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January 4, 2009

Fearless predictions set the stage

Predictions are all fun and games. Well, at least to some people.

With the 2009 season just over a month away and a new year recently ushered in, it makes sense to hand out our predictions for the upcoming year.

After playing for the national title two of the last three seasons, we once again see North Carolina playing for the crown this season. The state of Texas, meanwhile, should have three legitimate national title contenders with Texas A&M, Rice and Texas leading the charge.

Barring a major surprise, there won't be a repeat national champion this season. Michigan, however, will continue to highlight the northern region while North Carolina's Dustin Ackley and San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg are my picks to win National Player and Pitcher of the Year honors at the end of the season.

We make 10 fearless predictions for the upcoming campaign.

North Carolina will play for the national title again
Even without Tim Fedroff, Rob Wooten, Tim Federowicz and other key cogs, the Tar Heels will have another solid team this spring. Assuming he's healthy and ready to go in a few weeks, first baseman Dustin Ackley spearheads another talented offensive lineup. Veteran Alex White and sophomore Matt Harvey, meanwhile, spearhead the pitching staff. The Tar Heels are in great shape on the mound, while the offense has a little something to prove. Still, the Heels once again are motivated and have the tools to go the distance.

Fresno State will fall, but not as much as some think
There are many teams considered to be national title contenders this spring, but lost from the mix thus far is defending champion Fresno State. I'll be the first to admit I don't think Fresno will be back in Omaha this season, but no one thought it would be in Omaha last season, either. As for this season, I think the Bulldogs will be down a little bit. However, they're not going to plummet. Sure, Fresno must replace almost every important pitcher from last year's team, but it returns a stout offense led by Tommy Mendonca, Steve Detwiler, Danny Muno and others. The Bulldogs will be fine because of their offense. They also will have a good overall record after racking up wins in the WAC.

San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg will be National Pitcher of the Year
This certainly isn't a revolutionary thought, but I see Strasburg winning National Pitcher of the Year honors going away at the end of '09. Strasburg almost picked up the honor from Rivals.com last season, but was narrowly defeated by San Diego's Brian Matusz. Now it's Strasburg's turn to be the nation's premier pitcher. In '08, Strasburg started 13 games and had an 8-3 record. He also had a 1.57 ERA in 97 1/3 innings of work, while striking out 133 and walking 16. Opponents only hit Strasburg at a .181 clip last season. In addition to his amazing career numbers, Strasburg likely will be the top pick in the '09 MLB Draft.

North Carolina's Dustin Ackley will be National Player of the Year
Few players have accomplished more the past few seasons than Ackley. As just a young freshman two seasons ago, Ackley hit .402 with 10 homers and 74 RBIs. He didn't slow down as a sophomore last season, hitting .417 with seven homers and 51 RBIs. After watching Florida State's Buster Posey win National Player of the Year honors last season, it appears to be Ackley's turn to take the reins. Though surgery this past fall could slow down Ackley to start the season, he once again is expected to have a monster offensive campaign. There's not a hitter more consistent than Ackley.

Georgia will not succumb to history this season
History suggests Georgia will struggle this season, but I believe otherwise. The Bulldogs have several important holes to fill without shortstop Gordon Beckham, third baseman Ryan Peisel and closer Joshua Fields. But the Bulldogs still should have a good team this spring. Trevor Holder and Alex McRee will spearhead the pitching staff, while Rich Poythress, Bryce Massanari and Matt Cerione are expected to have productive offensive campaigns. The Bulldogs also have an influx of young talent, which includes highly drafted players such as Chad Davidson, Mike Palazzone and Zach Cone. The Bulldogs probably won't play for the national title again this season, but they also shouldn't struggle.

The state of Texas will have three national title contenders
It's really not a surprise the Lone Star State once again will be littered with great teams this spring, but it does come as a surprise to some that it should have three national title contenders, including Texas A&M, Rice and Texas. If they meet expectations this season, the Aggies should be the team to beat in the state with the return of an excellent pitching staff and a few key offensive cogs. Rice also will have another solid team with the return of weekend starters Ryan Berry and Mike Ojala and position players Rick Hague, Chad Mozingo and Diego Seastrunk, among others. Then there's Texas. The Longhorns probably have the most talented team in the state, but have lacked a championship pedigree the past three seasons. Will that change in '09?

Cal State Fullerton will return to the College World Series
It's sometimes scary to say anyone for sure will be in Omaha in June, but I have a strong feeling the Titans will return to the CWS this season. Though critics will point to the departures of weekend starters Jeff Kaplan and Cory Arbiso as reasons to doubt the Titans this spring, the pitching staff actually should be fine with the return of sophomore Daniel Renken and junior Mike Morrison. The Titans also are very excited about JUCO transfer Kyle Witten and freshman Nick Ramirez. While the pitching staff leaves at least some doubt heading into the spring, the offense should be potent with the return of outfielder Josh Fellhauer, shortstop Christian Colon, first baseman Jared Clark and utility player Gary Brown. Look for the Titans to win the Big West and march on this season.

UC Santa Barbara will be the sleeper on the West Coast
The Gauchos will be one of the more motivated teams on the West Coast entering the season. After compiling a respectable overall record last season, the Gauchos narrowly missed an NCAA regional. Still stinging from that decision by the NCAA Selection Committee, the Gauchos have something to prove this spring. Though there are some holes to fill at the plate, the Gauchos welcome back Shane Carlson and Gunnar Terhune. Carlson batted .349 with six homers and 53 RBIs last season, while Terhune hit .336 with 12 RBIs. I especially like what the Gauchos have on the mound, particularly with the weekend rotation. The Gauchos welcome back Mike Ford and Mario Hollands. Ford had a 2.96 ERA in 94 1/3 innings last season, while Hollands had a 4.03 ERA in 82 2/3 innings of work. UCSB should be an NCAA regional team this spring.

Even with departures, Michigan will be the class of the north
After losing key players such as Zach Putnam, Nate Recknagel, Adam Abraham and Jason Christian to the MLB Draft this past summer, many observers seemed to believe Michigan's successful run was finished. Well, let me be the first to say I think that opinion is wrong. Though it's true the Wolverines have some huge holes to fill this spring, coach Rich Maloney has recruited well the past few seasons and also has some tricks up his sleeve. The Wolverines welcome back weekend starter Chris Fetter, who finished last season with a 2.47 ERA in 94 2/3 innings of work. The Wolverines actually should be in OK shape at the plate, where they welcome back Mike Dufek, Ryan LaMarre and Kevin Cislo.

Oklahoma State's Andy Oliver will have suspension removed or reduced
No prediction story would be complete without addressing the most dramatic story line of the past few months. Oklahoma State junior left-handed pitcher Andy Oliver goes to trial with the NCAA Monday morning, and how much he actually plays this spring could be completely determined by a possible court order. Though the NCAA currently has Oliver set to sit out 70 percent of the upcoming season, I have a feeling a court order in Oliver's favor will come through at the conclusion of the trial. That then would put the ball in Oklahoma State's court. Based on the documents I've read, I find it a little hard to believe the Erie County, Ohio court will side with the NCAA in this case.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com and Yahoo! Sports. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.