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Aaron Fitt | D1Baseball.com | January 28, 2021

2021 SEC baseball preview: The mightiest conference gets even mightier

All you need to know about the 2021 college baseball season

The following article first appeared on D1Baseball.com. For more like it, you can use coupon code NCAA2021 to get a 20% discount for an annual subscription to DIBaseball.com or D1Softball.com.

The Southeastern Conference has firmly established itself as the premier conference in college baseball over the past decade-plus, producing six of the past 11 national champions and 29 College World Series teams during that span. No other conference has invested as much in premium facilities and coaching salaries as the SEC, which has helped the league create significant separation from every other league on the recruiting trail. As a result, the SEC is college baseball’s deepest conference year after year, and it has justifiably been rewarded with a record 10 regional bids three times in the last decade (2019, 2018 and 2014).

The pandemic-shortened 2020 season and five-round draft ensured that the SEC will have more talent than ever before from the top to the bottom — there are no gimmes on the conference schedule. Competition for regional berths will be ferocious, and the SEC should have a legitimate chance to set a record with 11 regional teams. And with six teams ranked in the top 12 and nine teams overall inside the D1Baseball Preseason Top 25, the SEC also has a bushel of bona fide national championship contenders, led by preseason No. 1 Florida.

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Projected SEC standings

*Teams are listed in order of projected finish

Team 2020 Record
WEST DIVISION  
Ole Miss 16-1
Mississippi State 12-4
Arkansas 11-5
LSU 12-5
Auburn 13-5
Texas A&M 15-3
Alabama 16-1
EAST DIVISION  
Florida 16-1
Vanderbilt 13-5
South Carolina 12-4
Tennessee 15-2
Georgia 14-4
Kentucky 11-6
Missouri 11-5

Projected regional teams (11): Florida, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina, Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M

Player of the year: Jud Fabian, OF, Florida

Pitcher of the year: Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt

Freshman of the year: Dylan Crews, OF, LSU

Projected regional teams

No. 1 Florida
No. 4 Vanderbilt
No. 6 Ole Miss
No. 7 Mississippi State
No. 8 Arkansas
No. 12 LSU
No. 18 South Carolina
No. 19 Tennessee
No. 23 Auburn
Georgia
Texas A&M

Below are overviews of Georgia and Texas A&M:

Georgia

Head coach: Scott Stricklin
2019 record: 46-17 (21-9)
2020 record: 14-4 (0-0)

Strengths: Even after losing first-rounders Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox to the draft, Georgia’s weekend rotation should rank among the top half of the SEC, provided Ryan Webb and Jonathan Cannon can transition from the bullpen as seamlessly as expected. C.J. Smith is a proven workhorse lefty on Sundays. The Bulldogs are also loaded with young power hitters in the lineup.

Georgia Athletics Johnathan Cannon of Georgia baseball Johnathan Cannon of Georgia baseball

Question marks: Can Cole Tate hold down the shortstop job vacated by mainstay Cam Shepherd? He handled the crucial position well in fall ball. Can blue-chip freshmen Corey Collins, Fernando Gonzalez and Parks Harber hit the ground running? The Bulldogs need that trio (plus potentially Garrett Spikes) to add some punch to the lineup. And as noted, Webb and Cannon have yet to establish themselves in the rotation, but their physicality and four-pitch repertoires should be well suited for starting roles.

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Star power: At 6-6, 216 pounds, Cannon has first-round potential, with a heater that sat 94-96 in a relief role and sat 90-93 in longer stints in the fall, along with the makings of an above-average changeup and slider as well as a serviceable curveball. Webb has been a fixture in the bullpen over his first three seasons, but he looks ready to assume the ace role, with a 92-95 mph with a high spin rate in the 2300-2550 rpm range, a sharp downer curveball with good power at 77-79, a newly developed and promising 84 mph slider, and good feel for an 84-86 changeup that he can throw against lefties and righties alike, for a called strike or a swing-through.

