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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | January 11, 2019

9 questions we can't wait to see answered in the 2019 college baseball season

Opening weekend of the 2019 college baseball season is quickly approaching with first pitch set for the weekend of Feb. 15.

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Just how will the road to Omaha be traveled? Finding the answers to these nine questions should shed some light on what to expect from the 2019 season.

Who will win a stacked ACC?

Last season, six teams from the ACC made the NCAA tournament, with North Carolina making it all the way to Omaha for the College World Series. All six of those teams —UNC, Louisville, Florida State, Duke, NC State, and Clemson — should be right back in the hunt, but there could be a surprise lurking in the midst.

Louisville should only get better. This team was seemingly decimated between the 2016 MLB Draft, losing five players to professional baseball before the fifth round, and then watching all-world, two-way star Brendan McKay go fourth overall in 2017. To think last season would be a step backwards and a restructuring season was fair, but the Cardinals instead reeled off a 45-win season and earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament. With star Logan Wyatt leading a strong supporting cast of returners, Louisville may be the early season favorite.

While you can never rule out UNC, especially with big-hitting Michael Busch and a hopefully healthy Gianluca Dalatri returning as the ace, all eyes should be on Georgia Tech this season. Sure, they lost Joey Bart, one of the premier offensive threats in college baseball, but they have plenty of pieces to compete, especially on the bump. Connor Thomas should be one of the best in the game, and Xzavion Curry has made exciting progress. If freshman Luke Bartnicki can make the impact expected, watch out.

Can Florida State’s Mike Martin win his elusive title in his final season?

Is the 40th time the charm? Martin’s place in college baseball history is secure, no matter what the outcome is in his final season with the Seminoles. College baseball’s all-time winningest head coach decided to come back for one more go in 2019

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Martin has coached 39 years at his alma mater and has made the NCAA tournament in every one of them. He’s reached the College World Series 16 times and finished the national runner-up on two occasions. The only thing missing from his resume is a championship trophy. He has some nice pieces, especially a pair of Drews in returning ace Drew Parrish and star third baseman Drew Mendoza, but will have to battle in the ACC. We’ll see if this team can play above expectations and get Martin that trophy as he walks off into the Tallahassee sunset.

How good can LSU be?

In one word: Very.

The first preseason poll of the 2019 season — released by Collegiate Baseball — has the Tigers No. 1 in their top 40. Most college baseball sources will confirm that LSU has one of the top, if not the best, recruiting classes in the country. They also have a wealth of experienced and very talented players back in Alex Box Stadium for another run.

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Antoine Duplantis — who led LSU in hitting and stolen bases — leads a star-studded cast of six returning regulars — including the hot-hitting Daniel Cabrera and Zach Watson — from last year’s 39-win lineup. Zack Hess returns as the likely Friday night starter, while breakout freshman Ma’Khail Hilliard should fill the Saturday role. Eric Walker, who missed all of 2018 recovering from injury, is a huge addition to the back of the rotation if he’s healthy. Things are looking good as usual in Baton Rouge. Nothing is ever easy in the SEC, but LSU has to like what it returns to its arsenal.

What does Stetson do for an encore?

Stetson was one of the feel-good stories of 2018, reaching its first-ever Super Regional in program history behind a historic 48-win season. While the Hatters return a bulk of their lineup, the rotation will have a new look.

Only one starting pitcher returns from the rotation, but it’s a good one. Mitchell Senger, the huge 6’7 lefty, will take the reign from Logan Gilbert as the ace of the Hatters rotation. He had a very good 2018, highlighted by a 16-strikeout no-hitter in February. Overall, he is known for four quality pitches and the ability to strike out batters in bunches while limiting free passes and hits, especially the long ball allowing just two in 93.1 innings pitched.

There may be some early season adjustments in DeLand, Florida, but Jacob Koos and the rest of the experienced offense should keep them in games until the pitching figures it out. Will they match the DI-best ERA of 2.66 Stetson posted in 2018? Likely not, but they should be right back in the ASUN mix in 2019.

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Who is going to pitch for Florida?

