Another season, another five-part preview as we look ahead to the 2012 UCLA baseball season, which will get underway on February 17th when the Bruins take on Maryland at Jackie Robinson Stadium. As we look to the season, we started with Part 1, a general 2011 review and 2012 preview with a look at the state of the program. Part 2 took a look at the pitchers and Part 3 looked at the position players. Part 4 previewed the Pac-12 and Part 5 looks at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
There aren't any surprise teams at the top of the heap in college baseball this season. It is the year of blue bloods with every team in the top 10 having made at least five College World Series appearances in their history and the others in contention for a spot in Omaha having been in contention the last few years. The closest thing there is to a sleeper or newcomer to the big boys' party this year is Central Florida and they're not even a top 20 team.
This season, it is all about the know quantities and to an even greater degree, that applies to the conferences. With the exception of Rice in Conference USA and TCU in the Mountain West, soon to be Big XII, there aren't top teams coming out of non-power conferences. Cal St. Fullerton, Louisville, St. John's and Central Florida are in a group of borderline top 25 teams, but that is about it. There is no Pepperdine, Costal Carolina, San Diego, Long Beach St. East Carolina or Southern Miss this season. It's all about the big boys.
Sometimes it is important to knock the big boys down a peg though. That is what my eight for Omaha is here for. I apologize now for jinxing the eight teams that I'm picking to make it to the College World Series (and that is why I don't take UCLA into account).
- Texas A&M
- North Carolina
This season starts much like last season, with Florida as the overwhelming favorite. A College World Series appearance in 2010 was supposed to be the preparation that a very young Gators team needed to bring home a national title in 2011 and they came very close to doing so. The Gators went to the Championship Series last year, but they were upended there. Now they bring back much of that team, including catcher Mike Zunino, RF Preston Tucker and studs on the mound Hudson Randall and Karsten Whitson. It's a stacked team, but they'll have to do what they couldn't do last year and get past back-to-back national champions South Carolina for the title. The Gamecocks have Michael Roth and Matt Price leading their staff, giving them the best one-two punch in the country, the best staff there is and a realistic shot at the first three-peat in 38 years. Add in Arkansas, led by Dominic Ficociello, an experienced LSU team, very good Vanderbilt and Georgia squads and the two Mississipi teams, both of which can surprise, and you have the SEC as the best conference in the country.
Did you know that the ACC hasn't won a national title in baseball since Wake Forest back in 1955? Probably, because everyone like to remind the ACC of their drought and as always seems to be the case nowadays, the conference will depend on North Carolina and Miami to get them off the schneid. Any team lead by Colin Moran at the plate and Kent Emmanuel and Andrew Smith has a chance at the title so the Tar Heels are certainly in the mix. Meanwhile, if Eric Erickson can fully recover from injury, the Hurricanes can have the pitching to match their offense, which is led by Rony Rodriguez and transfer Peter O'Brien. Jacke Davies and Daniel Palka lead a good Georgia Tech squad, Clemson has talent in Richie Schaffer and Dominic Leone and Jamces Ramsey's Florida St. team can play a little too, but the Tar Heels and Hurricanes lead the way in the ACC.
As far as the Big XII, it might as well be the Lone Star State Conference. All of the top teams from the league are coming out of the state this year, led by Texas and Texas A&M. The Longhorns may have lost Taylor Jungmann and Cole Green to the pros, but all Texas ever does is reload on the mound year after year and that's what they've done with Sam Stafford and Hoby Milner ready to step in. The most intriguing arm could be Corey Knebel, though. He could be the lockdown man at the back of the bullpen. The Aggies have even better arms of their own in Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling. Those two will make A&M tough to beat every Friday and Saturday and Tyler Naquin is one of the better hitters in the country. This could be the year that the Aggies get that elusive national title. Baylor is going to give the top two a run with their glut of experience and Texas Tech is going to surprise some folks, led by Barrett Barnes. It won't be all Texas in the Big XII, though, because Dillon Overton and Oklahoma can play a little ball too.
The state of Texas has a couple more squads who can play too in TCU and Rice. Out in Forth Worth, there's TCU and the program that Jim Schlossnagle has built into a national power. With Jason Coates, Jantzen Witte and Brance Rivera still around from their 2010 College World Series team, the Horned Frogs have the bats (and keep an eye on freshman Kevin Cron). The question is whether their crop of underclassmen on the mound can step up, but there's certainly enough talent there. From Dallas-Forth Worth to Houston, Rice are back in the top 10 in the country and once again, it is on the strength of their pitching. Strong pitching is the Rice M.O. and with Austin Kubitza on Friday nights, the Owls will have the marquee arm leading the way with a couple of experienced seniors backing him up. D.J. Hicks and Central Florida will do what they can do make things tough on Rice in Conference USA, though.
There's not much of anything to speak of in the Big Ten this year, but the Big East has some teams with potential. Louisville is no stranger to success with a College World Series trip in the recent past and they're looking for more this season with their hopes pinned on good, experienced pitching. Justin Amlung, Jeff Thompson and Travis Tingle give them a good weekend staff, but what sets them apart is their ability to go six or seven deep in the bullpen. St. John's will give the Cardinal a push, though, and like the Cardinal, they will do it with pitching. Their entire weekend staff is back from last year, as are two midweek starters and the bullpen is intact too. This is the same pitching staff that earned the Johnnies an at-large berth last season.
Out west, it's the Pac-12 and nobody else. The Big West, West Coast Conference and non-TCU Mountain West are all in down years. Cal St. Fullerton are the favorites despite losing their top five pitchers. That tells you all that you need to know about the Big West, but UC Irvine can beat them out if Mike Gillespie makes gets his team to play above their heads, which he usually does, but losing Matt Summers and Brian Hernandez hurts. The WCC is a total crapshoot and if Dylan Covey lives up to the hype that he showed up at San Diego with last season, the Toreros should take the conference, but it is a one-bid league again. UNLV will do their best to stay with TCU, but that seems unlikely and with their weak non-conference schedule they better hope they can win the conference tournament.
We're now just two days away from the start of the 2012 season when all of these prognostications won't matter, except for my Omaha jinx (once again, I apologize to the eight I picked). Of course, being a spring and summer sport that starts in February, the early weeks of the season will be dominated by people discussing weather reports, but at least baseball is back and the road to Omaha gets underway in three...two...one.