SEC once again loaded with contenders

Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.

Life in the SEC is tough, but it’s worth the ride if you can get through it and reach the College World Series.

That’s exactly what LSU did last season.

The Tigers took a step forward two seasons ago by returning to Omaha. But last season, the Tigers won the SEC co-championship with Mississippi and captured the conference tournament title. They went on to win the program’s sixth national title.

LSU hopes to repeat as national champions this season, but getting through the grind of the SEC will be an incredibly difficult chore for a team with a few holes to fill.

The Tigers still headline the SEC entering the 2010 season, but Florida and Arkansas are talented clubs that are hot on their heels.

Florida fell just short of reaching the CWS last season. Arkansas, though, won the Norman Regional before upsetting Florida State in the Tallahassee Super Regional to make another CWS appearance.

Joining LSU, Florida and Arkansas as likely postseason teams are Vanderbilt, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. Kentucky and Auburn are bubble teams.

The SEC race once again promises to be exciting this season.

HOW THEY STACK UP

Eastern Division

1. Florida – The Gators have a little work to do on the mound in terms of depth, but otherwise are in fantastic shape with a solid returning offense and the return of pitcher Tommy Toledo from injury.

Photo South Carolina once again is confident with the return of Jackie Bradley Jr. and other key hitters.
(South Carolina)

2. South Carolina – The Gamecocks actually could have a solid pitching staff for a change with the return of several seasoned and talented arms. The offense, as usual, is expected to be productive.

3. Georgia – The Bulldogs lost several key offensive cogs from last year’s team, but still welcome back enough pitchers and hitters to return to an NCAA regional.

4. Vanderbilt – The Commodores will have one of the better offenses in the SEC, but will the pitching staff rise to the occasion?

5. Kentucky – The Wildcats welcome back eight position starters, but the uncertainty surrounding ace pitcher James Paxton and the bullpen keeps them down in the eastern division pecking order for now.

6. Tennessee – The Volunteers return some very solid hitters, but will the pitching staff, especially ace Bryan Morgado, rise to the occasion this spring? That’s the question.

Western Division

1. LSU – The Tigers return just enough offense to lead the pack. Also, the pitching staff will be better than expected with ace Anthony Ranaudo and sensational sophomore closer Matty Ott leading the charge.

2. Arkansas – The Razorbacks welcome back a nice collection of players from a team that finished last season on an incredibly hot note.

3. Mississippi – The Rebels welcome back several position players, but the pitching staff is a question mark with many new faces.

4. Alabama – The Crimson Tide definitely will have a very productive offense. The question, though, is can the Tide slow down other teams?

5. Auburn – The Tigers welcome back almost every key player from a team that tallied 31 wins last season. Can AU finally get back to the SEC tournament?

6. Mississippi State – Wouldn’t be surprised if the Bulldogs were much improved with Cohen in charge, but there’s still much work to do to fully turn the corner.

ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

C Blake Forsythe, Tennessee

1B Cody Hawn, Tennessee

2B Ross Wilson, Alabama

SS Brian Harris, Vanderbilt

3B Jake Smith, Alabama

OF Aaron Westlake, Vanderbilt

OF Jackie Bradley Jr., South Carolina

OF Matt Smith, Mississippi

DH Blake Dean, LSU

SP Anthony Ranaudo, LSU

SP Drew Pomeranz, Mississippi

SP James Paxton, Kentucky

RP Matty Ott, LSU

RISING STOCK

LSU pitcher Anthony Ranaudo – Ranaudo was just another solid pitcher with senior Louis Coleman leading the way for the Tigers last season. But now Ranaudo is the headliner and looks to carry the Tigers to back-to-back national titles.

Arkansas third baseman Zack Cox – Cox has a chance to be a special player this season. The hard-hitting third baseman only finished last season with a .266 batting average, but tallied 13 homers and 39 RBIs. He also had a strong summer that has the Razorbacks believing he will have a sensational sophomore campaign.

