Spring is in the air, and pinstripes are what everyone is wearing this season.
Ahoy, Gamecock baseball fans! With the college baseball season nigh upon us, it's past time that your friendly authors here at GABA starting cranking out baseball coverage once again. For my part, it feels like an eternity since I last waxed poetic on our nation's past time. There's just something about baseball that makes it the perfect pairing for the Spring season. It might just be the nostalgia we feel because Spring and baseball have always bloomed together. Or maybe it has something to do with the year's first batting practice never being too far behind the year's first lawn clippings. But I prefer to think it's because baseball and Spring were made for one another. Something about the lull-and-scurry motion of the game captures the season better than any other sport could.
In the coming weeks you'll no-doubt hear many more allusions made to fresh starts and baseball teams. And of course it must also be said - so I'll go ahead and get it out of the way - that everyone is undefeated right now. That won't be true, though, this time next week.
With that in mind I bring you Garnet and Black Attack's first weekly SEC baseball ranking of the 2012 season. Before we get into it after the jump, let's all just take a moment and to properly recognize what Ray Tanner and company accomplished last year. I don't need to re-hash it in this space. I'm sure you remember.
Once you've given that thought adequate consideration, look after the jump to see the pecking order in college baseball's toughest conference.
1.) Florida Gators - The fact of the matter is Florida had the deepest pitching staff I've ever seen on a college baseball team last year, and they return almost everyone. Hudson Randal? The 6'3'' right-handed demon-child that went 11-3 with a 2.17 ERA? Yup, he's back. Karsten Whiten? The 6'4'' right-hander who gave up a measly 2 home runs in 97 innings of work while earning 9 wins and compiling 92 strike outs? He's a sophomore. Oh, and this year the Gators have two hurlers who have been named to the pre-season watch list for the award given to best relief pitcher in the nation in Austin Maddox (0.67 ERA, 27 IP) and Steven Rodriguez (1.91 ERA, 37.2 IP). They also return their three best hitters from last year in Mike Zunino (.371 AVG, 19 HR), Daniel Pigott (.331 AVG, 40 RBI), and Josh Adams (.323 AVG, 43 RBI). Yeah, they're good.
2.) South Carolina Gamecocks - The 'Cocks come in third in Baseball America's preseason poll, which might well be higher than they deserve given all this team lost from its championship squad last season. Michael Roth (14-3, 1.06 ERA) returns, which just might be all this team needs to for a third consecutive shot at glory. He's got a rubber arm and essentially put the 2011 team on his back. More likely, though, he'll need help from a cast of pitchers that was less than overwhelming for the majority of the 2011. John Taylor and his 71 IP and 1.14 ERA is gone. He was basically Carolina's 2nd starter in 2011 - never mind the fact that he usually came in around the 4th inning. The 'Cocks also lose capable reliever Jose Mata to graduation and CWS hero Matt Price to the starting rotation. It remains to be seen whether Price will be as effective out of the gate as he was out of the pen, but he's shown flashes brilliance in games past. Ray Tanner will surely need Tyler Webb to fulfill his potential as well as a few surprises from the bullpen if the Gamecocks want to make some noise in the post season. On the offensive side of the ball South Carolina loses all-around-gorrilla-shlonged-5-star-everyman-baller Scott Wingo. And actually, he's just as much of a defensive loss, too. Brady Thomas is gone - leaving a gaping hole at catcher with little-to-no experience to fill in. The team also loses fan-favorite Jackie Bradley, Jr. Although, I suppose one could argue how much of a loss he is considering how much he struggled with injury in 2011. The bottom line is this: can the second-best team in the SEC be the best team in the country for the third year in a row? We'll have to find out.
3.) Vanderbilt Commodores - Vanderbilt is as solid a program as they come. Head Coach Tim Corbin came to Vandy in 2003 after a successful stint as an assistant at Clemson and never looked back. The commodores have put some top talent into the MLB the past few years, so I expect them to come out of the gate hot. Returning from a team that went 55-14 last year are Aaron Westlake (.344 AVG, .640 SLG%) , Jason Esposito (.340 AVG, .530 SLG%) and star freshman Tony Kemp. The 'Dores do lose aces Sonny Gray (12-4, 2.43) and Grayson Garvin (13-2, 2.48), but brought in the nation's top recruiting class in 2011.
4.) Arkansas Razorbacks- The Razorbacks have been arguably the best team in the West for some time now. I expect the trend to continue for a team that was a Hog's breath away from the SEC Championship Game. Alas, they also went a mere 15-15 in SEC play, which accounts for my ranking them 4th.
5.) LSU Tigers - Why do I have the LSU Tigers at #5 even though they went 13-17 in the conference and missed the SEC tournament for the first time in Lord knows how long last year? Honestly, I don't have a good reason except that last year just didn't make a dang bit of sense. I've got to believe that Coach Paul Mainieri didn't forget how to coach championship baseball over night. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the cup-cakiness of their early season schedule.
6.) Georgia Bulldogs - The Bulldogs have long suffered from the so-called "Odd Year Curse" in baseball. Last year's rough start seemed to only prove the rule, but mid way through the year talent finally buoyed the 'Dawgs sinking ship. UGA finished the season with a winning record in the SEC (better than any Western division team can claim) and a 33-32 final record. I expect them to improve once again.
7.) Mississippi State Bulldogs - MSU appears to be on the rise. An early slate that includes the likes of Washington State, Kansas, UConn, and Penn State all at home might propel the Maroon and White into the top 25 if things break their way.
8.) Alabama Crimson Tide - Honestly, I don't know enough about this team to have a feeling one way or another about them. They've been decidedly mediocre in the past, and with the 8th best recruiting class in the SEC last year, I would expect that trend to continue.
9.) Ole Miss - Baseball America has them at #22, which makes this something of a curious selection on my part. To that I say that the Rebels went 30-25 in 2011 and finished last in the SEC West. The lofty ranking might have something to do with their reeling in the the 5th best recruiting class in the nation last year. However, I'm not sure having to rely on a team full of talented freshmen is ever a good thing unless your name is John Calipari.
10.) Auburn Tigers - This team has struggled to find an identity in recent years. They've had bursts of offensive production but haven't been able to field the kind of pitching that is imperative to be competitive in the SEC. The Tigers begin the season against soon-to-be SEC newcomers Missouri. Don't embarrass us, Auburn.
11.) Kentucky Wildcats - In all likelihood, probably not going to be a good team. Still, this quad has been known to steal the odd series from more talented opponents in the past.
12.) Tennessee Volunteers - I don't see any real hope for this team this year. First year head coach Dave Serrano might be the real deal, but it will take a few years to build a winner in Knoxville.