Glue guys: The brothers Cole and Connor Tate have waited in the wings for their opportunity to play every day, and now the Bulldogs will count upon them to help lead this position player group. In addition to his sound defense at short this fall, Cole has good feel for his barrel and could hit in the 2-hole, while the more powerful Connor should serve as the everyday right fielder and a key run producer in the middle of the order. OF/INF Riley King is another key veteran leader who plays the game with infectious energy and grinds out every at-bat, and CF Ben Anderson is the fire-starter atop the order with game-changing speed and advanced barrel control. Smith is the “glue guy” off the mound, a polished and ultra-athletic three-pitch strike thrower from the left side.

Pick to click: Righty Michael Polk got his feet wet by posting a 0.00 ERA in five innings as a true freshman last spring, and now he looks like the front-runner to take over as the closer. Polk’s calling card is a very heavy 90-91 fastball that has bumped 94 and plays up because of the elite extension in his three-quarters delivery. He mixes in a promising 79-82 slider with solid tilt and a quality tumbling changeup at 79.

Top newcomer: Collins gets the nod, because he has a can’t-miss bat, with serious left-handed power as well as an advanced approach. He should hit in the middle of the lineup every day, and see some action behind the plate as well, but fellow true freshman Gonzalez is an uncommonly advanced defender and natural born leader who should assume the primary catching duties right out of the gate. He also offers a promising gap-to-gap bat and right-handed pop. Also keep an eye on two-way talent Luke Wagner, who could vie for midweek starts as a polished southpaw in the Smith mold and could also push for at-bats in the outfield mix.

Outlook: Georgia has been a highly ranked national contender over the last three years, and it’s only natural that outsiders would downgrade their expectations for the Bulldogs after the loss of two first-round weekend starters and a four-year starter at shortstop. But this Georgia club is lying in the weeds just outside the Top 25, and that’s not a bad position to be in. If the young talent in the lineup matures quickly and the pitching proves as good as anticipated, the Bulldogs could make that long-awaited run back to Omaha a year later than expected.

Texas A&M

Head coach: Rob Childress
2019 record: 39-23-1 (16-13-1)
2020 record: 15-3 (0-0)

Strengths: With the notable exception of second-round pick Zach DeLoach, every key piece returns from an offense that ranked sixth in the nation in scoring during the shortened 2020 campaign. This lineup is loaded with speedy, athletic slashers, anchored by a proven group of mature veterans but bolstered by a trio of exciting newcomers. The pitching staff has outstanding depth of promising power arms, though many of them lack experience.

Question marks: The Aggies must two high-profile weekend starters in No. 4 overall pick Asa Lacy and second-rounder Christian Roa. Their replacements — likely Bryce Miller and Dustin Saenz — are talented but mostly unproven as workhorse starters.

Star power: Third baseman Logan Sartori made an instant impact as a junior college transfer last spring, hitting .364/.446/.600 in the shortened season. He’s a dynamic player — a strong, quick-twitch athlete at 6-foot, 185-pounds with an open stance and a compact line-drive stroke with good balance and rhythm, which should make him a doubles machine. He’s also a plus runner, so he’ll help push the action on the basepaths, but not as much as center fielder Ray Alejo, who can really fly. On the mound, the Aggies will count upon flame-throwing righty Bryce Miller to replace Lacy atop the rotation, and he has obvious star potential, with a 92-95 heater that bumps 96-97, an improved curveball and changeup, and an 83-86 slider that flashes plus.

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Glue guys: First baseman Will Frizzell brings imposing physicality and a mature line-drive approach to the middle of the order, and he looks primed for a big year after dropping some weight and improving his physicality. Second baseman Bryce Blaum was a valuable power/speed threat in 2019 and should bounce back strong from his slow start in 2020. Left-handed pitcher Chris Weber has pitched mostly out of the bullpen over his first two years, though he made eight starts in 2019 and has proven he can handle longer stints. A polished four-pitch strike-thrower with a workhorse frame at 6-foot-4, 225-pound, Weber should thrive moving into a weekend rotation role, though he’ll have to compete with the more electric Saenz and fellow polished lefty Chandler Jozwiak.

