Commentary

Five storylines to watch in 2014

Originally Published: June 25, 2013
By Teddy Mitrosilis | ESPN.com

A potential Pac-12 parade. That's one of the preseason storylines that struck me in 2013.

Arizona won a national championship in 2012, propping up the league and crowning it with promise. Now it would complete its return to equal status alongside the SEC and ACC.

Is it fair to call that one a split? The Pac-12 had four teams in the preseason top 10 rankings -- UCLA (5), Oregon (6), Stanford (9) and Oregon State (10) -- which was second only to the SEC's five. Add Arizona State and the defending champion Wildcats, and that was six almost-locks for the NCAA tournament. If three of those reached Omaha, it'd be no surprise.

That didn't happen. Arizona and Stanford were both significant disappointments, missing the NCAA tournament, and Oregon flamed out as a national seed, losing its regional to Rice. Sending only four teams to the postseason wasn't a good look, but sending two to Omaha -- as many as the ACC and SEC -- was. And, of course, UCLA saved the league by beating the SEC's Mississippi State to win the national championship.

By overall bodies of work, 2013 belonged to the SEC (nine tournament teams) and ACC (eight). Vanderbilt, North Carolina and LSU were the country's most impressive teams from February to June. In retrospect, the ACC should have had three national seeds with NC State joining UNC and Florida State. So you can bicker over which league was better overall (cue SEC fans: "Wait, did the ACC have a team playing for the national title? Right. S-E-C! S-E-C!").

Ah, February, the days of hubris and genius and perfect predictions. As this season fades to black, let's look ahead and anticipate five storylines for 2014.

1. The power structure of the SEC continues to shift


Historically, LSU occupies the SEC dean's chair. Only recently did South Carolina even begin to stir discussions of conference supremacy, with consecutive national titles in 2010 and 2011, but it would need to do that twice more to reach LSU's six titles. The rest of the SEC accounts for only one title: Georgia, 1990 (no, Missouri in '54 doesn't count).

[+] EnlargeHunter Renfroe
AP Photo/Eric FrancisMississippi State's success said a lot about the current state of the SEC.

Viewed through that prism, you'd think the league is top heavy and shallow in terms of national relevance. Of course, that is not the case.

Nine teams from the conference made the NCAA tournament this season, with four of them (LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State) having shots at Omaha. Arkansas underachieved by not getting out of the Manhattan, Kan., Regional. Florida, Texas A&M, Alabama and Ole Miss probably maximized their potential by making regionals. Kentucky was a preseason top-15 team that flopped and missed the postseason.

Heading into next season, does anyone have a good feel of how the league will finish? LSU and Vanderbilt are probably the favorites. South Carolina will be there. After that, at least seven teams could make runs. It's easy to forget MSU went 16-14 in conference play in 2013, but that's the nature of the league, in which power is centralized for four months but turns nomadic once tournament season hits. The intrigue doesn't reside in the two teams in the national top five. A power league is really built from the bottom up, and that's the current SEC. That's what made the league interesting this season -- hence Mississippi State -- and that's what will scatter it all over the 2014 polls.

2. Historical powers take steps of progress


LSU's six national titles? That is tied for second all-time and is still half as many as Southern California owns. Hard to believe, considering the direction the Trojans have gone since their last title 15 years ago. Next season needs to be a step back to relevance for USC.

It begins with hiring the right coach this offseason. Who could that be? Depends on the budget. Andy Lopez, an L.A. guy who coached at Pepperdine, is a big name at Arizona. John Savage has built a power at UCLA and is coming off a national championship, making it nearly impossible to see him leaving the Bruins. But he coached at USC in the past, and large numbers on paychecks have a way of shunning sentiment.

What the Trojans can sell: elite education, a fine ballpark, an incredible student-athlete facility, Los Angeles, song girls, the Pac-12, 12 months of sun, song girls, big-time football, a rich talent base, Nike, song girls and every other perk that comes with being an athlete at a massive university in one of the country's most popular cities. So, everything. USC has no excuse for being on its second decade of mostly forgettable baseball.

Stanford and Texas are two other traditional giants that should bounce back in 2014. The Cardinal narrowly missed the NCAA tournament this season, an epic wasted opportunity considering they had two players go in the top two rounds of the MLB draft, including pitcher Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall pick. The Longhorns' offensive numbers this season: .260 average (217th nationally), .341 OBP (223rd), .346 SLG (212th). Bevo has seen better baseball days.

Sure, progress is packaged differently. Making the NCAA tournament would be a great 2014 for USC. Stanford and Texas have the ability to do more depending on who gets to campus and who emerges in the fall. All three, though, should start positive trends.

3. Power relief arms make big impacts in starting rotations


Some of the country's top teams have an opportunity to improve vastly by simply converting a reliever into a starter. Here are four guys I'd like to see make the full-time jump to rotations next spring (classes listed are for 2014):

RHP Trent Thornton, So., North Carolina: This one is locked in. The freshman made six starts in 2013 and was moved out of the midweek rotation because he was too good not to have at full strength on ACC weekends. So Thornton became a hybrid closer for UNC, capable of throwing multiple innings. By the end of the season, he was North Carolina's best pitcher and started against LSU in a CWS elimination game. Consider that start his first as North Carolina's ace. In his sophomore season, I can't envision any scenario other than Thornton firing low-to-mid 90s fastballs and hammering breaking balls as the Tar Heels' Friday starter.

