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January 27, 2007

SCS.comLast year was a banner year for the ACC. The conference sent seven teams to the postseason, and four teams hosted regionals. Clemson, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Miami all advanced to Omaha, and the Tar Heels played for the national title.

The 2007 season looks to be yet another fantastic year for the ACC. Four teams are in the top ten, with all four (Clemson, UNC, Miami, and Virginia) all arguably top-five caliber. This list doesn't even include perennial powers Florida State and Georgia Tech who are right there scratching at the top ten door.

The Favorites

In the Atlantic Division, Clemson looks like the top pick. The Tigers lost first-round pick Tyler Colvin from their slew of hitters, but return a potent lineup that includes bashing first baseman Andy D'Alessio (.312/23/85) and second baseman Taylor Harbin (.319/9/47), who hits two-baggers as well as we plays the bag (48 doubles in two seasons). Stephen Faris, Josh Cribb, and Jason Berken combined to go 27-6 last season, but they're all gone, and so is Sean Clark, who was expected to start in '07. If the new rotation can do their job, then there's one of the nation's best stoppers to finish the job in Daniel Moskos (5-5, 2.52 ERA, 10 saves).

Florida State will be looking to make a run back towards the top of the ACC, but will be doing it with a team that has a bunch of new pieces and old pieces in new places. Buster Posey (.346/4/48), who starred at short as a freshman, is now the team's starting catcher and may close. Last year's closer, Luke Tucker (2-1, 1.06, 9 saves), was slated to move into the starting rotation, but as of this week, looks set to resume a bullpen role. Illinois-Chicago transfer and two-time All-Horizon League first teamer Mark Hallberg (.373/3/41, statistically the toughest player in the nation to strike out in '06 with only six Ks in 217 ABs) will start at short, and Mercer transfer Brandon Reichert (.345/5/39 at Mercer in 2005) will start at first. Last year's first baseman and preseason awards candidate Dennis Guinn (.335/12/69) is now the starter in left. Ruairi O'Connor returns after missing almost all of '06 and will start in center, replacing two-time All-American Shane Robinson. There are several All-ACC performers on this team in Posey, Guinn, Tucker, starting pitchers Bryan Henry (18-7 in two seasons) and Michael Hyde, and RF Jack Rye (.339/12/46), to name a few. It'll be interesting to see if and how well all of these changes can work, and if the Seminoles can make a run at Clemson and at their first Omaha trip since 2000.

In the Coastal Division, defending champ North Carolina looks like the favorite, but they will be pushed by Miami and Virginia. The Tar Heels return nearly every part of an offense that hit .321 and bashed 83 homers last season on the way to that Omaha run. Postseason hero Chad Flack (.384/13/68) returns to do more damage, along with All-American shorstop Josh Horton (.395/7/59) and the power-hitting backstop duo of Tim Federowicz (.320/12/62) and Benji Johnson (.273/14/44). Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard are now cashing in the big bucks, but Robert Woodard (7-1, 3.43) is back, and sophomore Luke Putkonen (6-0, 3.08) looks to maintain a sparkling record as a full-time weekend starter.

Miami came from almost nowhere to make it to Omaha last year, and the Hurricanes are primed for a return to their home away from home. Summers in Florida are nice, but summers in Omaha seem to fit Jim Morris' teams well. Jon Jay, Danny Valencia, and star catcher Eddy Rodriguez are gone, but All-American second baseman Jemile Weeks (.352/6/40) and first baseman Yonder Alonso (.295/10/69), who both had superb freshman seasons, are back to lead the lineup. There'll be another talented freshman in the infield, with Ryan Jackson at short. An all-star rotation returns, with 12-game winner Scott Maine, 9-game winner Carlos Gutierrez, and 8-game winner Manny Miguelez. The bullpen loses a bit of its oomph with the departures of closer Chris Perez and relievers Andrew Lane and Jon McLean, but there is a stalwart in Danny Gil (4-3, 2.66). It seems no matter who Morris puts on the field, he has championship-caliber teams, and the 2007 Hurricanes look to continue that tradition and contend for a title.

