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College : : Story
Preview: Crucial weekend ahead
Kendall Rogers        
Published: Thursday, March 24, 2011

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PREMIUM FEATURE: Tulane's wildly good start and fight through adversity
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The national landscape will take more shape this weekend as more teams begin conference play.

It’s particularly another big weekend in the SEC, where South Carolina hits the road to face a Florida club coming off a huge road series sweep over LSU. Speaking of LSU, the Tigers are at Georgia in an important series, Kentucky and Alabama face off in a big series and Vanderbilt hits the road for the first time since opening weekend to face Arkansas, who hopes to earn a series win after a series loss to Auburn last weekend.

In the Pac-10, Washington State travels to California in need of a series win, while both USC and UCLA desperately need a series win as they play this weekend, and Arizona heads to Arizona State for the weekend’s headlined series.

In Conference USA, UCF has a stiff test at Rice and Tulane puts its hot start on the line with a trip to Southern Mississippi.

Elsewhere, Georgia Tech heads to Miami in a key ACC series while Wichita State hits the road to face Oregon in an important non-conference bout.

We take an inside look at the weekend in college baseball.

WHO’S HOT

Florida: The top-ranked Gators have won 10-straight contests and are coming off a road series sweep over LSU. They host South Carolina this weekend for a huge series that again will have major SEC regular season title implications.

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets were expected to have major offensive issues this season, but the squad, which has won 13-straight contests, is one of the national leaders in the offensive department. The Jackets hit the road this weekend for a huge series against Miami.

Miami: It only was a couple of weeks ago the Hurricanes appeared to be in big trouble. Miami still isn’t hitting with consistency, but its pitching has been fantastic in the midst of a nine-game winning streak. The ‘Canes have a chance to make a big statement against Georgia Tech this weekend.

Oregon: The Ducks slowly and surely are getting better at the plate while their pitching staff continues to perform at a high level. UO is in the midst of a seven-game winning streak and plays host to Wichita State this weekend. UO finally is playing the way it was capable of at the beginning of the season.

Marist: The Red Foxes have flown under the radar because of a not-so-great schedule, but they’re having a great campaign and are in the middle of an 11-game winning streak. Interestingly, Marist has an RPI of 36. That likely won’t stay put as the season progresses, but it’s noteworthy for now.

WHO’S NOT

San Diego: The Toreros are looking for some sort of silver lining this season. They have an overall record of 4-14 and are 1-9 in their last 10 games. Additionally, USD is in the midst of a six-game losing streak. USD coach Rich Hill wishes there was a rewind button to the season.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are expected to finish in the upper half of the Big East this season, but we’ll see if that happens. RU is in a rough stretch, losers of their last three games and 3-7 in their last 10 contests. It now must begin conference play with a home series against Louisville.

Southern Illinois: The Salukis are surprisingly bad this season. They are 1-9 in their last 10 contests and have an overall record of 5-15. They’re hoping to turn things around in Missouri Valley play.

Western Carolina: The Catamounts will have a tough time staying with the Southern Conference title favorites the next couple of months. WCU has struggled this spring, losers of their last four contests and 3-7 in their last 10 games. WCU has just an overall record of 8-10.

Northwestern State: The Demons had high hopes for the spring, picked to finish near the top of the Southland Conference. However, league play hasn’t exactly started the way they’d hoped. The Demons are 2-8 in their last 10 games and have a dismal 1-5 league record.

STORYLINES TO WATCH

Clean slate for Connecticut: Well, the Huskies sort of have a clean slate entering conference play. The Huskies entered the season with incredibly high hopes, but have gone the way of Ohio State last season since an impressive weekend out in California a few weeks ago. The Huskies have some bad losses on their resume and are 8-9 overall. They hope to find their way to the NCAA postseason at the end of the year, but being dominant in conference play is the first step toward obtaining that goal.

