The Southeastern Conference is to college baseball what the New England Patriots are to the NFL Playoffs. It seems more often than not, at least one team finds themselves in the championship hunt on a yearly basis. Coming off a Florida vs. LSU CWS finale, this year may be more of the same.
RELATED: D1baseball.com Preseason Top 25
The SEC opens with eight teams in D1baseball’s preseason Top 25. Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt are all legit contenders. That doesn’t even include Auburn, a team that appeared in the the NCAA regionals a year ago.
In college baseball, all roads lead to Omaha. There are 64 chances to make the final eight in the College World Series and the roadmap starts in the Southeastern United States.
Let's take a look at why the SEC will be one of the more exciting conferences to watch this season.
Tristan Pompey and the Kentucky resurgence
What a difference a year makes.
Head coach Nick Mingione came into Lexington in 2017 and took over a Kentucky team that finished a respectable 34-23, but near the bottom for almost every offensive statistical category in the SEC. He challenged the team and they responded. The Wildcats led the SEC in batting average (.316), hits (706), doubles (148), slugging percentage (.489) and on base percentage (.416) while finished second in home runs (73) and RBI (446).
“I think having more discipline, knowing what each hitter’s zone is and what they can handle," UK junior Tristan Pompey told NCAA.com about the Wildcats big 2017. "Having that plan at the plate, a clear, consistent plan that you can stick with in every at bat is crucial."
While the new offensive plan helped, there was no denying Mingione and his coaching staff's presence in the locker room was immediately felt.
"For sure," Pompey said of Mingione's personality. "When he first came into the locker room he was super positive, smiley and this upbeat guy. We didn’t think it would last long, we thought he was putting it on for show. But every day, all the coaching staff acted the same way. From day one to the end of the season. That energy rubbed off on us.”
While Kentucky lost three big bats — Evan White, Zach Reks and Riley Mahan — to the MLB Draft, they have some nice returning firepower. Tristan Pompey should be one of the most exciting players in college baseball. The outfielder can hit for average (.361), bomb for power (18 doubles and 10 home runs) and run the bases (nine stolen bases) while playing all three sports in the outfield. He had a quiet summer in Cape Cod which should fuel the fire heading into the season.
“Obviously I struggled," Pompey said of the Cape Cod League. "But I learned that you can’t put too much pressure on yourself. You got to go out there everyday, erase yesterday, erase the 0-for-4, and go out with a new mindset ready to work all over again.”
Now 2018 sees a new challenge with a lineup that will look different from last year's Super Regional run. Pompey believes his coaches have the right people to fill the void.
“I feel really confident," Pompey said. "Our coaching staff instills a certain plan in us. Just because we are missing some of those big players, we got some new players that can fill their spots pretty well. It will be cool to see how we mesh as a team and where everyone fits.”
If Pompey isn’t the player to watch on Kentucky -- you literally can't miss Seth Hjelle. The righty is redefining the idea of big presence on the mound, listed at 6-foot-11. That’s taller than Baseball Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. And that’s just flat out big.
Hjelle had a breakout sophomore campaign, leading the Wildcats with 11 wins behind a 3.89 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning en route to 2017 SEC Pitcher of the Year honors.
“We hit against him all the time," Pompey said. "It’s just a different eye sight that you have to look at, throwing off the mound he’s seven feet tall. It’s almost like playing cricket, everything is straight down hill. The first time you play him it’s different. Watching him dominate from the outfield. His mindset when he’s on the mound is fierce.”
Last season's run was defined by a newfound offense and a cup cap. While they hope the offense remains the same, it may be time for a new good luck charm.
“Ooh, I don’t know if the cup cap will be back on opening day," Pompey said. "I think we’ll have to make something new for this year’s squad. We’ll see what they come up with.”
A returner-heavy Arkansas team is put to an early SEC test
The Razorbacks had a memoriable 2015 season, reaching Omaha on the heels of Andrew Benintendi’s Golden Spikes season. The following year wasn’t as kind, as injuries and a tough stretch ended the campaign with a 26-29 record.
The good news for Razorbacks fans in 2017 was Arkansas improved from a 26-win team in 2016 to a 45-win team in 2017. The good news in Fayetteville this year is a lot of the pieces of that turnaround are back, making them a force to contend for the SEC.
Blaine Knight, last season's Opening Day starter for the Hogs, is coming off a strong sophomore campaign that may just be touching the surface of his abilities. Kacey Murphy made 10 starts in 19 appearances last year, and should make some noise in the rotation as well. Many expect big things from Isaiah Campbell as he joins the rotation full time in his sophomore campaign. Relievers Jake Reindl (2.31 ERA) and Matt Cronin (2.00 ERA) return to back up a very strong staff.
Arkansas wastes no time getting put to the test once their SEC schedule opens. They open SEC play at Baum Stadium against Kentucky and then head to Gainesville the following weekend. This Arkansas vs. Florida matchup could be a foreshadowing of a changing of the guard. The last time the two faced, Arkansas beat UF ace Brady Singer 16-0 in the SEC semifinals.
