Special to ESPN.com
OK, that's enough! It's been 235 days since the last pitch.
I figure eight months of offseason strife, off-field bad news, program elimination and rule-change complaining is long enough. C'mon, let's toe the rubber and get this thing started already.
The 2011 season promises to be filled with a lot of transition. There are new bats, a new pitch clock, new definitions of national powers and new conference affiliations on the horizon.
So the road starts here, people. We've got 300 hopefuls, but only one championship trophy to parade around the new downtown stadium.
Going into the opening weekend, there are about 5,000 questions we could have about the new season, but we'll start with the five most important questions as we unwrap opening weekend, crank up the heavy metal thunder and hit the road to Omaha.
After all, there are only 122 days until the College World Series.
1. How will the new bats affect the sport?
This has been a hot-button subject all offseason. The NCAA has mandated new restrictions on the bats that are used in college baseball, and once again, it has deadened the "trampoline effect" even more. We'll have more on this subject below, but that's it in a nutshell.
2. When will FIU's Garrett Wittels' hit streak end?
He's got 56. The venerable Robin Ventura had 58. Southeastern Louisiana will be the opponent. ESPN will be manning the cameras. This should be fun. Two big obstacles lie in his way, however. One, the new bats, which won't help. And two, the highly underrated pitching staff of SLU. (Wittels, who was charged with rape in the Bahamas in December, was cleared by FIU to play on Wednesday.)
3. Have we seen the end of the four-hour game?
The NCAA has also instituted rules to speed games up. Now there will be a 20-second limit between pitches, and also 90 seconds between innings. My guess is that the pitch clock will eventually die of silence and become a non-issue. Pitchers will adjust quickly -- pun intended. But one of the things you won't see as much of anymore is the team taking the field, stopping and waiting for everyone to gather before they take infield warm-ups every half-inning. Also, the onus will fall on pitchers to hustle out to the mound and get their warm-up pitches in as well. In other words, these rules seem aimed more at the West Coast teams.
4. Can South Carolina repeat?
Don't bet on it. No offense to the Gamecocks and the remarkable job Ray Tanner did last season, but you just can't count on the Oregon States of the world happening again in this age of parity. But be warned: Tanner has pulled off miracles before, so don't ever count him out. Plus, CWS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr. returns as a team leader (and ESPN Preseason All-American).
5. Will this be the final go-round of the Mount Rushmore of college coaches?
There are four national championship-winning coaches that keep us wondering how long they will grace our sport with their significant presences. If Augie Garrido of Texas, Wayne Graham of Rice, Gene Stephenson of Wichita State or Mike Gillespie of UC Irvine make it to Omaha or -- gulp! -- win the 2011 national championship, will that make this their final go-round in college baseball? I hope not, of course. But you have to wonder.
Special to ESPN.com
University of Miami coach Jim Morris said the new bats that will be used in college baseball this season will drastically reduce the number of home runs hit.
Asked whether Canes third baseman Harold Martinez can repeat last year's total of 21 homers, which tied for the ACC lead, Morris said, "I don't know if our whole team can hit 21 homers."
Canes hitting coach Joe Mercadante was more optimistic.
"When you have guys like Harold or some of the other power hitters in the ACC, they are still going to hit home runs," he said. "It may not be 20. It may be 12 or 15. But these big strong guys will get a hold of a ball pull-side and it's going out, no matter if it's last year's bats or this year's bats."
Aluminum bats have been used in college baseball since 1974. Manufacturers made the bats more potent each year after that, culminating with the 1998 College World Series, which featured a 21-14 championship game victory for USC over Arizona State.
The 1998 season featured records that still stand for homers per game (2.2) and runs (14.2).
The NCAA reduced the ball's exit speed off the bats after '98, and safety was part of the focus. Pitchers and infielders were at too much risk of being seriously injured because of the potency of the bats.
But Morris believes the NCAA made "too big an adjustment" this year.
"I think the bats were too hot in the '90s, but I think they were pretty good last year," Morris said.
Morris said he hopes the reduction in power across the country won't hurt attendance.
