Preview: Power shift expected in SEC

Kendall Rogers
Yahoo! Sports
Sonny Gray and the Commodores hope to reach the CWS for the first time in school history this season

Preview: Power shift expected in SEC

Sonny Gray and the Commodores hope to reach the CWS for the first time in school history this season

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

LSU won its sixth national title two seasons ago with a thrilling series win over Texas. South Carolina captured another title for the conference last season when it won its first national title with a series win over UCLA.

Could the SEC find its way to another title this season? It's possible.

South Carolina must rebuild its pitching staff to compete for the national title, while Florida will be one of the title favorites and Vanderbilt could get in the mix thanks to the return of its entire weekend rotation.

With the Gamecocks, Gators and Commodores leading the charge, the SEC Eastern Division enters the spring as the conference's premier division.

The SEC might not have the overall star power of past seasons, but expect another competitive campaign.

How they stack up

Eastern Division

1. Florida – The Gators welcome back a solid offense and three weekend starters. Oh yeah, they also welcome first-rounder Karsten Whitson to the pitching staff.

2. Vanderbilt – The Commodores welcome back a trio of talented weekend starters and most of their key hitters from an NCAA Super Regional team.

3. South Carolina – Even without weekend starters Sam Dyson and Blake Cooper, the Gamecocks will have a very formidable lineup.

4. Kentucky – The Wildcats have a weekend rotation with an amazing amount of upside, but will they pan out once the season arrives? That's the question.

5. Georgia – After a horrendous 2010 campaign, the Bulldogs enter '11 with a solid offensive lineup. However, the pitching staff must show something.

6. Tennessee – The Volunteers have an unproven weekend rotation, but should at least have a decent offense. This is a must-win campaign for Todd Raleigh's club.

Western Division

1. Auburn – The Tigers need to show some improvements on the mound, but will have another productive offense.

2. LSU – The Tigers won't be ultra powerful at the plate, but will have a solid offense. The pitching staff? That's the big question mark.

3. Arkansas – The Hogs have enough key players back to have another good year at the plate. The weekend rotation has talented arms, but they're unproven.

4. Mississippi – Look for the Rebels to hit the ball well this season, but the pitching staff is a huge question mark with the departures of two good weekend starters.

5. Alabama – After losing several key hitters from last year's team, the Crimson Tide hopes to rebound at the plate and surprise on the mound.

6. Mississippi State – Surely you'd think the Bulldogs would finally turn the corner this season. But on paper, they're still behind their western rivals.

All-conference team

C Tony Caldwell, Auburn

1B Christian Walker, South Carolina

2B Tyler Hanover, LSU

SS Nolan Fontana, Florida

3B Jason Esposito, Vanderbilt

OF Jackie Bradley Jr., South Carolina

OF Taylor Dugas, Alabama

OF Mikie Mahtook, LSU

DH Austin Maddox, Florida

SP Sonny Gray, Vanderbilt

SP Hudson Randall, Florida

SP Nathan Kilcrease, Alabama

RP Matt Price, South Carolina

Rising stock

South Carolina first baseman Christian Walker – Walker was inconsistent much of last season, but ended the year on a hot streak, especially in Omaha. Walker batted .327 with nine homers and 51 homers last season, and is expected to have a much better sophomore campaign. He's one of the Gamecocks' rising stars.

Alabama pitcher Nathan Kilcrease – He only earned six starts last season, but look for Kilcrease to become one of the nation's better starting pitchers this season. He had a solid '10 campaign, going 8-3 with a 2.85 ERA in 98 innings. He also struck out 82 and walked 21 and limited teams to a .224 clip.

Florida – The Gators reached the College World Series for the first time in the Kevin O'Sullivan era last season, but didn't play well once there with a young team. Now older and wiser, the Gators hope to impress as one of the national title favorites. The Gators have a good offense and a fantastic pitching staff, which will be led by Alex Panteliodis, Hudson Randall, Brian Johnson and freshman sensation Karsten Whitson.

Vanderbilt third baseman Jason Esposito – Esposito arrived at Vandy with high expectations, but somehow didn't earn much postseason recognition last season despite having a productive campaign at the plate. Esposito, one of the top prospects for this year's MLB draft, is expected to have a great offensive campaign. He batted .359 with 25 doubles, 12 homers and 64 RBIs last season. He also had an impressive .455 on-base percentage.

LSU outfielder Mikie Mahtook – The Tigers will look to Mahtook for more production than ever this season. Without Micah Gibbs, Blake Dean and Leon Landry, the Tigers enter the campaign with a power void. That puts more pressure on Mahtook, who ended last year with a .335 average, 14 homers and 50 RBIs.

Falling stock

Georgia – It's hard to imagine the Bulldogs played for a national title just a couple of seasons ago. What a difference a couple of years make. The Bulldogs hope to return to the good side of the ledger this season after finishing last year with a terrible 16-37 mark. All eyes will be on the pitching staff, which finished '10 with a 8.51. It's safe to say it's an important year for coach Dave Perno and the Bulldogs.

SEC Western Division – This division usually is the crown jewel of the SEC, but that won't be the case this season barring a surprise. Auburn and LSU are the headliners, but both have major question marks on the mound. The same goes for Mississippi, Alabama and Mississippi State, too. The eastern division, meanwhile, features three very good teams in Florida, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Will it be a temporary power shift?