Florida faces South Carolina : The Gators made a huge splash on the national stage last weekend with a road series sweep over LSU. They return home this weekend to face a South Carolina club that suddenly is doing a great job at the plate with outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and first baseman Christian Walker leading the charge. The Gators certainly have a substantial advantage on the mound, while the Gamecocks have enough key offensive bats to make some noise.

Pac-10 play begins this weekend: Not everyone in the Pac-10 begins conference play this weekend, but those that do have important series on the docket. Arizona faces its stiffest test of the season against rival Arizona State, while UCLA is a must-win situation this weekend against rival USC, who suddenly is playing a poor brand of baseball. There’s also the big series in the Bay Area with Washington State heading south to face a California club that has met expectations so far this season.

Big test for Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets were expected to be solid entering the spring, but no one expected them to be as good as they are right now. The Jackets are one of the nation’s hottest hitting teams with a batting average well over .300, while the pitching staff is doing a great job with starters Mark Pope and Jed Bradley leading the charge. However, the Jackets have played just three road games this season, midweek affairs against Georgia Southern and Georgia. They hit the road this weekend to face a Miami club pitching at an extremely high level.

Conference USA’s big weekend: It’s a big weekend for several conferences, but especially for C-USA. The highlighted series of the weekend is in Hattiesburg, Miss., where red-hot Tulane faces off with Todd McInnis and Southern Mississippi. Another big series is between Central Florida and Rice. The Knights are playing well this season, but have yet to be tested in a big way on the road. That changes this weekend against the Owls. Also keep an eye on UAB at Marshall and Memphis at East Carolina, and the non-conference series between Houston and nationally ranked TCU.

SERIES TO WATCH

No. 5 South Carolina at No. 1 Florida: The SEC schedule makers weren’t kind to the defending conference regular season champions. The Gators began conference with a road trip to LSU, a series they swept, and now have the tough chore of hosting the defending national champions in the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks are heating up at the plate with outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. leading the charge, while the pitching is about on the same level as the LSU staff the Gators saw last weekend. UF definitely has the advantage in the series with a loaded staff, but never doubt the Gamecocks.

No. 2 Vanderbilt at Arkansas: We’ll find out all we need to know about both teams in this series. The Commodores have an outstanding 20-2 record, but there’s no question there’s some uncertainty on how they’ll fair on the road. The ‘Dores haven’t been on the road since the first weekend of the season, and that was in an easy environment out in San Diego. Easy isn’t the way to describe the hostile crowd at Arkansas. The Razorbacks suffered a tough road series loss to Auburn last weekend, and would love to get back on track against one of the nation’s best. Vandy definitely has the edge in the series with stronger pitching, but the Hogs are at home.

No. 17 Arizona at No. 7 Arizona State: After splitting a pair of midweek games with Cal State Fullerton, Arizona State returns home this weekend to face their rivals from Tucson. Arizona has been fantastic at the plate and mound this season, but it also hasn’t played an incredibly tough schedule. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, are battle tested after facing Oklahoma and Fullerton in the last two weeks. The Devils have the edge at home, but Arizona has a plethora of talent and is looking to make a statement.

No. 6 Texas at Oklahoma State: Fan of pitching, anyone? If so, you’re going to love the series between the Longhorns and Cowboys. Both teams have had issues hitting the baseball with consistency. And naturally, both teams have solid pitching staffs. The weekend rotations of both include some talented arms. Taylor Jungmann, Hoby Milner and Cole Green spearhead the Longhorns on the mound, while Brad Propst, Andrew Heaney and Mike Strong do the honors for the Cowboys. Look for the team that is best able to execute small ball to win the series.

No. 8 Georgia Tech at Miami: This is an interesting series to watch this weekend. The Yellow Jackets have been a pleasant surprise this season. The pitching staff is meeting expectations with Mark Pope and Jed Bradley leading the way, but the offense, led by youngster Kyle Wren, has been much better than previously expected. Miami, meanwhile, has an excellent pitching staff, but has left something to be desired at the plate. The Yellow Jackets are playing the better overall brand of baseball, so Miami must rise to the occasion at the plate.

