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Wednesday, February 15, 2012
NCAA baseball power rankings

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: All stats and records from the 2011 season.

1. Florida (53-19, 22-8 SEC)

Starters returning: 7
Starting pitchers: 3
Key relievers: 4

Difference-makers: All three weekend starters come back in RHP Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.17), RHP Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40) and LHP Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.62), who is also a great two-way threat at 1B (hitting .307-5-29). Catcher Mike Zunino (.371-19-67), SS Nolan Fontana (.289-5-49) and OF Preston Tucker (.308-15-74) are All-Americans nonpareil in an uber-talented lineup.

X factor: the bull's-eye.
It's not that the Gators aren't accustomed to the role of favorite, but how will this team perform as the heaviest preseason favorite in college baseball since possibly the 1996 Cal State Fullerton Titans?

2. Stanford (35-22, 14-12 Pac-10)

Starters returning: 7
Starting pitchers: 2
Key relievers: 2

Difference-makers: Having possible No. 1 draft pick RHP Mark Appel (6-7, 3.02) and RHP Dean McArdle (7-4, 4.21) back is a great one-two punch. The infield could be the nation's best with 3B Stephen Piscotty (.364-3-40), SS Kenny Diekroeger (.293-2-31) and 2B Lonnie Kauppila (.298, 2 E's). Lumberjack swinging Austin Wilson (.311-5-30) should have a huge sophomore year. Six incoming freshmen were MLB draft picks.

X factor: Big Mooney.
LHP Brett Mooneyham sat out last season, but pitched for Team USA this past summer. If he pitches to potential, the Cardinal rotation becomes ultra-wicked.

3. South Carolina (55-14, 22-8 SEC)

Starters returning: 3
Starting pitchers: 4
Key relievers: 3

Difference-makers: It obviously starts on the mound for the two-time champs with LHP Michael Roth (14-3, 1.06) and reliever Matt Price (7-3, 1.83, 20 saves). Forrest Koumas (6-1, 2.96) and Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.69) return to their weekend starting posts, as well. 1B Christian Walker (.358-10-62) and OF Evan Marzilli (.291-3-31) lead the rebuilt offense as the No. 1 recruiting class will fill in plenty of needs.

X factor: the middle.
The Gamecocks have new faces at catcher, 2B, SS and CF, the most important positions to defensive success. How those positions play will determine how far they go.

4. Rice (42-21, 16-8 Conference USA)

Starters returning: 8
Starting pitchers: 4
Key relievers: 3

Difference-makers: Conference USA freshman of the year Austin Kubitza (6-5, 2.34, 102 K's) will be joined by Matthew Reckling (4-1, 3.10) and John Simms (3-2, 3.32) to bolster a stacked pitching staff. Michael Ratterree (.327-6-53) led the Owls in hitting, HRs and RBIs last year and will have C Craig Manuel (.309) and potentially dangerous Michael Fuda (.255) alongside him.

X factor: the pain train.
The Owls were racked by the injury bug last year. If OF Jeremy Rathjen and RHP Chase McDowell avoid the trainer's tub, this team will stalk the summit.

5. Clemson (43-20, 17-13 ACC)

Starters returning: 4
Starting pitchers: 3
Key relievers: 5

Difference-makers: Lots of star power in the returning starters makes for great building blocks. Coach Jack Leggett has All-ACC talents like power-swinging 3B Richie Shaffer (.315-13-55), 1B Phil Pohl (.333-4-33) and C Spencer Kieboom (.282). Righties Dominic Leone (6-2, 3.70), David Haselden (6-1, 2.23) and Kevin Brady (2-0, 3.86) are among eight of the top nine pitchers back.

X factor: the meadow.
The all-new outfield must jell quickly as new talents will replace Jeff Schaus, Chris Epps and Will Lamb, who have all moved on.

6. Miami (38-23, 19-10 ACC)

Starters returning: 6
Starting pitchers: 4
Key relievers: 3

Difference-makers: The transfer of All-American catcher Peter O'Brien is official. That's huge. He'll catch LHPs Bryan Radziewski (9-2, 3.35) and Steven Ewing (8-2, 2.66) and RHPs Eric Whaley (7-5, 2.70) and E.J. Encinosa (5-6, 3.45). Outfielders Rony Rodriguez (.308-13-44) and Dale Carey (.271) are spectacular, while Stephen Perez (.263, 14 SBs) is a two-year starter at shortstop and will be the base of the infield.

X factor: the Viking.
Eric Erickson missed all of 2011, but has gone 23-6 in his Canes career. If he's back to 100 percent, this pitching staff can make a deep run in June.

7. Arizona (39-21, 15-12 Pac-10)

Starters returning: 5
Starting pitchers: 3
Key relievers: 3

Difference-makers: The strikeout machine returns in staff ace Kurt Heyer (8-5, 2.41, 134 K's). He's joined by Konner Wade (3-0, 3.21) and Tyler Hale (3-4, 5.01), who combined for 19 starts last year. The left side of the infield will be outstanding with SS Alex Mejia (.335) and 3B Seth Mejias-Brean (.313). They'll team with speedsters Joey Rickard (.347-4-37, 16 SBs) and Robert Refsnyder (.320-6-55) to lead the offense.

