College baseball returns to the SEC this week, with the 2017 season’s first pitches being thrown across the country on Friday. And it promises to be a strong year for the sport’s toughest conference once again.
This weekend’s SEC action will feature top Major League prospects and a handful of nationally competitive teams taking their first hopeful steps toward Omaha, where the College World Series takes place. Seven teams made regionals in 2016, with Florida advancing all the way to the CWS.
Which programs will emerge as top contenders this year? SEC Country examines the conference’s most promising clubs on the diamond.
The favorite: Florida
- Coach: Kevin O’Sullivan (10th season)
- 2016 finish: 52-16, College World Series (eliminated in bracket play)
- Preseason rank: No. 3
- Recruiting class rank: No. 7
- Top players: RHP Alex Faedo, C/DH J.J. Schwarz, SS Dalton Guthrie, C Mike Rivera
Florida underwent a bit of a makeover since fighting its way to Omaha last summer. But with young talent on his roster, coach Kevin O’Sullivan hopes he can close out his first decade in Gainesville by completing a national title run. For that to happen, the journey must start on the mound, where Florida fans can expect to see a few new faces.
After spending two years behind 2016 draftees Logan Shore and A.J. Puk, Alex Faedo — the SEC’s No. 1 prospect, according to BA — should emerge as the Gators’ ace in 2017. And if teammate JJ Schwarz’s assessment means anything, the junior righty is poised for a dang good season.
“I don’t know how any team can ever score a run off of him,” Schwarz said. “I can’t even like foul-tip a pitch, so it’s going to be good.”
Faedo went 13-3 with a 3.18 ERA last year, striking out 7.8 batters per start with a wicked fastball-slider combo. He’ll be joined by sophomores Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar in the weekend rotation, while 3 freshmen will likely compete for the midweek spot.
Among position players, the Gators have defensive standouts in catcher Mike Rivera, shortstop Dalton Guthrie and third baseman Jonathan India. Schwarz hit 7 home runs with a .456 slugging percentage last year; he and India, another strong bat, should provide the lineup with some pop.
Even with a few major departures, Florida has another loaded squad that will give the SEC trouble.
Other SEC front-runners
- Coach: Paul Mainieri (11th season)
- 2016 finish: 45-21, NCAA Super Regionals
- Preseason rank: No. 4
- Recruiting class rank: No. 4
- Top players: LHP Jared Poché, RHP Alex Lange, INF Cole Freeman, OF Antoine Duplantis
The Tigers will field an experienced team bolstered by a top-5 recruiting class; the goal and the expectation, once again, will be winning a championship.
Poché and Lange, leaders of the rotation in 2016, return to give LSU a bona fide two-headed monster on the mound.
Lange has the potential to be a first-round MLB Draft pick despite a relatively disappointing sophomore season — only because his freshman year was phenomenal. The overpowering right-hander had a 3.79 ERA and a 2.55 K/BB ratio in 2016.
Poché, a ground-ball pitcher who relies more on finesse, gives LSU a reliable, crafty No. 2 starter.
Beyond Poché and Lange, the rotation is less clear. Sophomore Caleb Gilbert (5 starts in 2016) could be in line to get the game ball on Sundays. So could freshman Eric Walker.
Touted senior infielders Kramer Robertson, Cole Freeman and Bryce Jordan will be supplemented by promising underclassmen outfielders Greg Deichmann, who had a team-high 11 home runs last year, and the promising Antoine Duplantis.
Facing less turnover than Florida and playing in the slightly weaker division, LSU is in prime position to push for Omaha.
- Coach: Chad Holbrook (5th season)
- 2016 finish: 46-18, NCAA Super Regionals
- Preseason rank: No. 5
- Recruiting class rank: No. 15
- Top players: RHP Wil Crowe, RHP Clarke Schmidt, RHP Tyler Johnson, OF Alex Destino
The Gamecocks are a near-consensus top-5 squad in 2017 by virtue of a strong pitching staff. They’re anchored by junior Preseason All-American Tyler Johnson, who thrived as a reliever last year (2.42 ERA, 9 saves). And the weekend rotation looks promising in its own right, with Wil Crowe, Clarke Schmidt and Adam Hill prepared to start this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Crowe missed all of last season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, but he went 8-3 with a 2.75 ERA during his Freshman All-America campaign in 2014. Schmidt and Hill were solid cogs in the 2016 rotation.
The real question will be on offense, where South Carolina has talent but needs leaders to step up alongside outfielder Alex Destino — a .321 hitter who swatted 10 homers last season. The loss of Gene Cone and Dom Thompson-Williams, two of the team’s most consistent hitters, leaves a significant void in the lineup. One name to watch? Sophomore outfielder TJ Hopkins hit .322 in 31 starts last year.
The SEC East is a beast with Florida and Vanderbilt among its ranks, but the Gamecocks have reached the NCAA Regionals in 3 of 4 seasons under Chad Holbrook. They’ll be difficult to beat with that pitching staff.
- Coach: Tim Corbin (15th season)
- 2016 finish: 43-19, NCAA Regionals
- Preseason rank: No. 11
- Recruiting class rank: No. 10
- Top players: OF Jeren Kendall, RHP Kyle Wright, 2B/OF Alonzo Jones
The Commodores return elite talents in Jeren Kendall and Kyle Wright, both of whom could be top-10 MLB Draft picks, and they look to have a solid supporting cast.
Patrick Raby, who went 7-1 with a 2.61 ERA as a freshman, could step up with the loss of ace Jordan Sheffield. Likewise, sophomore infielders Ethan Paul and the speedy Alonzo Jones could help ease the sting of losing slugger Bryan Reynolds, who hit .330 with 13 homers last year. A stout infield and the return of senior catcher Jason Delay give Vandy a decent offense overall.
So long as Wright continues his stellar work on the mound, Vandy should have little trouble reaching regionals for a 12th consecutive season under Tim Corbin. How much help the lineup provides could determine whether the ‘Dores go any deeper than that.
Also in contention
Texas A&M (2016 finish: 49-16, NCAA Super Regionals)
The Aggies will be without a lot of talent from last year’s squad, and a middling recruiting class won’t help matters. But star pitcher Brigham Hill will be back, as will gifted righty Corbin Martin.
Mississippi State (2016 finish: 44-18-1, NCAA Super Regionals)
With John Cohen now serving as athletic director, Andy Cannizaro will try to pick up where his new boss left off. The Bulldogs had one of their best seasons under Cohen last year, coming oh-so-close to reaching Omaha, but they lost several significant players to the MLB Draft. Outfielder Jake Mangum should lead the way in 2017.
Ole Miss (2016 finish: 43-19, NCAA Regionals)
The nation’s No. 2 recruiting class gives the Rebels a whole lot to look forward to, but 2017 could be a year of transition after they too lost several key players. A number of freshmen could contribute early, including catcher Cooper Johnson, lefty Ryan Rolison and righty Will Ethridge.