Pick to click: Outfielder Logan Britt got his feet wet with 16 at-bats as a true freshman last spring, but he looks primed to make a big leap as a second-year player. He was one of the most improved players on the roster this fall, showing off premier athleticism and exciting bat speed.

Top newcomer: The Aggies have high hopes for freshman Kalae Harrison, the younger brother of former Oregon State star KJ Harrison. Kalae stands out for his uncommonly advanced offensive approach and smooth defensive actions at shortstop, where he looks poised to step right into the everyday role. He can flat-out hit, and he’s a 6.7 runner who should make things happen on the basepaths. The coaches think he can become one of the best players in the SEC as he matures, and he should be one of the top candidates for conference Freshman of the Year honors. Also keep a close eye on power-hitting, rocket-armed catcher Taylor Smith, a bounceback from Incarnate Word, where he was the 2019 Southland Conference Freshman of the Year.

Outlook: Expectations are lower for this A&M squad after the departures of Lacy, DeLoach and Roa, but it would be a mistake to sleep on this program, which has been one of the most consistent winners in college baseball during the Rob Childress era. There might not be as much established star power on this club, but the coaches think they could rival the 16 draft picks they produced in 2016, even after losing a trio of top 50 picks to last year’s draft. The Aggies aren’t used to getting the opportunity to sneak up on people, but they’ll have that chance in 2021, and that makes them even more dangerous.

Keep and eye on

Alabama

Head coach: Brad Bohannon
2019 record: 30-26 (7-23)
2020 record: 16-1 (0-0)

Strengths: The Crimson Tide will have a major edge at the start of every weekend series with Connor Prielipp on the mound, as the first-team preseason All-American is one of college baseball’s most talented aces. The bullpen is anchored by a reliable one-two duo in Chase Lee and Brock Guffey, and the lineup has an intriguing blend of power and speed.

Question marks: This roster features very little SEC experience, and the coaches thought the Tide “played very young at times throughout the fall.” Improving the defense is a top priority, and the offense needs to show it can withstand the loss of its two best hitters last year, Tyler Gentry and Brett Auerbach. And though the weekend rotation is talented, all three starters must prove themselves as bona fide SEC workhorses. While the bullpen has a couple of nice pillars, it does not have nearly as much depth as many SEC staffs.

Star power: Prielipp didn’t allow a run and posted a sparkling 35-6 K-BB mark in his shortened debut season, and he got even better in the offseason, adding some 25 pounds of strength to his 6-foot-3 frame and showing improved overall command and better secondary stuff. He can really spot up with a 92-96 fastball from the left side, along with a legitimate plus to double-plus slider at 88-90 and a rapidly improving mid-80s changeup. He’ll be throwing to another emerging star in fourth-year junior catcher Sam Praytor, who returned from injury to hit .350/.452/.667 last spring.

Glue guys: Outfielder T.J. Reeves has plus raw power and hit nine homers in 2019; he’s back as the most established threat in the heart of the order, but the Crimson Tide would like to see him turn in more consistent at-bats and cut down on his swing-and-miss tendencies. First baseman Drew Williamson has a mature all-fields approach from the left side and is starting to unlock his raw power potential after making some swing adjustments last summer. Lee, a sidewinder with uncommon velocity (90-92) from his low slot, is a bulldog at the back of the bullpen, and Guffey pounds the zone with four pitches and has the most experience on the staff.

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Pick to click: Peyton Wilson got off to a great start as a true freshman last spring and has a chance to be one of the SEC’s most exciting catalysts in his first full season. A wiry, quick-twitch 5-foot-9 dynamo with blazing speed, Wilson is a switch-hitter with a knack for finding the barrel from both sides and using all fields. The brother of former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson and former Tide second baseman Ross Wilson, Peyton can also play center field, second base or catcher, and his versatility earned him the nickname “Baby Auerbach” from teammates. Look for him to start out in center and make the Tide go from the leadoff spot. Fellow second-year freshman Owen Diodati has big-time breakout potential as a power-hitting corner outfielder; he gave a taste of what he can do last fall, smacking five homers in 55 at-bats.

