While things are heating up across the way at Auburn Arena, the Auburn baseball team is less than a month away from starting up the 2018 season. Let’s dive in and take a look at how the Tigers stack up against an ultra competitive conference and national scene.
Auburn’s Non-Conference Slate
The Tigers first month of baseball should be a great warm up for the veterans and give Butch Thompson the chance to find out which Freshman will contribute to the 2018 season. Auburn opens with Longwood on Feb 16-18 followed by midweek games against Georgia State and Troy on the 20th and 21st. The following week will be a solid early test as Auburn hosts Bryant University and then travels to take on a nationally ranked South Alabama team. USA was a top offensive ball club nationally last year, ranking in the top 10 in runs scored, and returns most of those pieces which they will need to rely on as the Jaguars lost their top arms Randy Bell and Thomas Huston. A mid-week road win against a likely tournament team could be a big boost for Auburn early. Weekend series against BYU and Northeastern follow along with another test at Regions Park against UAB and home mid-week games against Georgia Tech, who looks to improve over their results from last year, and Memphis.
Other midweek games include a home-and-home against Casey Dunn and the Samford Bulldogs, a team that has seemingly dominated the Tigers recently. USA will make the return trip to Plainsman Park after SEC play kicks off. The annual Capital City Classic against Alabama will once again take place at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, where Auburn has owned the Tide. The Tigers will also play road games against Georgia Tech and Troy and a home game against Alabama A&M.
Projected SEC Standings
Stop me if you’ve heard this; the SEC West could be the toughest division in all of sports, bar none. Oh yeah, I’m not talking about football. The SEC West could have all 7 teams in the big dance, depending on how Brad Bohannon does trying to turn around the Tide. All teams in the West, except for previously mentioned Alabama, have a chance to win the division. And the Tide could easily play spoiler, much like they did for Auburn last year by sweeping the series at Plainsman Park and likely knocking Auburn out of a hosting spot. Basically, it’s gonna be a fun ride in the West this season.
Meanwhile in the East, a 3-team race for the top is shaping up, headed up by the reigning, defending national champion Florida Gators. The bottom of the East is comprised of a couple of reclamation projects in Athens and in Knoxville. Unfortunately for Auburn fans, the Tigers will miss both Georgia and Tennessee this year in conference play.
Florida – Where else would the defending champs be? For any that hope that the champs lose a lot off of a title team, let me be the first to dash those hopes. The Gators have a top MLB prospect in Brady Singer matched with one of the best starting rotations in the nation behind him. On the other side, UF returns JJ Schwartz who heads up what should be a much-improved offense.
(@ Florida – April 26-28)
Kentucky – Who wants to step in the box for a weekend series and see Sean Hjelle, Justin Lewis and Zack Thompson? Because that’s the task teams will take to try and tame the Wildcats this season. Kentucky may need it as they try and replace 5 every day regulars on of last season’s team. This is a veteran ball club that projects only 2 underclassmen in the starting lineup on a given day. The Cats will be a tough matchup for anyone in the country. We could be looking at Kentucky’s first CWS ballclub a year after making the Super-Regional round.
