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April 6, 2006

SCS.comAnother week of baseball has passed, and there were quite a few surprises and not-so-surprises. Letís start with a very quick recap of how the four predictions for Omaha from last week fared since we last met.

Cal State-Fullerton opened Big West play this past weekend, sweeping Cal State-Northridge in the friendly confines of Blair Field. The Titans struggled in the first game but won the contest 2-1. After that, the floodgates opened and Fullerton outscored Northridge 20-3 in the remaining two games. Following that series, the Titans find themselves 24-7 and 3-0 in the Big West.

Nebraska faced a hot Kansas State team in Lincoln and after losing the opener 11-5, they rebounded to win the next two. The Huskers moved to 20-5 and are 4-2 in the Big XII conference.

Florida State had a tough time at North Carolina this past weekend, losing the first two before winning a tight one on Sunday. If there was a weakness to the prediction of the Seminoles in Omaha, it was certainly that they hadnít faced the cream of the crop yet. Still, Florida State is a very solid team that has a chance of touching Rosenblatt grass. After the loss, the ĎNoles fell to 27-4 and 9-3 in the ACC.

Mississippi State had to play 99 outs on Sunday to keep from being swept at Alabama. Not surprisingly, the Tide found their way onto the Omaha prediction list for this week. After the two losses over the weekend, the Bulldogs sit at 24-4 and 5-3 in the SEC.

Now on to the rest of the best...

5. South Carolina (26-3 Overall; 8-1 SEC)

Whatís in the water in Columbia? The Gamecocks havenít just been beaten people; theyíve been beating them to a pulp. Letís look at the offense for a second. In the past nine conference games, South Carolina has outscored their opponents 83-35. Oh, and in case you didnít notice, that wasnít against some bottom-dwellers (not that there are any in the SEC). That was against Auburn, Mississippi, and LSU. The non-conference schedule was pretty light for the Gamecocks, which probably inflates their record slightly, but they havenít had many close calls this year anyway.

Biggest Strength
Most people will tell you that they key to success in baseball is pitching and defense. There arenít many whoíd disagree, but this is an excellent case in point. The defense is outstanding, with the team fielding an impressive .985. From the bump, South Carolina looks solid as well, giving up an average of only 2.72 runs per game. Perhaps the most impressive thing, however, is the dominance at the plate. Sure the pitching and defense have been good, but the Gamecocks are excellent at putting crooked numbers on the board. Add a dash of spice and everything nice, and you have the resume of an Omaha-bound club.

Key to the Season
The key to the season is more of a combination lock of sorts for South Carolina. They have four pitchers that have pitched at least twenty innings, each sporting an ERA under 3.00. The team as a whole has a 2.56 ERA. At the plate, the squad is hitting .315, with six starters hitting over .300. On top of those outstanding numbers, they are fielding 98.5% of everything hit their way cleanly. That being said, they have to keep it up.

Challenges on the Horizon
South Carolina has to be the favorite to win the East, but just in case anyone forgot how tough the SEC is, the remaining conference foes on USC's scheduel are a combined 138-58, with only two teams having more than ten losses. Thatís just plain rough. The Gamecocks face Alabama this weekend in Columbia in what could turn out to be a CWS preview.

6. Alabama (22-9 Overall; 7-2 SEC)

The Tide is 9-2 since being swept by Omaha contender Nebraska in Lincoln. During the run, Alabama has not only gone 5-1 against quality Mississippi and Georgia clubs, but they also nearly swept highly-touted Mississippi State this past weekend. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Crimson Tide is their strength of schedule that has led them to the second highest RPI in the country at this point according to Am I the only one who sees the strong possibility of a Super Regional at Sewell-Thomas Stadium? Didnít think so.

Biggest Strength
Like many of the teams before them, ĎBama is getting it done on the mound. Wade LeBlanc and Bernard Robert have been major contributors to this success with 1.90 and 2.42 ERAs, respectively. The hitting hasnít been outstanding, but itís getting the job done behind the big bat of Emeel Salem, who has a .345 average with 46 hits. And letís not forget the seven home runs and 29 RBIs of Kody Valverde.

Key to the Season
The biggest key for Alabama so far has been run production. Theyíve manufactured 191 runs on just 287 hits, so they are making good use of the men they get on base. Until they get hot at the plate, however, the Tide will need to rely on their excellent pitching staff.

