Blue Raiders hope for big things in Sun Belt

Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.

It won’t be long before Middle Tennessee State finds out how it feels to have a huge target on its back.

It will know in less than a month.

The Blue Raiders entered last season hoping to compete for the Sun Belt crown. But they accomplished much more by capturing the regular season and tournament titles on the way to an NCAA regional appearance.

Now, the Blue Raiders hope to repeat as conference champions. They also aspire to take another step forward this season with a super regional berth or perhaps even a trip to the College World Series.

Western Kentucky, Florida International and Troy could have something to say about MTSU’s chances of winning the league title.

Chris Finwood and Turtle Thomas are doing fantastic jobs at Western Kentucky and FIU, respectively, while Bobby Pierce always has Troy ready each season.

It’s time to break down the Sun Belt.

HOW THEY STACK UP

1. Middle Tennessee State – The Blue Raiders are in the midst of their most anticipated season in school history. That says all you need to know.

2. Western Kentucky – The Hilltoppers have a couple of outstanding hitters to replace, but otherwise are in solid shape with the return of several seasoned players.

3. Florida International – The Panthers showed much improvement last season. They welcome back several key players from that team this season.

4. Troy – The Trojans could win the Sun Belt title if its pitching staff shows much improvement this season. That unit ended last season with a 6.32 ERA.

5. Louisiana-Lafayette – The Ragin’ Cajuns have a fantastic one-two punch on the mound with Justin Robichaux and Zach Osborne, but the offense must step up.

6. New Orleans – The Privateers had a tough ’09 campaign, but hope to go out with a bang this season with the return of eight position starters.

7. Florida Atlantic – The Owls hope for better luck in coach John McCormack’s second season in charge of the program.

8. Arkansas State – The Red Wolves could take a step forward this season with the return of two weekend starters and a plethora of position starters.

9. Louisiana-Monroe – The Warhawks have plenty of question marks on the mound, but the offense once again should be productive this season.

10. South Alabama – The Jaguars had one of the league’s worst pitching staffs last season. We’re not sure that unit is going to be much this season.

11. Arkansas-Little Rock – The Trojans welcome back just three position starters from a team that finished last season with a 16-34 record. That’s not good.

ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

C Matt Rice, Western Kentucky

1B Tim Jobe, Florida International

2B Boomer Blanchard, Louisiana-Monroe

SS Tyler Burnett, Middle Tennessee State

3B Nick Wade, Louisiana-Monroe

OF Bryce Brentz, Middle Tennessee State

OF Adam Heisler, South Alabama

OF Miles Hoyle, Troy

DH Nick Schwaner, New Orleans

SP Kenneth Roberts, Middle Tennessee State

SP Matt Ridings, Western Kentucky

SP Zach Osborne, Louisiana-Lafayette

RP Lance Baxter, South Alabama

RISING STOCK

Middle Tennessee State – The Blue Raiders took a huge step forward last season by winning the conference regular season and tournament titles. Now, the Raiders are expected to accomplish even more this season. This program is making huge strides.

Western Kentucky coach Chris Finwood – Finwood has worked some wonders in his four seasons in Bowling Green, Ky. The Hilltoppers raised some eyebrows two seasons ago with a regional berth. But last season, the program took an even bigger step forward by compiling an impressive 42-20 record.

Florida International – There was a time not too long ago when the Panthers were a consistent NCAA regional contender. Those days may soon return. The Panthers have improved under the direction of third-year coach Turtle Thomas. Thomas only guided the program to a 20-36 record his first season, but led FIU to a 34-23 record and a solid league finish last season. FIU once again will compete for a regional berth this spring.

Western Kentucky catcher Matt Rice – After Wade Gaynor and Chad Cregar stole some headlines for much of last season, it is Rice’s turn to be in the spotlight for an entire season this spring. Rice is coming off a fantastic sophomore campaign, where he hit .399 with 10 homers and 72 RBIs. Keep an eye on Rice for postseason All-American honors.

Louisiana-Monroe’s Boomer Blanchard – All eyes were on shortstop Ben Soignier entering last season. But with Soignier long gone, the Warhawks are now focused on promoting Blanchard. The talented senior had a junior campaign to remember, hitting .351 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs. ULM needs him to have a huge season.

FALLING STOCK

South Alabama – For those of you that have lost track of the Jaguars the past few seasons, there was a time when South Alabama was one of the area’s premier programs. That no longer is the case. The Jaguars finished last season with just a 25-30 record and have several holes to fill this season. USA has not been in a regional since ’06.

