Should our picks come to fruition, three teams will return to the College World Series in 2013 -- Arkansas, UCLA and South Carolina.
The Hogs played for a bracket championship in the CWS this past season, and welcome back a strong collection of pitchers, led, of course, by outstanding right-handed pitcher Ryne Stanek, a projected high first-round pick in 2013.
The Bruins have some big holes to fill offensively, but welcome back one of the nation's elite pitching staffs and an impressive crop of freshmen. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks lost some big-time leadership, but welcome back plenty of key pieces to make yet another run in Omaha.
Also worth noting, we expect North Carolina State to make its first CWS appearance since 1968, while Mississippi State should return for the first time since 2007.
Our eight teams in Omaha for '13 are unveiled. However, the list could change entering the season, depending on some impending draft decisions.
The Razorbacks put together an impressive run in 2012, getting one win away from reaching the College World Series finals. They have a chance to finish the deal in 2013. Though the Hogs have some big holes to fill, including departed third baseman Matt Reynolds and shortstop Tim Carver, in addition to starting pitcher DJ Baxendale and reliever Nolan Sanburn, they're still in very good shape. Offensively, first baseman Dominic Ficociello and designated hitter Joe Serrano lead the charge, while catcher Jake Wise -- elite defensively -- should take a step forward at the plate. Reynolds could be replaced by ultra-talented freshman Willie Schwanke, a Texas prep product. Pitching-wise, few teams will be able to match up with the Razorbacks. They have an excellent ace pitcher in Ryne Stanek, while Randall Fant should again join him in the weekend rotation. Brandon Moore, who split time as a starter/reliever in '12, should round out the rotation. Meanwhile, the bullpen will be stout with Colby Suggs, Mark Reyes, Cade Lynch and Trent Daniel leading the charge. There's no reason why the Hogs shouldn't be back in Omaha.
The Bulldogs made plenty of headlines at the end of last season by winning the SEC tournament and reaching the NCAA postseason. Now, expectations will be significantly higher going into the 2013 campaign. Sure, the Bulldogs have the tough chore of replacing ace right-handed pitcher Chris Stratton, but they welcome back a lot of talent both pitching-wise and from an offensive standpoint. Pitching-wise, Brandon Woodruff returns to the rotation, while Kendall Graveman likely is headed back to school after getting drafted by the Marlins in the 36th round. That gives the Bulldogs a solid one-two punch in addition to the return of quality arms such as Jonathan Holder, Ben Bracewell, Ross Mitchell, Luis Pollorena, Jacob Lindgren and Evan Mitchell. At the plate, the Bulldogs welcome back their top 11 hitters from last year's club, including athletic shortstop Adam Frazier and outstanding athlete and outfielder Hunter Renfroe. This club should be vastly improved offensively next season. We're looking for mighty big things from the Bulldogs in 2013.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
What the Tar Heels accomplished as such a young team in 2012 was pretty special. The Heels fell short of Omaha despite being a national seed, but the future is very bright. UNC should be much improved offensively next season with the return of third baseman Colin Moran in addition to Chaz Frank, Parks Jordan, Michael Russell, Cody Stubbs, Mike Zolk, Brian Holberton and Tom Zengel, among others. The Heels also welcome some talented freshmen in outfielder Skye Bolt, infielder Landon Lassiter and third baseman Alex Raburn. All three could earn significant playing time from the start. Pitching-wise, the Tar Heels are in very good shape. They return weekend starters Benton Moss, Kent Emanuel and Hobbs Johnson. They also welcome back some additional quality arms in Chris McCue, Tate Parrish, Shane Taylor, Chris Munnelly, Mason McCullough and Luis Paula. Additionally, they will add some talented freshmen arms in Taylore Cherry, Kayden Porter, Reilly Hovis and Trent Thornton.
The Wolfpack has a very legitimate chance to end quite a drought next season, as they're expected to reach the College World Series. N.C. State took a step forward this season when they reached an NCAA Super Regional, but the program hasn't gotten back to Omaha since 1968. The Wolfpack return four of their top seven hitters from last year's club, including leading hitter and catcher Danny Canela. They also welcome back outstanding freshman third baseman Trea Turner, Jake Fincher, Brett Austin and the duo of Tarran Senay and Matt Bergquist, both guys capable of having much more productive campaigns. Meanwhile, the pitching staff will be one of the nation's best in 2013. The Wolfpack will have the nation's elite ace starting pitcher in left-hander Carlos Rodon, while Ethan Ogburn, Anthony Tzamtzis and Logan Jernigan all are quality arms with experience as starting pitchers. Bullpen-wise, Travis Orwig, Dillon Frye, Chris Overman, Ryan Wilkins and D.J. Thomas will spearhead an excellent pen. N.C. State will be loaded next season.
