​Fourteen thoughts heading into SEC baseball season

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

Fourteen thoughts heading into SEC baseball season

1. If you believe the experts, this year's SEC may be the best league in the history of college baseball.

Let's start with the caveat that this year should be more difficult to predict than ever, given that we missed an entire conference season season in 2020. So that's a big chunk of context missing when we go to make informed judgments.

But we have judgments to make anyway and the prognosticators have spoken loudly about what they think about this league.

D1 Baseball, which I consider to be the best in the business at national coverage, predicts 11 SEC teams will be in the NCAA Tournament this summer. That includes six hosts: Florida, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and LSU. (The league had six hosts in the last tournament--2019--also.) 

D1 doesn't have Alabama, Missouri or Kentucky it its field. However, Alabama checked in at 25th in Baseball America's preseason rankings, and I don't expect the latter two to be pushovers.

If you love great college baseball, the SEC is where your eyes need to be this spring.

2. Florida's the consensus favorite to win the SEC, and deservedly so.

The Gators ended last year 16-1 and ranked as the No. 1 team in America. The two most significant players Florida lost were Austin Langworthy (.246/.316/.269) and Justin Alintoff (3.72 ERA, 9.2 IP, 13 Ks). 

So with that, you need a good justification not to start the Gators first again. That becomes difficult to do when you consider Florida returns one of the country's best rotations (Hunter Barco, Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich) and a deep bullpen led by ace closer Ben Specht

The lineup, led by Jud Fabian--maybe the country's best position player--and stars like Jacob Young and Josh Rivera--is stout, too.

And then there's coach Kevin O'Sullivan, who's taken the Gators to the College World Series seven times in his 12 complete seasons.

Let's keep this simple: The Gators are No. 1 until they prove they're not. 

3. The Gators may trail Vanderbilt in terms of having the best pitching staff in their own division.

As good as Florida is, Vanderbilt would like a word in this discussion. The Commodore staff is led by Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, who could be the first two guys taken in this draft, and that's a terrific start.

But that's not nearly all. Vanderbilt could field a great starting rotation of Ethan Smith, Sam Hliboki and Thomas Schultz even without Leiter. (As things are, Schultz should start this weekend, Hliboki should be Vandy's weekday guy and Smith, its closer.)

The Commodores easily have another half-dozen talented arms who can have a positive impact this year, too. That includes Christian Little, who started the Perfect Game All-American Classic last summer and left high school a year early to come to Nashville.

Vandy's had some phenomenal staffs, but this could be its best yet.

4. Some think LSU's Jaden Hill could be the league's best pitcher. 

Casual fans may not know who Hill is because, due to injuries, shortened seasons or his pitching out of the bullpen, we've not seen much of him in league games. But HIll's an electric talent and barring injury, probably a high-first-round pick this year, too.

Here's a scouting report on him from MLB.com. Here's hoping Hill stays healthy and that he lives up to the hype.

5. It's not just who you are, it's who you play.

Ole Miss is right there with Vandy on the list of Best Teams After Florida. But the Rebels have a problem: Their schedule.

Each team plays 10 conference series, and the Rebels drew the short end of the stick with that. Ole Miss won't face the two teams generally considered to be the "worst" teams in the league (Missouri and Kentucky) and also won't see Tennessee, which has been picked third or fourth in the East by most.

Nobody has an easy schedule, but the Rebels--who might be good enough to win the league--have it a little tougher than most.

6. Here's something you don't see often: Georgia starts three freshman lefties on the hill in opening weekend. 

That wasn't the plan--No. 1 and 2 starters Jonathan Cannon (another potential first-rounder) and Ryan Webb are temporarily sidelined--and to add more intrigue, junior C.J. Smith (another lefty) led off the weekend for UGA on Friday. 

7. Meet Alabama's Chase Lee; his story is one of my favorites.

Lee had a 1-0 record, two saves and a 1.64 ERA in last year's abbreviated season, and probably will be the Crimson Tide's closer this year. 

