SEC appears to be tale of two divisions

Matt Price hopes to help lead South Carolina back to the College World Series in 2011.
(US Presswire)

Life has been good for the SEC the past two seasons.

LSU gave the conference a national title two years ago when it beat Texas to win its sixth national title. Then, last season, South Carolina stormed through the College World Series and defeated UCLA to win the program’s first and school’s second national title.

What will the 2011 season hold for arguably the nation’s best conference?

The Gamecocks have the tough chore of replacing weekend starters Sam Dyson and Blake Cooper, but welcome back enough key cogs to make a return trip to Omaha. LSU, though, has several question marks as a new season nears.

The Tigers aren’t alone in that regard. Put the rest of the SEC West in the same boat.

Auburn welcomes back several key hitters but has question marks on the mound, Alabama has rebuilding to do all over the diamond, Mississippi must replace two good weekend starters, Mississippi State is looking for a glimmer of hope and Arkansas has key pieces to replace both at the plate and on the mound.

The SEC East is in better shape with the Gamecocks, Florida and Vanderbilt leading the way.

Our full SEC preview comes Monday, Jan. 17.

SEC snapshot

Reasons for optimism: The Crimson Tide will enter the ’11 season with much confidence after reaching an NCAA Super Regional last season. They have a pair of outstanding trend setters on the mound and at the plate. On the mound, Nathan Kilcrease gives the Tide a premier arm they can use in series openers. At the plate, versatile outfielder Taylor Dugas gives the Crimson Tide one of the nation’s most dangerous threats atop the lineup. ‘Bama has some holes to fill, but at least has some star power.
Reasons to worry: This season is where red-hot coach Mitch Gaspard can earn some big-time money. There’s no doubt the Crimson Tide has some huge holes to fill, particularly in the power department with the departures of Josh Rutledge, Clay Jones, Ross Wilson and Jake Smith. The Crimson Tide don’t have much power returning. Though the Crimson Tide welcomes back some talented pitchers, the weekend rotation still is a big question mark with only Kilcrease a reliable returning option. Adam Morgan must rise to the occasion.

Reasons for optimism: It wasn’t long ago the Razorbacks were picked to finish at the bottom of the SEC only to finish the season as the regular season champion. The Hogs won’t be picked that low this preseason, but have plenty of question marks. Still, this is a program that thrives on being the underdog. Additionally, the offense should be fine as the season progresses with a solid nucleus of hitters leading the way, including James McCann, Bo Bigham and Collin Kuhn.
Reasons to worry: The Hogs have an outstanding young pitcher in heralded freshman Ryne Stanek. However, they have several question marks on the mound, particularly with the weekend rotation after losing all three starters to graduation or the MLB draft last summer. Losing Drew Smyly, Mike Bolsinger and Brett Eibner could prove too much for the Hogs. Their season rests solely on the shoulders of the weekend rotation.

Reasons for optimism: The Tigers took a huge step forward last season with an NCAA Regional appearance, so it’s natural more is expected this season. The Tigers lost several big-time hitters to the MLB draft last summer. However, they still return enough solid bats to have one of the SEC’s better lineups with Dan Gamache, Justin Fradejas, Tony Caldwell and Casey McElroy leading the way. The Tigers also have a talented group of newcomers that should tie up some loose ends.
Reasons to worry: The Tigers’ season will hinge on their pitching staff. They finished last season with just a 5.00 ERA and must replace a pair of weekend starters in Cole Nelson and Grant Dayton, and top reliever Austin Hubbard. AU will be a favorite to compete for the SEC West title even without proven pitching. What could this team accomplish if the pitching staff comes through?

Reasons for optimism: The Gators’ reasons for optimism are almost limitless. They reached the College World Series last season with a young team. But this season, the Gators are a year older, wiser and absolutely loaded. The Gators welcome back all three weekend starters and add first-rounder Karsten Whitson to the mix. They also welcome back an offensive lineup with much potential. UF is in outstanding shape looking forward.
Reasons to worry: Teams that win national titles typically have an outstanding closer. The Gators very well could have one when the season begins. However, there’s no doubt they’ll have a tough time replacing Kevin Chapman, who finished last season with 11 saves and a 1.65 ERA. A lack of a premier closer is the only thing that could keep the Gators from reaching their goal this season.

Reasons for optimism: The Bulldogs fielded at a respectable clip last season, marking one of few positives for the team. Fortunately, they welcome back several position players this season. More importantly, the Bulldogs should be solid offensively with several returning hitters from a lineup that finished last season with a .301 average. Another source of confidence is the fact they have a stockpile of talent.
Reasons to worry: There’s no doubt what must change this spring for the Bulldogs to return to the NCAA postseason. The pitching staff must improve. The Bulldogs ended last season with high hopes and talent, but somehow finished the campaign with an 8.51 ERA. UGA will enter the ’11 campaign without its top arm in Justin Grimm. Can the Bulldogs find a way to rebound on the mound? That’s the big question.

