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September 18, 2007

Vandy, Ole Miss eye Omaha... again


Let the best conference debate commence.

Like other power conferences such as the Big 12, Pac-10 and ACC, several SEC teams enter fall workouts with more questions than answers.

Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and South Carolina aren't part of that equation.

The Commodores welcome back one of the nation's top lineups, while Ole Miss is in great shape with right-handed pitcher Lance Lynn paving the way. South Carolina has questions on the mound, but returns power hitters Justin Smoak and James Darnell.

Though we expect great results from the 'Dores, Rebels and Gamecocks, Georgia is a team that could surprise.

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

Like many of the nation's power conferences, the SEC has an elite few and then there's everyone else. The only difference is the SEC tends to be more balanced. As the league prepares for the 2008 season, there are several questions to answer. Vanderbilt put together one of the most impressive regular season resumes in recent history last season, but was unable to get to Omaha. Ole Miss was shipped out to Arizona State in the Super Regional round, while South Carolina dropped a heartbreaker to North Carolina. Mississippi State was the lone SEC representative in Omaha. Moving forward, there are some interesting storylines to watch entering fall workouts. New Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan hopes to steer his program the right direction, while Todd Raleigh hopes to do the same at Tennessee. Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Ole Miss lead the charge entering fall workouts. But as Kentucky and others have shown, anything can happen in the SEC.
With left-hander David Price and third baseman Pedro Alvarez leading the charge, Vandy put together an impressive 2007 regular season campaign. As a result, they entered the postseason as the top seed in the field of 64. Despite getting one of the easier Regionals, Vandy came up short against gritty Michigan. With their postseason woes still fresh, the 'Dores enter fall workouts with extra motivation. Price and All-American closer Casey Weathers are now professionals, while sophomore left-hander Mike Minor is back in the mix. The Commodores also expect more innings from Brett Jacobson and Nick Christiani, among others. While the pitching staff has question marks, the offense is in outstanding shape with the return of Alvarez and veteran outfielder Dominic de la Osa. The 'Dores also welcome back David Macias, Alex Feinberg, Ryan Flaherty and Shea Robin, among others. Even with more question marks than last season, the 'Dores still have a great shot to get to Omaha. After experiencing the worst, Vandy knows what it needs to do.
The Rebels just don't have luck on their side. In 2005, Ole Miss faced perennial power Texas for the right to advance to Omaha. In 2006, the Rebels played host to Miami. Like Texas, that series ended disastrously for Mike Bianco and his team. After putting together an impressive regular season resume in 2007, the Rebels earned a Regional host. However, they had to travel to Arizona State for the Super Regional round. To say the least, the Rebels have had a tough road to Omaha during the past few seasons. Like Vandy, Ole Miss enters fall workouts with extra motivation. The Rebels must replace Will Kline, Justin Henry, Zack Cozart and others. They also return several key cogs. Veteran pitcher Lance Lynn leads the charge, while right-hander Cody Satterwhite will likely log more innings. The offense is also in good shape with Jordan Henry, Zach Miller, Cody Overbeck and Logan Power leading the way. Part of being a champion is creating your own luck, and that's what Ole Miss needs to do.
After reaching the College World Series two seasons ago, the Bulldogs took a significant step back in 2007. Not only did the Bulldogs finish the year with a 23-33 overall record, they also finished last in the SEC East Division with an 11-19 record. Though last season was damaging, the Bulldogs are once again in position to be an SEC contender. Georgia must replace talented outfielder Jonathan Wyatt, but does welcome back hard-throwing right-hander Joshua Fields. Perhaps most encouraging, the Bulldogs return their entire weekend rotation with Stephen Dodson, Trevor Holder and Nathan Moreau leading the charge. Pitching is not always at a premium in the SEC. While the pitching staff is in great shape, the Bulldogs need a few guys to rise to the occasion offensively. Seniors Matt Olson and Ryan Peisel were productive last season, while junior shortstop Gordon Beckham is the best of the bunch. Though few expect a surge, the Bulldogs are in great shape entering fall workouts.
As always, there are some interesting storylines to watch this fall. Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Ole Miss are in great shape, while Georgia has the talent and arms to compete for the conference crown. After putting together a less than stellar conference resume last season, it should be interesting to see how John Cohen and Kentucky bounce back. The same goes for Florida, Tennessee, LSU and Alabama. Another team to watch is Auburn. The Tigers welcome back Mike Bianucci and Luke Greinke, among others. If the Tigers are unable to make waves in 2008, some changes might be on the horizon. Many eyes are also on Arkansas, who hopes to adequately replace all three weekend starters - Nick Schmidt, Jess Todd and Duke Welker. On paper, the Razorbacks have more questions than answers. But when the dust settles, don't be surprised to see Dave Van Horn put together a formidable team. Also in the west division, Mississippi State enters fall workouts more confident. State is led by weekend starters Chad Crosswhite and Justin Pigott.

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