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Bruin Baseball Season Preview Part 5: The Nation

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Just as I did last year, this year's season preview will be a five part series that will take us right up to the first pitch of the season on February 20 when UC Davis visits Jackie Robinson Stadium. Part 1 was a general look at the 2008 season, the pre-season polls and a few opinions from analysts around the country. Part 2 looked into the pitchers. Part 3 featured the Bruins' position players and Part 4 took a look at the Pac 10. Part 5 completes the preview as we take a look around the nation and where the Bruins stand in the national sense.

There are a few changes in college baseball this year. First, players must sit out a year if they transfer for the first time now. Previously, players could transfer and play right away so long as they didn't transfer in conference. Rosters have also been limited to 35 players, putting a greater emphasis on efficient scouting and recruiting. In addition, players who recieve scholarships must receive at least a 25% scholarship where there used to be no minimum. All of this won't have a major impact this year, but will be something to keep an eye on in future years. Another thing that isn't new to 2009, but is still a factor is the manndatory start date that was implemented last year. While teams used to begin their season in late January or early February, now they cannot begin play until the third weekend of February. That forces teams to fit 56 games into 13 weeks, requiring five game weeks and not leaving much room for makeup games if they're postponed due to rain.

In my opinion, college baseball has too many polls and rankings. Having said that, I will now present to you my preseason top 20 for 2009.

1) North Carolina
2) Texas A&M
3) Cal St. Fullerton
4) Rice
5) LSU
6) UC Irvine
7) Texas
8) Ole Miss
9) Missouri
10) Florida St.
11) Georgia Tech
12) Florida
13) Pepperdine
14) Georgia
15) UCLA
16) San Diego
17) Baylor
18) Stanford
19) Oklahoma St.
20) Arizona St.
Other teams considered: Oklahoma, Louisville, Clemson, Kent St., Oregon St., Alabama

Please be sure to check these rankings at the end of the season as they should make for good comedy. Now that we have my feeble attempt out of the way, let's take a look at some of the top teams from each region.

There isn't a year where the south isn't very strong. With the SEC's depth, the ACC's strength at the top and smaller teams, especially in the Carolinas, developing solid programs, the south is always one of the nation's best regions. This year, the region is led by the team I feel is undoubtedly the best team in the nation entering 2009, North Carolina. The Tar Heels have one the nation's best one-two punches in RHP Alex White and RHP Matt Harvey to go along with a powerful lineup led by one of the nation's top hitters, 1B/OF Dustin Ackley. One stumbling block for UNC in the postseason could be a horribly weak non-conference schedule that will do little to challenge the Heels. While UNC is definitely the ACC's favorite, the conference does have some pretty damn good teams to challenge them at the top. Clemson is another team to keep an eye on as eight position players, two weekend starters and two midweek starters all return, while Florida St. should have one of the better lineups in the nation led by 3B Stuart Tapley. Georgia Tech won 39 games last year and returns eight starting position players so they should be good as well. Staying in the Peach State, the losers in the 2008 Championship Series Georgia should be good again. The Bulldogs should join experienced Ole Miss, young, but talented Florida and pitching strong Alabama as the lead challengers to SEC favorites LSU. The Tigers move into a beautiful new 9,000+ ballpark this year and will bring their bats with them. Led by Player of the Year candidate OF Blake Dean, LSU should put a lot of big numbers on their new scoreboard this year as they look to reach Omaha for the second consecutive year.

The middle of the country should be very strong this year, led by a wealth of talent in Lone Star State and some good arms in the midwest. The Big XII could be the top conference in the nation this year, mainly because they have flame throwers all over the conference. Texas A&M enters the season as the favorite thanks to the return of all their weekend starters, a midweek starter, their top relievers and the addition of Winthrop transfer RHP Alex Wilson. The Aggies have won 45+ games and a regional each of the past two seasons and should be primed to make it to Omaha this year. Despite some off field troubles of his own, Texas head coach Augie Garrido should have a chance to return to the Super Regionals this year as last year's stellar freshmen are all a year older. Baylor's heralded recruiting class from two years ago will have to take a step forward this year as they are all juniors, while both Oklahoma and Oklahoma St. should have strong teams. Missouri will also be a strong team as RHP Kyle Gibson gives the Tigers one of the nation's best pitchers. Outside of the Big XII, the central has a few other good teams. Perennial Omaha participant Rice will be strong again. They lose some key pieces, but never bet against Wayne Graham. An interesting team to watch will be last year's darling Dallas Baptist. The Patriots, an independent, surprised the entire country last season when they worked their way into the top 25 and a regional. While they do lose some talent from last year's team, it will be intriguing to see if the Patriots are a one year wonder or here to stay.

The mandatory start date was created mainly in an effort to help out the northern teams and we saw a breakthrough last year when Michigan earned the right to host a regional, albeit as a #2 seed. The Wolverines will be the favorites in the Big Ten again this year, but Illinois and a personal favorite of mine Minnesota could give them a pretty good run. While not technically in the north, when it comes to college baseball, Louisville is considered north and they should be very good. The Cardinals made the College World Series in 2007 and while they didn't make it out of a regional last year, they did win 41 games with one of the nation's youngest teams. Another typically strong north team is St. Johns who should team with Notre Dame as Louisville's top challengers in the Big East. Arguably the best team in the north is the little guy out of the MAC, Kent St. The Flashes aren't just northern good either, they're flat out good and could even host a regional this year. The most intriguing development out of the north this year has nothing to do with teams though. The Big Ten and Big East have teamed to put together the Big Ten-Big East Challenge, to be played in Florida early in the season. This provides an excellent opportunity for the northern teams to get good games in early in the season without having to play in hostile environments. It will also give us a pretty good idea of which teams really are the ones to beat up north.

Outside of the Pac 10, which we've already covered, the west coast has some very good teams. The Pac 10 is deep, but weak at the top so there should be more regional host opportunities than normal for the rest of the west coast teams. You can book Cal St. Fullerton as one of those regional hosts and they will likely be a national seed too, but they will have some competition in the Big West. UC Irvine will be strong again in 2009 behind eight returning position players. Long Beach St. is in for a down year, but that's only down from their usual high standards. They should still be a regional team. The surprise team in the conference this year should be UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos have excellent starting pitching and will be dangerous in the postseason, where their arms can carry them to a possible Super Regional berth. From this year's surprise to last year's, UC Davis will be looking to return to a regional after making one last year in the first year they were eligible. Other west coast teams to watch are Pepperdine, who will be looking to get over the hump and win a regional this year and San Diego, who has very good talent around the diamond this year to join their usual strong pitching. One team who could make things interesting is Gonzaga, who have a wealth of talent returning. San Diego St. is another team to watch as the nation's best pitcher RHP Steven Strasburg is capable of leading the Aztecs to the postseason for the first time in head coach Tony Gwynn's tenure. You can't forget the defending national champions either. Fresno St. is probably a regional team, but don't count on them making it past that. Didn't we say that last year though?

I've already made a fool of myself with my top 20 so let's continue the futility that is my prediction skills as I take a guess at the 2009 Championship Series. I'll take Cal St. Fullerton to win their fifth national title over a good, but not good enough Texas A&M squad in a low scoring three games.

So there we go. We've taken an in depth look at the Bruins, from pitching to hitting to defense. We analyzed the Pac 10 and glossed over some of the nation's best teams. Now it's time to stop with the guessing and get to playing as teams from Hawaii to Maine and everywhere in between will begin their road to Omaha. GO BRUINS!!!

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