Reasons for optimism: The Wildcats aren’t in great shape on the mound, but at least have a few talented pitchers in Taylor Rogers and Alex Meyer. Both Rogers and Meyer had unimpressive ’10 campaigns from a statistical standpoint, but both, especially Meyer, have much upside entering this season. UK will have the talent to compete for an NCAA postseason appearance.
Reasons to worry: The Wildcats were unable to establish consistency last season and have some work to do as another season nears. On the mound, the Wildcats have some talent, but still finished last season with a 5.85 ERA. That mark must improve. At the plate, the Wildcats must find a way to replace their top five hitters. Competing for an SEC title will be a tough chore for this team.

Reasons for optimism: The Tigers have several holes to fill on the mound and in the field this spring, but they’ve done a fantastic recruiting job the past couple of years. That could pay dividends in a year with several question marks. The Tigers have some rebuilding to do at the plate, but can take solace in the return of Mikie Mahtook, Tyler Hanover and Austin Nola, who each finished last season with batting averages over .319.
Reasons to worry: The pitching staff is a major concern as the season nears. The Tigers had a pair of solid starters last season in Anthony Ranaudo and Austin Ross. However, both pitchers signed professional contracts last summer. That leaves much weight on the shoulders of returning pitcher Ben Alsup and others. The Tigers also have high hopes for freshman right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman. LSU will compete for the SEC title if the pitching staff exceeds expectations.

Reasons for optimism: Some things tend to stay the same. And in the case of the Rebels, another postseason appearance should be in the works. The Rebels welcome back their top three hitters and five of their eight top hitters from last year’s team. They also welcome back a pair of outstanding pitchers in Brett Huber and Matt Crouse, with Huber’s return most important because of his ability to dominate late in games.
Reasons to worry: We’re wondering how the Rebels will shape up when it comes to the weekend rotation. Matt Crouse made six starts last season and should be a bigger factor this season. The biggest concern is the departures of All-American ace Drew Pomeranz and fellow weekend starter Aaron Barrett. The Rebels must formulate an adequate weekend rotation to compete for more than just an NCAA Regional berth.

Mississippi State
Reasons for optimism: After finishing last season with a 23-33 record, the Bulldogs couldn’t be more ready to begin a new campaign. That’s the best news for this team. Sure, last season was a disaster, but a new season is a clean slate and the program welcomes a large freshman class. Could State’s youngsters turn the tide this season? State coach John Cohen needs them to.
Reasons to worry: Let’s be honest and get it out of the way, the Bulldogs won’t improve until the pitching staff shows signs of progress. The Bulldogs finished last season with a dismal 6.87 ERA and must replace their only pitcher that finished the campaign with an ERA below five. That is a troubling sign for State, but perhaps another class of newcomers can spark a resurgence.

South Carolina
Reasons for optimism: The Gamecocks have several reasons to be optimistic about this season. Though they lost some key bats to the MLB draft last summer, they still welcome back several talented players, including one of the nation’s best in Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Walker, Adam Matthews and Adrian Morales, among others. They also know what it takes to win a national title and have battle-tested arms in Matt Price and Michael Roth. The foundation is there to make another run to Omaha.
Reasons to worry: As promising as the Gamecocks’ offense looks on paper, the pitching staff is equally iffy. The Gamecocks are considering moving Michael Roth or Matt Price to the weekend rotation to fill the voids left by Sam Dyson and Blake Cooper. Whoever doesn’t start will stay in the bullpen. The Gamecocks must figure out their weekend rotation before they can focus on repeating as national champions. Still, this team will only get better as the season progresses.

Reasons for optimism: UT didn’t have a ’10 campaign to remember, but now it has a clean slate as a new seasons begins. Though the Vols have some holes to fill at the plate, they at least have a solid nucleus with the return of Josh Liles, Matt Duffy and Zach Osborne. The Vols also have high hopes for freshman outfielder Andrew Toles, who turned down solid money to attend college.
Reasons to worry: The Volunteers won’t make significant strides this season until they greatly improve on the mound. UT finished last season with a dismal 5.88 ERA and must find a way to improve without key arms such as Bryan Morgado, Stephen McCray and Steve Steve Crnkovich. It also has some work to do at the plate after losing half of its power production following last season.

Reasons for optimism: Vandy couldn’t be more excited about its weekend rotation and the bulk of its offensive lineup. The Commodores will have one of the nation’s best rotations with top prospects Sonny Gray and Jack Armstrong and Taylor Hill leading the way. At the plate, the Commodores welcome back their top five hitters, including stars Jason Esposito and Aaron Westlake. Omaha is the expectation for this team.
Reasons to worry: The Commodores don’t have many holes entering the season, but the bullpen and power production could be a concern. The Commodores must formulate a solid bullpen after losing Chase Reid, Drew Hayes and Russell Brewer. They also have an offensive lineup with power limited to only a few players.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and 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 Wednesday, Jan 5, 2011