Casual fans who follow only football and basketball may not be aware that Conference USA is considered one of the six major conferences in college baseball. (The Big West also has that distinction, while the Big Ten and Big East are considered mid-majors.) So to call the 2010 season a disappointment for the conference would be an understatement, with just two teams earning bids to the NCAA tournament, and with the conference unrepresented by the eight College World Series finalists in Omaha, Neb., for the first time since 2004.
One of the major reasons for the lack of NCAA bids was the parity within the league. Every team except Rice had a conference record between 14-10 and 10-14. Teams that had impressive non-conference campaigns, like East Carolina, UCF and Tulane, got beat up by teams that had struggled until league play, like Houston, Memphis and Marshall. The end result was an impressive conference from top to bottom, but one with few standout teams.
Forecasting the upcoming season will be a difficult chore, since nobody knows how much of an impact the new NCAA-mandated bat-deadening will have. But here's how I see the conference shaking out.
1. Rice Owls (Last season: 40-23, 17-7 C-USA)
I realize I'm not going out on a limb much by putting the Owls here, but they deserve the spot. All they've done is win 40+ games for 16 straight seasons, and a conference regular season and/or tournament title for 15 consecutive years. They are also led by the best player in college baseball in third baseman Anthony Rendon. If you haven't seen Rendon play yet, he is quite literally worth the price of admission. He's a masher at the plate (.394/.530/.801, 26 HR and 85 RBI in 63 games), and is an absolute vacuum cleaner at the hot corner, to boot.
There are some heavy losses from the line-up for the Owls, but outfielders Michael Fuda and Jeremy Rathjen, and second baseman Michael Ratterree are good enough to play for anybody.
While the Owls have a number of talented pitchers on the roster, Rice pitching coach David Pierce calls it "inexperienced depth." He told SBNation Houston that senior Tony Cingari (8.59 ERA in 22 IP in 2010), junior Mathew Reckling (6.32, 15.2 IP) and sophomore Tyler Duffey (5.27, 41 IP) are all expected to make big strides in 2011.
Player to watch: Sophomore 1B/RP J.T. Chargois. Chargois was effective out of the 'pen and as a spot starter in 2010, while playing only minimally as a hitter. (1-for-4 at the plate) However, he is expected to start at first base and be a key cog in relief for the Owls.
2. Southern Miss Golden Eagles (36-24, 14-10)
In any conference that doesn't feature Rendon, B.A. Vollmuth is your preseason player of the year. All he did in 2010 was put up a .386/.490/.729 line, slug 20 homers and drive in 76 runs. Senior first baseman Adam Doleac hit .352 with seven longballs last year, and has the strength that USM assistant coach Chad Caillet told SBNation Houston will translate well with the new bats.
On the pitching side of things, USM has as good a Starter-Closer combination as anybody in the nation, in Todd McInnis (3.30, 6-5, 87 K, 95.1 IP) and Collin Cargill (1.75, 9 sv, 36 K, 0 HR allowed in 46.1 IP). After that, the picture becomes murkier, as nobody else returns with a sub-6.00 ERA. Lots of newcomers will have to make an impact, and lots of returners like Geoffrey Thomas (8.37, 1-6) will have to show marked improvement.
Player to watch: Junior LF Kameron Brunty. Brunty hit .303 with 9 HR (second on the team behind Vollmuth) a year ago, and has 44 extra base hits through two seasons, but doesn't have the strength of Vollmuth or Doleac. Brunty might be the perfect microcosm of how the new bats will affect the game of college baseball.
3. East Carolina Pirates (32-27, 11-13)
The Pirates have been one of the best teams not to reach Omaha in the last several years, but slipped all the way out of the post-season with a losing conference slate last season. They will try to return there this year with a team that, shockingly enough, will rely on the strength of its pitching staff. The bandbox that ECU plays in will still likely yield its fair share of homers, but the Pirates feature one of the deepest, most talented staffs in the conference, led by Seth Maness (4.17, 10-3).
Offensively, ECU doesn't look like it will have the murderer's row of power threats that it usually does, but is led by Corey Thompson (.377/.457/.579, 8 HR), Trent Whitehead (.331, 15 SB) and Zach Wright (.265, 14 HR in 44 games).
Player to watch: Senior pitcher Brad Mincey. In 2009, Mincey went 10-5 with a 3.15 ERA. The next year, his ERA ballooned to 5.83. Which version of Mincey do the Pirates get in 2011?
4. Tulane Green Wave (32-24, 10-14)
Gone are Rob Segedin and his .434 batting average, but most of the rest of an offense that hit .311 as a team returns, led by Blake Crohan (.340, 8 HR). However, if the new bats do force teams to play more of a running game to scratch out runs, Tulane might be in trouble. The team's leading base stealer of a year ago swiped just seven bags, and returning catcher Jeremy Schaffer allowed opponents to steal 49 bases, with a 79% success rate.