Top newcomer: Brad Bohannon didn’t try to hide his excitement this fall over freshman left-hander Grayson Hitt’s potential. An ultra-athletic 6-foot-3, 185-pounder who turned down a scholarship offer to play wide receiver at Memphis in order to play baseball for the Tide, Hitt has shown 90-94 heat and the ability to throw a 78-80 mph slurve for a strike, though Bohannon said he still needs to fine-tune his command within the zone and learn to become more efficient.

Outlook: There’s a whole lot to like about this Alabama squad, and nobody should be shocked if the Tide makes a big leap forward and finishes in the top half of the SEC this year. The problem is that everybody else in the league is better too, and there are only so many regional spots available out of the conference. Alabama should be right in the mix for one of those spots — this league is almost impossible to handicap — but the Tide also has more to prove than teams like Texas A&M, Auburn and Tennessee, which all appear to be on the same tier.

Kentucky

Head coach: Nick Mingione
2019 record: 26-29 (7-23)
2020 record: 11-6 (0-0)

Strengths: The Wildcats should have one of the most prolific offenses in the SEC, with loads of power, excellent balance and no real holes. This lineup features both power and speed, and a mature veteran core that has been through the rigors of the SEC.

Question marks: Just how much has Kentucky improved its pitching and defense? Those were major weaknesses during the 7-23 rebuilding season of 2019, and they remained weaknesses in 2020. A couple of key junior college transfers up the middle should make a huge difference defensively. The key on the mound might be the continued maturation of second-year freshmen like Zack Lee and Cole Stupp.

Star Power: Second-year freshman John Rhodes is a natural born hitter who raked to the tune of .426/.485/.672 with 10 doubles in the four-week 2020 campaign. He has electric bat speed, outstanding feel for his barrel and a mature approach, earning him third-team preseason All-America honors. Third-year sophomore Austin Schultz is another live-bodied athlete who can run and really hit, and he posted a .393 average last spring. Fifth-year first baseman T.J. Collett is a proven SEC power hitter from the left side, and fourth-year junior Oraj Anu has continued to improve his plate discipline, allowing him to make better use of his gargantuan raw power from the right side. On the mound, low three-quarters left-hand pitcher Mason Hazelwood got off to a great start last spring and has continued to improve his breaking ball in the offseason, giving him a chance to hold his own as a Friday night starter in the SEC.

Glue guys: Zeke Lewis is a sixth-year senior with invaluable leadership skills and a fast motor. A quick-twitch 5-foot-9, 165-pound scrapper, Lewis provides serious field presence and defensive skill at the keystone sack, and that should keep him in the lineup given UK’s focus on defense (Mingione describes him as “an elite-level defender in the SEC”). He’s also a switch-hitter who can handle the bat, put the ball in play, bunt effectively and let his plus-plus speed work. Third-year sophomore righty Jimmy Ramsey is the consummate “glue guy” on the pitching staff, with experience as a starter and the ability to pitch in any role. The Wildcats are intrigued about the possibility of cutting him loose at the back end of the bullpen and seeing if his 90-94 mph turbo sinker plays up even more in short stints.

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Pick to click: The Wildcats have high hopes for Lee, who posted a .935 ERA in 8.2 innings as a true freshman last spring but was dramatically improved this fall. Pitching coach Dan Roszel has worked with Lee to speed up his tempo, and it’s helped his fastball climb into the 93-95 range and bump 96, along with a putaway slider at 83-85. Kentucky hopes he can emerge as a legitimate No. 2 starter behind Hazelwood, and that’s a major key to UK’s chances.

Top newcomer: Shortstop Ryan Ritter was the top-ranked junior college prospect to show up on a D-I campus this fall, and he instantly upgraded UK’s defense thanks to his fluid actions, excellent instincts, and a plus arm with easy carry. He also has good balance and rhythm in his right-handed stroke with intriguing bat speed, giving him a chance to be an impact hitter as well. Fellow junior college transfer Alonzo Rubalcaba provides a similar defensive upgrade behind the plate, where he’s a high-end receiver and blocker with a strong arm. He also offers emerging right-handed pop.

