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Slumping Cougars Face Battle Un-Tested UCF

We expected the tombstone for the 2011 Cougar baseball team to end up reading something like, "Exciting first-year head coach, just not enough talent to compete." At this point, it looks like it will be something more like, "The had more talent than anybody thought, but gave too many games away."

The Coogs are running out of chances to rewrite their fate, but they have one this weekend as they travel to Orlando to take on UCF. For the Knights, this year has been a pretty exact replica of many of the past few years. UCF came into the season with high expectations, beat up on a laughably weak non-conference schedule, and then struggled mightily when faced with some actual competition in C-USA play. Series sweeps over Siena, Wagner and Columbia (shockingly!) don't seem to have prepared the Knights for conference play, where they have put up a 6-9 record so far, despite a 20-6 non-conference mark.

On the flip-side of that coin are the Cougars, who put together one of the tougher non-conference schedules among Power Six conference teams, have a sub-.500 overall record to show for it, but are in a tie for third place with a 7-5 conference mark.

A few more thoughts on the weekend series after the jump

While a 20-22 record this late in the season may make it look like an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is out of the question, the Cougars certainly do control their own destiny in many ways. After the UCF series, Houston finishes out the season by facing off against the three teams (Rice, Southern Miss and Memphis) who are ahead of them in the conference standings. And then there is always the possibility of earning the conference's automatic NCAA tournament berth by winning the conference tournament. But if that doesn't happen, if the Cougars can catch fire, put together four straight series wins to end the year, and win at least a few games in the conference tourney...wouldn't the NCAA selection committee have to respect a team that wins a regular season title in a power conference, and ends up a few games above .500 with an RPI in the 30s?

Of course, if Houston loses two of three against UCF this weekend, and can't pick up any momentum through the end of the year, they could end up 10 games below .500, and I'll feel silly for talking about the NCAA tournament.

Players to watch this weekend:

D.J. Hicks, DH, Central Florida - The sophomore masher went 10-21 with three homers and 13 RBI in five games this past week, earning himself a mess of national awards.

Jonathan Griffin, 1B, Central Florida - It's his time of year. Last season, the then-junior hit only two home runs through his first 19 games, then hit 11 in his last 34. So far, 2011 hasn't been much different. After hitting four homers in 29 contests to open the year, he has seven dingers in UCF's last 12 contests.

Jared Ray, SP, Houston - He threw four effective innings against ECU last weekend, in his first appearance since 2009, thanks to injuries. He has been tabbed the Sunday starter this weekend by head coach Todd Whitting. Friday starter Mo Wiley has improved since missing the beginning of the year with injuries of his own, and Saturday starter Jordan Lewis is coming off of a dominant performance, so if Ray can put together a solid outing, the Cougars will have a good shot at a series win, despite a shorthanded bullpen that has struggled to close out games.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.