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April 4, 2006

SCS.comPredictions and projections are one of the most fun parts of sports, whether you are a casual fan, a fanatic, or a journalist. We'd all like to end up right when it's all said and done, but predictions are always a hit-or-miss thing. Some will be right, some won't, and then sometimes things can happen that no one could have possibly figured. And as we reach the halfway point of baseball season, it’s time to take a look at some of those surprises.

The first thing that most people like to look at is the polls, and right now, they look a lot different than they would in most years, and for that matter, a lot different than they looked when the season started. Several perennial powers are either on their way out or nowhere to be seen in the latest rankings. Who'd have figured that as of now, the names Florida, LSU, Miami, Tennessee, Tulane, Baylor, and Stanford are either not in the rankings or on their way out? Some of those teams are in rebuilding years, but even on down years, you'd usually see most or all of those guys in the mix. There's still time yet for them to regain their spots though, and the only poll that actually has any merit will be the one that comes out the day after the CWS.

That has opened the way for some teams to make moves. Mississippi State shot up the rankings quicker and higher than they were expected to, hitting #1 in the Baseball America poll and staying there for a couple of weeks until falling this past weekend at Alabama, a team who’s tip-toed their way up to the top of the SEC West so far.

One thing about baseball that makes it different from the other major sports is that smaller schools appear in the rankings much more often, and that has shown as names like Winthrop, Creighton, and Old Dominion have crashed the party, along with two "basketball" schools, Kansas and Kentucky.

Wake Forest has reemerged after a couple of seasons in the dumps, now trying to work their way to their first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 2001. A few other teams who’ve gotten off to surprisingly hot starts worthy of mention are Kansas State (20-5), Washington State (21-9), West Virginia (23-4), Jacksonville (23-8), Navy (23-8), Elon (22-10), and Liberty (21-8). The NCAA field could have a few new names come the announcement in May.

Old Dominion has been unbeaten in the past month, and that has paved the way for them to make a move into the top 20. They haven't been this good since around the time Pat McMahon skippered the Monarchs. The CAA is proving itself to be quite the conference. Throw in James Madison and the big bat of sweet-swinging Kellen Kulbacki (tongue twister, isn't it?), Virginia Commonwealth, and UNC-Wilmington, and you’ve got a league that very well could match its basketball achievements in terms of NCAA bids.

The Big South could be a multiple bid league as well, with the semi-established Winthrop, along with the two hot-starters in Elon and Liberty making sure the league is more than quality in a year when Coastal Carolina is down.

As far as former Monarch coach Pat McMahon's Gators go, they're headed in the opposite direction. UF returned most of its lineup from last year, so despite losing a chunk of their pitching staff, they were still expected to contend again. But they haven’t looked good at the plate, and their pitching hasn’t helped the cause either, though newbie Bryan Augenstein has been a bright spot, accounting for almost one-third of the Gators’ 19 victories. There’s time yet to right the ship, but when ten of your thirteen losses are at home and you’re progressively looking worse, the line you’re walking is pretty thin.

But when it comes to bright spots in the SEC East... We all knew that Kentucky would be better this season under John Cohen, but for them to have nearly matched last season's win total already through this point of the season is completely exceeding expectations. There were some questions about their gaudy record coming into conference play due to the soft schedule they'd played, but they erased those questions with series wins against LSU and Tennessee. UK did take a hit this past weekend in a series loss to Auburn, but there's no secret that the `Cats are a team to be reckoned with. It might be a little too early still to say they're not just a basketball school anymore, but they're good, no doubt about that.

Speaking of the two teams the `Cats have won conference series against, LSU and Tennessee, those are two squads that have really gotten off to poor starts in conference play. Both were in the top 10 entering their first conference series, but they've gone south in a hurry. LSU could conceivably be 0-9, but thanks to late-inning comebacks, they're 2-7, which isn't anything to feel too lucky about. And Tennessee, well, they’re going to need to start turning those no- or one-win weekends into more if they want to sniff the Regionals.

The SEC as a whole has so far been a surprise, with some of the preseason favorites being a little slow out of the gates. It speaks more about the overall competitiveness of the conference as opposed to some teams actually being bad. If anyone really runs away with the conference title, that would certainly be a surprise. Some good teams will end up with some pretty ugly conference records, but that's what the good ol' SEC is about, whoopin' up on each other, or as some people like to call it, parity. And you can’t afford to use the term "rebuilding year" as an excuse when South Carolina and Vanderbilt are leading the way when they weren’t expected to be. It certainly doesn’t hurt the ‘Dores that they have David Price mowing down hitters on Friday nights and that the Gamecocks have a guy like Neil Giesler hitting over .450 for them.

Outside of impressive starts and records, there have been some pretty eye-catching series wins throughout the country. The first notable one happened the first weekend of the season, as San Diego pulled out the brooms against defending CWS champion Texas on the way to a hot start and a top-ten ranking. That was also the start of early-season struggles for the Longhorns. Since then, USD has cooled off, and the `Horns have gotten back to business as usual. But sweeping Texas is sweeping Texas, even if you go 0-53 the rest of the way.

The ACC has seen a couple of surprising series wins thus far. Virginia swept Clemson a few weeks ago in a bit of a small shocker, but the biggest kudos comes from this past weekend. Maryland, long one of the whipping boys for the top schools in the conference, took two of three from Georgia Tech. The Terps probably won't be crashing the NCAA party this year unless a few more minor miracles become one major miracle, but they've shown in series against FSU, North Carolina, and now GT that they aren't to be overlooked. Throw in Wake Forest's improvement, and the ACC is the most competitive it's been in some time, if ever.

Individually, there have been some pretty standout performances early. After impressing in the Northwoods League last summer, Matt Mangini's abilities at the plate weren't in question. But for the NC State sophomore to hit over .600 in the first quarter of the season is incredible. Of course, it was only a matter of time before the average came more back down to earth, and it has, since he apparently pressed the reset button on his Playstation 2. He's now hitting only .422 after 33 games. I know, that's terrible, simply terrible.

Another big surprise performer in the ACC has been FSU sophomore first baseman Dennis Guinn. Guinn has held down his spot since day one, and his bat has been one of the top reasons for the ‘Noles' success this season. He's still sporting a lofty .364 batting average, and he leads the ACC in homers (9) and is second to Mangini in RBI with 46. He's led the Seminole power resurgence, settling nicely in the third spot in the order, and the foursome of All-American Shane Robinson, Jack Rye, Guinn, and Ryne Malone is one of the most dangerous in the country.

On the mound, Brooks Dunn for Mississippi State has stepped in as the Friday night guy and proved Ron Polk a very smart man for putting faith in him. Before this season, the senior had only gone as far as being a midweek starter, so there were some questions about whether he’d be able to fill that "ace" role that MSU hasn’t really had in a few seasons since Paul Maholm. But he’s proved that his star performance in last year’s SEC Tournament title game was no fluke, winning his first five starts until losing last weekend in Tuscaloosa.

As far as eye-catching freshmen go, Washington State’s Jared Prince and Wake’s Allan Dykstra have done pretty well to set themselves apart and become key contributors to their teams’ successes. There are a lot of good freshmen every year, but it takes a pretty special player to be hitting .430 and be among the leaders in the Pac-10 in several categories (Prince) and to be hitting over .350 with double-digits in homers and doubles already (Dykstra).

There are plenty other players and teams who deserve some recognition for doing well so far, but I only have two eyes, and I try to see as much as I can with them. And unfortunately, you won't see me going out on a limb and making some crazy predictions for the rest of the season, but I will say this much: It's already been a great season, and it will continue to be. And there are many, many more surprises in store all the way until June.

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