No, Lee's not some hulking, fire-breathing reliever with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball. He drew interest from one college program--that was Division III Covenant College, before playing for Alabama's club team, learning a new delivery and impressing the coaching staff to get a spot on the team. The whole story is better than that, and I encourage you to read it here

8. In a league of lineups full of unfamiliar names, keep an eye on Arkansas.

Last we saw a complete season, Arkansas ended it in the College World Series. This year, the Razorbacks have the luxury of returning a bunch of starters from the lineup, including catcher Casey Opitz, third baseman Jacob Nesbit, center fielder Christian Franklin and DH Matt Goodheart. Experience matters, and that's a reason the Razorbacks are a top-10 team according to several preseason rankings. 

9. Auburn intrigues me for a number of reasons.

First, I'm a big fan of coach Butch Thompson, who took over the program at a low point before the 2016 season, lifted the program back to the NCAA Tournament the next year and then got Auburn to a College World Series in 2019 after a tough season. 

The Tigers aren't expected to get back to that level this year, but there's a whole lot to like there. Auburn has probably the best left side of the infield with Rankin Woley and Ryan Bliss, and a great corner outfield tandem of Judd Ward and Steven Williams

Auburn has some interesting parts on the hill, too. Richard Fitts hasn't had a stellar career--yet--but the Auburn starter is considered a mid-first-round talent and closer Cody Greenhill joins the rotation, too. There are several returning pieces from that Omaha team, too.

Most consider Auburn to be a fifth-place team at best, but history says not to count out the Tigers from finishing higher.

10. Texas A&M is the biggest mystery team in the West, at least in my mind.

Blame it on the pandemic that kept me from watching a lot of the SEC last year, but I look up and down the Aggies' roster and just don't see a bunch of names I know that well. There's usually a first-round-caliber arm in A&M's weekend rotation and the absence of that throws me off a bit, too.

But consider this: coach Rob Childress got to A&M for the 2006 season, and from 2007 on, Childress has had the Aggies in the NCAA Tournament every year, which (I think) is one of the five-longest active streaks in the NCAA. Obviously the competition around the league is brutal and I'm interested to see how the Aggies hold up. 

11. In the East, I'd like a better handle on Kentucky, too.

The Wildcats have a pair of potential All-American hitters in TJ Collett and John Rhodes, followed by the obligatory Shelby (this year, it's Jaren) and a number of hitters who showed well in the abbreviated 2020 season. 

The Wildcats, though, have struggled with pitching. The belief is that new pitching coach Dan Roszel will help, and I'm interested to see how that impacts some talented returnees like Mason Hazelwood and Jimmy Ramsey, and highly-rated newcomer Ryan Hagenow

12. I think Tennessee can sneak into the upper half of the East.

I think the Vols can. While Tennessee lost some terrific hitters to the draft, the Vols return players who mashed 18 home runs in 17 games last year. The staff doesn't have first-rounder Garrett Crochet, either, but returns a lot of pitching experience. 

Don't sleep on Tennessee, which I expect to return to the NCAA Tournament and maybe even host a regional.

13. I want to see if Mississippi State's arms can match the hype.

State's rotation of Christian MacLeod, Eric Cerantola and Will Bednar is one of the more talented ones in America. MacLeod was tremendous in the brief 2020 season and should be again. So was Bednar, but that mostly came out of the bullpen. Certantola's also a legitimate pro prospect, but needs to work on his control. 

It's rare to have three elite weekend arms, but the Bulldogs just might have that.

14. Let's make Wright State an honorary SEC member.

Okay, I'm not serious about that, but let's give the Raiders some credit: They're not afraid of a little competition. Wright State opens its season with three games at Vanderbilt, and then heads to Alabama the next weekend. Last year, the Raiders played Mississippi State, Auburn and Tennessee each in weekend series.