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South Carolina coach Ray Tanner did a marvelous job in leading his program to its first national title last season.
Amazingly, Tanner is doing an even better job this season.
When the Gamecocks lost weekend starters Sam Dyson and Blake Cooper to the MLB draft last summer, it was expected they’d take a big step back in terms of the weekend rotation. Well, thanks to veteran left-hander Michael Roth and plenty of other talented arms, the Gamecocks haven’t skipped a beat, and they might actually be better.
The Gamecocks once again are in excellent shape to earn a national seed, and get a stern test this weekend when Vanderbilt comes calling.
The Commodores, like the Gamecocks, have received consistent and solid starts from their weekend rotation, which includes top prospects Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin and Taylor. But relievers Navery Moore and Mark Lamm also have stepped up.
The fantastic series between the nation’s No. 1 and No. 3 teams headlines the weekend in college baseball, but there are plenty of other series and storylines to follow.
Kent State: The Golden Flashes are having a campaign to remember. They’ve won 11-straight contests and have an RPI in the top 30. The Flashes are a postseason team barring a crazy second half collapse.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores only have lost three games this season and are winners of 11-straight contests. They put their impressive record on the line this weekend when they travel to South Carolina.
Charlotte: The Forty Niners might not have a great RPI, but they’ve won eight-straight contests and have total control of the Atlantic 10. Oh yeah, they also have a win over North Carolina this spring.
Oregon State: The Beavers couldn’t have asked for a better start to Pac-10 play. They took two of three from Arizona before returning home and sweeping Arizona State in impressive fashion. OSU is winners of six-straight games.
Miami: The Hurricanes are quietly 11-3 in the ACC and hit the road this weekend for another very winnable series against Maryland. The ‘Canes are winners of eight-straight contests.
Missouri: Tigers coach Tim Jamieson thought his team would struggle this season, but perhaps not this much. The Tigers are losers of eight-straight games and have a dismal 1-7 mark in Big 12 play.
Wichita State: The Shockers have lost every key series they’ve played this season and are coming off a tough conference series loss to Missouri State. The Shockers need to find a way to rebound this weekend.
New Mexico: Ray Birmingham’s Lobos have had issues establishing any kind of consistency this season. They are 1-9 in their last 10 contests and are losers of four-straight games. The Lobos now have the ability to play spoiler.
Oregon: The Ducks need a fantastic finish to the season to reach the NCAA postseason. They’re 1-5 in the Pac-10 and 3-7 in their last 10. As expected, the Ducks’ offense has struggled immensely this spring.
Tennessee: It’s tough to figure out why the Volunteers again are so bad. The Vols, after losing Thursday night to Alabama, have lost nine-straight games and have a dismal 2-11 mark in the SEC. UT is in deep trouble.
STORYLINES TO WATCH
Vanderbilt’s showdown with South Carolina: It doesn’t get better than this weekend’s series between the Commodores and Gamecocks. The teams are ranked in the top five and both have SEC records of 10-2. Both teams have excellent, but different, pitching staffs. Vandy has more prospects with Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin and Navery Moore leading the way, while the Gamecocks have pitchers such as Michael Roth, Colby Holmes and Forrest Koumas that spot up the zone.
LSU could be in big trouble: At first glance, the Tigers have an OK postseason resume with a 22-12 overall record. But at a closer look, the Tigers have some reasons for concern. They’ve played a bad brand of baseball lately and are 3-9 in SEC play. The Tigers simply can’t afford to fall to 4-11 or worse in SEC play after this weekend’s series against Auburn. It’s the most important series of the year for LSU.
Important weekend in Conference USA: Outside of the regular season title race, it’s an important weekend for several teams in C-USA, including Tulane, UCF and East Carolina. All three teams have very respectable RPIs, but all also have some major strikes against their resumes. For instance, both UCF and Tulane are 3-6 in conference while East Carolina has yet to record a marquee series win. The picture should become clearer this weekend with ECU hosting UCF and Tulane heading to Rice.
All Pac-10 eyes on UCLA: After playing for the national title last season and returning several key cogs, including stud weekend starters Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, it was assumed the Bruins again would dominate this spring. Well, that hasn’t happened yet. The Bruins are 7-2 in the Pac-10, but those series wins came against struggling clubs such as USC, Washington and Washington State. Arizona will be a stiff test for the Bruins. But watch out if they take the series from the Wildcats.
Bedlam has national implications: The annual heated rivalry series between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State always draws interest from rabid fans inside the State of Oklahoma. But this season, the series have more implications on the national stage. Both the Sooners and Cowboys are ranked and have hopes of earning an NCAA Regional host. OU is in mix despite dropping a tough series to Kansas State last weekend, while the Cowboys need some help with a losing record vs. RPI Top 100 teams. This series again will be incredibly intense.
