SEC Showdowns, Start Of AAC Play And More

College baseball is set for another exciting weekend around the country. Teddy Cahill and Michael Lananna break down some of the top storylines to watch, including a banner weekend in the Southeastern Conference, the start of American Athletic Conference play and showdowns in Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference. 

Big SEC Weekend Features Four Top 25 Series

Key series: No. 4 Arkansas (16-5, 3-0) at No. 2 Florida (19-4, 2-1), No. 6 Auburn (19-3, 2-1) at No. 8 Kentucky (15-6, 0-3), No. 7 Mississippi (20-2, 2-1) at No. 13 Texas A&M (18-4, 1-2) , No. 18 Louisiana State (15-7, 2-1) at No. 9 Vanderbilt (15-6, 3-0).

Three Players to Watch

Luke Bonfield, OF, Arkansas: Arkansas exploded for 39 runs over three games last weekend in a sweep of Kentucky, with Bonfield, its senior cleanup hitter, at the heart of it all. He homered twice on the weekend and is now hitting .377/.524/.656 with four home runs. The Razorbacks’ hitters have a tough assignment again this week, as they hit the road to take on Florida’s elite pitching staff.

Brady Feigl, RHP, Mississippi: Feigl has been a key part this season of Ole Miss’ outstanding rotation, ably stepping into the role of No. 2 starter. The redshirt junior is 5-0, 1.10 with 34 strikeouts and three walks in 32.2 innings, helping the Rebels to a 20-2 start. Feigl and the rest of Ole Miss’ pitchers face a tough test this weekend when they take on Texas A&M’s imposing lineup on the road.

Zach Watson, OF, Louisiana State:
Watson has been critical to LSU’s offense this year and is hitting .397/.453/.603 with two home runs and seven stolen bases. The sophomore missed nine games early in the season due to an oblique strain, but he’s back to full strength now and brings a dynamic presence to the Tigers’ lineup.

Three Storylines to Follow

Three of this weekend’s Top 25 series are interdivisional battles, including the showdown between Arkansas and Florida, the preseason favorites in the West and East Divisions, respectively. Unlike in football, there is not an obviously weaker division in baseball, but the West looks to have more depth. It is the East that will have homefield advantage this weekend, however. All six interdivision series this weekend will be hosted by East Division teams.

Kentucky and Texas A&M both lost their series on the road last week on the SEC’s opening weekend and will be eager to bounce back when they return home this weekend. Both had last week tough assignments – Texas A&M traveled to Auburn and Kentucky visited Arkansas – and will again this week but will have the benefit of home-field advantage. Starting SEC play with a series loss can certainly be overcome – Florida last year was swept by Auburn on opening weekend and went on to win not only the SEC title, but also the national championship – but it is also important not to let a poor start snowball, especially given how deep the conference is this year.

Auburn and Louisiana State will this week hit the road for a weekend series for the first time this year. Both teams have played midweek road games but have played their first five series at home. Their first weekend on the road will be a key test for both teams, especially as they try to assert themselves in the SEC West race. 

American Athletic Conference Play Kicks Off

Key Series: No. 21 East Carolina (16-4) at No. 20 Central Florida (17-6), Connecticut (10-7) at South Florida (16-6)

Three Players to Watch 

Rylan Thomas, 1B, UCF: The sophomore righthanded hitter has been an incredibly tough out in the two-hole of the Golden Knights’ lineup, batting .452/.533/.762 with seven home runs and a team-leading 29 RBIs this season. He can change a game in one swing.  

Trey Benton, RHP, ECU: The hard-throwing sophomore righthander has made a smooth transition to the Friday night role for the Pirates, going 4-1, 1.69 with a stunning 39-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings. He’ll have his work cut out for him on the road against the Knights.  

Shane McClanahan, LHP, USF vs. Tim Cate, LHP, UConn: This matchup is one of the country’s best, as the two premier college lefties in this year’s draft class go head to head. McClanahan has been untouchable through five starts, going 3-1, 0.00 with 56 strikeouts and just 12 hits allowed in 30.2 innings. Cate (1-4, 4.85) has yet to hit his stride, but he has a wipeout breaking ball and the stuff to dominate a lineup on any given night.  