South Carolina pitcher Sam Dyson – Dyson was a draft-eligible sophomore last season and had an opportunity to sign with Oakland as a tenth-round selection. However, the talented right-hander decided to return for his junior season. Dyson has the potential to be one of the SEC’s best arms this season.

Kentucky pitcher Alex Meyer – The Wildcats hope they can count on ace pitcher James Paxton this season, but with the uncertainty surrounding his situation, there’s a good chance Meyer will be the go-to guy on the mound. Meyer had a respectable freshman campaign, but impressed coaches by adding 20 pounds to his frame during the offseason. The right-hander is primed for a solid campaign.

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan – It didn’t take long for O’Sullivan to turn the Gators back into a national contender. O’Sullivan guided the Gators to an NCAA regional in his first season and a super regional appearance last season. Now, the Gators are expected to compete for a College World Series appearance and perhaps a national title this season.

FALLING STOCK

Florida outfielder Matt den Dekker – den Dekker entered last season with high hopes, but didn’t have the season he expected with just a .296 batting average, five homers and 37 RBIs. After taking a step back, den Dekker hopes to rise to the occasion as a senior this season.

Tennessee pitcher Bryan Morgado – Morgado is an impressive prospect, but he has something to prove after last season. Morgado made 20 appearances and had a 6.36 ERA in 52 1/3 innings. The Volunteers could surprise this season if Morgado and other pitchers step up.

Vanderbilt’s weekend rotation – The Commodores certainly have some talented pitchers in their program, but replacing the one-two punch of Mike Minor and Caleb Cotham will be incredibly difficult. The ‘Dores hope sophomore Sonny Gray has a huge campaign. Jack Armstrong and Taylor Hill will round out the rotation. Armstrong made just six appearances last season while Hill had a 5.05 ERA in 41 innings.

Mississippi State – It’s no surprise the Bulldogs struggled in their first season with coach John Cohen in charge. Cohen, after all, expected to sputter last season. Now, it’s important for the Bulldogs to show some progress this season. Another tough campaign could spell some trouble for the Bulldogs.

BEST PITCHER

RHP Anthony Ranaudo, LSU

Senior pitcher Louis Coleman was the headline pitcher for the Tigers last season, but now it’s Ranaudo’s turn to take the reins. Ranaudo is a hot name and likely will be a top-five pick in the upcoming MLB draft. But he’s much more than just a top prospect. Ranaudo is a proven commodity in the SEC. He started 19 games last season, compiled a 12-3 record and had a 3.04 ERA in 124 1/3 innings. He also struck out 159 and walked 50 and limited opposing teams to a .209 batting average. With the Tigers restructuring the weekend rotation this season, Ranaudo’s dominance is needed more than ever.

BEST HITTER

DH/1B Blake Dean, LSU

The Tigers lost some talented hitters to the MLB draft last summer, but Dean coming back for his senior campaign is huge. Dean got off to a slow start last season, but finished the campaign hitting .328 with 18 doubles, 17 homers and 71 RBIs. He also slugged .595 and had a .432 on-base percentage. Dean had offseason shoulder surgery, but will be healthy when the Tigers open their season against Centenary. LSU coach Paul Mainieri calls Dean’s return his most important recruiting victory of the year.

REGIONAL CONTENDERS

Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi – Yes, that is right, the SEC will have 10 teams with regional aspirations at the end of the season. Auburn fell just short of reaching an NCAA regional last season, but hopes to take a step forward this season by returning to the postseason. UK is another team that likely will be on the bubble at the end of the season. The Wildcats could be in very good shape if James Paxton is able to pitch, but definitely will be a bubble team if the talented left-handed pitcher is sidelined because of NCAA issues. It would be a surprise if Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt weren’t in a regional at the end of the season. LSU and Florida are the most likely national title contenders.