Long Beach State at No. 12 Stanford: If you’re a fan of premier pitching matchups, keep an eye on the bout between LBSU’s Andrew Gagnon and Stanford’s Mark Appel in the series opener. The Dirtbags have played better the past couple of weeks, but still don’t have an offense that will frustrate opposing pitchers. The Cardinal clearly has the better offense with freshman Brian Ragira coming off a huge midweek performance. The Cardinal also is at home. It would be a surprise if Stanford loses this series, as it has some important advantages.

UCF at No. 18 Rice: The Owls suffered some tough news last week when it was revealed outfielder Jeremy Rathjen would miss the rest of the season with an ACL injury. Now key right-handed pitcher Chase McDowell is slated to miss the rest of the season with a torn UCL. The Owls, though, plan to press forward with third baseman Anthony Rendon returning to third base, and outfielder Michael Fuda getting healthier. UCF, meanwhile, suffered a heartbreaking midweek loss to Miami earlier this week, but is looking at the Rice series a potential statement maker. The Knights need strong pitching and offensive production from Darnell Sweeney, Ronnie Richardson and plenty of others.

Wichita State at Oregon: The Shockers have compiled a solid 15-6 record this season, but they still have something to prove. The Shockers took a step back two weekends ago with a hard-fought road series loss to Tulane before taking a huge step back last weekend with a home series loss to Penn State. Now they hit the road to face an Oregon club with outstanding pitching led by ace left-hander Tyler Anderson. The Ducks, who were playing unimpressive ball a couple of weeks ago, suddenly are winners of seven-straight and are playing well at the right time.

Washington State at No. 16 California: It’s a must-win type of weekend for the Cougars. They entered the season with extremely high expectations, but things haven’t gone as planned the past couple of weeks. The Cougars have finished two of their last three weekends with losing records, including getting swept by Fresno State last weekend. Weekend starter Chad Arnold hopes to have more success his second start back from an injury, while fellow starters Adam Conley and James Wise also must throw well. California has the edge in the series, but WSU is playing with a chip on its shoulder.

No. 20 Tulane at Southern Mississippi: The Green Wave is having a great campaign even without starting pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Robby Broach healthy, but they’ve somehow found ways to continue winning. Tulane hopes that trend continues this weekend against a solid Southern Mississippi club led by talented pitchers Todd McInnis and Collin Cargill, and sluggers Tyler Koelling, B.A. Vollmuth and Kameron Brunty. The Green Wave has played with fire late in games all-season long, and again needs a strong weekend from closer Nick Pepitone.

No. 13 LSU at Georgia: This absolutely is a huge series for both teams if they want to stay in the race for the SEC regular season title. The Tigers are losers of four-straight contests after getting swept at home by Florida last weekend and dropping a midweek affair to in-state rival Louisiana-Lafayette. Georgia, meanwhile, dropped two of three at South Carolina last weekend and was pummeled in midweek action against in-state rival Georgia Tech. Both teams have talented pitching staffs, so the series comes down to which team has more success with runners in scoring position.

Nebraska at Texas Tech: Both teams could use another impressive series win to their credit. The Huskers defeated UCLA in a series a few weeks ago, while Texas Tech made a statement last weekend with a huge road series win over Baylor. The Huskers definitely are improved this season, but we’ll see how they play at Tech, which is a tough place for any opponent to play because of the elements. It’ll be interesting to see how Tech fairs on the mound this weekend with Daniel Coulombe out for the season with an injury. Coulombe had made four starts and had a 3.98 ERA in 20 1/3 innings.