"Fans enjoy seeing home runs," he said. "We played 23 games this fall, and we hit 13 home runs as a team. If you double that, for a 56-game regular season, that's 26 home runs for our whole team. The ball doesn't carry as well here in the fall as it does in the spring. That said, I can't see anyone hitting 20 home runs in our ballpark with these bats."
Morris said his team, which hit 106 homers last season, will adjust as long all teams have to play with similar bats, which he said has not been the case in the past. He added that his team will play more "small ball" this season.
"Even if we used the same bats, I don't think we'd hit for the same power this season," he said. "We have more speed. It's going to be more like a wood-bat league. We have to put the ball in play, bunt, hit and run. All our fast guys have to get on base."
Ten places to be this weekend
Special to ESPN.com
We can't be everywhere, but if we could, here's our top 10 for the weekend:
1. Southeastern Louisiana at Florida International
History could be made as Garrett Wittels takes his 56-game hit streak from last year and goes for the NCAA consecutive-games record, which Robin Ventura currently holds at 58 games. Beyond that, both teams are legit BracketBusters, being two of the better mid-majors in the country.
Key matchup: The Panthers were 16th in the country with a .337 team average. But the Lions have all three weekend starters back from the 27th best pitching staff in the country (4.29 ERA).
TV info: Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com; Saturday at 1 p.m. on ESPN3.com; Sunday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU/ESPN3.com.
2. No. 16 Stanford at No. 17 Rice
This will be the only matchup of the weekend that will see a pair of ranked teams going head-to-head. Both are looking for rebound seasons after the Cardinal finished 2010 at just 31-25 and the Owls were an un-Owl-like 40-23, losing the championship games of both the C-USA tournament and the Austin Regional.
Key matchup: Anthony Rendon is the best hitter in America (and an ESPN preseason All-American). If Jordan Pries and Brett Mooneyham, the Friday-Saturday starters, can keep him in check, Stanford has a chance at a series win. But Rendon is a firestarter with a potent, infectious bat.
3. The Big East-Big Ten Challenge
Eight teams from each conference will take part in the third annual early-season event, which is held in the Tampa Bay area. The best part is that teams from these two northern leagues play each other instead of spending a weekend getting waxed by Southern monsters who have had a bunch of outdoor practices.
Key matchups: Connecticut-Minnesota (see right column for more), Louisville-Michigan, Louisville-Minnesota, St. John's-Minnesota and Pittsburgh-Iowa. All of these teams will be a little ragged early in the season, having had few outdoor practices, but watch for them to excel come May and June.
4. The Auburn tournament
Teams involved: Auburn, Virginia, Arkansas State, UAB
Too bad it's not a full weekend of Auburn-UVa, but don't sell Arkansas State or UAB short because they'll play with large chips on their shoulders and have enough talent too. But the Cavaliers come in as the favorites, returning most of last year's squad that just missed a trip to Omaha.
Key matchup: The Tigers hit a blistering .348 last season as a team (sixth nationally) and return six batters from last year, led by Dan Gamache (.365) and Justin Fradejas (.358). But the Wahoos are -- as always under Brian O'Connor -- pitching strong. They'll toss out arms like Danny Hultzen (11-1 last year) and Tyler Wilson (drafted by the Reds last June).
5. The USC tournament
Teams involved: USC, Cal Poly, Missouri, North Carolina
All of these teams are looking for both redemption and a springboard to a better 2011 season. North Carolina will also play an additional game against Cal State Fullerton while in town. That should be a huge barometer for the Heels.
Key matchup: USC's comfort zone versus visitors. The Trojans need a positive start more than anyone else, with the turmoil on the coaching staff and all. If they can play well at home, and get power-slugger Ricky Oropesa uncorked early, they could win out here and start this as a legit bounceback season.
6. No. 10 Oregon at Hawaii
The Ducks are one of my sleeper teams for the national title, but are highly regarded in every preseason ranking out there. The Warriors are going to have some rebuilding to do and won't match UO pitch-for-pitch, but they are talented enough to pull a couple of wins, especially with all-world 2B/SS Kolten Wong stirring the pot.
Key matchup: Oregon versus the allure of the islands. It's gotta be a business trip, guys. Not a holiday. I mean, the Ducks have a lot of major league talent on their roster, but you know how the lure of paradise can turn a business trip into a nightmare for teams that enjoy the sun and sand too much and not take the Bows seriously enough.
