Florida, South Carolina among SEC favorites

DAVID BRANDT AP Sports Writer Published:

Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan couldn't believe what he was saying. Just two years ago it would have been college baseball blasphemy: Pitchers are dominant in the Southeastern Conference.

"The pitching is as good as it's ever been," O'Sullivan said. "This league's always had the Friday night starters, but now it's a deep league that has great Saturday and Sunday starters too. You've got power arms in every bullpen. The depth is tremendous."

The SEC has won three straight national championships and the contenders are lining up once again this season. Two-time defending national champion South Carolina lost some of its top-shelf talent, but is still formidable. The Gamecocks -- along with Florida, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and LSU -- are among the favorites to win the SEC and contend nationally.

All of them have a common trait: Terrific pitching.

The trend is a combination of talent and circumstances. The NCAA made a dramatic change last season when it adjusted the potency of the sport's infamous metal bats that had sent homers and pitchers' earned run averages soaring. The new bats play much more like their wooden counterparts.

As a result, almost all offensive categories plummeted.

Now pitching is king. And there are multiple aces in the SEC who have taken advantage, including Florida's Hudson Randall, South Carolina's Michael Roth and Arkansas' D.J. Baxendale.

The Gators were picked by the league's coaches as this year's favorite after returning almost all of last year's team that finished 53-19 (22-8 SEC) and advanced to the College World Series championship series before losing to the Gamecocks. SEC player of the year Mike Zunino (.371 batting average, 19 homers and 67 RBIs) and Preston Tucker (.308, 15, 74) anchor a lineup that has six regulars returning.

"We've got the capability to string a lot of hits together," Tucker said. "It's all about approach and focusing on driving the baseball. We've just got to focus on winning each weekend and everything else will take care of itself."

Randall, a junior right-hander, leads the rotation after finishing 11-3 with 2.17 ERA last season. Right-hander Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40) and left-hander Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.62) also have lots of experience.

"We've got a lot of guys back who played a big role and that doesn't happen very often in our game," O'Sullivan said. "We've got guys who have been through it before, so that's a good thing. But this league is so competitive that we've just got to worry about the SEC East first. If we take care of that, we'll be in line to accomplish all of our other goals."

South Carolina's quest for a three-peat will begin with several new faces. The Gamecocks lost most of their lineup mainstays, but have some experience on the mound. Roth, a senior left-hander, dominated with a 14-3 record and 1.06 ERA last season. Junior Matt Price moves into the rotation after saving 30 games over the past two seasons.

"We don't get too far ahead of ourselves," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "And I have said this many, many times -- if you can survive your conference through the regular season, you win enough to get to the postseason, you have a chance because you are battle-tested. 2012 is not going to be any different."

Arkansas won the SEC Western Division last season and returns a deep pitching staff that's led by Baxendale, a junior right-hander who finished with a 10-2 record and 1.58 ERA last season.

LSU is trying to rebound from a rough season by the program's lofty standards.

The Tigers missed the SEC tournament and an NCAA regional last season, finishing 36-20. But they return six regulars and the bulk of their pitching staff, including sophomore Kevin Gausman, who had a 3.51 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 90 innings last year.

"I think there were some lessons learned last season," Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. "Just because the front of our jersey says 'LSU' doesn't mean we automatically win. But we weren't far off from having a great team last season -- we just couldn't seem to win the one-run games."

Vanderbilt returns several regulars after making the College World Series last season for the first time in program history, but is rebuilding its pitching staff with young talent. Georgia figures to be a factor in the Eastern Division as well, returning senior right-hander Michael Palazzone, who helped the Bulldogs bounce back from subpar 2010 season with a 10-5 record and 3.14 ERA in 2011.

Mississippi State returns a veteran pitching staff that finished one game short of the CWS before falling to Florida.

"It's a grind every weekend in this league," O'Sullivan said. "And the great pitching this year is going to make it that much tougher. The one thing you know in the SEC is if you're successful in conference, you've got a great chance to be pretty good nationally."

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