school, while coach Dave Serrano is incredibly excited about the potential of Fresno State transfer Jake Floethe, who was forced to sit out this past season. The Titans, of course, also will have Ramirez back as a key reliever. The Titans may have a couple of question marks at the plate but are in fantastic shape on the mound.

Florida

The Gators took a step forward this past season by reaching the CWS for the first time since ’05. It would be a huge surprise if the Gators didn’t return to Omaha next season. Though Florida must replace outfielder Matt den Dekker and closer Kevin Chapman, it welcomes back almost every key player. The Gators return their entire weekend rotation of Brian Johnson, Hudson Randall and Alex Panteliodis. They also welcome back other key pitchers such as Tommy Toledo, Greg Larson and Steve Rodriguez. At the plate, UF welcomes back third baseman Austin Maddox, shortstop Nolan Fontana, second baseman Josh Adams, first baseman Preston Tucker and catcher Mike Zunino, among others. A year older and wiser and fresh off an Omaha berth, the Gators should have little trouble experiencing a wealth of success next season. Reaching the CWS is a must for a team with this much experience and talent.

Florida State

The Seminoles reached the CWS this past season by winning the Norwich Regional and beating Vanderbilt in the Tallahassee Super Regional. They fell short of a national title in Omaha, but coach Mike Martin finally could have his national title winner in the upcoming club. FSU’s national title chances may hinge on the decisions of Tyler Holt and Mike McGee. Both players were drafted a few weeks ago and may sign or return to college. FSU is in fabulous shape if both return to school. Either way, though, this team will be solid with the return of several big bats and pitchers. At the plate, Sherman Johnson, Jayce Boyd, James Ramsey, Rafael Lopez and Devon Travis return. On the mound, the ‘Noles will expect big-time campaigns from Sean Gilmartin, Brian Busch and potentially Geoff Parker. They also welcome back relievers Daniel Bennett and Tyler Everett.

Oklahoma

The Sooners should know how UCLA feels. OU entered the season with high hopes, but few thought it finally would take its biggest step forward under the tutelage of coach Sunny Golloway. Golloway’s club, though, put together a magical postseason run that included a road super regional series win over Virginia. Now OU will enter next season with incredibly high expectations. The Sooners welcome back all three weekend starters in Zach Neal, Bobby Shore and Michael Rocha. They also welcome back reliever Ryan Duke, who was an important part of the CWS run this past season. Offensively, the Sooners are waiting to see if third baseman Garrett Buechele returns or signs with the Texas Rangers. However, they still welcome back several key hitters, including Caleb Bushyhead, Max White, Cody Reine, Cameron Seitzer and Tyler Ogle. For once, Omaha definitely will be the expectation for an OU team.

TCU

There’s little question the Horned Frogs weren’t a flash in the pan in Omaha this past season. TCU is expected to return to Omaha next season, too. Replacing position players Bryan Holaday and Matt Curry will be a tough chore, but Jason Coats, Taylor Featherston, Brance Rivera, Jantzen Witte and Aaron Schultz, among others, will be back. On the mound, the Frogs will have one of the nation’s better one-two punches in Matt Purke and Kyle Winkler, while Kaleb Merck, Erik Miller and Trent Appleby will solidify the bullpen. The Frogs don’t have any glaring question marks outside of replacing the leadership of Holaday. This team is primed to make another run at a national title.

Texas

The Longhorns will enter next season with more question marks than most teams on this list. However, they still are expected to get to Omaha. The Longhorns have the incredibly difficult chore of replacing pitchers Brandon Workman, Chance Ruffin and likely Cole Green, too. But junior right-hander Taylor Jungmann is back and Hoby Milner should fit nicely into the weekend rotation. The Longhorns hope Austin Dicharry makes a solid return to the mound. They also have high hopes for Sam Stafford. At the plate, replacing Russell Moldenhauer, Kevin Keyes and Cameron Rupp won’t be easy, but the offense should be serviceable with Tant Shepherd, Cohl Walla, Kevin Lusson and Brandon Loy leading the way. Talent and experience should get this team to Omaha.

UCLA

The Bruins are one of the safest bets to return to Omaha next season. Sure, they have the tough chore of replacing pitchers Erik Goeddel and Garett Claypool and likely Dan Klein, Rob Rasmussen and Matt Grace, too. But they welcome back the nation’s best one-two punch in Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. The bullpen will need some restructuring, though. At the plate, the Bruins should be better than the unit that hit .304 this past season. The Bruins must replace Blair Dunlap but welcomes back Tyler Rahmatulla, Cody Regis, Chris Giovinazzo, Beau Amaral, Dean Espy, Cody Keefer, Steve Rodriguez and perhaps even Niko Gallego and Brett Krill. This UCLA team will be amazing if the bullpen can figure out some roles.

Vanderbilt

The Commodores have their best chance since ’07 to notch a CWS berth. The Commodores welcome back fantastic ace pitcher Sonny Gray in addition to Sunday starter Jack Armstrong. There also is a very good chance fellow weekend starter Taylor Hill will return this fall. The bullpen will be anchored by Grayson Garvin and Will Clinard. As talented as the pitching staff will be, the offense could be even better with several key hitters returning next spring. The list of returning contributors includes Anthony Gomez, Jason Esposito, Curt Casali, Connor Harrell and possibly Aaron Westlake. The ‘Dores are strong in all the important areas. We’ll see if that finally translates to a trip to Omaha.

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, Jul 8, 2010