Playing baseball in the SEC can be a grueling - yet rewarding - experience for players and coaches alike. While some argue about league supremacy, the SEC is undoubtedly the nation's toughest conference from top to bottom.
Just ask Florida and Mississippi State.
As the season nears, Rivals.com predicts the Gators and Bulldogs as the cellar dwellers in their respective divisions. However, that's not meant as a slam. It's merely just the nature of competing in the SEC.
South Carolina leads the way in the Eastern Division with the return of sophomore sensation Justin Smoak. Arkansas is the front-runner in the Western Division with its weekend duo of Nick Schmidt and Shaun Seibert.
Vanderbilt, Alabama, Georgia and others also have their sights set on an SEC title.
Rivals.com's SEC Predictions
1. South Carolina
The Gamecocks went an impressive 41-25 last season, but they expect more during the 2007 campaign. South Carolina has a few questions to answer on the mound, but do return Harris Honeycutt, Mike Cisco and closer Wynn Pelzer. They should also get a big boost in March with the return of veteran left-hander Arik Hempy. While the pitching staff waits to become full strength, the offense is in great shape with sophomore slugger Justin Smoak leading the way. Smoak joins a talented crop of hitters that includes Trent Kline, Robbie Grinestaff and newcomers Travis Jones and Lonnie Chisenhall.
For head coach Tim Corbin and the Commodores, this is the year to shine. Since taking the head job at Vanderbilt, Corbin has dreamed about taking his team to the College World Series. Their best chance to do just that might come this season. The Commodores welcome back most of a lineup that hit .308 last season. The headliner is sophomore sensation Pedro Alvarez, while Ryan Flaherty, David Macias and Shea Robin are special players. Veteran left-hander David Price leads the way on the mound, while closer Casey Weathers gives the 'Dores a power arm out of the bullpen.
With another talented team, Georgia reached the CWS last season. To do the same in 2007, the Bulldogs must replace several key players both at the plate and on the mound. The Bulldogs are without Joey Side, Bobby Felmy, Josh Morris and others, but return veteran outfielder Jonathan Wyatt, who led the team in hitting last season with a .360 average. Infielders Ryan Peisel and Gordon Beckham are also back. On the mound, the Bulldogs have to replace a pair of weekend starters. Returnees Stephen Dodson, Trevor Holder, Jason Leaver and Nathan Moreau should make it a smooth transition.
The Wildcats shocked the college baseball community last season by winning the SEC Championship, but head coach John Cohen and his troops are looking for something bigger and better this year. While Kentucky is without stud first baseman Ryan Strieby, second baseman John Shelby and others, they do return catcher Sean Coughlin and outfielders Collin Cowgill and Antone DeJesus. The Cats also have something to look forward to on the mound, where they return front-line starter Greg Dombrowski and talented left-hander Andrew Albers, who moves into the weekend rotation.
The Volunteers have the talent and experience to compete for an Omaha berth, but last season's 31-24 mark has made them a less attractive team. Perhaps the trend will switch back in Tennessee's favor this season, but they must prove it. The Vols enter the year with a solid one-two punch on the weekend with veterans James Adkins and Craig Cobb. Adkins was the team's strikeout leader last season, while Cobb had a team-low .3.31 ERA. While Adkins and Cobb lead the way on the mound, veterans J.P. Arencibia and Julio Borbon do the honors at the plate. The Vols could surprise this season.
After playing Texas for the national title two seasons ago, Florida appeared to be headed the right direction for good. But in 2006, the Gators took a step back by finishing the year with a 28-28 record. As the Gators press forward, the bat of hard-hitting first baseman Matt LaPorta is important. LaPorta missed several games last season with an injury, but still hit .259 with 14 home runs and 38 RBIs. LaPorta is joined in the lineup by Brian Leclerc and Brandon McArthur, among others. The key to this Florida team might be the pitching staff, which returns ace right-hander Bryan Augenstein.
Despite a rash of injuries last season, the Razorbacks still managed to reach the NCAA Tournament with an impressive 39-21 record. The Hogs are back in business, as the team enters the season healthy and motivated. The strongest part of Arkansas' team is the pitching staff, which returns arguably the nation's top one-two punch – left-hander Nick Schmidt and right-hander Shaun Seibert. The Hogs also expect significant innings from newcomers Jess Todd and Duke Welker, who each has a chance to earn a spot in the weekend rotation. Jake Dugger and Danny Hamblin lead the offense.
2. Ole Miss
Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco led his troops to another successful season in 2006, as the Rebels went 44-22. But in the end, they failed to reach the College World Series. As the Rebels put the finishing touches on their preparations, they're using last season as a source for motivation. The Rebels return a solid pitching staff that is led by the weekend trio of Will Kline, Brett Bukvich and Lance Lynn. Cody Satterwhite and Jesse Simpson give the Rebels two viable options out of the bullpen. As always, the Rebs are in great shape at the plate with the return of Zack Cozart and Justin Henry.
In a year which many believe Alabama is rebuilding, we think the Crimson Tide is in position to make another run at the conference title. The Tide obviously has some questions to answer this spring, but with the return of veteran outfielder Emeel Salem, Ryan Rhoden and Greg Paiml, they remain confident. Unlike the offense, the Alabama pitching staff is in great shape with sophomore sensation Tommy Hunter and veteran Bernard Robert leading the way. Miers Quigley and newcomer Del Howell should also be significant factors. The Tide's season comes down to the offense.
LSU head coach Paul Mainieri established a winning tradition at Notre Dame and hopes to translate that into more championships in Baton Rouge. While some have LSU predicted to finish near the bottom of the SEC, the Tigers could surprise this season. The Bayou Bengals return Robert Lara, Steve Waguespack, Michael Hollander and J.T. Wise at the plate, while the pitching staff is in good hands with newcomer Charlie Furbush and JUCO transfer Jared Bradford leading the way. The Tigers also expect significant innings from returnees Clay Dirks and Louis Coleman.
The Tom Slater era at Auburn is off to a rocky start, but the third-year head coach hopes to turn the tide during the upcoming campaign. Though the Tigers have some questions to answer on the mound, their offense should be in great shape with the return of several productive hitters. The list includes Andy Bennett, Russell Dixon, Josh Donaldson and Mike Bianucci. With the offense on track, the focus shifts to the pitching staff, where sophomores Bryan Woodall, Paul Burnside and Evan Crawford must step up. If they do, Slater's Tigers could surprise the SEC.
6. Mississippi State
After narrowly making the NCAA Tournament last season, we expect the Bulldogs to be in an identical situation. While the Bulldogs have some holes to fill, their lineup should be solid with Jeffrey Rea, Ed Easley, Mitch Moreland and Brian LaNinfa leading the way. Rea and Easley each hit over .335 last season, while Moreland had a great summer after hitting .319 for the Dogs. If Mississippi State wants to make noise, the pitching staff must rise to the occasion with Justin Pigott, Josh Johnson and Aaron Weatherford leading the way. Can the Dogs have a meaner bite this season?