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December 10, 2007

Look Ahead: Who will take the next step?

Since the final out was recorded in its Super Regional loss to Cal State Fullerton last season, UCLA has looked forward to 2008.

This is the year where the stars are expected to align.

With nearly every position starter back this season, the Bruins are pleased with their offensive lineup. They also believe in the pitching staff's ability to put together consistent outings with sophomore Gavin Brooks as the headliner.

While UCLA is the team we expect to take the next step, Clemson is a candidate to take a step back.

We also take an inside look at Virginia pitcher Jacob Thompson and Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, while also taking an early look at the national title race.

Most likely to take the next step
If there was ever a time when UCLA should take the next step, it's in 2008. The Bruins have appeared in the College World Series and have made several NCAA Tournament appearances. However, the program has yet to become a national power. That could change this season. Though the Bruins must solidify the weekend rotation with sophomore left-hander Gavin Brooks leading the charge, the offensive lineup will be one of the nation's best. Sophomore outfielder Gabe Cohen compiled impressive numbers as a freshman, while third baseman Jermaine Curtis and shortstop Brandon Crawford have the ability to be All-Americans. With nearly ever starter back in the mix, anything short of a June trip to Omaha will be considered a disappointment.
Most likely to take a step back
With coach Jack Leggett in charge, Clemson has established consistency on the national level. But if the Tigers reach the Super Regional round in 2008, Leggett will have done one of his most impressive coaching jobs. After losing several key players from last year's team, the Tigers have more questions than answers. The Tigers need another productive offensive campaign from catcher Doug Hogan, while the pitching trio of D.J. Mitchell, Matt Vaughn and Ryan Hinson must carry the load on the mound. The Tigers are also looking forward to the return of shortstop Stan Widmann, who was a key contributor before a neck injury sidelined him last season. We expect the Tigers to suffer somewhat of a decline, but we're definitely not counting them out for good. Still, anything beyond a Regional berth will be considered a success.
Who will be the most important pitcher?
In his first two seasons with the Cavaliers, junior right-handed pitcher Jacob Thompson has experienced the best and worst. In the best category, Thompson has had a wealth of success as Virginia's ace pitcher. On the other end of the spectrum, the Cavaliers have had issues going the distance in the postseason. In what will likely be his final season with the Cavaliers, Thompson hopes to help carry the program to unchartered territory the College World Series. As a sophomore last season, the talented right-hander went a perfect 11-0 with a 1.50 ERA in 114 innings of work. He also struck out 101 and walked 32, while opposing teams hit him at a .198 clip. With Virginia hoping to make a statement, Thompson could be the difference.
Who will be the most important hitter?
After failing to advance to the Super Regional round last season, Vanderbilt will be one of the nation's most motivated teams during the 2008 season. That could be bad news for opposing teams. As the Commodores aim to prove any potential doubters wrong, they will look to junior third baseman Pedro Alvarez for fireworks. Alvarez is arguably the nation's most dynamic player. As a sophomore last season, the hard-hitting infielder hit a team-leading .386 with 18 homers and 68 RBIs. He also slugged .684 and had a .464 on-base percentage. Additionally, he finished the year with a team-best 186 total bases in 272 at bats. With Alvarez, de la Osa and Flaherty, among others, the Commodores should have one of the better offensive lineups in the country. Still, their overall success hinges on Alvarez' production.
Who will compete for the national title?
The season is still two months away, but the previews come early even the national title predictions. When the season starts, Arizona State will be our pick to win the national title. The Sun Devils have a plethora of offensive contributors with hard-hitting first baseman Brett Wallace leading the way. Catchers Petey Paramore and Kiel Roling are also key contributors. The only thing that could hold ASU back is its pitching staff. Veteran left-hander Josh Satow leads the charge on the mound, while their overall success could hinge on whether Mike Leake decides to play in the field or on the mound. Besides Arizona State, Miami, UCLA, Rice, San Diego, Texas and Vanderbilt should also be in the national title mix.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at kendallr@yahoo-inc.com.