Brian O'Connor has done wonders with the Virginia baseball program in his first three seasons, and the rise to prominence will continue in 2007. O'Connor's teams are known for quality pitching, and there is plenty of that in All-American starters Sean Doolittle (11-2, 2.38) and Jacob Thompson (10-4, 2.60 as a freshman), and quality pitchers like closer Casey Lambert (3-2, 2.78, 10 saves), and Pat McAnaney (5-1, 2.79), who might see more starts this year with the departure of Mike Ballard. Returning pitchers Michael Schwimer, Alex Smith, and Andrew Carraway are three other quality arms that give Virginia arguably the best all-around staff in the nation. But the Cavs will also have a dangerous lineup this year. Brandon Marsh (.380/2/30) is the leading returning hitter, and there are six other regular starters who hit at least .316. Virginia is primarily a small-ball team, but Brandon Guyer (.339/7/57), David Adams (.318/5/49), and utility man Doolittle (.324/4/57) has some pop in his bat. Patrick Wingfield (.342) and Mike Mitchell (.316, 34 runs, 15 SB in 34 games) didn't play everyday, but flashed bat skills when they did. The one thing that has eluded the resurgent program is regional success, but with the stellar team they have this year, hopefully they can get over that hump and really make their mark on the nationwide scene. UNC, Clemson, and Miami are getting all of the hype, but the Cavs could end up being the best of the bunch at the end.

The Sleepers

In the Atlantic Division, North Carolina State and Wake Forest both look to make runs at the top two. The Wolfpack was a big hitting ballclub last year, but pitching will lead the way this season. Preseason First Team All-American Andrew Brackman is the team's #1 and also a potential #1 pick in the summer. The 6'10 Brackman's numbers in his first two seasons aren't mind-blowing, but he spent those first two seasons between the basketball court and the diamond. Now, with his focus solely on baseball, he has a chance to show his electric stuff on a regular basis. Eric Surkamp (2-3, 5.10), who started 12 games last year, will remain in the weekend rotation, and the other spot will be held down by Jeff Stallings (5-3, 3.48 in 2005), who was an 18th round pick in last year's draft despite missing the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. Eryk McConnell (7-6, 4.50), who started 16 games for the 'Pack in '06, is now the closer, replacing Sam Walls. The bullpen returns a number of key contributors, and a couple of newcomers will be counted on as well, including Georgia State transfer Clayton Shunick (5-7, 4.94 at GSU as a freshman in '06), who was one of the top pitchers in the Cape last summer. Despite some big losses, like Jon Still, Matt Camp, and Aaron Bates, the lineup still looks good with All-American candidate Ramon Corona (.353/6/57) and catcher Caleb Mangum (.354/4/34).

Wake Forest was snubbed on Selection Monday last season, but the Demon Deacons have reason to be confident about their chances for their first regional appearance since 2002. Freshman All-American Allan Dykstra (.324/15/56) returns to lead the lineup, along with several other regulars who will need to step it up to overcome the losses of Matt Antonelli and Brendan Enick. Eric Niesen (3-2, 4.68) and Brad Kledzik (5-4, 5.00) will spearhead the rotation, and there's a star in the bullpen in closer Ben Hunter (1-2, 1.47, 15 saves).

