Weekend Preview: Feb. 19-21

The top-ranked Gators (Photo by Cliff Welch)

The top-ranked Gators (Photo by Cliff Welch)

The college season begins Friday, as teams around the country will celebrate opening day. That also means the return of Baseball America's Weekend Preview, which highlights some of the most important weekend story lines from around the country each week.

1. Preseason favorites Florida and Louisville begin their national championship quests

Entering the season, Florida and Louisville appear to be the most talented teams in the country and the favorites to win the national championship in June. They are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the Preseason Top 25 and both had three players named first-team preseason All-Americans.

TOP 25 SERIES
Florida Gulf Coast at (1) Florida
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville at (2) Louisville
Hofstra at (3) Texas A&M
Rutgers at (6) Miami
San Diego at (7) Vanderbilt
(8) California at Duke
North Carolina at (10) UCLA
Cincinnati at (11) Louisiana State
Villanova at (12) Houston
Sam Houston State at (13) Louisiana-Lafayette
(14) Oregon at San Diego State
Canisius vs. (15) Michigan at Port St. Lucie, Fla.
North Dakota at (16) Southern California
Rhode Island at (17) Florida State
Loyola Marymount at (18) Texas Christian
Northeastern at (21) Oklahoma
(22) Cal State Fullerton at Stanford
Florida International at (24) Mississippi
TOP 25 TOURNAMENTS
Caravelle Resort Tournament, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
(4) Virginia, (19) North Carolina State, (23) Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, Kent State, Old Dominion
Mississippi State Tournament, Starkville, Miss.
(20) Mississippi State, Florida Atlantic, South Dakota State
Surprise (Ariz.) Tournament
(5) Oregon State, Ball State, Minnesota, Utah, Utah Valley
Texas-Arlington Tournament
(9) Oklahoma State, Stephen F. Austin, Texas-Arlington
Wofford Tournament, Spartanburg, S.C.
(25) Kentucky, Dayton, George Mason, Stony Brook, Wofford

But not only are Florida and Louisville facing weighty expectations as they chase their programs’ first national championship, they are also fighting history. The team ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the preseason rankings has gone on to win the national championship seven times since Baseball America began its rankings in 1981. It happened most recently in 2009, when Louisiana State won its first championship under the direction of coach Paul Mainieri after starting the season at No. 2. The Tigers are also the most recent preseason No. 1 to go on to the national championship, doing so in 1996.

Florida has been in this position twice before. The Gators were preseason No. 1 in 2011 and 2012, and reached the College World Series in both years. But both times they came up short of dogpiling in Omaha.

Those experiences, as well as watching other elite baseball teams fall short of a championship, has taught coach Kevin O'Sullivan that talent only will take a team so far.

“I think the message is clear: the most talented team on paper doesn't win the national championship or the World Series," O'Sullivan said. “It's the best team that wins. Talent can get you to a certain point, but I've learned over the years that you can't get ahead of yourself. You've got to continue to get better as the season goes on, you've got to stay healthy and play your best baseball at the end of the year."

Florida begins its season with a three-game series at home against Florida Gulf Coast. Louisville plays host to Southern Illinois-Edwardsville for three games.

2. Cross-country showdowns

Opening weekend doesn't supply any series between Top 25 teams, but teams from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific-12 conferences will face off in two high-profile series. North Carolina travels west to take on No. 10 UCLA for three games, while No. 8 California comes east for a three-game series at Duke.

Both series are return visits from a year ago, or at least are supposed to be. UCLA's visit to Chapel Hill was snowed out last February, and the two teams scrambled to play the series in Orlando instead. The weather shouldn't be a factor this weekend, with forecasts for both Durham, N.C., and Los Angeles calling for comfortable temperatures and clear skies.

The North Carolina-UCLA series pits two powerhouses against each other, though both are looking to answer some early-season questions. UCLA has to break in a new pitching staff after ace James Kaprielian and closer David Berg moved on to the professional ranks and is also dealing with injuries to catcher Darrell Miller Jr. (out for the year with a torn labrum) and shortstop Nick Valaika (expected to miss the first two weeks due to a broken hamate). North Carolina, meanwhile, missed the NCAA Tournament last season, snapping its streak of 13 straight appearances in regionals. The Tar Heels will hope to put that disappointment in the past with a solid start to 2016.

Cal and Duke are expected to draw plenty of scouts Friday, as junior righthanders Daulton Jefferies and Bailey Clark will face off. Both pitched for USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team last summer and ranked among the Top 100 College Prospects last month.

Opening the season with such high-profile series makes for an exciting weekend for fans, players and coaches alike.

“When you see an ACC school and a Pac-12 school compete this early in the season, it's interesting and you get to see prospects face each other," UCLA coach John Savage said. “It's a win-win for game of college baseball."

3. Alabama finally comes home

Preseason All-American righthander Mike Shawaryn and Maryland, which has made back-to-back trips to super regionals, visit Alabama for a three-game series this weekend. That alone would make for an intriguing opening weekend matchup, but the Crimson Tide will also be debuting the rebuilt Sewell-Thomas Stadium.

Alabama played its home games last season at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, home of the SEC tournament, while the construction took place and is looking forward to returning to campus this year. Coach Mitch Gaspard said the new stadium has lifted the energy of everyone in the program, including players, fans and administration.

“It's a fabulous, beautiful facility," he said. “I would put it right there with anyone in the country. We play in some of nicest facilities (in the country) in our league and we're right there with everybody."

4. Virginia opens its national championship defense

Virginia won the first national championship in program history last year, overcoming a slew of injuries to make a run through the NCAA Tournament and knock off Vanderbilt, the defending champions, in the College World Series finals. Now, the No. 4 Cavaliers will look to become the first team to repeat as national champions since South Carolina in 2010-11.

Virginia opens the season at the Caravelle Resort Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C., against Kent State, a game that will draw significant scouting heat for a matchup between Preseason All-American pitchers Connor Jones and Eric Lauer.

5. Culmination of position battles

After watching players compete for starting jobs throughout fall ball and spring practice, coaches will finally have to fill out a lineup card and pick their starters—at least for this weekend. Among the notable position battles that have been playing out around the country are for spots in No. 5 Oregon State's infield and No. 7 Vanderbilt's rotation.

Oregon State returns shortstop Trever Morrison, but also added exciting freshmen shortstops Cadyn Grenier and Nick Madrigal. All three are expected to figure into the lineup and showcase their versatility throughout the year, but someone will have to start at shortstop against Ball State on opening day in the Surprise (Ariz.) Tournament.

Vanderbilt has several pitchers capable of being in its rotation but must settle on three for its series against San Diego. The Commodores will start with Preseason All-Americans Jordan Sheffield and Ben Bowden, but some other candidates for key roles on the staff are banged up and not expected to pitch this weekend.

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