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February 7, 2007

SCS.comThe SEC is arguably the deepest conference in the nation in the three main sports, and especially in college baseball. The teams at the bottom of the league can consistently win against the top teams, and anyone can win sneak up to win the conference. Mississippi State and Florida were the preseason picks to win the SEC last season, but in the end, it was Kentucky and Alabama who emerged as the champions. That's how unpredictable the SEC is every year, and the 2007 season should be no different.

The Favorites

South Carolina is the team to beat in the East. The Gamecocks' ambitions were dealt a blow by several key injuries and a poor second half last season, but they still went 41-25 and came one game short of Omaha, falling to Georgia in the supers. If they can stay healthy this season, Ray Tanner's club will not only be right there in the mix for an SEC title, but also for a national title. South Carolina is known for always having a few good long-ball threats, and they return their two leading power hitters in Justin Smoak and Robbie Grinestaff this spring.

Vanderbilt will be South Carolina's closest challenger and will also vie for a spot in Omaha. The Commodores return their top seven hitters, who all hit at least .319. All-American and POY candidate 3B Pedro Alvarez leads the way. There are a lot of people who can't wait until June 2008, when he's going to be a top pick in the draft. Tim Corbin has another POY candidate on the mound in David Price, who could be the #1 pick in the draft this year. Behind Price, the 'Dores certainly aren't shabby, with Cody Crowell and Ty Davis completing a solid rotation. A number of key relievers are back as well, including standout closer Casey Weathers. Tim Corbin has done an incredible job bringing in the talent to turn Vandy into a real winner, and this looks like the year for them to join the elite.

In the West, Arkansas edges out Mississippi as the favorite. The Razorbacks will be relying on a few new starters to produce in the lineup, but they do return Danny Hamblin and Jake Dugger. The lineup's job will be made a little easier on most Friday nights with Nick Schmidt pitching. Junior Shaun Seibert has proven himself to be a quality starter when he's on, and JC transfer Jess Todd will be counted on to hold down the other spot in the weekend rotation.

Mississippi has made it to the supers in the last two years, and the Rebels have another quality team for 2007. All-American shortstop Zack Cozart may be the best defensive infielder in the country, but he can also hit very well. The pitching staff returns most of its main men from last season, and they will need to step up to offset the losses of Mark Wright, Chris Coghlan, and Alex Presley. But Mike Bianco's club faced similar issues at the start of last season, and look where they ended up. So, expectations for another run towards Omaha are both reasonable and realistic.

The Sleepers

Georgia lost a lot from a group of veterans that were part of two Omaha trips in three seasons, but they have the pieces to make a run at an SEC title and potentially a fourth CWS appearance in seven seasons. Joey Side and Josh Morris leave pretty big holes, but All-SEC outfielder Jonathan Wyatt is back to torment pitchers from the leadoff spot, and shortstop Gordon Beckham looks to follow up on an impressive freshman season. Freshman catcher Joey Lewis should start from day one. Brooks Brown and Mickey Westphal, who were mainstays of the Georgia rotation for the last couple of seasons, are both gone, but Nathan Moreau and Trevor Holder both got plenty of starting experience last season. All-American closer Josh Fields will be ready, willing, and able to close out games with his cannon of an arm.

Alabama won the SEC West last season, but they are reloading this year. All-American OF Emeel Salem returns to lead the offense. Wade LeBlanc anchored the Tide rotation for the last couple of seasons, but Tommy Hunter is more than capable of taking that #1 spot, and Bernard Robert is a solid #2. Sophomore Miers Quigley looks like the best bet to be #3. The biggest question mark outside of the hitting is in the bullpen, where there's a definite hole to fill with David Robertson now gone.

LSU and Tennessee could be the surprise contenders in the division races. The Tigers are looking for a return to prominence under new coach Paul Mainieri, who turned Notre Dame into one of the nation's most winningest programs. There have been a few defections, but several regular starters return, including leading hitter Steven Waguespack and third baseman J.T. Wise. Pitching had its struggles last season, but added the nation's most talked-about transfer in Charlie Furbush, who goes from pitching in Division III to the weekend rotation for one of college baseball's most storied programs. Furbush was named the top prospect in the Cape Cod League, and has quite a lot of hype to live up to, but certainly seems to have the talent to back it up. Clay Dirks and Louis Coleman are also both talented hurlers, and if Mainieri's record with good pitchers is any indication, then there will be an instant improvement on the mound.

After going to Omaha in 2005, Tennesse had high expectations entering 2006, but faltered to a 31-24 record and a finish near the bottom of the league. This year, the Vols have no shortage of talent, but that talent must step up. This is made even more necessary considering star outfielder Julio Borbon is expected to miss the first couple months of the season after breaking his left ankle two weeks ago. Catcher J.P. Arencibia was named USA Baseball's POY, and coach Rod Delmonico's son Tony proved his worth as a solid hitter in his freshman year. Borbon's injury means that someone like sophomore Jerrod Frazier will have to come up big time. A couple of talented transfers in Andy Simunic and Shawn Griffin will start immediately, and two highly touted freshmen in Yan Gomes and Jeff Lockwood are expected to be in the lineup on opening day as well. There are few questions when it comes to Tennessee's rotation, however, with Craig Cobb and James Adkins one of the top duos around. JC transfer Lance McClain will be the #3 starter going in. With Sean Watson now gone, someone new will have to step into the closer's role. If the Vols' undoubtedly talented club can hold steady while Borbon is on the mend, then they could be a major player in conference play when their star returns.

