The SEC East had a very strong year in 2005. The West dominated the conference in 2003 and 2004, but the East was the strongest division a season ago. The Florida Gators were one win away from winning the College World Series, and Tennessee made a surprise trip to Omaha. The Gamecocks of South Carolina had a good run, which has become the norm in Columbia since Coach Tanner's arrival. Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee should once again be the cream of the crop in the SEC East.
Will the East of 2006 have a darkhorse team? In 2004 it was the Georgia Bulldogs who emerged as a College World Series team. In 2005 it was Florida and Tennessee who came out of the shadows and advanced to Omaha. Could it be Vanderbilt this year? If there is a surprise, I would put my money on the Commodores. It has become a trend for the East to surprise, but will it be the same this spring?
The Florida Gators return virtually everyone from a team that was the national runner-up. I think it is safe to say Florida is the team to beat in the East. Tennessee has turned the corner in my opinion, and I think they will finish second behind the Gators. South Carolina will be a player in the division as they always are. The East will be much like the West in that it will be a top-heavy division. Coach Corbin has the Commodores of Vanderbilt with the talent, but not enough to seriously contend in my mind. Georgia will finish fifth, and Kentucky will definitely finish in their usual sixth. I see four teams from the East making the trip to Birmingham: Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt.
The Florida Gators finished 48-23 in 2005 and finished second at the College World Series. They won the SEC regular season title and rolled from there. The Gators got super performances from a talented group of sophomores in 2005. The juniors to be make the Gators the team to beat this spring. Stars Brian Jeroloman, Brian Leclerc, Adam Davis, Matt LaPorta, and Gavin Dickey were all in that sophomore class and were all very productive. The Gators will lean on that group again this year. Seniors Bryan Bell and Darren O'Day will bring a much needed seasoned arms in the Gator rotation. David Hurst, Josh Edmondson, and Bryan Augustine return to the mix and will have valuable experience for 2006. The Gators signed numerous talented arms to bolster the staff. I predict that the Gators as overall SEC Champs and twenty-two to twenty-five wins in the league.
Tennessee turned a major corner in 2005 and advanced to the College World Series. The Vols rode Luke Hoechaver and a Miami connection to their success. The ace Hoechaver is gone, but the players from South Florida return. All-conference selection J.P. Arencibia will return as the Volunteer catcher. Starters Julio Borbon and Michael Riviera return also. The Vols' pitching staff will be anchored by Knoxville native Craig Cobb, followed by Sean Watson, Drew Bowlin, Ty Pryor, James Adkins, and Danny Wiltz. JUCO transfer Deunte Heath will have a shot at seeing significant time. If the Vols have plans to return to the CWS, then newcomers must step up. Tennessee had an outstanding recruiting class, so experience will be the only thing this team will be short on. Coach Delmonico's son Tony will likely start at shortstop for the Vols. Freshmen Ryan Jones, Brian Bibee, Jared Fraizer, and Cody Brown will play early and often. The Vols youth will be a weakness, but this group is very talented so I think they will be very good by season's end. The Vols win seventeen to twenty games in the SEC.
I have two words for you: Ray Tanner. He is one of the best coaches in the SEC, if not the best. He has built the Gamecocks into a national contender, and you can never count this team out. A lot of new faces will be in the Gamecock lineup this spring. Cornerstone Michael Campbell will return to command the outfield. Trent Cline and Ian Paxton will both get time at catcher for the 'Cocks. Cheyne Hurst and Mark Stanley return a good bit of experience to the outfield lineup also. Freshman Reese Havens will be the USC shortstop, Neil Geisler at third, Chris Brown at second, and freshman Justin Smoak will man first. The Gamecocks will get freshman help in 2006, but they will also rely and on the upper classmen and transfers. Harris Honeycutt will be the Gamecock ace. Conor Lalor and Forrest Beverly will round out the Gamecock starters. The Gamecocks will win fourteen to seventeen SEC games.
Vanderbilt had the best recruiting class in the nation according to several publications. Coach Tim Corbin has really turned the Bucs into a team that is for real in the SEC. The freshmen will play from the first pitch of the year; they are that good. Returning starters Rucker Taylor, Stephen Shao, and Parker Hanks will be good leaders to mold the talented freshmen. The versatile Adam Cronk will play in the infield. Freshmen Pedro Alvarez, Nick Christiani, Ryan Flaherty, Diallo Fon, Andrew Giobbi, Brian Harris, Brett Jacobson, Bobby Kennedy, Kurt Lipton, Jay Moreland, Josh Zeid, and legacy Matt Shao will all play roles in 2006. All these kids are ready for SEC baseball. A few may see the redshirt, but it will be a tough move to keep them off the field. All-American candidate David Price will be the mainstay for the Commodores, and hurler Tyler Rhoden was very effective in 2005 and will play a major role this year. Stephen Shao will play in the field and throw, which makes him a valuable player. Greg Moviel and Ty Davis, along with some of the freshman, will make the Vanderbilt staff a tough one. This team will be very young, but they win thirteen to sixteen games. With a few breaks, they could contend for the East.
The Dawgs made the trip to Omaha in 2001 and 2004 for the College World Series. It has been all or nothing in Athens for the last five or six years. The Dawgs are good or they aren't. Coach David Perno would like to be good rather than not. I just can't find a way for the Dawgs to surprise. They went 12-17 in the SEC last year and played better towards the end, but lost a lot of key players. The pitching staff will be very young. Brooks Brown was 4-2 in 2005 and he is the returning win leader. Josh Morris had 12 homers and 48 RBIs last year, but that is about the lone bright spot. Matthew Dunn and Jason Jacobs return some experience which may help the Dawgs as the season wears on. Freshman right hander Iain Sebastian may be forced into a starting role on the mound, and he could turn some heads. It is going to be a long spring in Athens, as the Dawgs will win nine to twelve games in the SEC.
The Kentucky Wildcats averaged 500 fans a game in 2005. That pretty much tells the story of Wildcat baseball in recent years. The Wildcats have a nice ballpark and Lexington is a great college town, so in my opinion there is no excuse for the Wildcats' habitual struggles as of late. Until the Wildcat fans start embracing their team, they will not get the players to be successful on the diamond. The versatile John Shelby maybe an all-conference selection for the Wildcats, as he is a very solid player. The Cats will struggle once again and win six to nine SEC ballgames.
SEC East Player of the Year: J.P. Arencibia, Tennessee
NCAA Super Regionals
College World Series