A.J. Puk. Dane Dunning. Alex Faedo. Brady Singer. Jackson Kowar. Kevin O’Sullivan has had no shortage of arms in the past, pumping out an MLB-worthy starting five in the first round of the past three drafts. Things will be different in Gainesville in 2019, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Righty Jack Leftwich should make the full-time weekend rotation with ease, making the most starts of any returning pitcher. Tommy Mace posted a perfect record in 26 appearances, six of which were starts so the experience is there, and Hunter McMullen can start if needed but is more capable out of the bullpen. Hopefully, Tyler Dyson is fully healthy and can join the mix after only pitching 50.1 innings last season. It always seems that there was incredible depth in the Gators pitching arsenal with a freshman or sophomore waiting in the wings for his chance. With names like Nick Pogue, Ben Specht, David Luethje, and Christian Scott ready to debut, there’s no reason to not expect more of the same in 2019.

Which Texas team will reign supreme in the Big 12?

Last season both Texas and Texas Tech made it to the College World Series. Both teams also lost a few key cogs but return plenty to make for an exciting race in the Big 12.

Kody Clemens will leave a big void in the Longhorns lineup, but it may not be as hard to fill it as it may appear. Base stealing threats David Hamilton, Duke Ellis, and Masen Hibbeler all return to the lineup while the Longhorns hope Zach Zubia’s big bat continues to mature. On the bump, Blair Henley is back after making 16 starts in 2018, posting a 3.32 ERA and picking up six wins.

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For the Red Raiders, one of the conference's most feared hitter returns to pace the lineup. Josh Jung hit .392 with 12 home runs in a breakout campaign, and Gabe Holt, who hit .348 with a team-best 29 stolen bases, will be a threat to opposing pitchers as well. Ryan Shetter and Steven Gingery are gone, but Caleb Kilian and John McMillon should be more than able to hold down the weekend rotation.

Texas Tech may have the edge, but it felt that way last season as well. The one thing both teams may have to look out for is an exciting Baylor team. The Bears are coming off a season that saw them capture their first-ever Big 12 tournament title. The entire lineup and rotation return to Waco, making Baylor a sexy sleeper for 2019. 

What does Andrew Vaughn do next?

Let’s review Vaughn’s ridiculous 2018. The sophomore became the first Cal Golden Bear to win the Golden Spikes Award by hitting .402 with 23 home runs, 63 RBI, and a .819 slugging percentage that was second in the division. He then spent the summer on the Cape, hitting .308 with five more home runs with the Wareham Gatemen. And he still somehow found time to play for the 2018 Collegiate National Team, where he slugged a solo home run against Cuba.

There is little doubt on what is on Vaughn’s 2019 to-do list. While becoming the first back-to-back Golden Spikes winner in the history of the award would be nice, getting the Golden Bears to the NCAA tournament, something they haven’t done in Vaughn’s first two seasons, is top priority. They'll have to deal with a tough UCLA team who look Omaha-bound already, but the improvement last season leaves hope.

Can you name a better battery than Oregon State’s Kevin Abel and Adley Rutschman?

Probably not. If you missed Rutschman’s breakout 2018 season, he made sure you saw his best in the College World Series, where the sophomore catcher took home Most Outstanding Player honors after setting the CWS record with 17 hits while adding two huge home runs and 13 RBI in Omaha.

It was there he caught the freshman righty Abel’s huge CWS-clinching finale, tossing a two-hit, 10-strikeout shutout for the Beavers third national championship since 2006. It capped an unreal season for the Freshman All-American in which he went 8-1 with a 2.88 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 81.1 innings.

The Beavers lost a lot of big-name bats and pitchers to go along with their legendary coach Pat Casey, but college baseball’s most enticing battery should keep them right in the mix. When you add Bryce Fehmel and Jake Mullholand into the mix, Rutschman will have his hands full in what many are anticipating to be a player of the year campaign.

Will East Carolina get over the Super Regional hump?

The Pirates have been to the NCAA tournament 29 times. They have never been to the College World Series. That streak is the longest in the NCAA, but East Carolina seems like it may be knocking on the door.

ECU returned to the Super Regionals in 2016 and was back in the postseason last year. Some of the big hitters from that team are back and ready to roll. Bryant Packard hit .406 with 14 home runs and is joined by Spencer Brickhouse, who not only blasted 10 home runs but possesses arguably the best name in college baseball.  On the bump, Chris Holba is gone, but Jake Agnos, Alec Burleson, Tyler Smith, Trey Benton, and Jake Kuchmaner who combined for 45 starts are all back.

The pieces are in place. East Carolina already feels like a team that can make it to the Super Regionals. With all the experience back in Greenville, North Carolina, now is as good a time as ever to break the streak and get to Omaha. 

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