7. The San Diego area
No. 4 Vanderbilt will travel to the city with the best weather in the country and take on USD (Friday and Sunday) and San Diego State (Saturday). The Commodores are standing in the shadow of the Florida Gators this preseason, but here's a chance to make an immediate statement, against the talented, but raw, Toreros and Aztecs.
Key matchup: The Coach versus Cancer. It was announced in October that SDSU coach Tony Gwynn would begin treatment for cancer of a salivary gland. His recovery has come along nicely, but his doctors are still telling him to take it easy. As of last week Gwynn maintained that he's near full recovery and plans to be in the dugout for Friday's game versus Winthrop.
8. The Fresno tournament
Teams involved: Fresno State, Oregon State, Gonzaga
The two Cinderella programs of the 2000s face off with another Northwest squad that should be much improved. All three teams will feature a handful of players who got drafted in June but decided not to go pro. Fresno's power lineup gives the Dogs a decided edge if the pitching is slow to get going.
Key matchup: Bulldog arms versus the bats of the Beavers and Zags. Fresno returns all four weekend starters (they play four in the WAC), and also get 14th-round draftee Tyler Linehan added to the arsenal. The Beavers hit a Pac-10-worst .267 last year and the Zags were a WCC-worst .282. Those two units must establish a better 2011.
9. South Florida at No. 3 Florida
OK, so the Bulls have been looking for a breakout season for quite some time now. If 2011 is going to be the year, a win or two in Gainesville is the perfect way to signal that. But then again well, the Gators may just swallow them whole first.
Key matchup: Randy Fontanez and Andrew Barbosa versus the Gators bats. These two lockdown starters were both drafted by the bigs last summer, but came back to lead USF to bigger things. But the Gators will scare the bejesus out of you with their batting order. If Fontanez and Barbosa get in a groove early, this weekend could become thorny.
10. The Caravelle Resort tournament
Teams involved: No. 20 Coastal Carolina, Boston College, Tennessee Tech and Indiana
This won't be as big a cakewalk as you might think for the Chanticleers. BC has taken on a winning pedigree the last few years, Tennessee Tech won the Ohio Valley last year and Indiana should have its best team this millennium.
Key matchup: CCU's pitching versus Indiana's Alex Dickerson. It would be great to see Coastal All-American ace Anthony Meo go at Dickerson, but with this game being played Sunday, the Hoosier slugger will most likely face either Jim Birmingham or Ryan Connolly. Still, it'll be a treat.
Top 25 matchups
San Francisco at No. 1 UCLA
Kansas at No. 2 TCU
South Florida at No. 3 Florida
No. 4 Vanderbilt at San Diego
Eastern Michigan at No. 7 Clemson
William & Mary at No. 6 Oklahoma
Maryland at No. 7 Texas
Santa Clara at No. 8 South Carolina
No. 9 Cal State Fullerton at/vs. Long Beach State/vs. North Carolina
No. 10 Oregon at Hawaii
VMI at No. 11 Florida State
New Mexico at No. 12 Arizona State
LeMoyne at No. 13 Texas A&M
UAB at No. 14 Virginia
Wake Forest at No 15 LSU
No. 16 Stanford at No. 17 Rice
Rutgers at No. 18 Miami
Kent State at No. 19 Georgia Tech
Boston College at No. 20 Coastal Carolina
Michigan at No. 21 Louisville
No. 22 Connecticut vs. Purdue/Minnesota/Michigan
Arkansas State at No. 23 Auburn
Delaware State at No. 24 Arkansas
North Dakota State at No. 25 Arizona
Sorenson on new bat rules
ESPN's resident NCAA baseball bracketologist, Jeremy Mills, offered his preseason projections. Mills' eight national seeds are:
5. Cal State Fullerton
You can find the rest of his projected 64-team field in ESPN.com's college baseball blog.
In Focus: Cal
Nobody has had a more tumultuous past six months than Cal head coach Dave Esquer.
• September: School announces baseball will be one of five sports cut.
• October: School agrees to keep program if funds can be raised to keep it viable for next five to 10 years.
• January: NCBWA, Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America all put Cal in their preseason rankings.