X factor: the greenhorns.
If incoming RHPs Mathew Troupe (17th-round draft pick, Yankees) and Lucas Long (a mid-90s flinger) are legit, the staff becomes even more of a monster.

8. UC Irvine (43-18,16-8 Big West)

Starters returning: 5
Starting pitchers: 4
Key relievers: 4

Difference-makers: The perennially underrated Anteaters are lying in the grass again, with strength up the middle in seniors like C Ronnie Shaeffer (.264, just 3 E's), SS D.J. Crumlich (.300), 2B Tommy Reyes (.289) and CF Christian Ramirez (.282). The pitching is always good at UCI, particularly with LHP Matt Whitehouse (4-0, 2.12), RHP Crosby Slaught (7-2, 3.80) and 6-8 relief ace Phillip Ferragamo (2-0, 2.03).

X factor: the greenhorns.
If 1B Jordan Fox (.323, 2 E's) and highly anticipated frosh 3B Taylor Sparks keep the Eater infield solid, a surprise run to Omaha is possible.

9. Florida State (46-19, 19-11 ACC)

Starters returning: 5
Starting pitchers: 3
Key relievers: 3

Difference-makers: The return of All-American candidate James Ramsey (.364-10-67) for his senior year was huge. The .972 defense should be stout again with an infield of Jayce Boyd (.343-8-60), Devon Travis (.329-6-33), Justin Gonzalez (.264-8-40) and Sherman Johnson (.256) round the horn. Offensive tackle-sized Hunter Scantling (3-3, 4.45) and Robert Benincasa (2-2, 3.58) lead the pitching staff.

X factor: new star power needed.
Last year, the staff leaned heavily on All-Americans Sean Gilmartin, Mike McGee and Daniel Bennett. If returning arms don't assert themselves more, this may be just a 30-plus win season.

10. Cal State Fullerton (41-17, 19-5 Big West)

Starters returning: 6
Starting pitchers: 0
Key relievers: 2

Difference-makers: The defense is stocked with talent, featuring mighty-mites Richy Pedroza (.331, 9 SBs) and Anthony Trajano (.313) in the middle, backed by All-American OF Michael Lorenzen (.342-3-31, 19 SBs) and All Big West-type OF Ivory Thomas (.294). DH Carlos Lopez (.342-2-34) always seemed to get the big hit last year. RHP Dylan Floro (4-2, 4.23) will inherit the Friday role and should flourish.

X factor: the diaper dandies.
Two-way high-round draftees J.D. Davis and Kenny Mathews could both figure into the weekend rotation, along with 3B and OF, respectively.

11. LSU (36-20, 13-17 SEC)

Starters returning: 7
Starting pitchers: 3
Key relievers: 2

Difference-makers: All-soph rotation of Kurt McCune (7-3, 3.31), Kevin Gausman (5-6, 3.51) and Ryan Eades (4-1, 4.51) could dominate in Year 2. Behind them, SS Austin Nola (.298-2-42) and 3B Tyler Hanover (.311) were both drafted last summer but return to Tigertown. Top hitters JaCoby Jones (.338-4-32) and Raph Rhymes (.360-3-42) should make for a potent offense.

X factor: let 'er rip.
Coach Paul Mainieri admitted in the Tigers' 16-1 start and 12-3 finish, he let his team play loose and swing pell-mell. During the 8-16 middle, he thought he played too conservative.

12. California (38-23, 1313 Pac-10

Starters returning: 7
Starting pitchers: 2
Key relievers: 2

Difference-makers: The biggest factor is the high-level work ethic these guys have and most teams want. Grinders like 2B Tony Renda (.332-3-44), C Chadd Krist (.297-2-43), 1B Devon Rodriguez (.275-5-35), OF Vince Bruno (.299) and OF Darrel Matthews (.275) are good examples. RHP Matt Flemer (4-2, 1.93) and LHP Kyle Porter (6-0, 1.89, 2 saves) are huge returnees.

X factor: keeping up with Jones.
LHP Justin Jones (9-6, 2.93) wasn't available in Omaha after injuring his arm in the Super Regionals. If he's back to 100 percent, it will make a world of difference.

13. North Carolina (51-16, 20-10 ACC)

Starters returning: 6
Starting pitchers: 4
Key relievers: 5

Difference-makers: Two weekenders come back to the mound in freshman All-American Kent Emanuel (9-1, 2.33) and Chris Munnelly (6-5, 4.09) and will have quality setup man Andrew Smith (3-1, 2.77) and hammer closer in Michael Morin (4-2, 4.64, 10 saves) behind them. 3B Colin Moran (.335-9-71), 2B Tommy Coyle (.311-2-36, 18SBs) and C Jacob Stalling (.292-4-33) help the .979 defense and are potent sticks.

X factor: the Fox.
UNC has been to Omaha in five of the past six years, thanks to hard-working head coach Mike Fox. In this day and age of erecting statues of coaches on campus, here's a good candidate.

