Times have changed for South Carolina.
The Gamecocks took a step forward two years ago when they opened up sparkling new Carolina Stadium and became one of the facility frontrunners in college baseball. They took their biggest step forward last season.
South Carolina had a memorable 2010 campaign that ended with a magical trip to the College World Series and the program's first national title.
Now, the Gamecocks will enter next season as the sport's most hunted team.
They welcome the challenge. Coach Ray Tanner said earlier this fall his team was working harder this fall than they ever have. In other words, don't look for his program to be content with just one title.
Still, this is a team that has some holes to fill to win back-to-back titles.
The Gamecocks have the tough chore of replacing excellent weekend starters Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson and No. 3 starter Jay Brown. Figuring out who will fill those three spots is the most important goal between now and the spring.
They also must establish more offensive consistency. The Gamecocks welcome back premier hitter Jackie Bradley Jr., while Christian Walker and Evan Marzilli showed signs of being stars during last season's postseason run. The rest of the offense must improve with Whit Merrifield gone and Brady Thomas' situation still up in the air.
What's there to watch for this fall?
Any time a team wins a national title you wonder how they'll respond the next season. The Gamecocks are in that situation. South Carolina won its first national title last season and welcomes back several key players from that team. It also must replace a few key cogs, including weekend starters Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson. The Gamecocks are the defending national champions, but still have some legitimate holes to fill this fall to be ultra confident when spring arrives. The Gamecocks must avoid a national title hangover. Tanner said a few weeks ago he thought his team was working harder than ever. That's exactly the attitude they need as the season nears.
Replace entire weekend rotation
The Gamecocks welcome back enough talented players at the plate to make another run at the national title, but the spring ultimately will come down to the weekend rotation. The Gamecocks have the tough chore of replacing solid weekend starters Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson and No. 3 starter Jay Brown. Cooper was one of the nation's best starters last season with a 2.76 ERA in 137 innings. Dyson finished last season with 101 strikeouts and Brown did his part, too. The Gamecocks have several options for the weekend rotation, including Tyler Webb, a healthy Adam Westmoreland, Ethan Carter, Nolan Belcher and newcomers Bryan Harper and Wes Cook. The Gamecocks also could look to Michael Roth and Matt Price as weekend starters. Roth started in Omaha and was fantastic. He had a 1.34 ERA in 40 1/3 innings. Price, meanwhile, recorded 10 saves and had a 2.26 ERA in 55 2/3 innings. South Carolina has options in this department. It's all about sorting everything out.
Figure out the catcher position
The Gamecocks enjoyed the services of veteran Kyle Enders last season, but now must move on with some question marks behind the plate. The Gamecocks hope Brady Thomas can fill in for Enders. Thomas finished last season with a .331 batting average, 13 doubles, 8 homers and 30 RBIs. However, they aren't sure if he'll be eligible to play in the spring. Thomas applied for another year of eligibility after previously missing time at Florida State because of an injury. Tanner believed a few weeks ago that he was 50-50 on returning. If not Thomas, the Gamecocks likely will look to talented newcomer Dante Rosenberg to fill the void. Either way, they must figure out the catcher position between now and the spring.
Keep Jackie Bradley Jr. healthy
With the departure of Whit Merrifield and possibly Brady Thomas, the Gamecocks only have two premier hitters returning this fall – Jackie Bradley Jr. and Christian Walker. Some would lump Evan Marzilli into the mix, too. All eyes, of course, are on Bradley as the season nears. Bradley will be one of the nation's most dynamic players next season. He was a star in Omaha last season and finished the campaign hitting .368 with 12 doubles, 13 homers and 60 RBIs. He also had a .587 slugging percentage and tallied a .473 on-base percentage. The Gamecocks are set for the spring offensively if Bradley stays healthy and continues to work hard.
Reload the bullpen
Former pitching coach Mark Calvi assembled one of the nation's better bullpens last season. Now new pitching coach Jerry Meyers inherits a talented and veteran bullpen that shouldn't skip a beat this fall. The Gamecocks aren't sure what they'll do with Matt Price and Michael Roth. But if the duo don't start on the weekend, they'll be back in the bullpen. The Gamecocks have several other options, too, including Jose Mata, Nolan Belcher, John Taylor, Tyler Webb, Steven Neff and Ethan Carter. The bullpen definitely should give the Gamecocks some flexibility to toy with the weekend rotation early next season. The Gamecocks won't lose many games if they have a lead in the latter innings.