The college baseball season is fully underway and already showing off. With top teams being upset this early and players putting on incredible performances, the season is sure to be an exciting one.
So, just how good is the SEC? And which players should we be following? Our college baseball analysts give their take on the 2023 season and offer some early Men’s College World Series predictions.
Just how good is the SEC?
Chris Burke: The SEC is absolutely loaded again this year. LSU and Tennessee were almost everyone’s No. 1 and No. 2 to start the year and haven’t done anything to suggest they won’t live up to that billing. What’s interesting is that while Ole Miss, Vandy and Arkansas have all shown the potential to be in that top-tier conversation as well, I think maybe the most likely disrupter is Florida. The Gators’ rotation features just as much firepower as Tennessee’s and their offense appears to be just as potent as LSU’s. Watch out, the Gators are back!
Kiley McDaniel: Somehow, even better than it normally is. Given the attendance, facilities, money and overall talent in the conference, it is always under a microscope with critics trying to decipher if the SEC is living up to the sky-high expectations. This year especially, there’s a bumper crop of top-of-the-draft talents along with big-time flexing in the NIL and transfer portal areas, making it so the gap to the next-best conference in on-field talent is in line with the huge advantage the SEC has in fan interest, attendance, facilities, recruiting and coaching talent.
Ryan McGee: Like, super good. We joke about “It just means more,” but the reality is that it does. I was at LSU last month chatting with all of the Tigers’ transfers, guys like Thatcher Hurd from UCLA, joined by Paul Skenes from Air Force and Tommy White from NC State, really good baseball programs. When I asked them why LSU, no one mentioned unhappiness at their previous school or NIL, they talked about playing at the Box in front of 10,000 people and hitting the road to Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Hoover. There’s been a commitment to the sport of baseball within the conference that is second to none, and during the transfer portal era, that recruiting tool — and the rosters — will only get stronger.
Mike Rooney: If not for a foul popup that found grass, the SEC would be looking for a sixth straight national championship in baseball in 2023. Here’s the really frightening part: that “streak” involved five different SEC programs, and none of them is named Tennessee or LSU. The Vols’ rotation is a remake of the Braves’ famous crew from the 1990s. And LSU sports a roster that would make the late George Steinbrenner blush. By the way, the SEC West earned four of the eight spots in Omaha last June.
What other teams should we be following?
Burke: Outside of the SEC there are a number of fascinating teams/storylines to follow. The Big 12 is always an uber-competitive league, and while it might not be as top-heavy this year, I still think it’s going to be a fascinating race with TCU and Oklahoma State appearing to be the front-runners. Also, the race for the ACC will be brutal. Wake Forest has so much juice in its lineup, Louisville looks like it is ready for the long haul, Virginia Tech and North Carolina are really offensive teams, but the team I have my eye on is Link Jarrett’s Florida State Seminoles. They started the year outside the top 25 and have already jumped to No. 16 on the heels of a road series win at TCU. I think the Noles are here to stay.
McDaniel: I come at this from a more draft prospect-focused point of view. Wake Forest is fascinating due to the analytics-heavy approach, and it’s loaded in talent this year: Brock Wilken, Nick Kurtz, Rhett Lowder et al. Stanford is also cresting in overall talent with Tommy Troy, Drew Bowser and Braden Montgomery leading the way. I’d also keep an eye on Oklahoma State with returning two-way talent Nolan McLean, transfer righty Juaron Watts-Brown and middle infield combo Roc Roggio and Marcus Smith.
McGee: How about the far ends of Tobacco Road? Wake Forest is loaded. And in my humble opinion, East Carolina is the greatest college baseball program never to make it to the College World Series. Greenville is already a legendary party town. If ECU finally makes it to Omaha, there won’t be enough rum in North Carolina to satisfy the Pirates faithful … or if they come up short again.
Rooney: Stanford owns the most talented roster on the West Coast. Oklahoma State may be the most balanced team in the Big 12. And given that an ACC squad has taken down the No. 1 team in the nation in the past two NCAA tournaments, we need to figure out who is going to win that league. Will it be Wake Forest? Louisville? Florida State maybe? If you like Cinderella teams, the top of the WAC is outstanding. Grand Canyon, Cal Baptist and Sam Houston State have made loud statements in the first two weeks of the season.
Who’s the player with the most power worth watching?
Burke: Jac Caglianone — the college version of Shohei Ohtani — has dazzled to start the season. “Cags” has an OPS north of 1.500 and eight homers with the bat, and 15 K’s in 11 IP in his two starts with a fastball that has topped at 99 mph. This dude is as talented as any player in America and is just a sophomore.
McDaniel: Back to the SEC, I’d keep an eye on the Gators’ bash brothers, Wyatt Langford and Caglianone, along with LSU’s Dylan Crews and Ole Miss’ Kemp Alderman. Kurtz, Wilken, Bowser and McLean also have raw juice along with Clemson’s Caden Grice, Arizona’s Chase Davis and Miami’s Yohandy Morales. Oregon State freshman outfielder Gavin Turley is one with electric bat speed as well.
