Rising programs helping conferences succeed

The Big East and Sun Belt conferences aren’t exactly considered two of the nation’s best, but that could be changing thanks to a few teams.

The Big East particularly has made some impressive strides the past few seasons. Louisville has become a national power and Connecticut made a huge statement last season with an NCAA regional appearance and host. The Huskies highlight our list of rising programs. They’re joined from the Big East by Pittsburgh, who was close to making a postseason appearance last season.

The Sun Belt hasn’t made as many strides as the Big East, but the league also is feeling good with programs such as Florida International and Florida Atlantic making noise. The Panthers made a statement last season with an NCAA postseason appearance. They also earned plenty of national attention with the hitting streak of Garrett Wittels. FAU, meanwhile, reached an NCAA regional title game in just coach John McCormack’s second season.

Other teams around the country also are showing signs of rising.

For instance, Oregon put together one of the most impressive turnarounds in college baseball history last season with a postseason berth just a year after recording 14 wins. Washington State, meanwhile, made its second straight NCAA appearance despite having some serious obstacles in play in Eastern Washington.

Auburn, another team from a power conference, also is rising. The Tigers have a chance to do some special things next season and beyond with the return of several key players. They reached the SEC tournament for the first time since 2003 last season. They also reached the NCAA postseason and hosted a regional.

The potential rise of many of these programs would be good for the sport, but dealing with higher expectations sometimes can be too difficult.

College baseball’s rising programs

It shouldn’t come as a surprise the Tigers have taken steps forward the past two seasons. The Tigers hired coach John Pawlowski away from College of Charleston with the idea he could be a miracle worker. Pawlowski has worked his magic in two seasons. He almost guided the Tigers to a regional in his first season and took a huge step forward last season with appearances in the SEC tournament and NCAA postseason. The Tigers certainly lost some key cogs from their offensive lineup in the offseason, but welcome back enough bats to have another potent unit in the spring. The big question mark is their pitching staff. Either way, this quickly is becoming a program to be reckoned with in the nation’s best conference.

There’s not a coach in America that earned his paycheck more than George Horton last season. After finishing his first season with the Ducks with a dismal 14-42 record, Horton insisted during the offseason that his team would be vastly improved last season. So, now, when Horton speaks, it’s important we listen. The Ducks put together one of the more miraculous turnarounds last season, compiling a 40-24 record and earning a trip to the NCAA postseason. The Ducks aren’t anywhere near done making waves on the national stage, either. UO has one of the nation’s best facilities with an elite coach. It also is riding high after last season and welcomes back several hitters and some key arms from that club. UO is expected to get back to the postseason in 2011.

Washington State
The Cougars no longer have a football program worth being proud of, but the same can’t be said for the baseball program. What coach Don Marbut has accomplished the past two seasons is special. The Cougars reached an NCAA regional with just a 32-25 record two seasons ago. But last season, the Cougars took a step forward with a solid Pac-10 finish, a 37-22 record, and of course, an NCAA postseason appearance. The Cougars have some improvements that can be made at the plate between now and the spring, but the pitching staff is in excellent shape with the return of ace Chad Arnold and stud reliever Adam Conley. Marbut has proven at the most unlikely of places that he can win baseball games. And now the Cougars appear ready to take yet another step forward when spring arrives.

New Mexico
New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham may be quirky and is known as the coach that once called out college baseball phenom Stephen Strasburg. But no mistake about it, Birmingham also is an excellent coach. Birmingham took the UNM job with high hopes, but no one expected him to spark the turnaround he has the past two seasons. The Lobos fell short of an NCAA postseason appearance two seasons ago even with a 37-20 record. But last season, they wouldn’t be denied, compiling a 38-22 record and earning a spot in the Fullerton Regional title game. The Lobos have some holes to fill in the spring, particularly at the plate, but will continue to make strides as long as Birmingham roams the dugout.

Will Jim Penders have the opportunity to ride on the Mik Aoki train before it’s all said and done? There’s a good chance that’s the case, except for the fact he likely would have parlayed success at Connecticut for an even better job than Notre Dame. Penders has accomplished some great things with the Huskies. He entered last season with high hopes, but no one expected the Huskies to almost win the Big East title, compile a 48-16 record and host an NCAA regional. Now, with last season ancient history, the Huskies must deal with life as the hunted. They welcome back a pair of outstanding pitchers in Matt Barnes and Elliot Glynn, and also welcome back several talented hitters. Connecticut has a chance to do something Ohio State couldn’t do last season, and that’s be a northern team in Omaha.

The Big East continues to make strides and Pittsburgh is just one of many programs to watch the next few seasons. Though the Panthers have failed to reached the NCAA postseason the past couple seasons, they have made strides. Pitt finished with a 28-21 record two seasons ago, and almost reached an NCAA regional last season with a fantastic 38-18 record. They welcome back enough key cogs at the plate and on the mound to finally make a postseason appearance a reality come spring. Pitt coach Joe Jordano has done something with absolutely nothing in way of facilities the past few seasons. Now, he has a new 1,000-seat facility and a new field surface. It’ll be interesting to see what Jordano and the Panthers can do with a facility to recruit with.

Should college baseball fans get used to the fact Liberty could be Coastal Carolina II? OK, it’s a little too early to be anointing the Flames the next Chanticleers. But there are some parallels between Liberty of now and the Coastal Carolina of several years ago. LU coach Jim Toman has made some impressive strides the past few seasons. Two seasons ago, the Flames compiled a 33-21 record. But last season, the Flames took an even bigger step forward with a 42-19 record. They were in the mix for an NCAA postseason appearance before losing some key games that hurt their RPI down the stretch. LU needs to do a better job of winning big games. But with Toman in charge, this is a program primed to do something special.

Texas State
We’ve always wondered what Bobcats coach Ty Harrington could do with a decent facility. Before two seasons ago, the Bobcats had arguably one of the nation’s worst facilities on arguably one of the nation’s most picturesque campuses. That hurt them in recruiting. But two seasons ago, the Bobcats unveiled a sparkling new stadium and have since reaped the benefits. They earned an NCAA postseason appearance two seasons ago with a 41-17 record. They also came close to returning last season with a 38-22 record. With stud pitcher Carson Smith and others returning next season, the Bobcats should continue to experience success. There’s no reason why Texas State shouldn’t be a consistent postseason team. All it took was a facility.

Florida International
It wasn’t long ago the Panthers were a consistent NCAA postseason team. Then, the program went through a lull for several seasons. Now, coach Turtle Thomas hopes to turn FIU back into a consistent postseason contender. He certainly is recruiting like he’s serious. The Panthers compiled a 34-23 record two seasons ago, but fell short of the postseason. Last season, though, they reached the NCAA postseason after winning the Sun Belt tournament. They finished the campaign with a 36-25 record. The Panthers welcome back enough key hitters to make a bigger splash in the spring, but the pitching staff must improve. Either way, this program is making big strides with Thomas in charge.

Florida Atlantic
Much like their South Florida counterparts in FIU, there’s no reason why the Owls shouldn’t be consistent postseason contenders and accomplish even more than that. FAU has been led by coach John McCormack for two seasons. He guided the program to a 30-26 record two seasons ago, but took a big step forward last season with a 37-24 record and a trip to the Gainesville Regional title game. Now, the Owls welcome back several key hitters and pitchers in the spring and have a chance to do something even more special. Baseball in South Florida is about to get much better with FAU and FIU showing promise.

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, Nov 4, 2010