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Winning in the SEC is never easy. There is no conference in college baseball that provides the talent and depth that the SEC does every year. 2018 will be no different. The SEC could see as many 11 teams land in the NCAA Tournament this June. It is time to look at who will contend for the SEC Title and what players will lead the nation's premiere league in 2018.
Florida (52-19, 21-9)
Key Players Lost:
Alex Faedo, Mike Rivera, Dalton Guthrie
Florida finally crossed the finish line in 2017 as Kevin O'Sullivan and the Gators rolled past LSU in the College World Series Finals to win the school's first title. Florida returns plenty of talent from last year's championship squad and is the consensus number one team in 2018. Brady Singer (9-5 3.21, 139 Ks), the projected first overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, anchors a pitching staff that is equal to Kentucky in talent and depth. At the plate, Florida's lineup is strong enough that it will provide ample run support for Singer and company. The Gators seem to have reloaded and maybe even improved since last season. Singer, Jackson Kowar, and Michael Byrne round out the top rotation in the country.
Kentucky (43-23, 19-11)
Key Players Lost:
Evan White, Riley Mahan, Logan Salow
In Nick Mingione's debut season, UK advanced to its first Super Regional in school history. The Wildcats return their top three arms from 2017 as well as a top ten recruiting class that contains a wealth of JUCO talent including outfielders Ryan Johnson and Ben Aklinski. UK will have a couple of bumpy games early in the season due to major lineup changes from last year's explosive offense. Tristan Pompey (.361, 10 HR, 45 RBIs) should be one of the first outfielders off the board in June. Look for Kentucky to contend for its first SEC Championship since 2006.
Arkansas (45-19, 18-11)
Key Players Lost:
Chad Spanberger, Trevor Stephan, Dominic Taccolini
The Razorbacks nearly won the SEC Tournament last year when their offense broke out in Hoover. Other than Chad Spanberger, Arkansas returns most its power from that lineup. The top returning hitter in the SEC Jax Biggers (.338, 4 HR, 37 RBI) and Luke Bonfield (.294, 9 HR, 49 RBI) return to anchor a lineup that slugged .455 as a team in 2017. Keaton McKinney, who missed 2017 due to Tommy John Surgery, returns to the rotation alongside Blaine Knight (8-4, 3.28, 96 Ks). Arkansas is ranked in the top five in nearly every preseason poll. Both D1 Baseball and Baseball America ranked Arkansas in their top five in their preseason rankings. Even with a difficult schedule, the #OmaHogs have the talent to make a run at the SEC Championship in 2018.
Texas A&M (41-23, 16-14)
Key Players Lost:
Corbin Martin, Brigham Hill, Cason Sherrod
The fact that there are four SEC teams ranked in the Baseball America Top 25 speaks to the strength of the conference. The Aggies round out the list at the ten spot but don't let that fool you as they are no weaker than their conference counterparts. A&M returns several key pieces from a group that made a Cinderella run to Omaha in 2017. Preseason Second Team All-American Braden Shewmake (.335, 11 home runs, 68 RBIs) led the team with 11 home runs and 69 RBIs as a freshman in 2018. Pitchers Stephen Kolek and Kaylor Chafin will lead the Aggies to their 13th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018.
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Zach Watson. (Getty Images)[/caption]
LSU (52-20, 21-9)
Key Players Lost
: Alex Lange, Kramer Robertson, Greg Deichmann
Comprising the other half of the all-SEC CWS Final last season, the Tigers ran into the buzzsaw that was the Florida pitching staff and fell two games short of their seventh national title. Zach Watson (One of my favorite players in the SEC) was phenomenal as a freshman. Watson was one of the outstanding freshmen that helped LSU win the SEC Tournament last season. The most familiar returnee is sophomore pitcher Zack Hess (7-1, 3.12, 83 K). The spawn of Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn became famous during the last year's CWS for his haircut and intensity on the mound. LSU will need Hess to have another strong season in 2018 as Paul Mainieri will have to replace Alex Lange and Jared Poche in the rotation. I really, really like this LSU team which brings back plenty of talent and experience from a team that played 72 games in 2017. I look for LSU to be in Omaha in June.
Vanderbilt (36-25-1, 15-13-1)
Key Players Lost:
Kyle Wright, Jeren Kendall, Will Toffey
The last two seasons have been disappointing for the Dores. Vandy finished one game shy of back-to-back CWS titles in 2015, but have not returned to Omaha since. Tim Corbin's group is normally defined by a strong pitching staff and a well-balanced lineup. Besides Patrick Raby (10-4, 2.73 ERA, 87 K), though, Vanderbilt's rotation doesn't pack the same punch as past years. Kyle Wright is gone, so Drake Fellows will move into the Saturday spot. I like Julian Infante (.315, 11 home runs, 66 RBIs) at first base and hitting in the heart of the order. Infante was one of the most improved players in the SEC last year and led the team with 11 home runs. It remains to be seen what Alonzo Jones can do offensively, but he has the upside. If the lineup comes together, Vanderbilt will be a threat in a top-heavy SEC East.
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Casey Mize (Getty Images)[/caption]
Middle of the Road
There is plenty to watch for outside of the top 25 in the SEC. Many of the teams that fall in the middle of the conference lost an abundance of talent to the 2017 Draft. Names like Brent Rooker (Mississippi State), Tanner Houck (Missouri), and Clarke Schmidt (South Carolina) were all taken in the first round last season. Those three teams along with Auburn and Ole Miss will all battle for NCAA Tournament spots as mid-level SEC teams. Outfielder Jake Mangum turned down a pro contract to return for his junior season in Starkville, and he will help make MSU a contender in the West.
My personal favorite team to watch outside of the top 25 is Auburn. Butch Thompson has put together a good team, even with the departure of Brad Bohannan. The Tigers were a win away from a Super Regional last season, and they bring back their top arm, Casey Mize who is projected as a top ten pick after going 8-2 with a 2.04 ERA last season. Also, watch out for Missouri's offense. Trey Harris proved against UK that he can change games with his power. There is a chance that four or five of these middle of the road teams will make the field of 64 in June.
Not much has changed at the bottom of the SEC. Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia reside in the cellar of our preseason projections. Greg Goff was fired after one season in Title Town where former Kentucky Assistant Brad Bohannon has taken over for the Tide. Bohannon is one of the top recruiters in the country, but it will take time for him to get his guys in there. Tennessee is also in the first year of a new regime as Tony Vitello has come over from Arkansas after Dave Serrano and UT parted ways. I don't doubt that Vitello will put UT on the right track, but it will take time. Georgia finished 12th last season and barely made the SEC Tournament. The Dawgs did pull off series wins over UK, Mississippi State, and South Carolina to put themselves in the postseason. Michael Curry returns to lead an offense that could surprise some people.
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Top Ten Players to Watch
- Brady Singer, Pitcher, Florida
- Casey Mize, Pitcher, Auburn
- Tristan Pompey, Outfielder, Kentucky
- Jackson Kowar, Pitcher, Florida
- Braden Shewmake, Infielder, Texas A&M
- Ryan Rolison, Pitcher, Ole Miss
- Michael Byrne, Pitcher, Florida
- Sean Hjelle, Pitcher, Kentucky
- Jax Biggers, Infielder, Arkansas
- Konnor Pilkington, Pitcher, Mississippi State
Projected SEC Division Champs:
Florida (East), LSU (West)