McGee: All Caglianone has done is mash eight homers in nine games. That’s pretty good, right? Oh, and he’s also struck out 15 from the mound.
Two-way Florida sophomore Jac Caglianone has THREE home runs in a game he started!
4.2 IP, 2 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 6 K, 92 P
3-for-5, 3 HR, 5 RBI 🤯
— Farm To Fame (@FarmToFame_) February 26, 2023
Rooney: The word “power” presumes offense, but Caglianone offers two-way pop. He leads the country with 8 HRs, and his fastball touches the upper 90s with shocking regularity. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound left-hander is college baseball’s best two-way talent since Brendan McKay. If Caglianone continues this trajectory, you’re looking at a sleeper candidate for the Golden Spikes award.
Who’s the most fun player we should be watching?
Burke: If you like the combination of world-class speed, defense, power and athleticism, then Vance Honeycutt is your guy. On the heels of an All-American freshman season where he posted 25 home runs and 29 stolen bases, he’s off to a solid start with an OPS over 1.000 and already 6 SBs … oh and he’s a “SportsCenter” Top 10 play waiting to happen on defense.
McDaniel: Jurrangelo Cijntje at Mississippi State is an easy one here as a true pro prospect switch-pitcher. I also think the two battles at the top of the draft — Crews and Langford for top college hitter, Chase Dollander (Tennessee) and Paul Skenes (LSU) for top college pitcher — will be a heavyweight slugfest. Tommy Hawke, Camden Minacci and Lowder at Wake Forest are all entertaining to watch for different reasons.
McGee: When I was in Daytona for the 500 over college baseball opening weekend, I made my annual sneak trip down to Stetson to see the Hatters open the season. Remember the name Andrew Estrella, sophomore shortstop. I saw him start the 2023 season with a homer that hasn’t landed yet and he has added four more since … and he’s the leadoff hitter! Dude has 38 total bases in nine games. That sounds pretty fun to me.
Rooney: Honeycutt is an obvious answer. He is a legitimate candidate to lead the nation in home runs. And stolen bases. And stolen home runs in center field. There is nothing Honeycutt can’t do on a baseball field. Rhett Rosevear of Southeastern Louisiana deserves mention as well. He led the nation in HBP last year with 37. Through nine games in 2023, he has scored 15 runs … on just two hits. His 13 walks and 10 HBP are carrying his .581 OBP. #WinningPlayer
What under-the-radar team could make a surprise run?
Burke: I already tipped my hand here, it’s Florida State. Jarrett is in Year 1 at his alma mater and comes in with a ton of momentum having led Notre Dame to the MCWS last year. The roster has plenty of talent highlighted by the pitching staff and ace Jackson Baumeister. Combine that with Jarrett’s winning history and I think the Noles could go from unranked to Omaha in Year 1 of their new coaching staff.
McDaniel: Virginia. The lineup is sneaky deep, headlined by potential first-rounders in Jake Gelof and Kyle Teel while freshmen righty Jack O’Connor and infielder Henry Godbout may be good enough to push them into the elite tier by year’s end.
McGee: I haven’t stopped keeping an eye on the Grand Canyon Antelopes since they knocked off Tennessee over opening weekend. They lost their next two to Michigan and Michigan State but haven’t lost since, including a pair of wins over Ohio State. They host Arizona next week before beginning the wacky WAC schedule, and then play both Arizona State and Arizona by the end of March. In April they go to Texas Tech, host Oregon State, play Long Beach State. Give the Antelopes credit, they ain’t scared.
Rooney: Iowa handled top-ranked LSU last weekend, beating the Tigers 12-4 in the Karbach Round Rock Classic. The Hawkeyes won 36 games a year ago, including winning 20 of their final 27 games. Skipper Rick Heller has enviable pitching depth and a high-end arm in right-hander Brody Brecht. Brecht, who touched 101 mph versus LSU, also happens to be a scholarship wide receiver on the Iowa football team. If middle-of-the-order bats Keaton Anthony and Brennen Dorighi can create enough offense, this is a team that could make a big run.
What’s your college world series prediction?
Burke: Not going to go out on a limb with full Omaha predictions yet, let’s get into conference play and see what happens when the real grind begins.
McDaniel: The best/most talented team almost never makes it to the end, so I’m tossing out LSU even though the Tigers seem best on paper right now. Florida is my pick, over Wake Forest.
McGee: LSU, Tennessee, Stanford, Wake Forest, East Carolina, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, Arkansas.
Rooney: The quickest games we’ve seen in recent MCWS memory. The pitch timer has been fully activated in college baseball in 2023. We’ve already seen a significant improvement in the pace of play. We’ve also seen the law of unintended consequences, including a game-ending strike penalty last weekend. The hope is that players and coaches will continue to get acclimated to this new system. The strict enforcement of the pitch timer makes me nervous, and I was a naysayer. But if I’m being honest, I haven’t minded it so far.