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September 17, 2007

Familiar faces highlight Big 12

DISCUSS THE FALL STORYLINES IN THE CLUBHOUSE

The Big 12 has something to prove.

In 2005, the conference had three representatives at the College World Series - Texas, Baylor and Nebraska.

Since that point, the league has been shutout of Omaha.

Texas enters fall workouts with extra motivation, while Missouri hopes to take another step after hosting a Regional last season.

Baylor could also contend for an Omaha berth, while Texas A&M and Oklahoma State need a few things to go their way.

We take an in-depth look with our Big 12 fall storylines.

BIG 12 FALL STORYLINES
STATE OF THE BIG 12
The Big 12 is far from being the strongest it has ever been, but there are many reasons for optimism in the nation's Heartland. Texas won another league title in 2007, but failed to reach the College World Series for the second consecutive season. While the Longhorns had a postseason to forget, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M experienced the opposite. The Cowboys surprised many by winning the Fayetteville Regional, while the Aggies advanced to the Super Regional round for the third time in school history. Missouri also made waves during the regular season and hosted a postseason Regional. As the league moves forward, Texas and Missouri appear to be the frontrunners. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M have some questions to answer. With fall workouts in full swing, Baylor is the most intriguing team to watch.
WILL TEXAS NOT REACH OMAHA THREE SEASONS IN A ROW?
When the NCAA Tournament nears each May, a leisurely stroll around Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Texas, reveals the expectations of the Longhorn faithful. You won't have to look hard, as shirts displaying the words "The University of Texas at Omaha" serves as normal attire for Texas fans. If that doesn't scream baseball tradition, I don't know what does. As you might imagine, Texas expects to reach the College World Series on an annual basis. They also expect to contend for national titles. So, when the 'Horns were eliminated in the Regional round the second year in a row, disappointment filled the air in the Texas Hill Country. With extra motivation and a talented crop of returnees, the 'Horns enter fall workouts with something to prove. Two pitchers coming off injuries - Kenn Kasparek and Riley Boening - must rise to the occasion in the fall and spring, while Jordan Danks, Kyle Russell and Preston Clark lead the offensive charge. Texas has questions to answer, but history is on its side.
WILL MISSOURI CONTEND FOR AN OMAHA BERTH?
After finishing seventh in the Big 12 pecking order two seasons ago, the Tigers took a step forward by finishing second in 2007. In addition to their impressive finish, the Tigers also hosted a Regional. Louisville eventually ended their potential dream season, but the Tigers now enter fall workouts with something to prove. That's bad news for opposing teams. The Tigers welcome back one of the nation's best with junior right-hander Aaron Crow. Sophomore right-hander Kyle Gibson is another reliable arm, while left-hander Rick Zagone hopes to rise to the occasion. The Tigers should also have a productive offense with Jacob Priday and Trevor Coleman leading the charge, while Kyle Mach, Ryan Lollis and Aaron Senne have bright futures. If the Tigers meet expectations, Omaha should be on their itinerary.
WHICH TEAM COULD BE THE BIGGEST SURPRISE?
After getting eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in 2006, Baylor coach Steve Smith proclaimed 2007 to be one of the most challenging years of his coaching tenure. Despite inexperience throughout the roster, the Bears still didn't disappoint. With one of the nation's youngest teams last season, Smith guided the Bears to a 35-27 finish and another NCAA Tournament berth. The Bears were unable to advance to the Super Regional round, but their statement was already made. A year older and wiser, the Bears enter fall workouts with a plethora of talent and experience. Third baseman Raynor Campbell batted .321 with five homers and 29 RBIs, while veteran shortstop Beamer Weems is one of the best in the business. Ben Booker, Shaver Hansen and Aaron Miller are also back in the mix offensively, while some pitchers must rise to the occasion. Like every team, the Bears have a few questions to answer. But in the end, talent should take over.
BIG 12 ANALYSIS - KENDALL'S TAKE
Having spent many years in the Big 12 region, I have deep respect for the league's programs and coaches. However, the conference is probably not going to be at full strength during the upcoming season. Barring a rash of injuries during fall workouts, Texas will enter the spring as the league favorite. Missouri should be close behind with Aaron Crow leading the charge, while talented Baylor is a safe pick for third. Then there's Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. The Aggies should be in great shape offensively, but the pitching staff has question marks. The Cowboys are in a similar situation, but should receive an offensive boost from transfers Luis Flores (Houston) and Matt Hague (Washington). Oklahoma and Texas Tech are surprise candidates, while Nebraska enters perhaps its most important fall in years.


Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at kendall@rivals.com.