Three Storylines to Follow

Who will emerge as the king of the AAC? That question likely won’t be answered for some time, as the AAC remains one of the most tightly clustered conferences in the country. But as the league’s two ranked teams battle head to head, the ECU-UCF series could provide at least some clarity. 

As is typically the case, due to the unforgiving winter weather in Storrs, Conn., the Huskies have yet to play a home game this season, going 10-7 on the road. The Huskies made a brief appearance in the Top 25 and have regional-caliber talent but have yet to hit their stride. They’re coming off a series win against a strong St. John’s team. Can they carry that momentum to South Florida?

Conversely, the Bulls are 16-6 but haven’t faced a weekend opponent of UConn’s caliber since they went 1-2 against visiting North Carolina on opening weekend. This weekend would be a nice resume boost and a strong start to AAC play if the Bulls can pick up a series win.  

Preseason CUSA Favorites Square Off

No. 15 Southern Misssippi (15-4, 2-0) at Florida Atlantic (16-5, 2-1)

Three Players to Watch

Tyler Frank, SS, Florida Atlantic: Frank is the Owls’ best player and the key to the team. He is hitting .316/.438/.557 with four home runs and has drawn 15 walks against 12 strikeouts this season. Frank, who played for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team over the summer, is at the heart of everything for FAU.

Luke Reynolds, 3B, Southern Mississippi: After transferring from Mississippi State, Reynolds has stepped right into Southern Miss’ lineup and become their best hitter. The redshirt junior is hitting .365/.489/.635 with four home runs and provides a powerful presence in the middle of the order.

Nick Sandlin, RHP, Southern Mississippi: Sandlin was Southern Miss’ closer for the last two years before moving to the front of the rotation this season. He has excelled in his new role and is 3-0, 1.32 with 55 strikeouts and three walks in 34 innings. The junior gives Southern Miss a true ace on Friday nights.

Three Storylines to Follow

Southern Miss last year dominated Conference USA, going 25-5 and winning the league by six games over Old Dominion and seven over FAU. ODU was the lone team last year to win a conference series against Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles swept the Owls in Hattiesburg last year and if FAU is to this year challenge Southern Miss for the league title, it must make a statement this weekend at home, where it is 12-0 this season.

Nick Sandlin’s move to the rotation was made possible in part by Matt Wallner’s return to the mound after a hip injury kept him from pitching down the stretch last season. The sophomore two-way star has been excellent on the mound this season, going 1-0, 1.59 with three saves in four appearnaces this year, but the Golden Eagles still have to find a way to get him the ball in close games. Southern Miss hasn’t played many of those this season, but middle relief is not the team’s strength. Junior righthander J.C. Keys stepped up to throw 3.1 important innings last Saturday in a 4-3 victory against Texas-San Antonio, an encouraging sign after a slow start to the season. The Golden Eagles will likely need more performances like that throughout the season.

FAU has won eight of its last nine games since it lost a series at Oregon and its offense has been impressive during that run. The Owls are averaging 9.33 runs per game over the last nine games and have scored double-digit runs seven times. FAU’s hot bats will be tested this weekend, but they could turn the series into a slugfest.

Mountain West Showdown

No. 25 San Diego State (14-6, 4-1) at Nevada-Las Vegas (19-3, 5-1) 

Two Players To Watch

Chase Calabuig, OF, San Diego State: The senior has been a mainstay in the Aztecs lineup since he stepped on campus, and that hasn’t changed this year. Firmly entrenched in the No. 3 hole, Calabuig is batting .313/.370/.513 and is unquestionably one of the team’s offensive spark plugs.  

Kyle Isbel, OF, UNLV: Similar to Calabuig, Isbel is UNLV’s three-hole hitter has been a key contributor since his freshman year two seasons ago. The center fielder is off to a red-hot start to his junior year, batting .447/.495/.819 with a team-leading seven home runs. 

Two Storylines 

UNLV leads SDSU in the Mountain West conference by half a game, and the Rebels are off to an excellent start at 19-3 overall. However, outside of an opening-weekend tournament against Indiana State, Oregon and Loyola-Marymount, the Rebels have yet to play competition inside the top 50 of RPI. A series win against the Aztecs could vault UNLV into the Top 25.  

SDSU, meanwhile, has a less gaudy 14-6 overall record but has played a tougher schedule to date. A series win on the road against UNLV would serve to firm up its resume even more. 

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