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March 27, 2006

SCS.comAs I sat down to write this article, I struggled with what to write about. Itís not that there arenít a million teams that are headline worthy: Mississippi Stateís impressive record, Texasís resurgence in Austin, Florida Stateís winning percentage, Nebraskaís dominance in Lincoln, Kentuckyís surprising victories over Tennessee and LSU. The list could go on and on.

It was suggested that I break down the conferences and talk about how some of the more intriguing matchups from the weekend played out, but who needs another review? I wanted to write something unheard of at this point in the season, something that will probably be completely worthless a month from now. Why? Thatís because I know, as an avid college baseball fan, there is nothing better than seeing your team on a list of well thought-out (or not-so-well-thought-out) predictions of postseason success based on the results a week or two into the conference schedule.

So, Iíll begin with my Omaha predictions for 2006. Weíll do four this week and four next week, see what everyone thinks, and move on from there.

1. Cal State-Fullerton (20-7 Overall; 0-0 Big West)

There will be some understandable criticism for this pick, because the Titans already have seven losses on the year. In response, notice that three of those seven losses came in the first three games of the year and that two of the remaining four are to Rice in Houston. The final two, to Pepperdine and UC-Irvine, came against solid ballclubs that no team wants to face in a midweek standoff.

Biggest Strength
The Titans are essentially a pitching machine, and their biggest asset is Wes Roemer, whoís pitched 60.1 innings on the season with a 1.79 ERA, 58 strikeouts, and zero (thatís right, zero) walks. They arenít a powerhouse club at the plate, but CSF's .290 average is impressive considering the competition theyíve faced to this point.

Key to the Season
If Wes Roemer can continue to pitch his stuff, and Titan closer Vinnie Pestano (0.43 ERA, 21.0 IP, 27 K, 5 BB, .141 BAA) continues to dominate, Fullerton is nearly guaranteed one win a weekend. Throw into the mix that eight other pitchers on the staff have combined for 114 strikeouts in 150.1 innings, while only giving up 36 walks and 58 runs, and you see where we get this stuff. The Titans are a solid team.

Challenges on the Horizon
Cal State-Fullertonís remaining schedule isnít exactly loaded with top 25 teams, so their biggest challenge is to stay hot. There will be tests from Pacific and UC-Irvine, along with another series at Long Beach State to end the year, but none of those teams are quite as strong at this point as the competition the Titans have already faced. Thatís why they canít become too comfortable with their success and then run into a team in the postseason that still has fire.

2. Nebraska (17-3 Overall; 2-1 Big 12)

Again, there will be some criticism with this pick, because how could Mississippi State or Florida State not be mentioned by now? After all, the Huskers have the same number of losses as the Bulldogs and Seminoles combined. The biggest strength I see at this point that the Huskers have over Florida State or Mississippi State is that theyíve played a little tougher competition. How much tougher? Not much, but itís hard to ignore that three game sweep of Alabama in Lincoln while Nebraskaís best pitcher, Joba Chamberlain, sat on the bench. And letís not forget that one of those three losses was during the Rice Invitational in Houston to the Owls themselves.

Biggest Strength
Here we are again with the pitching thing. Joba Chamberlain is the most household name of the bunch, with a 1.32 ERA in 27.1 innings while striking out 35 and only walking seven. But look at his companions: Charlie Shirek, Tony Watson, Johnny Dorn, and Brett Jensen have combined to throw 108.1 innings with 82 strikeouts, only giving up 30 runs. (Thatís an average of just over one run every four innings or so.) The stats tend to make one think that the Huskers have dominated at the plate with seven players hitting over .350 and a team average of .320, but they have beat up on some pretty poor teams so thatís a little misleading. Still, they arenít a weak team with the bats.

Key to the Season
Can the Huskers keep it up? While ten of Nebraskaís twenty games have been away from Haymarket Park in Lincoln, theyíve really only played two above-average clubs away from home with mixed results, a 4-3 win over North Carolina State in the second game of the year and a 3-2 loss to Rice in Houston. The rest of the non-conference competition, outside of the Alabama series, has been big brother beating up on little brother.

