The SEC West has proved to be arguably the toughest division in college baseball. The West has placed a team in the Super Regionals every year since they were instituted. All six teams have traditions of winning. The College World Series has hosted four of the six teams since the conference expansion in 1992. LSU is the only West team to win the National Championship during that period, but Alabama has finished second. If you can win the West, you have a tremendous shot at playing in the College World Series.
The West in 2006 will be strong once again, though the power has shifted somewhat. LSU, who has dominated the SEC for the past decade, is not the team to beat. The Bayou Bengals are not the second best team either. Ron Polk is entering his fifth year during his second tenure in Starkville, and things are looking good in Bulldog Land. Arkansas could be the national darkhorse of 2006 and will finish ahead of LSU also. Alabama will be somewhat improved and will be followed by a young Ole Miss team. Auburn will round out the division as they are in the middle of rebuilding.
What does it take to win the SEC West? Coaching? Pitching? Hitting? It takes a combination of all three. I look at Mississippi State and thirty-three years of coaching experience, good hitters, and a good pitching staff. Arkansas has great speed, great hitters, great coaching, and good pitching. What separates the Dogs and Hogs is the depth in the rotation and that the series is in Starkville this year. Mississippi State has good proven hurlers, while Arkansas has two great starting pitchers, a closer, and lots of "potential." Mississippi State and Arkansas stand out in the division because of their coaching and personnel. Don't be surprised if these two teams make a run to Omaha. They are experienced, talented, and well coached.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 45-22 year and a SEC Tournament Championship. They return a good pitching staff and experience. Mike Valentine, Brooks Dunn, John Crosby, Josh Johnson, John Lalor, and Jesse Carver bring depth and experience to the MSU staff. JUCO transfer Jared Koon could contribute also. True freshman Drew Holingshead is another young man to watch. The outfield will be patrolled by Jeff Butts, Joseph Hunter, Brian LaNinfa, and Mitch Moreland. JUCO transfers Andy Rice, Nick Hardy, and Matt Richardson will compete for time, while true freshmen Cade Hoggard and Blake McAdams may play also. The Bulldog infield will be another solid group. Brad Jones will return to play first base; he had a very good year in 2005. Players such as Bunky Kateon, Mark Muzzi, Thomas Berkley, Micheal Rutledge, Joe McCaskill, and Ryan Wiser will play in the infield. True freshmen Brandon Turner, Russ Sneed, and Blake McAdams are also in the mix. Ed Easley will return to catch for the Bulldogs. He started fifty-nine of sixty-two games in 2005. Mississippi State will win between 18 and 22 SEC games this spring.
Arkansas was one game away from a showdown with Mississippi in the 2005 Oxford Super Regional. Suspensions and injuries derailed the Hogs from defending their 2004 SEC Championship. Coach Dave Van Horn will have his most talented team in Fayetteville this fall. This Razorback team could beat out MSU for the West title if they stay healthy. This will be a better team than the 2004 team who won the SEC and made the trip to Omaha. Pitchers Nick Schmidt and Charley Boyce will anchor the Hog rotation. Shaun Siebert, Chris Rhoads, or Justin White could be that third starter for SEC games. Devin Collis had an outstanding fall and just may be a sleeper also. The closer will be senior Trey Holloway. Lee Land could be a solid middle reliever if he reaches his potential. Daryl Maday should have a great year on the mound. All-conference candidate Danny Hamblin will play first everyday in 2006. Blake Parker will play third, John Henry Marqardt at shortstop, Ben Tschepikow at second, and sophomore power hitter Brian Walker will catch. Returning starters Craig Gentry and Jake Dugger will be in center and left. Dugger may not play as much versus left-handed pitching. Chris Hollensworth, Stephen Robison, and Clint Arnold will compete for everyday playing time. Football tailback Michael Smith will play in the outfield also. True freshman Chad Coldiron and Michael Wild may help the staff by midseason. The Razorbacks will win 18 to 22 SEC games like Mississippi State.
Can the Tigers win the West? Can Smoke ever escape the shadow? LSU will definitely be in the NCAA Regionals, but that is likely it. The Tigers will be young in 2006, and they did not close well in 2005. They do not have the magic that they once had, and they are not feared as they were for years. Clay Dirks will be the cornerstone for the Tiger pitching staff. He won 10 games with an 3.24 ERA in 2005. Dirks is the only set-in-stone SEC starter retuning for the Tigers and that is a concern. Justin Meier will have a chance to be a starter, but he only won two games last year. Matt Liuzza will catch again in 2006, and his leadership may help mold this young staff. Will Harris started forty-two games last year and is very versatile in the infield. Chris Jackson and Michael Holander are returning infielders who played in many games in 2005. Lots of newcomers will contribute for the Tigers. Bruce Sprowl started part-time in the LSU outfield last year. LSU did have a good class, so if the chemistry is there, they may do better than I forsee. LSU will win between 14 and 16 SEC games in 2006.
The Crimson Tide look to turn the program around in 2006. If the Tide wants to reach their goals, Wade LeBlanc must bounce back from a down year in 2005. The junior had a sophomore slump while finishing 5-5 on the year. Brandon Belcher was 5-0 last year, but only appeared fourteen times. The pitching staff will be inexperienced this year, but they do have talent so the Tide could turn some heads. Evan Bush returns for the Tide. He went yard seventeen times in 2005 and had fifty-five RBI's. Bush is an all-conference candidate. The remainder of the Tide lineup will be open for competition. Coach Jim Wells has talent, but they need to mature on the fly. I think Alabama will reach the NCAA Regionals and win 13 to 15 SEC games.
I think the Rebels had the talent to win it all in 2005, but that was last year. Mississippi should have beaten Texas, but they could not knock out the Longhorns. The Rebels will look very different this year. The talent that was on last year's roster is gone. Some is still in Oxford, but it will be different. Chris Coghlan, Alex Presley, and Cooper Osteen return to the powerful hitting lineup, but the bad news is that they are the only real contributors that are returning. Jon-Jon Hancock started thirty-two games, and that is the fourth most for a returning position player. Stoney Stone was 3-0 last year, and he is the winningest returning pitcher. The Rebs are very green on the mound after losing over forty wins from last year's staff. On the mound, newcomers Wade Broyles, Phillip Irwin, Lance Lynn, Rory McKean, Cody Satterwhite, and Jesse Simpson will all have a chance to throw early. Redshirt freshman Justin Cryer may be a SEC starter, and JUCO transfer Craig Rodriguez may be the ace in waiting. Coach Bianco has always gotten Mississippi publicity, and last year was the first year that they lived up to the hype. They should have won it all, and in my opinion, they underachieved. The Rebels will get a dose of reality in 2006. UM will struggle to make the SEC Tourney and win 10 to twelve SEC games.
The Tigers lost some key players from the NCAA Regional team from a year ago. This year will be a rebuilding year in my estimation. Powerhitters Karl Amonite and Josh Bell are gone, and so are their twenty two homeruns. Clete Thomas took a good bat with him. He had nine round trippers and forty-one RBI's. The Tigers lost their top five starters, and the pitching staff will have to learn on the fly. Tyler Johnstone will be the leader of this team and he needs to lead by example; this young team needs a leader. The Tigers will win 8 to 11 SEC games in 2006.
SEC West Player of the Year: Nick Schmidt, RHP, Arkansas
Mississippi State (host)
College World Series
Mississippi State (8)
From early February until June, the fans who support SEC West teams will be treated to some great baseball. I feel at least three West teams have what it takes to get to Omaha if they get some breaks. I think that the SEC will likely get four teams to the postseason, and maybe five. The West in 2006 will be just as entertaining as it has been in years past.