Two-thirds of the weekend rotation returns in Conrad Flynn (4.57, 3-7) and Robby Broach (5.40, 7-3). Broach has shown the ability to miss bats, with 76 Ks in 76.2 innings, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a breakout year. Nick Pepitone (2.28, 8 saves) is one of the top relievers in the conference, but the rest of the bullpen is unproven. Luckily, they'll get a pretty lousy non-conference schedule to get warmed up against.
Player to watch: Freshman RP/OF Alex Facundus. The righty had a pair of saves in the Tulane Fall World Series, and may be a piece of the puzzle to solidify the bullpen behind Pepitone.
5. Houston Cougars (25-32, 11-13)
This may be a slightly optimistic ranking for the hometown team, but if you look at some of the players that have been drafted off of recent Cougar teams, you realize that this is a program that has talented players, the issue seems to be developing that talent while it is on campus. Many of the players just seemed to be afraid to play for departed head coach Rayner Noble. If Todd Whitting can get the players playing to their potential, the Cougars may well exceed this ranking.
M.P. Cokinos put up a solid .284/.381/.454 line as a freshman, and should see improvement in year two. Caleb Ramsey has consistently improved each of the last two years, and enters his senior season coming off a .341, 20 extra base hit campaign. Newcomers Chase Jensen and Landon Appling will have to have big years in the lineup.
The pitching staff is undeniably thin. But if pitching coach Jack Cressend can get the Coogs throwing strikes, they will necessarily improve upon last year's numbers. Codey Morehouse (9.50 ERA in 18 IP, primarily an infielder last year) and junior college transfer Jordan Lewis were tabbed by Whitting as weekend starters.
Player to watch: David Murphy. All he's done is beat cancer and make a "miraculous recovery" from a fall foot injury. With all of that behind him, he could be poised for a breakout year.
6. Memphis Tigers (28-30, 12-12)
Between Chad Zurcher (.400, 20 SB) and Drew Martinez (.377, 19 SB), the Tigers are already prepared to play the small ball everybody keeps talking about in the wake of the new bats. There's not a lot of pop in the lineup, but the Tigers could even improve on their .321 team average of a year ago, and they will be capable of manufacturing runs.
Preventing runs will be another question. There are some losses from a pitching staff that had a 6.09 team ERA last year. Entering his senior season, Ryan Holland will have to drastically improve upon his 7.11 ERA, and one win in 14 starts.
Player to watch: Sophomore pitcher Dan Langfield. He was one of the Tigers' more effective pitchers a year ago, posting a 4.62 ERA in relief and spot start duties. He will have to take on a bigger role this year as a weekend starter.
7. Central Florida Knights (33-22, 10-14)
Once again, UCF plays probably the weakest non-conference schedule in the conference, which will make it hard to know how good the team is until conference play starts. The good news it that the Knights had their best mark since joining Conference USA in 2010. The bad news is that that mark was a last place 10-14. So while many are high on UCF, I can't buy in until I see them put up a respectable conference campaign.
The Knights lose their two top hitters, but have a spark plug at the top of the order in Darnell Sweeney, who hit .358 and swiped 17 bags while starting every game as a freshman. 6-7, 250-lb. senior Jonathan Griffin (.299, 13 HR) is the top returning power threat. The pitching staff returns nearly intact, but put up a team ERA of 6.01 against the aforementioned weak schedule a year ago.
Player to watch: Junior pitcher Ray Hanson. Hanson signed with no less a power program out of high school than Arizona State, but ended up at a JuCo, where he pitched well enough to be drafted by the Giants last year before deciding to transfer to UCF. He stands 6'7", 230 and has the pedigree to make an impact immediately.
8. Marshall Thundering Herd (27-31, 12-12)
Victor Gomez enters his senior season as the program's all-time leader in homers and RBI. There's not a lot of pop in the bats after him, but James Lavinskas does return after hitting .342 in his first year on campus as a JuCo transfer.
Arik Sikula leads the pitching staff after posting a 3.88 ERA in 9 starts and 8 relief appearances, but nobody else returns with a sub-6.00 ERA. The Herd bring in five pitching transfers to patch things up behind Sikula.
Player to watch: Freshman pitcher Aaron Blair. After being drafted in the 21st round by the Houston Astros out of high school, Blair chose to head to Huntington instead.
9. Alabama-Birmingham Blazers (28-25, 11-13)
Jamal Austin is the most dynamic center fielder in the conference, a .364 hitter who hit over .400 in conference play, swiped 28 bags, and was caught just five times. The next-leading returning hitter is John Frost, who hit .338 with 20 extra base hits.
That's about the end of the goods news for UAB. The lone power threat is gone in Luke Stewart, there are no .300 hitters after Austin and Frost, and the pitching staff is lined with question marks. Will fifth year senior Ryan Woolley live up to the talent that has seen him drafted on multiple occasions? Can Blake Huddleston pitch more like his 2009 form (1.93 ERA) than his 2010 form (9.00 ERA)? How well will Mark McKinley (4.12 ERA in '09) rebound from missing an entire season with injury?
Player to watch: Freshman OF Ivan De Jesus. After putting up eye-popping numbers in high school in Puerto Rico, De Jesus was drafted in the sixth round by the Cubs, but decided on school. He'll be asked to make an impact immediately.