The Beavers were just a couple of wins away this season from reaching an NCAA Super Regional, but fell short against a very good LSU club. Well, the Beavers should return to Omaha next season with the personnel coming back in 2013. OSU only hit .281 this past season, but should be improved with a lot of returning players being more experienced. Sophomore Michael Conforto, one of the nation's premier hitters, once again will lead the charge. Meanwhile, the Beavers also welcome back Tyler Smith, Danny Hayes, Jake Rodriguez, Ryan Barnes, Dylan Davis and Kavin Keyes. Pitching is what will carry this OSU team, though. The Beavers welcome back a very good pitching staff, led by starting pitchers Jace Fry, Dan Child and Ben Wetzler. Meanwhile, the bullpen also is in good shape with the likely return of Matt Boyd, a 13th rounder to the Cincinnati Reds, and the return of Tony Bryant, Scott Schultz and Cole Brocker. The sky will be limit for these Beavers.
No Michael Roth, Adam Matthews, Matt Price or Christian Walker? What, exactly, will the Gamecocks do? For some reason, this continues to be a recurring question. And guess what, there's an easy answer: The Gamecocks aren't going anywhere. Sure, replacing those integral leaders will be difficult, but this team will be locked and loaded next season. The Gamecocks welcome back an impressive crop of pitchers, including starters Colby Holmes and Jordan Montgomery, while Forrest Koumas could return to freshman form if he's healthy after having surgery immediately following the past season. Bullpen-wise, the Gamecocks will return Tyler Webb (who could start, too), Joel Seddon, Evan Beal and Patrick Sullivan, among others. Offensively, the Gamecocks shouldn't skip much of a beat with the return of Joey Pankake, LB Dantzler, Kyle Martin, Tanner English, Grayson Greiner, Chase Vergason, Erik Payne and Brison Celek. They also welcome some talented freshmen in left-handed pitcher Jake Wynkoop and hard-hitters Max Schrock and Curt Britt.
The Bruins took a big step forward this season when they got back to the College World Series. They once again should be very good in 2013, too. The Bruins will have some legitimate holes to fill on the offensive side of things. They have the tough chore of replacing Jeff Gelalich, Beau Amaral and Tyler Heineman. However, they also could welcome back Trevor Brown and Cody Keefer in addition to Kevin Williams, Kevin Kramer, Pat Valaika, Cody Regis and Brenton Allen. The Bruins also could receive significant contributions from freshmen Ty Moore and Darrell Miller. Pitching-wise, the Bruins are in great shape with the return of starting pitchers Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Zack Weiss. They also welcome back Ryan Deeter, David Berg and Grant Watson. The Bruins also could have Astros 11th-round pick and pitcher Hunter Virant at their disposal, while Cody Poteet, Felipe Perez, James Kaprielian and Chase Radan will add to UCLA's impressive pitching depth.
With such a young squad this past season, it's safe to say Vanderbilt got off to a rather slow start. However, it put together a strong finish and reached the Raleigh, N.C. Regional title game, where N.C. State had to beat the Commodores twice. The stage is set for a very bright future in the Music City. The Commodores must replace leading hitter Anthony Gomez, but otherwise are in very good shape with the return of Spencer Navin, Conrad Gregor, Mike Yastrzemski (30th round, Mariners) and Connor Harrell (31st round, Tigers). Pitching-wise, the 'Dores will have a very good weekend rotation with Kevin Ziomek, Tyler Beede and T.J. Pecoraro leading the way. Meanwhile, Jared Miller, Brian Miller and Steven Rice will headline the bullpen. Vanderbilt also welcomes an outstanding crop of freshmen, including pitchers Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler, Luke Stephenson, Tyler Ferguson and Patrick Delano, and position players Rhett Wiseman, Dansby Swanson and Xavier Turner.
OTHERS TO WATCH: TCU, Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana State, Ole Miss, Cal State Fullerton, Pepperdine, Florida State, Louisville.