14. Texas A&M (47-22, 19-8 Big 12)

Starters returning: 5
Starting pitchers: 3
Key relievers: 2

Difference-makers: Everything starts with the two-headed monster of RHPs Ross Stripling (14-2, 2.29) and Michael Wacha (9-4, 2.29). Burners like OF Krey Bratsen (.332, 31 SBs), OF Tyler Naquin (.381, 7 triples) and 3B Matt Juengel (.308-7-50, 15 SBs) will make the offense click. Gandy Stubblefield, a 14th-round draftee, could bring his mid-90s heat to the Sunday spot.

X factor: the "Nip/Tuck" episodes.
Despite the 47 wins, it was the 16 nip-and-tuck losses that came by a run or two or in extra innings that bothers coach Rob Childress. Finding a hammer closer is job one for 2012.

15. Texas (49-19, 19-8 Big 12)

Starters returning: 6
Starting pitchers: 2
Key relievers: 3

Difference-makers: The Longhorns got huge news when LHP Sam Stafford returned despite getting drafted in the second round last June. He will join LHP Hoby Milner (7-4, 2.45) and RHP Corey Knebel (3-2, 1.13, 19 saves) as the base for another formidable pitching staff. But the offense hit just .268 and is led by 3B/OF Erich Weiss (.348-4-45).

X factor: to be offensive.
Augie-ball is still in effect, but the bottom line is the Horns have to be able to score more effectively after being held to four runs or fewer 35 times last season.

16. Georgia (33-32, 16-14 SEC)

Starters returning: 7
Starting pitchers: 4
Key relievers: 5

Difference-makers: Bulldogs hopes are buoyed by the return of ace Michael Palazzone (24th-round pick, Brewers) and closer Tyler Maloof (34th round, Indians), who turned down the pros and will join LHP Alex Wood (6-7, 4.44). The defense fielded at a school-record .974 and returns 2B Levi Hyams (.332-5-38), SS Kyle Farmer (.308-8-58) and 3B Curt Powell (.289).

X factor: second time around.
The Dogs were outscored by 33 runs in the third through fifth innings last year. So the starting pitchers must get more effective after their first time through opposing batting orders.

17. Arkansas (40-22, 15-15 SEC)

Starters returning: 4
Starting pitchers: 4
Key relievers: 4

Difference-makers: Leading the pitching staff is Friday horse D.J. Baxendale (10-2, 1.58), who earned wins over Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in consecutive weeks last season. LHP Cade Lynch (4-4, 3.11), RHP Brandon Moore (4-1, 3.45) and RHP Ryne Stanek (5-2, 2.76) all started at least 10 games. Relief ace Nolan Sanburn (8 saves) returns to lock things down. Frosh All-American Dominic Ficociello (.335-4-50) leads the offense.

X factor: if the leaders lead.
The Razorbacks have great leaders in 3B Matt Reynolds (.243), SS Tim Carver (.232) and 2B Bo Bigham (.293), but all three need to be more clutch hitters.

18. Georgia Tech (42-21, 22-8 ACC)

Starters returning: 7
Starting pitchers: 2
Key relievers: 3

Difference-makers: The Jackets have a pair of real studs in RHPs Buck Farmer (11-3, 2.91) and Luke Bard (2-2, 2.72, 8 saves) to build around and a pair of burners with Kyle Wren (.340, 16 SBs) and Brandon Thomas (.307, 19 SBs), along with gap-power sticks in 1B Jake Davies (.347-5-35) and Daniel Palka (.297-12-52).

X factor: the home-field curse.
The Jackets have top-16 potential again, but if they host in June they will have to turn around their three-year streak of losing a regional on their home field.

19. Vanderbilt (54-12, 22-8 SEC)

Starters returning: 6
Starting pitchers: 2
Key relievers: 1

Difference-makers: Midweek starters LHP Kevin Ziomek (3-0, 1.59) and RHP T.J. Pecoraro (7-0, 1.59) will have increased roles and reliever Will Clinard (2-2, 2.77, 35 games) will back them in the 'pen. Also, first-round draft pick Tyler Beede will factor huge. OF Tony Kemp (.331, 17 SBs) and the double-play combo of SS Anthony Gomez (.336) and 2B Riley Reynolds (.331) will pace the offense.

X factor: the wild-card arm.
Watch out for intriguing lefty Sam Selman, who came to campus as a 14th-round draft pick, but hasn't effectively unleashed his mid-90s heat yet. Is now the time?

20. Louisville (32-29, 14-13 Big East)

Starters returning: 6
Starting pitchers: 5
Key relievers: 5

Difference-makers: The numbers don't lie, nearly everyone returns from a staff that posted a 3.04 team ERA, including righties Justin Amlung (10-2, 2.31), Matt Koch (5-5, 3.48), Derek Self (3-3, 2.26) and Jeff Thompson (2-1, 2.75). Incoming LHP Adam Schemenauer was an 11th-round draftee and heads up a huge recruiting class.

X factor: no offense to the defense.
The Cards' pitching is stout. The offense (.253) and defense (.958)? Not so much. Not a single batter who hit better than .250 returns. If there is even slight improvement for both units, Louisville could be cooking.