Challenges on the Horizon
Can the SEC get any tougher? Thatís three Omaha-caliber teams weíve listed here, and most of the rest have just as much potential. A weekend trip to Columbia to face the dominating Gamecocks will prove a challenge for ĎBama, but if they can shutdown the South Carolina offense, they have a shot at solidifying themselves as one of the top teams in America.

7. Texas (21-11 Overall; 6-2 Big 12)

The Longhorns from Austin started the season off at 10-8 and had huge bullpen problems, giving up 13 unanswered runs to UNLV in Las Vegas. Since then, Texas is back to regular form, going 11-3 with series wins over Long Beach State and Oklahoma, a sweep over Oklahoma State, and two wins over Rice. There is still plenty of season left to be played, but there is no doubt that the Horns have reemerged as a legitimate contender for the conference crown.

Biggest Strength
Sometimes the best thing to have is a confident leader in the dugout and experience in the field. Texas has both of those things right now, and that just might be their biggest strength thus far. Getting more detailed, the pitching has gotten stronger since Big XII play has begun, with Kyle McCulloch throwing for a 1.19 ERA with 19 strikeouts and three walks, and Austin Wood throwing at a respectable 2.57 clip. Unfortunately, Adrian Alaniz is still struggling from the bump, allowing 14 runs in 17.2 innings thus far in Big XII play. The bats have fallen off a bit at the plate, with the team only swinging for a .273 clip. The good news is that the Horns are seriously outslugging their opponents, with 12 homeruns in the eight conference games to date.

Key to the Season
Despite the hitting woes and bullpen concerns, Texas has found ways to win ballgames. The biggest key is making sure that they continue to do exactly that. With quality pitching depth, mediocre bats, and a dozen errors in the last eight conference games, the mix of small ball and timely hitting has got to continue. As long as McCulloch stays solid, there is no reason to think that the leadership and experience this team has wonít take them all the way to Omaha.

Challenges on the Horizon
While Texas has been playing much better, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are not the cream of the crop in the Big 12. There are still series remaining against Nebraska, Missouri, and Baylor to be concerned about down the stretch. The difference might be having the Nebraska series and two of the three Baylor games in Austin, where the Horns are 10-1 so far this season.

8. Clemson (20-8 Overall; 6-3 ACC)

Outside of their being swept at the hands of Virginia, Clemson has looked very strong this season. Theyíve played the hardest schedule of any ACC team by a long shot and have reeled off back-to-back sweeps over Miami and NC State. The other three losses for the Tigers have been at the hands of South Carolina, a much improved Kansas team, and Mercer in a doubleheader.

Biggest Strength
Okay, so the Tigers havenít been killing folks like the Gamecocks have in the SEC, but they are a solid team from top to bottom. For Clemson, it all begins with the rotation. Stephen Faris has thrown his way to a 1.79 ERA in 45.1 innings while only giving up seven walks and striking out 38. Jason Berken has been just as impressive with a 2.00 ERA in 36 innings. And letís not leave out Josh Cribb, whoís 2.25 mark would have him in the weekend rotation for just about any team. At the plate, the team has been led by Tyler Colvin, Andy DíAlessio, and Herman Demmink, who have belted over 17 homers between them and are batting .353, .336, and .336, respectively.

Key to the Season
The Tigers have excellent pitching, and itíll have continue to get to Omaha. There is no black and white resume for a College World Series team, but excellent pitching, above-average hitting, consistency in the field, and leadership from the dugout are all common traits. With a 3.00 team ERA, a .290 team average, and a team full of starters who made it to game 3 of a Super Regional last year, there isnít any reason to think the Tigers wonít make a 2006 CWS appearance.

Challenges on the Horizon
With Florida State and Georgia Tech still on the schedule, itís not exactly an easy road to the postseason. Still, having Maryland, Duke, and Virginia Tech remaining is very encouraging. Florida State might just have peaked too soon, and while Georgia Tech is tops in the ACC, they just lost a series to the Terps. With such a strong resume, if the Tigers can continue to play consistently, a top eight seed and a Super Regional in Clemson could make the road to Omaha a little easier.

Thatís our top eight meaningless picks for whoís going to be in Omaha this June. Bank on it? Hardly. In the end though, wasnít it fun to play the guess Ďem game?

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