QUICK HITS

• It was a quiet offseason in terms of coaching changes. Long-time Alabama coach Jim Wells announced his retirement and was replaced by Mitch Gaspard, who served the last two seasons as an assistant for Wells and a total of nine seasons as an assistant for the Crimson Tide. Gaspard previously coached at Northwestern State and brings some much-needed energy to the program.

• Ole Miss has had an interesting past couple of months. First, the Rebels were surprised when assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Rob Reinstetle announced his resignation. Then, the Rebels received some bad news when it was announced pitcher Jake Morgan would miss the 2010 season because of Tommy John surgery. Morgan’s injury certainly hurts the Rebels’ cause on the mound. Additionally, Carl Lafferty, who previously served two seasons as a full-time coach, has since replaced Reinstetle.

• The SEC recently was the center of controversy when it announced it would experiment with a pitch-clock and between-inning clock at the upcoming SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. SEC officials said head coaches were in favor of the measure, which will be used to decrease the long days that often accompany the conference tournament.

• Vanderbilt will enter the spring with a couple of bumps and bruises. The Commodores lost sophomore pitcher Navery Moore to a broken kneecap during fall workouts. Moore is expected to be ready to go by March. Veteran Curt Casali, who played much of last season with a torn elbow ligament, had Tommy John surgery in June and has been cleared to catch. He is expected to split time with senior Andrew Giobbi.

• Tennessee freshman right-hander Jon Reed will miss the season with an injury after having Tommy John surgery. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound, freshman would’ve earned some solid innings if not for the setback.

• LSU has some questions to answer about its weekend rotation. The return of Ranaudo obviously gives the Tigers a front-line arm on Friday. However, the rest of the rotation has some uncertainty. Austin Ross will start Saturdays. Ross has shown the ability in the past to be a very good pitcher. But he also has had some bad moments. Daniel Bradshaw, who finished last season with a 3.04 ERA in 50 1/3 innings, will cap off the rotation. The Tigers haven’t ruled out Matty Ott moving to the rotation.

• Kentucky ace pitcher James Paxton may or may not pitch this season. Paxton’s situation has earned many headlines over the past few months. Paxton was asked by UK to accept an interview request from the NCAA. The university made a point to say that Paxton may not be allowed to play if he doesn’t adhere to the interview with the NCAA. Paxton and his lawyers are now fighting that issue in court. Paxton’s lawyer, Rick Johnson, remains confident his client will be able to play this spring. However, it seems the NCAA has some legitimate questions to ask after Scott Boras, Paxton’s advisor, was called out in a newspaper article after the ’09 MLB draft. The Wildcats would suffer greatly if Paxton is unable to pitch as a senior this season.

• Georgia received the worst news possible a few months ago when potential starter and freshman Chance Veazey was injured in a scooter accident with a car. Veazey was left paralyzed from the waist down and now is trying to continue life as normal as possible. Veazey’s baseball career obviously is over. Georgia coach Dave Perno recently said that Veazey definitely would’ve had a great chance to start this season. His loss hurts the Bulldogs both physically and emotionally.

• Florida will receive a boost when sophomore Tommy Toledo takes the mound this season. Toledo was a highly touted pitcher entering his freshman campaign two seasons ago. But after compiling a 4.40 ERA as a freshman, Toledo missed last season because of an injury. The Gators now have the talented right-hander slated to start on Fridays. That move tells you how valuable Toledo is to the Gators.

• Mississippi State received some tough news when senior infielder Jarrod Parks was sidelined with a back injury. Parks was one of the Bulldogs’ better defensive infielders, but the back injury likely will sideline him for the remainder of the season. Parks is still trying to decide if he wants to have surgery.

• South Carolina still isn’t sure if senior first baseman Nick Ebert will play this season. Ebert is dealing with some academic issues, and there’s a chance he will be ineligible to play this season. Ebert’s loss would be a big setback for the Gamecocks. He batted .321 with 23 homers and 72 RBIs last season. He also had an impressive .468 on-base percentage. The Gamecocks will know more this week.

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 Monday, Jan 25, 2010