A Zack(h) Attack should power a new-look LSU
LSU lost a lot of big pieces from last season’s national runner-up squad. Alex Lange, Jared Poche’, Greg Deichmann, Kramer Robertson, and Cole Freeman are some of the familiar faces that won’t be at Alex Box Stadium. Even breakout freshman pitcher Eric Walker will miss the 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
As always, there’s still plenty of star power in Baton Rouge. It will be fun to see how quickly this team puts it together.
Antoine Duplantis built on an All-SEC Freshman Team campaign with another big year, especially in the tournament where he was the Tigers best hitter. Speaking of sensational freshman years, how about Zach Watson? Watson is coming off a huge debut, leading the team with a .317 average and finishing second with nine home runs. He really started feeling it in the postseason, earning CWS All-Tournament Team honors behind a program record-setting power surge in the regionals.
He made an immediate impact last season with some of his best outings coming in the CWS. @Zack_Hess38 appeared in five of the Tigers’ seven games in Omaha while recording three saves and 11 Ks in seven innings. Don’t miss No. 38 in 2018 pic.twitter.com/xdfXfEydI6— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) January 9, 2018
Losing the Tiger's Big Three on the mound is scary, but there are plenty of pieces that can help. Zack Hess had a big freshman season, splitting time in the rotation and bullpen. He, too, came alive in the postseason, becoming one of the Tigers' stronger presences out of the pen. Caleb Gilbert also made some starts while spending most of his time in the bullpen. Both can limit runs (Hess had a 3.13 ERA, Gilbert a 2.16) and strike batters out in bunches (Hess struck out 83 in 60.2 innings, Gilbert, 67 in 58.1). They will help this staff wherever they wind up.
The Tigers had a bumpy March last season, going 11-8. They rebounded to find themselves in the finals in Omaha. Paul Mainieri's teams just don't show any quit, so even if this team takes some time to gel out of the gates, one can assume they'll be making a lot of noise come April.
DON'T MISS THIS GAME -- Brady Singer vs. Casey Mize: April 26
Casey Mize and Brady Singer are two of the best two arms in college baseball this season. Florida and Auburn meet the weekend of April 26 through 28. If the baseball gods smile, Singer and Mize will duke it out.
Mize is the ace of Auburn’s rotation. He finished the 2017 season 8-2 with a 2.04 ERA. It’s tough to tell what was more impressive: his 109 strikeouts in 83.2 innings or his nine walks over the same span. That gave Mize a 12.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the best in Division I last season. Not too shabby for a guy some once felt may be better suited as a closer.
He is armed with three pitches — a fastball, splitter and slider — that at times simply seem too much for college hitters to handle. He showed that in his final start of 2017 against Tennessee Tech’s elite offense, striking out 12 batters and walking just one in a complete game victory.
Singer is already gaining consideration from many as the first pick in June’s MLB Draft. He’s big and lean, and is armed with a fastball that hits the mid-90s. He’s had to take a back seat the past two seasons, pitching behind A.J. Puk and Logan Shore in 2016 and Alex Faedo last year. He left plenty a mark on last season’s championship run, like his 12-strikeout, record-setting performance against LSU in Game 1 of the finals.
Singer went 9-5 with a 3.21 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 126 innings in his first go in the rotation last year. If he meets the lofty expectations already placed upon him, Florida could very well find themselves back in Omaha.
Ryan Rolison’s curveball
Ole Miss is ranked No. 9 heading into 2018, one of five SEC teams in the Top 10. That’s pretty impressive jump for a team that didn’t make the NCAA tournament last season.
Part of the reason for the rise is that the Rebels return three of their five best hitters for 2017 -- Nick Fortes, Will Golsan and Ryan Olenek -- as well as a bevy of experience from seniors like Tim Rowe. The other reason is that Rolison should continue to develop into one of the better Friday night starters in the nation.
Rolison had an outstanding freshman season, earning nods to All-Freshman teams from numerous college baseball media outlets. He continued to dazzle on the Cape, earning All Star honors behind a 4-0, 1.92 ERA campaign.
Now the sophomore enters the season earning preseason All-American nods amongst a sea of juniors. That’s because, as the stats show, his stuff is that good. It may be a tough load to shoulder, being the ace of an experienced team as only a sophomore. Rolison is already earning preseason It will be fun to watch how he responds in what is expected to be a tremendous season for him.
Andy Cannizao's Twitter feed: Mississippi State is going to be good, despite losing Brent Rooker and having to likely start quite a few freshman. Konnor Pilkington should mature into an ace.
But the Bulldogs' head coach's Twitter feed is on point. He loves his New Orleans Saints, has a good selfie game and clearly likes to work out with the team. He's also mutli-talented.
Boom! Good from 50 yards on our lunch break! pic.twitter.com/PFttSHsYWm— Andy Cannizaro (@CoachCannizaro) December 11, 2017
One can only hope he continues to bring it once the season starts.