SERIES TO WATCH
No. 1 Vanderbilt at No. 3 South Carolina: Both the Commodores and Gamecocks have been fantastic this season, but something must give when the two butt heads this weekend. Vandy has an excellent weekend rotation with top prospects Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin leading the way, while left-hander Michael Roth leads a very surprising South Carolina pitching staff. The teams are virtually equal, giving a slight edge to the home team.
No. 4 Florida at Georgia: The Gators narrowly won a road series over Mississippi State last weekend and hope to record another one this weekend against vastly improving Georgia. The Bulldogs began conference play with a tough series loss to South Carolina, but have since won series over LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs feel like their expectations will change with a series win over the Gators. There’s much at stake for Georgia, but Florida likely has too many elite arms.
Texas Tech at No. 8 Texas: The Red Raiders had huge opportunities to earn a marquee series win the last two weekends against Oklahoma and Texas A&M. However, they once again failed to take care of business, losing series to both teams. Now, with a dismal 3-9 record vs. RPI Top 50 teams and 7-11 mark vs. RPI Top 100 teams, the Red Raiders hope to stay in the postseason picture with a road series win over the Longhorns. UT likely has too much pitching to lose the series.
No. 5 North Carolina at N.C. State: The Tar Heels have been one of the greatest stories this season and coach Mike Fox is a leading candidate for National Coach of the Year honors. The Tar Heels made a huge statement last weekend with a road series win over Florida State. N.C. State, meanwhile, has a dismal 8-14 record vs. RPI Top 100 teams and needs to win this series to stay in the NCAA postseason hunt. UNC definitely has the distinct advantage in the series, but it is a rivalry series.
No. 9 Texas A&M vs. Baylor: The Aggies have had issues in midweek action the last two weeks against Houston and Rice, but they’ve continued to take care of business over the weekend. A&M took a series at Texas Tech last weekend and has one of the nation’s elite pitching staffs with starters John Stilson and Michael Wacha leading the way. Baylor, meanwhile, is treading on thin ice from a postseason standpoint and needs right-handed pitcher Logan Verrett to get the series started on the right foot. It’s a big series for both teams, especially the Bears.
No. 15 Oklahoma vs. No. 20 Oklahoma State: The Sooners won the first meeting between the two teams during the midweek, but they’ve failed to establish consistency on the weekend. OU is coming off a tough road series loss to Kansas State, while the Cowboys are coming off a series sweep over Missouri. Oklahoma State has the advantage on the mound while the Sooners have the advantage at the pate. Look for this series to come down to the finale on Sunday.
Mississippi State at No. 25 Arkansas: The Bulldogs suddenly need to bounce back. They dropped a home series loss to Florida last weekend and a midweek bout to UAB earlier this week. They need strong starts from weekend starters Chris Stratton and Devin Jones. Arkansas, meanwhile, pitched at a high level against LSU last weekend and needs to find a way to record its second SEC series win to feel comfortable about earning an NCAA Regional host. Arkansas is at home and has the edge on the mound.
No. 6 Oregon State at No. 16 Stanford: The Beavers are up to 19 in the latest RPI figures with a solid 24-7 record after sweeping Arizona State in a statement series last weekend. With a national seed in their sights, the Beavers hope to earn another solid series win this weekend at Stanford. The Cardinal got a solid performance from ace pitcher Mark Appel, but otherwise struggled in a big way. This is an extremely important series for the Cardinal if they want to stay in hosting contention. It’ll be interesting to see how the Beavers play on the road with some key injuries.
No. 17 Arizona at No. 24 UCLA: The Wildcats dropped series to Arizona State and Oregon State to begin Pac-10 play, but took a huge step forward last weekend with a home series win over California. Now, the Wildcats hit the road to face UCLA in a crucial series. They need starting pitchers Kurt Heyer and Kyle Simon to be on their game. UCLA, meanwhile, has an excellent 7-2 Pac-10 record, but still has a bad RPI with a poor postseason resume. The Bruins could use a home series win over the Wildcats.
Auburn at LSU: The Tigers appeared to be down and out a couple of weeks ago, but responded last weekend with a huge road series sweep over Kentucky. Now, the tables are turned on the other felines, the LSU Tigers. The Tigers were swept by Arkansas last weekend and now sit 3-9 in SEC play. LSU desperately needs a home series win this weekend to stay in the NCAA postseason picture. LSU’s offense must find a way to improve or else.