RHP Carson Fulmer, So., Vanderbilt: Tyler Beede will get the Friday starting job next season after Kevin Ziomek signed with the Detroit Tigers, and Fulmer should get the opportunity to be the Saturday guy. He didn't make any starts in 2013 but finished his Freshman All-America season by throwing 5 1/3 innings in relief against Louisville in the Nashville Super Regional. Fulmer held mid-90s velocity into his sixth inning of work and has a plus breaking ball. As a 5-foot-11 right-hander, scouts won't drool over him like they do the 6-4 Beede, but Fulmer can be just as dominant in 2014. A Beede-Fulmer combination would give Vanderbilt a head start in the race for the nation's best rotation.

[+] EnlargeJames Kaprielian
Dave Weaver/USA TODAY SportsJames Kaprielian figures to take on a bigger role in Westwood next season.

RHP James Kaprielian, So., UCLA: Kaprielian has been showing off on a national stage this postseason with a fastball up to 94 mph and a breaking ball and changeup that are already above average, becoming a staple of the late innings for John Savage. At 6-4, 195 pounds, he has a superb frame suited to handle the inevitable man-muscle he'll add as he ages. The only way Kaprielian doesn't jump into UCLA's starting rotation next season is if both juniors Adam Plutko (11th round, Indians) and Nick Vander Tuig (6th round, Giants) return to school and rejoin sophomore Grant Watson for one more year and one more title run. That seems unlikely.

RHP Nick Burdi, Jr., Louisville: I mentioned this to Cardinals coach Dan McDonnell recently, and he said they will "evaluate it over the summer." Burdi, at 6-4 and 218 pounds, could be a monster in the rotation with a fastball that reaches 100 mph and a plus slider that cracks 90. He hasn't started since high school, but he's athletic enough to handle it. If he makes the leap, I see potentially another Jonathan Gray -- the OU righty who was the No. 3 overall pick this spring -- who also had a big fastball, a plus slider and a changeup that's currently a distant third pitch. Burdi is pitching out of Team USA's bullpen this summer, so he won't have that time to prepare his body for starting. He'd have to do that in the fall at Louisville. Surely McDonnell isn't thrilled to lose his late-inning fire hose, but after losing his entire rotation to professional baseball, inserting Burdi on Friday nights in 2014 seems like a must.

4. Indiana's encore creates momentum for the Big Ten


The Hoosiers were one of the season's great stories. They hosted a regional in Bloomington, swept Florida State in the Tallahassee Super Regional and made the program's first trip to Omaha, beating Louisville in its first game. As some wonder, can Indiana use 2013 to create forward momentum for the program and the Big Ten?

"I hope we get some respect," coach Tracy Smith said after being eliminated in Omaha. "I hope people realize we play some pretty good baseball up [in the North]."

The Hoosiers are in great shape for next season, with much of their CWS team returning, including catcher Kyle Schwarber and pitcher Will Coursen-Carr. The Big Ten, though? It's possible Indiana's run will create a ripple in recruiting for the conference, but the formula is largely the same: Big Ten teams need to schedule high-profile nonconference opponents and beat them, like Indiana taking two of three from Florida in Gainesville this season. The compounding effect of multiple teams beating prominent programs will be the ultimate driver of future good fortune for the Big Ten.

5. The 2014 College World Series favorites are …

My first three picks, in no order:

UCLA: Well, what? The Bruins could get almost everyone back. Kaprielian, Watson and closer David Berg are all back. Catcher Shane Zeile, a sophomore, is back. Outfielder Eric Filia, a sophomore, is back. Freshman pitchers Cody Poteet and Hunter Virant are breakout candidates in their sophomore seasons next year. Even if Plutko, Vander Tuig and shortstop Pat Valaika (9th round, Rockies) all sign, there's a ton of talent here, not to mention any incoming freshmen. It could be four CWS trips in five years for Savage.

Vanderbilt: Tim Corbin has to replace a lot in his starting lineup, including first baseman Conrad Gregor, catcher Spencer Navin, second baseman Tony Kemp, and outfielders Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski. No, that's not a given, but Corbin has turned Vanderbilt into one of those programs in which departures don't scream "TROUBLE!" They indicate opportunities for new talent. Third baseman Xavier Turner has star potential as a sophomore. Others will emerge. And when you have Beede and Fulmer atop your rotation, you have time to figure the rest out.

NC State: Left-hander Carlos Rodon will be a favorite for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. Shortstop Trea Turner could be a top-10 pick. Catcher Brett Austin was the 54th overall pick out of high school, went to school instead and should be a first-round pick with a good season. Elliott Avent just needs to color inside the lines after that.

Today in Omaha: High of 92 degrees, partly cloudy, 354 days until 2014 CWS Game 1.