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Three to Watch Out For

Publication Date: January 16, 2001

Teams You Don't Think About Much

All of the preseason polls are out by now, I think. I'll admit I haven't looked at them all that closely until today, but I'm willing to bet that LSU and Miami are probably ranked. Yep, there they are, #3 and #4 in the Baseball America poll, along with all the other usual suspects. There's nothing really wrong with that, of course -- after all, LSU and Miami are as good a bets as anybody at this point to go to Omaha -- and there are three teams in the BA top 10 that aren't usually there in the preseason, one or two of whom might actually belong there at the end of the year, but it's not all that interesting, either.

While it seems like college baseball's elite is made up of a fixed number of teams that just jockey for position with themselves each year, that's not really the case, as South Carolina showed last year for most of the season. When you add to that the fact that it's quite possible for the tenth-best team in the country to win it all (say hi, 1999 Hurricanes) by getting hot at the right team, as Louisiana-Lafayette did last year, it's quite possible for a team to seem to come out of nowhere to win it.

In hindsight, though, those teams never really come out of nowhere; they're just running just off of most folks' radar screens. Louisiana-Lafayette, for example, had become a fairly reliable member of the 25-40 set over the five years prior to their 2000 breakout year; it was just a mild step up from there to the #20 or so position they found last year, and took playing just a bit over their heads from there to get them to the #3 finish in the CWS. It's also true that their conference had produced a few almost-national-quality teams over the last few years, which might be a good indicator as well.

What I want to look for this week are teams which might be that breakout team this year -- teams which are hovering just under the national consciousness in mid-range conferences with the potential to make a run. Please note that I'm not predicting national championships for these guys -- of course it's more likely to be LSU again or something -- I'm just trying to point out some dark horses you might want to watch during the race. I'm doing all of this based on past years' performance, rather than looking at returning lineups; you can get that elsewhere.

My Dark Horse Candidates

Nevada has done some fairly good work with essentially no publicity in the Big West the last few years. The conference affiliation is partly responsible for that lack of publicity; because the two best-known programs are in the Los Angeles area, the Big West gets very little local news coverage, and the national spotlight tends to stay on Fullerton when anyone notices at all, so Nevada's ISR's have tended to consistently stay a good bit ahead of their poll ratings. In the meantime, they've been a consistent top 30 team the last few years, flirting with the top 10 in 1999.

This year they move to the WAC. I'm not sure how that will affect their exposure level, but it wouldn't surprise me at all for the change in leagues to get them a bit more national attention. The level of play is about the same, although Nevada is above average for either league, so this move should move the WAC ahead a bit, and it wouldn't surprise me to see them make a nice postseason run this year. One advantage to this move is that they may stop being thought of as a West Coast team by the selection committee, which could help their seeding and placement a bit.

Tulane has always toiled in the shadow of the LSU juggernaut, quite fairly. On the other hand, they have developed to the point where they're a quite reliable member of the 15-25 set in the ratings, and one of these years I think they're going to bust out, or at least push a bit further, which will get them into the range to be considered for a #1 seed and a possible regional of their own. From that point, it's just a matter of peaking right.

Adding to that, I think that Conference USA may be due for a good year on the national scene by someone. Houston is the obvious suspect, but they're already on most people's radar screens, so I wanted to point out another possibility.

Central Florida is really as much of a conference pick as a preference for one particular team. Last year the TAAC put three teams fairly deep into their regionals before seeing all three bow out. Although all three were underdogs, the odds are against that happening again to all of them. Central Florida has been the conference's most consistent team over the last few years (and they're the highest-rated this year by Baseball America; I cheated and looked); I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them make some noise this year in Omaha.

Other Possibilities?

So, who am I missing? There are some who are not part of the traditional elite but who have been consistently good enough or were good enough last year that most people are aware of them -- Rice, Nebraska, and South Carolina probably fall into that category. There could also be the occasional "intangible" season -- Hawaii's a good candidate for that -- but that usually turns out to be a sleeper team in disguise if you really look at it. Is there anyone else I'm missing?

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