Challenges on the Horizon
No one has ever won the Big XII when they have had to play five of the nine conference series on the road. Nebraska has that challenge this year, including trips to face Missouri in Columbia, Texas in Austin, and Baylor in Waco. Despite the strength of the Huskers, thatís a tall order. There is no reason to think that it canít be done, but unlike Cal State-Fullerton, Nebraskaís schedule will get considerably harder as the season wears on.

3. Florida State (25-2 Overall; 8-1 ACC)

The Seminoles have won a school-record thirty straight games at home. Sure, the competition hasnít been outstanding, but who can ignore that 25-2 record? At this rate, the ĎNoles will get to 50 wins before the postseason even begins. Okay, so thatís not likely with the tough ACC slate in front of them, but itís still impressive nonetheless. Maryland, Virginia Tech, and Duke are not the best competition in the ACC, but FSU has outscored those teams 73-29 in their eight wins so itís not like theyíre struggling either.

Biggest Strength
Can Dick Howser Stadium be the biggest strength? If the ĎNoles can continue to play this well, theyíll likely get a #1 seed for the postseason, and the road to Omaha will lead right through Tallahassee. Outside of that, itís hard to ignore Bryan Henryís superb performance on the mound. Henry has thrown 53.1 innings and recorded 60 strikeouts, while only giving up seven walks and ten runs. Tyler Chambliss has been lights-out as well, with 59 strikeouts in 52 innings of work, while only giving up 18 runs. The hitting has been outstanding thus far as well. Shane Robinson is hitting .409 and Ryan Strauss is swinging at a .405 clip, but the opposing pitching hasnít exactly been the best.

Key to the Season
Can the pitching maintain its dominance throughout the ACC? Can the team batting average stay at .332 through conference play? So far, so good, but the biggest tests are down the road. With a series against the Tar Heels next weekend, Florida State has a chance to show their stuff. There are going to be a couple of hiccups when you play in a league as strong as the ACC, but the lack of quality wins in the non-conference slate might turn the road to Omaha away from Tallahassee if those hiccups last too long.

Challenges on the Horizon
There are still series remaining at North Carolina, at Wake Forest, and at Clemson. And with Miami, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina State coming to Dick Howser Stadium, need I say more?

4. Mississippi State (19-1 Overall; 4-1 SEC)

To say the Bulldogs season has been impressive so far is an understatement. The 14-0 start was great, but beating up on teams like Arkansas State and Marist arenít exactly worthy of a raising of the eyebrows. After taking the series from Tennessee 2-0 to move to 16-0, State got attention. And now, after taking 2 out of 3 from LSU at Alex Box Stadium, there is no reason to think that MSU isnít a serious contender for a shot at Omaha. Sure, there are lots of question marks, and as a member of arguably the deepest baseball conference in the world, anything can happen with this much baseball remaining. Still, the Bulldogs have played 20 games, and their one loss is an 8-6 decision to a good LSU team in Baton Rouge. You have to have them in here. Youíd look looney not to.

Biggest Strength
Where can we begin? Josh Johnson has been superb on the mound thus far, throwing 31.2 innings and striking out 25 on his way to a 1.99 ERA. Brooks Dunn has done just as well, throwing 34 innings while striking out 23 and walking nine. And letís not forget the rest of the staff that has thrown 107 strikeouts with just 29 walks. As a squad, opponents are only batting .230 against MSU. At the plate, the Bulldogs have outscored their opponents 154-62 and have a team batting average of .320. When the weakest link in the lineup is someone who has 10 hits, 2 doubles, a homerun, and 10 RBIs, you are doing alright.

Key to the Season
The Bulldogs are almost too hot to touch. The pitching is as deep as it is strong. The run production has been great behind the bats of Berkery, Rea, Easley, and many others. I guess you could get nitpicky on the very slightly below average fielding percentage (.968), but when you are 19-1, thatís easily overlooked. As long as Johnson and Dunn continue to pitch well, there will be very few, if any, series that the Bulldogs wonít be favored to take two.

Challenges on the Horizon
What else is new in the SEC? Ten of the leagueís twelve teams could arguably be ranked at this point. Mississippi State has two top 25 opponents coming up on back-to-back weekends, with a road trip to Alabama this week and a visit from a tough Georgia squad next week. The 19-1 record is impressive, but it wonít win those games for the Bulldogs. Right now though, the MSU baseball train just keeps on chugging along.

Four more spots in Omaha are still available. Who's in the running? Check out Part II next week!

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