(@ Kentucky – March 23-25)
Vanderbilt – Replaces 4 of its 5 top hitters from last season, but the ‘Dores have plenty of talent to do it and not miss a beat. Stephen Scott is the name to keep an eye on after a solid summer in the Cape Cod League. Don’t worry (or if you are an opponent…worry) about the Vandy on the mound, Coach Corbin has that taken care of with Patrick Raby heading up on Friday night. (vs. Vandy – May 4-6)
South Carolina – Carlos Cortes is the name to know for the Gamecocks. With a team leading 12 homers, he will be the offensive leader for a club looking to recapture some old magic under new coach Mark Kingston. Friday Nights will be led by Adam Hill, but after that is a ton of freshman talent that remains to see their first conference batters. (DNP)
Georgia – The Bulldogs took their lumps in 2017 while being a very competitive team and they look to improve on that this season. Cam Shepherd had a steller freshman campaign and will lead the offense for the Dawgs. On the mound, watch Kevin Smith to take the Friday Night spot, but Chase Adkins could also be in the running. (DNP)
Missouri – The strength of Missouri last season was on the mound and this season should be the exact opposite. Bryce Montes de Oca looks to fill the shoes of Tanner Houck and he does have the talent to do it, but behind him are a lot of question marks. Trey Harris also returns as the offensive spark plug to try and get the Tigers back to Hoover. (vs Missouri – March 30 – April 1)
Tennessee – 1st year head coach Tony Vitello has a tall task in front of him as he tries to rebuild the Vols into the power they were back in the early 2000s. It will start on the mound with Zach Linginfelter and Garrett Stallings. Offense will be where the Vols look for answers as they try to piece it together through the non-conference. A Tuesday slot in Hoover should be their ceiling. (DNP)
Arkansas – If you enjoy defensive baseball, go no further than Fayetteville. As good as the 8 in the field are for the Hogs, teams first have to put it in play against a scary starting three on the mound. Blaine Knight is set for Friday and it appears that Isaiah Campbell, who was injured last season, will be the Saturday man. Kacey Murphy and his 3.65 ERA last season will move to Sundays. (@ Arkansas – April 6-8)
Texas A&M – The mound and the outfield are the concerns for the Aggies this season. Kaylor Chafin looks to spearhead the highly coveted Friday night slot, but behind him could be a revolving door that A&M will look to figure out in their non-conference play. Braden Shewmake anchors the defense and at the plate for a talented group of Aggies. (vs Texas A&M – March 16-18)
LSU – The Fighting Tigers will, as always, be solid at the plate. However, firepower may very well be the mound this year. Gone are Alex Lange and Jared Poche. LSU will also be without the services of Eric Walker, who is recovering from arm surgery. Don’t feel too bad for LSU though. They still have Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess, who combined to go 14-2 last season for the national runner-ups and SEC Champs. (vs LSU – May 17-19)
Mississippi State – Konnor Pilkington leads the other surprise team in the SEC from last year. Behind him is a starting rotation that has a lot of potential but much to prove. Jake Mangum is back in CF and headlines an offense that is very young, but will need to find a way to replace Brent Rooker’s 23 homers and 82 RBIs from 2017. (vs MS State – April 13-15)
Ole Miss – The 2017 Rebels were a young team that took their lumps, missing out on the NCAA tournament after losing a first-round game to Auburn in Hoover. That game turned out to be a play-in game for the 64-team field. This year’s squad has a lot of promise and I think they will cash in on it to a point, however capping out on it may be easier said than done given life in the West. Still, expect Ole Miss to be back in the NCAA Tournament after their one-year hiatus. Keep an eye on P Ryan Rolison and Will Golsan in CF. (@ Ole Miss – May 11-13)
Auburn – Click here for my full fall report on Auburn.
Alabama – While the Tide has some catching up to do with the rest of the West, they still have enough key pieces to make some noise. The two Chandlers (Avant and Taylor) return along with Friday night ace Jake Walters. If Brad Bohannon can pull the right strings, like has happened on teams he’s been apart of before, Alabama could get ahead of the rebuilding schedule in a hurry.
(@ Alabama – April 20-22)
Don’t be discouraged by where I have the Tigers in my projection. The theme for the conference this season to me is survive and advance. If you can do just enough to get into the NCAA tournament then that should be celebrated. Once there, you can make your noise and try to get to a Super Regional. I think this is a very good Auburn team, but finding more reliable hurlers after Casey Mize is a must. This team will be back in the NCAA tournament, and as we know from last year, anything is possible once you’re in the dance. Remember, the Tigers were one out away from hosting a Super-Regional against Sam Houston State. I am not sure about Omaha just yet, but its not out of the question given the parity in college baseball.
Drew’s Top 25
2) Oregon State
4) North Carolina
5) Texas Tech
7) Florida State
9) Texas A&M
14) Mississippi State
15) Cal State Fullerton
16) Ole Miss
20) South Alabama
21) Dallas Baptist
23) Sam Houston St
Ones to watch: UCF, Auburn, West Virginia, Indiana, NC State, Miami (FL)
Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Drewmac20AU for updates during Auburn baseball games and other musings from around college baseball, as well as other Auburn sports and other stuff.