Kentucky pitcher Alex Meyer – The Wildcats were ecstatic when the talented right-hander decided to go to college three years ago. After holding teams to a .235 average as a freshman, it was assumed Meyer would be even better as a sophomore last season. He wasn't. The righty had a dismal 7.06 ERA in 51 innings and teams hit .285 off him. The Wildcats desperately need Meyer to rise to the occasion.

Mississippi State coach John Cohen – It's an important season for Cohen. Cohen earned a reputation while at Kentucky as a fiery coach and a program builder. But things simply haven't worked out so far at State. The Bulldogs were bad two years ago and finished last season with a 6-24 SEC mark and a 23-33 overall record. There's no reason why the the Bulldogs should continue to struggle.

Best pitcher

RHP Sonny Gray, Vanderbilt

The Commodores would have much talent even without him, but it's an added bonus they enter the season with the conference's premier pitcher in Gray. The talented right-hander has had a solid career and will be a preseason All-American. He went 10-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 108 2/3 innings last season. He also struck out 113 and walked 48 and limited teams to a .246 average. Look for Gray to have a stellar junior campaign, setting him up nicely for the draft.

Best hitter

OF Jackie Bradley Jr., South Carolina

The Gamecocks have one of the top prospects occupying their outfield in Bradley Jr. Besides his role as a solid defender, the junior also is an elite offensive contributor. He finished last season hitting .368 with 12 doubles, a triple, 13 homers and 60 RBIs. He also slugged .587 and had a .473 on-base percentage. Though the new bats could cause some to drop in offensive production, Bradley isn't expected to skip a beat.

Regional contenders

The SEC could have a tough time getting seven, eight or more teams to the postseason this year. Florida, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Auburn and LSU are the safe bets, while Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky are expected to be in the mix. Also keep an eye on Alabama, which could have a very successful year should its offense step up. UF, Vandy and South Carolina are the SEC's only national title contenders.

Around the horn

• Perhaps the rotation change won't be permanent, but Vanderbilt's rotation surprised us leading up to opening day. The Commodores obviously have Sonny Gray and Taylor Hill in the weekend rotation. But instead of Jack Armstrong, the Commodores are listing Grayson Garvin as their third weekend starter. Garvin made 13 appearances last season and had a 1.25 ERA in 36 innings. Armstrong, meanwhile, is slated to begin the year as the midweek starter. Either way, it's a solid rotation of four pitchers.

• The SEC is soon expected to announce the future home of its conference tournament. The league has options available at several venues in the Southeast, but Memphis, Tenn., and Hoover, Ala., are thought to be the frontrunners. The SEC hasn't had its tournament at AutoZone Park, but the venue is a premier minor league facility with many off-the-field events available for fans. Regions Park, meanwhile, has been the home of the tourney for several seasons, and provides fans with a very convenient location. It'll be interesting to see which direction the conference office goes.

• The SEC continues to be the leader in television coverage for college baseball. The league announced another milestone in the offseason when ESPN announced it would show seven "games of the week" on ESPNU on Thursday nights beginning April 7 with South Carolina at Tennessee. Other games part of the schedule include Tennessee at Alabama, Mississippi at Auburn, Kentucky at LSU, Florida at Arkansas, Mississippi State at Mississippi and Vanderbilt at Georgia.

• South Carolina suffered a loss when pitcher Ethan Carter was dismissed from the team. Carter was expected to have a more significant bullpen role after finishing last season with a 5.46 ERA in 24 appearances and 28 innings. Also worth mentioning, Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said that he'd start the season with Tyler Webb and Michael Roth as weekend starters, leaving Matt Price in the bullpen to close. The big question, though, is who will be the No. 3 starter? Options include Adam Westmoreland, Nolan Belcher, Colby Holmes and Steven Neff.

• Arkansas has the tough chore of replacing three weekend starters in Drew Smyly, Brett Eibner and Mike Bolsinger. DJ Baxendale and Geoffrey Davenport move to the weekend rotation, while high-round draft pick Ryne Stanek, a true freshman, rounds out the weekend rotation. Don't be surprised if the Hogs' pitching staff is much better than expected as the season progresses.

• Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan will have a tough decision on his hands in a few weeks. The Gators list Brian Johnson and Hudson Randall as their set-in-stone starting pitchers, leaving Alex Panteliodis and freshman sensation Karsten Whitson fighting for the No. 3 spot. Panteliodis was fantastic last season while Whitson brings a strong arsenal of pitches to the table. The Gators are in good situation and will have four outstanding starters to choose from.

• It's an important year for Tennessee and they'll look to highly touted freshman outfielder Andrew Toles to provide a powerful punch. The Vols should hit decently this season, but their pitching staff is a huge concern. It's worth noting the Vols will be without right-handed pitcher Andy Hillis, who will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery.

• Speaking of injuries, LSU will be without pitchers Jordan Rittiner, Joey Bourgeois and Mitch Hopkins this season. Rittiner and Bourgeois are tough losses, and all three are missing the season because of elbow injuries.

• Georgia has a trio of talented outfielders in Johnathan Taylor, Zach Cone and Peter Verdin, but could've used the services of utility outfielder Matt Lowery. Lowery was a Gold Glove recipient at Young Harris JC last season, but will miss the year with an elbow injury. Fortunately, the Bulldogs are in good shape in the outfield.

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