Outlook: The Wildcats have a lot to prove on the mound and on defense, but there is no question that they will be significantly improved in both areas. Kentucky doesn’t have to be an elite pitching team to compete in the SEC, because its high-powered offense will do plenty of the heavy lifting. But if the pitching can prove to be sound, Kentucky has a real chance to surprise in the SEC.

Missouri

Head coach: Steve Bieser
2019 record: 34-22-1 (13-16-1)
2020 record: 11-5 (0-0)

Strengths: The coaching staff believes the roster is deeper overall than it was a year ago, as the freshman arms have proven more advanced than anticipated and the lineup has plenty of healthy competition for jobs. A handful of gritty veterans blend with some toolsy breakout candidates in the lineup, and the pitching staff is well stocked with power arms.

Question marks: While pitching might prove to be Mizzou’s greatest strength, the Tigers will surely miss departed ace Ian Bedell, a fourth-round pick by the Cardinals. Without him, Missouri doesn’t have an established workhorse with a track record as an SEC starter.

Star power: Missouri doesn’t have an established star who performed at a high level over a full season in 2019, though catcher Chad McDaniel had a solid campaign that year and has impact potential as a switch-hitter with as-yet untapped raw power. He missed the fall with hip surgery, and how well he progresses this spring will be key. Fifth-year senior Brandt Belk has a nice track record of hitting for average at Pepperdine and also in the short season at Missouri last year (.457/.544/.652). Trey Dillard has big-time stuff at the back end of the bullpen, with a heater that reaches the high 90s and a plus or better breaking ball, and he did a much better job throwing strikes in 2020 than he had previously. The Tigers will count upon RHP Spencer Miles to step into the Friday starter job after logging 15 innings as a true freshman last spring. His 90-94 mph turbo sinker should induce ground-ball contact by the boatload, and he can miss bats with an above-average sweeping slider as well.

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Glue guys: Fourth-year junior Mark Vierling is the essential “glue guy” — a grinder with a high baseball IQ who must be watched day in and day out to appreciate his full value. He’s a disciplined hitter who should hit for average and make the offense go out of the leadoff spot, while playing rock-solid defense at second base or potentially shortstop. He figures to team with Josh Day — who has more athleticism and very fluid actions but is less polished — in the middle infield. Right-handed pitcher Konnor Ash has experienced his share of success in the bullpen but will be counted upon to hold down a weekend starter job this spring. He is an aggressive pitcher who looks to improve the command of his 89-93 mph fastball and plus hammer at times.

Pick to click: Two-way talent Seth Halvorsen has always tantalized with his huge raw tools, and he looks ready to put them to good use this spring. He has run his heater up to 98 mph this preseason and could step into the weekend rotation while also bringing power and speed to the center field spot, though he’ll also swing and miss plenty. Left-handed pitcher Andrew Vail has made a velocity jump, bumping 96 mph with a quality breaking ball, and he could be an invaluable swingman. In the lineup, look for a breakout year from 3B Luke Mann, who is starting to harness his exciting raw power to all fields.

Top newcomer: From the freshman class, Parker Wright is a high-ceiling prospect with arm strength from the right side. He features a 91-93 mph fastball that can bump 95-96, along with a fringe-quality 79-81 mph slider. As he polishes his feel for his power sinker and improves his secondary offerings, he could be a big star. Junior college transfer Drew Garrett can run his heater up to 97-98 mph and could also make a big splash on this staff.

Outlook: Missouri was slated to serve a postseason ban in 2020, but the pandemic wiped out the postseason anyway, and now the Tigers are free to chase their NCAA tournament dreams again in 2021. Coach Steve Bieser and his staff have done an admirable job bolstering the program’s talent level and depth, but it’s just so hard to make headway in the rough-and-tumble SEC, particularly as the program with the worst facilities and worst weather in the league. Mizzou embraces a blue-collar mentality and is plenty used to the underdog role in this conference. And this roster is certainly talented enough to climb the ladder and break through to a regional, but Missouri has yet to do that as a member of the SEC, so the “show-me” mantra still applies.

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Division I
Baseball Championship
June 19-30, 2021
TD Ameritrade Park | Omaha, NE

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