Perhaps this is the year Florida finds a way to master South Carolina.
It’s safe to say the Gamecocks were a thorn in the Gators’ side last season. The Gators only lost two Southeastern Conference series in 2011, one on the road to Arkansas, and of course, one at home against those pesky Gamecocks.
The most important matchup between the two last season occurred at the College World Series, where they battled for the national title. The Gamecocks were aiming for back-to-back national titles, while the Gators were aiming for their first.
The Gamecocks used heroics to sweep the series from the Gators, sending UF into an offseason of heartache. Most importantly, the series loss to the Gamecocks makes Florida hungrier than ever to win the national title this season.
While the Gamecocks and Gators headline the SEC, the league, as usual, is expected to be very deep with a lot of balance and postseason contenders.
Specifically, Vanderbilt and Georgia are teams to watch from the SEC Eastern Division.
The Commodores made a strong statement last season with the program’s first-ever trip to Omaha. This season, they have the tough chore of replacing ace pitcher Sonny Gray and others. However, the team is still in fine shape with the return of outfielder Tony Kemp in addition to projectable pitchers Sam Selman, Kevin Ziomek and right-hander Tyler Beede, who turned down first-round money last summer to attend college.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs squeaked into the NCAA postseason in 2011, but that isn’t expected to be the case this spring (more is expected) if they meet expectations. Georgia received a boost when right-handed starter Michael Palazzone decided to return for his senior season. They also have a pair of projectable starters in left-handers Alex Wood and Blake Dieterich. Additionally, closer Tyler Maloof is much better than last season’s numbers would indicate. Offensively, the Bulldogs should be productive with Colby May, Levi Hyams and Kyle Farmer leading the way.
Keep an eye on Mississippi State and Mississippi in the Western Division.
MSU took a huge step forward last season with a trip to an NCAA Super Regional, where it almost upset Florida to advance to the CWS. The Bulldogs return a talented crop of arms in Nick Routt, Evan Mitchell and Chris Stratton as starters, while relievers Hunter Renfroe and Caleb Reed are expected to have special campaign.
As for the Rebels, they’re coming off an uncharacteristic campaign that didn’t include a trip to the NCAA postseason. After not having a shutdown ace last season, they turn their attention to hard-throwing right-hander Bobby Wahl this season. Wahl, who throws in the mid-to-upper 90s, leads the pitching staff, while first baseman Matt Snyder is the key offensive cog to watch.
HOW THEY STACK UP
Overall/conference won-loss records from 2011 indicated; expectation level denoted -- College World Series= CWS, NCAA Super Regional= SR, NCAA Regional= R
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