Louisiana-Monroe – The Warhawks made a statement two seasons ago with a regular season conference title, but took a step back last season with a 12-17 mark in league play. Now, the Warhawks enter another campaign with a plethora of question marks. Can this once rising program get back to business?

Arkansas-Little Rock – It’ll be interesting to see if second-year coach Scott Norwood can turn things around for the Trojans. Norwood was a very successful coach in his previous stint at Ouachita Baptist, but guided the Trojans to a last place finish and a 16-34 record last season. UALR also enters this season with a plethora of holes to fill.

BEST PITCHER

LHP Kenneth Roberts, Middle Tennessee State

Roberts has had a solid career at MTSU, but would love nothing more than to guide the Blue Raiders to a super regional and perhaps a CWS appearance this season. The talented left-hander had a junior campaign to remember last season. He started 16 games, compiled an 11-1 record and had a 3.04 ERA in 103 2/3 innings. He also struck out 62 and walked 28 and limited opposing teams to a .225 clip. Roberts threw a pair of complete games as a junior, too.

BEST HITTER

OF Bryce Brentz, Middle Tennessee State

Brentz is one of the nation’s top offensive draft prospects. He also happens to be one of the nation’s best overall players. Brentz put himself on the national map last season with a phenomenal sophomore campaign. He batted .465 with 19 doubles, two triples, 28 homers and 73 RBIs. He also slugged .930 and had a .535 on-base percentage. Also worth noting, he walked 31 times and struck out on just 32 occasions. Brentz also was a solid starting pitcher last season for the Blue Raiders, but likely will make the move to the closer’s role to replace departed stud Coty Woods.

REGIONAL CONTENDERS

Middle Tennessee State, Western Kentucky, Florida International, Troy

Conventional wisdom suggests the Sun Belt will earn two NCAA regional bids this season, but there’s a chance the league could get three bids as evidenced by past NCAA Selection Committee decisions. Middle Tennessee State is the favorite to win the league title and definitely is expected to be in a regional. Western Kentucky also is expected to earn a regional berth as an at-large selection. FIU could be the magical third team selected. Troy, though, is once again expected to be on the bubble at the end of the regular season.

QUICK HITS

• What a tough offseason it was for New Orleans. The Privateers suffered a blow when coach Tommy Walter departed the program for Wake Forest. The hiring of former associate head coach Bruce Peddie certainly was welcomed. However, UNO then received horrible news when the school announced it would explore moving the entire athletic department from Division I to Division III. Well, that decision now is final as the school recently announced it has voluntarily decided to leave the Sun Belt, effective July 1. The Privateers had made strides the past few seasons. It’s unfortunate the program now is forced to head to the Division III level.

• Troy is thrilled not to be entering a season with players coming off major injuries. Senior outfielder Miles Hoyle is coming off the only injury to speak of. Hoyle missed most of fall workouts with a thumb injury, but it was not deemed serious. Hoyle is expected to be 100 percent when the Trojans open their season against Hofstra.

• Florida Atlantic didn’t have a great ’09 campaign, but coach John McCormack is confident the Owls will be much improved this season. McCormack recently said his pitching staff would be much improved. McCormack believes the younger pitchers that were forced into the fire last season will rise to the occasion this spring. FAU is coming off a season that ended with a 30-26 record.

• Middle Tennessee State has a good situation on its hands. The Blue Raiders had Bryce Brentz in a corner outfield position last season. But coach Steve Peterson recently announced he was moving Brentz to center field. Brentz also is changing his role on the mound. The two-way star was a starting pitcher last season, but likely will assume the role vacated by former closer Coty Woods. Brentz said he relishes the role of being the guy to end a game both at the plate and on the mound.

• Western Kentucky certainly welcomes back a productive offense, but the starting rotation on the mound also could be excellent. The Hilltoppers have high hopes for Matt Ridings and Shane Cameron. Ridings tallied a 4.84 ERA in 102 1/3 innings last season while Cameron went 5-2 with a 5.03 ERA in 77 innings. The pitchers also held opposing teams to batting averages of .267 and .273, respectively. The Hilltoppers are in fantastic shape if the duo meets expectations.

• It’s an important season for coach Tony Robichaux and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns finished last season with a 27-30 record, but hope to take a step forward with the return of several players, including solid pitchers Justin Robichaux and Zach Osborne. The Ragin’ Cajuns will break in a new playing surface this season, as they recently completed the installation of a fully artificial playing surface. The pitcher’s mound on M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field is the only dirt surface.

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 Wednesday, Jan 27, 2010