• Friday: Cal administration finalizes plans to eliminate the baseball program.
According to the Cal athletic department, the baseball program would have needed to raise "three-four-or-five times more money that it raised" to keep it viable. In all, baseball's fundraising topped out at around $2 million.
But keep an eye on the rising star that is coach Esquer. He had more players on MLB rosters on opening day last year than any other college skipper and has been to the NCAA tournament in two of the past three years. Plus, with six field starters and all three weekend pitchers coming back, Cal is a good bet for another run this June.
"If it's going to be the last year of Cal baseball, we feel we can give 'em a hell of a team," Esquer said. "We're ranked in the top 20 and we feel we deserve that. But we have to keep the players focused to play their best and balance the success of this year's team with setting up their future elsewhere as well."
Don't look for Dave Esquer to stay on the open market long, either. -- Eric Sorenson
Preseason All-American Team
All-Access: UConn baseball
Under the radar: New Mexico State
Last year: 36-23-1
This weekend: vs. Houston Baptist
Stats: .349 BA / 7.46 ERA / .957 FLD%
Reason to watch: The new bats and their effect on the Aggies. No team relies on their bats as much as this heavy-hitting team does. Last year, they were fifth in the country with a .349 team average and eighth in home runs with 104.
What coach Rocky Ward says: "Last year, in fall and preseason scrimmages combined we hit 87 home runs. This year, with the new bats, we've hit only 28 combined so far. But the thing people probably don't realize is that we lead the nation in walks just about every year [they were second last year with 382]. We teach plate discipline more than anything else, so if the home run is not a factor, we're still going to score. We spent 30 to 40 percent more time on bunts, steals and hit-and-run drills this fall. But I'm still not sold on giving up free outs by laying down bunts with no outs or one out."
-- Eric Sorenson
Under the radar: Siena
This weekend: at Central Florida
Stats: .305 BA / 5.95 ERA / .947 FLD%
Reason to watch: Siena is picked to finish just fifth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason poll, but the Saints have a player to watch in second baseman Dan Paolini. He was a pitching prospect with interest from Big East schools until he injured his shoulder as a high school junior. Last season, he blossomed as a hitter, belting a conference-record 26 homers -- second-best in the country. He also hit .368 and set school records for RBIs (64) and runs (62).
-- Walter Villa
Who: Minnesota (32-30) vs. Connecticut (48-16)
What: The Big East-Big Ten Challenge. (I know, in any other sport these two would not be considered mid-majors.) Both conferences are on the rise and should have some breakthrough teams for 2011. Lots of good games on tap, but here's the marquee matchup for the weekend. When: Saturday, 2 p.m. Clearwater, Fla.
Why: Come May, this game may carry some hefty RPI ramifications as both teams might need to point to a marquee win.
Key matchup: Pitching vs. pitching. Both teams can lean on some All-conference performers to put on the mound. Look for the Gophers to use either Phil Isaksson (6-2, 3.72) or T.J. Oakes (4-3, 3.62), while the Huskies can throw out either Matt Barnes (8-3, 3.92) or Elliot Glynn (7-3, 3.99). Whoever it is will be facing some serious firepower as well, since both teams return six starters to their batting order and lots of speed on the basepaths. -- Eric Sorenson
Upset watch: Georgia Tech
Kent State at Georgia Tech
This could be the perfect storm for an early-season upset in Atlanta. The Golden Flashes return everybody from last season, including three weekend starters and five hitters that went .330 or better, led by lumberjack-swinging Ben Klafczynski. Conversely, this will be an all-new Tech team. There is plenty of talent there, but it will hit some bumps along the way. -- Eric Sorenson
Watch out for: Louisville
Connecticut may be the "it" team in the Big East this season, but don't forget Louisville. The Cardinals won the conference regular-season title in 2010, set a school record with 50 wins and hosted a regional before losing to Vanderbilt. The Cards are led by 2B Ryan Wright, who hit 16 homers and then spent the summer batting in the middle of Team USA's lineup. Another pro prospect is closer Tony Zych, whose fastball touches 97 mph. Outfielder Stewart Ijames (14 HRs) and starting pitchers Matt Koch, Mike Nastold and Justin Amlung will also be key. -- Walter Villa