In the Coastal Division, Georgia Tech may be in reload mode, but they are still very, very dangerous. Big hitters Whit Robbins, Jeff Kindel, Wes Hodges, and Steven Blackwood are gone, along with second baseman Matt Trapani, but the Yellow Jackets are still going to hit, and hit, and hit. Matt Wieters (.355/15/71) is one of the top candidates for the national player of the year awards, and is one of the most feared hitters around. Danny Payne was having a stellar season in '06 (.356/11/44/20 SB in 43 games) before the injury bug ruled him out for the last 25 games. Luke Murton, brother of the Cubs' Matt, had a strong freshman season as well (.339/6/44), and looks to be the next in a long line of great Tech hitters. Highly-touted freshmen Curtis Dupart and Jeff Ussery look to do the same, and another freshman, Patrick Long, will have a chance to make his mark as well. Starters Lee Hyde and Blake Wood leave a hole, but sophomore David Duncan (7-2, 5.50) will look to build on a good freshman year, and freshman Zach Von Tersch could start, with Tim Ladd, Chris Hicks, Ryan Turner, and Jared Hyatt as possibilities. With Brad Rulon (5-0, 2.20) as the setup man and Wieters (1-3, 3.41, 7 saves) doing double duty as the closer, Danny Hall can be confident about holding late leads. ACC beware: overlook this team at your own risk.

The Rest

The top eight in the ACC are far and away much better than the bottom four, without question. But Boston College and Maryland are at least going to cause some of those top eight a few headaches. The Eagles went 9-21 in their first season in the ACC, but had a series win over Georgia Tech and defeated Clemson. Most of their lineup returns, led by Johnny Ayers (.340/20 RBI/17 SB), who punts in the fall and patrols the infield in the spring. The Eagles' weekend rotation returns is led by Terry Doyle (5-5, 3.44), who is a legitimate pro prospect. New coach Miko Aoki also has a couple of other good pitchers in Ted Ratliff and Nick Asselin, and a quality closer in Kevin Boggan (4-2, 4.47, 7 saves).

Maryland finished a game behind BC at 8-22, but just like the Eagles, they collected a series win over Georgia Tech, and also defeated North Carolina and Miami. Things will be much the same for Terry Rupp's club, but a number of last year's key players return to make a few more surprises. Dan Melvin (.338/5/30) is the team's leading returning hitter and one of the ACC's best at short, and he, junior outfielder Nick Jowers (.273/5/27), and sophomore OF/IF Dan Benick (.246/5/18) tied for the team lead with five homers. Benick hit all five of his homers in the final eight games of the year. Four pitchers who started at least eight games return, including sophomore John Dischert (3-3, 5.72), who could be set for a breakout year. Ryan Moorer (3-0, 3.24) looks like a capable arm either as a starter or out of the bullpen, but the star of the staff is All-American closer Brett Cecil (4-5, 4.78, 13 saves).

Virginia Tech and Duke are going to win a few, but not too many. Former BC coach Peter Hughes packed up and went to Blacksburg, and he has a lot of returnees to work with from last year's 20-33 squad, but the team will still find life tough in the quickly improving ACC. Duke barely avoided the cellar last season, finishing ahead of the last-place Hokies, and they appear set for another battle to stay off the bottom.

The Preseason Standings Projection

1. Clemson
2. Florida State
3. North Carolina State
4. Wake Forest
5. Boston College
6. Maryland

1. UNC
2. Virginia
3. Miami
4. Georgia Tech
5. Virginia Tech
6. Duke
Projected NCAA Tournament Teams: Clemson, UNC, Miami, Virginia, Florida State, Georgia Tech, NC State
NCAA Bubble Teams: Wake Forest

The All-Conference Team

C: Tim Federowicz, UNC
1B: Andy D'Alessio, Clemson
2B: Jemile Weeks, Miami
3B: Chad Flack, UNC
SS: Josh Horton, UNC
OF: Danny Payne, GT
OF: Jack Rye, FSU
OF: Dennis Guinn, FSU
DH/UT: Matt Wieters, GT
SP: Sean Doolittle, Virginia
SP: Bryan Henry, FSU
SP: Robert Woodard, UNC
RP: Daniel Moskos, Clemson
RP: Ben Hunter, Wake Forest
Preseason Player of the Year: Matt Wieters, Georgia Tech

With what should be another great season, the ACC is well on its way to legitimizing itself as one of the premier conferences in college baseball.

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