Tulane: The Green Wave might’ve saved their season last weekend with a road series win over Central Florida. Now they hit the road this weekend to face a Rice club suddenly playing an improved brand of baseball. Rice is narrowly an NCAA Regional host in this week’s projections, while Tulane was one of our last teams in the entire field of 64. It’s an important series for both teams, but even more so for the Green Wave. Rice has the advantage at home.
Louisville at St. John’s: Before the season, this was expected to be a series with huge national implications. Well, at least a little luster has worn off the series, but it still has important implications in the Big East regular season title race. Just three games separates first-place Connecticut from 10th place Rutgers, while the Cardinals and Johnnies are between those two teams. Louisville has done some great things on the mound this season, but the offense can go into a lull at times. Look for the Johnnies to win this series at home.
Washington State at No. 13 Arizona State: The Cougars entered the season with high expectations, but certainly haven’t met them so far this season. They took a step back at home last weekend with a series loss to UCLA, which dropped them to 2-7 in conference with a .500 overall record. Now the Cougars have the tough chore of hitting the road and playing a motivated Arizona State club that was swept at Oregon State last weekend. Arizona State has the better and more consistent team, and is expected to take this series at home.
Central Florida at East Carolina: Both teams have major consistency issues and are in danger of falling out of the NCAA postseason mix. ECU actually didn’t make our field this week with a lack of a marquee series win, while the road series win over Rice is saving the Knights right now. UCF dropped a tough home series to Tulane last weekend and must improve on its 3-6 league record. ECU, meanwhile, is 4-5 and must find a way to get going at the plate.
Louisiana-Lafayette at Florida International: Some may debate it, but you can almost be assured the Sun Belt isn’t getting more than three bids to the postseason. That means one of these two teams will be sitting at home in June. FIU actually has been somewhat of a disappointment this season, while the Ragin’ Cajuns started a little slow but have played a better brand of baseball the past few weeks. The Golden Panthers’ backs are against the wall, so look for them to respond in a big way.
UCF, Tulane and East Carolina: These are three teams to watch as the weekend progresses. The Knights have an RPI of 28 with a 4-5 record vs. RPI Top 25, 5-6 vs. RPI Top 50 and 8-9 vs. RPI Top 100. UCF’s marquee series win was on the road against Rice. Tulane has an RPI of 59 with a 1-2 record vs. RPI Top 25, 6-10 vs. RPI Top 50 and 8-12 vs. RPI Top 100 and East Carolina has an RPI of 26 with a 2-5 mark vs. RPI Top 25, 4-5 mark vs. RPI Top 50 and 10-11 record vs. RPI Top 100.
National seeds to watch: Oregon State and Texas were the primary national seed considerations after No. 8 national seed Texas A&M in this week’s projections, but also keep close tabs on Florida State, Cal State Fullerton and Southern Mississippi. All three of those teams are within striking distance, with the Titans having the most work to do with a 5-8 record vs. RPI Top 50 and 14-9 mark vs. RPI Top 100.
Potential regional hosts to watch: When it comes to regional hosts, the 16 in this week’s projections were very clear. However, there are some teams to watch this weekend such as Oklahoma, Troy, Arkansas, Stanford and Oklahoma State. OSU has the longest shot for a host spot out of these teams. The Cowboys have an RPI of 27 with a 6-7 record vs. RPI Top 100 teams. That number must improve.
Fight for the top national seed: Virginia is the leader for the top national seed, but what a fun race this will be to watch as the season progresses between it, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Virginia leads the way with an 8-2 mark vs. RPI Top 25, 13-3 mark vs. RPI Top 50 and impressive 19-3 record vs. RPI Top 100. South Carolina is 6-3 vs. RPI Top 25, 9-4 vs. RPI Top 50 and 13-4 vs. RPI Top 100, while Vanderbilt is 7-2 vs. RPI Top 25, 12-3 vs. RPI Top 50 and 14-3 vs. RPI Top 100. For now, it should be Virginia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina in that order.
The surprising RPIs: We’re always fans of looking at the extremes of the always important RPI figures. On the negative side, Kentucky has an RPI of 144, Wichita State has an RPI of 140, Missouri has an RPI of 136, Oregon has an RPI of 109, Hawaii has an RPI of 107 and Connecticut has an RPI of 97. On the positive side, East Tennessee State has an RPI of 20, Stetson has an RPI of 22, Troy has an RPI of 24, Kent State has an RPI of 27, Cal State Bakersfield has an RPI of 35 and Maryland, which is 16-18 overall has an RPI of 46.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org