Kentucky at Alabama: Surprise, surprise, the Wildcats and Crimson Tide will be playing this weekend to see who can stay near the top of the SEC standings. The Wildcats started conference play on a positive note last weekend with an expected home series win over Tennessee, while the Crimson Tide surprised everyone with a road series win over Mississippi. There could be some great pitching in this series with Alex Meyer, Jordan Cooper and Taylor Rogers leading the Wildcats, and Adam Morgan, Nathan Kilcrease and Tucker Hawley the headliners for the Tide.

Pittsburgh at Connecticut: This series won’t get the fanfare for obvious reasons, but it should be a good three-game set between a pair of teams hoping to make a statement. The Panthers have compiled a 12-6 record, but haven’t exactly played a solid schedule, and have their best wins against Illinois and Iowa. The Huskies, meanwhile, were one of the biggest disappointments in non-conference, and enter Big East play with a losing record. The Huskies desperately need to win this series to keep pressure off them moving forward.

Kansas State at No. 25 Baylor: This is a huge series for both teams for all the wrong reasons. The Wildcats hit the road last weekend to Texas to begin Big 12 play, and headed home with three losses. Baylor, meanwhile, dropped two of three at home to Texas Tech in a series that was filled with offensive production. K-State slugger Nick Martini hopes to have a big weekend at the plate, while right-handed pitcher Logan Verrett needs to start the weekend on the right foot for the Bears.

TALKING POSTSEASON

The national seeds: We’re still a couple of weeks away from beginning our official weekly NCAA postseason projections, but that doesn’t keep us away from our own crystal ball. If the season ended today, our national seeds, in order, would be Florida, Virginia, Vanderbilt, Florida State, Fresno State, Georgia Tech, South Carolina and Texas A&M. UF is 10-1 vs. RPI Top 50, Virginia is 10-2 vs. RPI Top 50, Vanderbilt is 4-2 vs. RPI Top 50, Fresno State is 9-0 vs. RPI Top 50, Georgia Tech is 4-0 vs. RPI Top 50, South Carolina is 6-3 vs. RPI Top 50 and Texas A&M is 6-3 vs. RPI Top 50.

How about those hosts?: While we’re talking national seeds, we can’t not talk about regional hosts. If the season ended today, other regional hosts besides the national seeds would include Stanford, North Carolina, Auburn, Texas, Baylor, LSU, Rice and East Carolina. Others to watch include Cal State Fullerton, TCU, Southern Mississippi, Clemson and Oregon State.

ACC looking good: That familiar question about the ACC is already being asked this season: Can the conference finally win a national title? Well, if what has transpired so far this season is any indication, it’ll have a good shot. The ACC is having a great season so far and has five teams in the RPI Top 10. The teams include Virginia (2), Clemson (4), Georgia Tech (6), North Carolina (7) and Florida State (10).

Conference USA looking good: Though much focus throughout the year is on conferences such as the SEC, Pac10, ACC and Big 12, how about C-USA? The league is looking fantastic so far this season. C-USA has five teams in the RPI Top 50, including Southern Miss (13), East Carolina (18), Rice (22), Tulane (23) and UCF (37). It’s also worth noting that USM is 1-2 vs. RPI Top 50, ECU is 5-3 vs. RPI Top 50, Rice is 4-4 vs. RPI Top 50, Tulane is 3-3 vs. RPI Top 50 and UCF is 1-2 vs. RPI Top 50.

Surprises early in the Big 12: Texas and Oklahoma were the clear-cut frontrunners in the Big 12 entering the season, but the conference, at least from an RPI standpoint, hasn’t been as expected this spring, at least so far. Texas A&M leads the Big 12 with an RPI of 17 and a 6-3 record vs. RPI Top 50 teams, while Baylor is close behind at 19 with a 7-5 record vs. RPI Top 50. UT, meanwhile, is 21 with a 3-1 record vs. RPI Top 50 and Oklahoma is behind at 34 with a 2-4 record vs. RPI Top 50. It’ll be interesting to see how the league’s landscape changes as the season progresses.

Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at kendall@perfectgame.org