Kentucky was one of the feel-good stories of 2006, with the perennial cellar-dwellers rising to the top of the SEC. Now we'll get to see if last year was a fluke, or if the Wildcats are here to stay. A couple of last year's big hitters are gone, but a couple more are still there in catcher Sean Coughlin and Collin Cowgill, along with Antone DeJesus. Greg Dombrowski is back to anchor the rotation, and Craig Snipp returns as well. Scott Green, who missed all of 2006, is back as well, and if he reclaims his place in the rotation, will give the Wildcats a solid top three. There's also a solid bullpen to back the starters up. The Wildcats may not reach the heights of last season, but John Cohen's club has the talent to prove that they aren't just a one-hit wonder.

The Rest

It's not that these others are exactly 'bad' in any sense, but somebody's got to finish at the bottom. That being said, any of these teams could end up near the top. The SEC has proved to be a league of surprises.

Auburn went 22-34 last season, but looks to improve with many of last year's regulars returning. Seven of nine lineup regulars return, led by All-SEC outfielder Mike Bianucci, and the Tigers' two leading run producers in Andy Bennett and catcher Josh Donaldson. Pitching struggled mightily in '06, but all three main starters return, along with sophomore Paul Burnside, who was the #1 starter for the final two conference series. Utility man and closer Luke Greinke was solid last season, and looks to build on a freshman All-America campaign. The Tigers should be improved, and they need to be, so that the pressure stays off of coach Tom Slater.

Mississippi State was the hottest team in the country at the start of last season, winning their first 18 games and 21 of 22 on the way to a #1 ranking. But the wheels fell off from there, and the Bulldogs played under .500 for the rest of the season and earned a regional bid disputed by many. The 2007 Bulldogs look set to finish in the lower half of the conference again, but have the talent to push for yet another regional berth. Jeffrey Rea returns, and may play in the outfield after playing second in his first three seasons. Catcher Ed Easley will be the full-time backstop after splitting time at third in his first two seasons. Also returning are Mitch Moreland and Brian LaNinfa, along with a number of other players who were regulars in 2006. MSU has had struggles in their rotation the past few seasons, but junior Justin Pigott, who led the SEC in ERA last year, is back to anchor the rotation. The Bulldogs will be relying on contributions from several newcomers, both at the plate and on the mound, including Birmingham Southern transfer Mark Goforth, who was a freshman All-American last season.

Florida had a rough season in 2006, going from CWS runner-up to missing the regionals. There's no telling what will happen this season, but for now, they're behind the rest of the SEC foes. The Gators are a talented ballclub, but will need to show it. Slugger Matt LaPorta hopes to rebound from a poor 2006 that was hampered by injury. LaPorta has first-round talent, as he showed in 2005, and hopefully he can find his stroke in his senior campaign. Brian Leclerc was a big hitter in '05 as well, but like LaPorta, needs to rebound after a tough '06. The Gators also return Brandon McArthur and a few other players who received regular starts last season. Bryan Augenstein was one of the team's few bright spots last season, and a preseason All-SEC pick. Behind him, sophomores Chas Spottswood and J.K. Lacoste look the likeliest to take the other two weekend rotation spots. The Gators have 16 new faces on their club, and Pat McMahon will be looking for immediate contributions from several of them, including Riley Cooper, who was a member of the Gators' national champion football team. Florida was the preseason pick to win the SEC last season, and finished at the bottom, and with the way the SEC is, that could flip-flop this year.

The Preseason Standings Projection

1. South Carolina
2. Vanderbilt
3. Georgia
4. Kentucky
5. Tennessee
6. Florida

1. Arkansas
2. Mississippi
3. Alabama
4. LSU
5. Auburn
6. Mississippi State
Projected NCAA Tournament Teams: South Carolina, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, LSU
NCAA Bubble Teams: Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Florida, Auburn

The All-Conference Team

C: J.P. Arencibia, Tennessee
1B: Justin Smoak, Tennessee
2B: Jeffrey Rea, Mississippi State
3B: Pedro Alvarez, Vanderbilt
SS: Zack Cozart, Mississippi
OF: Emeel Salem, Alabama
OF: Julio Borbon, Tennessee
OF: Jonathan Wyatt, Georgia
DH: Robbie Grinestaff, South Carolina
SP: David Price, Vanderbilt
SP: Nick Schmidt, Arkansas
SP: Tommy Hunter, Alabama
RP: Josh Fields, Georgia
RP: Wynn Pelzer, South Carolina
Preseason Player of the Year: David Price, Vanderbilt

It'd be wise to take these predictions with a grain of salt, or maybe even the entire bottle. It's almost a guarantee that things will not turn out like they're predicted to. That's what makes the SEC what it is, and you can't help but be excited about the twists and turns that are undoubtedly going to take place.

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