In the three weeks we have left before the college baseball season begins, it’s time to turn our attention to the teams most likely to vie for this year’s championship. To start that process, let’s being with a progress report on the eight teams that were in the hunt for last year’s championship at the College World Series. Omaha in 2007 was scene one of the most unlikely combinations of Cinderella stories the CWS has ever seen, so it was only fitting for Oregon State to make the glass slipper fit again in a successful title defense. It’s hard to imagine Omaha this year featuring all eight of last year’s teams back, because as you will see each team is facing some pretty big hurdles this spring.

Oregon State
Players Used in Omaha: 19
Graduated/Drafted/Transferred (8): Darwin Barney (SS), Mitch Canham (C), Eddie Kunz (RP), Mike Lissman (OF/DH), Anton Maxwell (RP), Joe Paterson (CL/SP), Scott Santschi (RF), Daniel Turpen (SP)
2007 Strengths: Pitching, intelligence
2007 Weakness: Power

Oregon State’s repeat championship last June was magic. The Beavers have built a dynasty under Pat Casey, and though the team again is facing big losses-leaders like Barney and Canham and Paterson, and talent in Kunz, Lissman, and Turpen-we can no longer count a Casey team out. That’s especially true for 2008 given the return of Mike Stutes, the inconsistent but dominant pitcher that was a large part of both championship runs. This should suggest that pitching will again be a strength for the Beavers in 2008, as Stutes and sophomore Jorge Reyes is a top two that, in college baseball talent, almost matches Dallas Buck and Jonah Nickerson, the linchpins of the team’s 2006 championship. Like any Casey team, the rest of the Casey staff will see a variety of roles until each pitcher finds something that fits. The team is expecting big things from a trio of freshman-Kevin Rhoderick, Greg Peavey, Tanner Robles-as their Sunday starter, weekday starter, and closer.

On the offensive side, power again promises to be a worry, as Canham, Lissman, and Barney represent 54.3 percent of the team’s home runs in 2007. Jordan Lennerton will sit in the middle of the lineup, and the team will hope the talented Jason Ogata finds his power stroke. The offense will once again be dependent on running-picking the Beavers to lead the Pac-10 in steals might be college baseball’s safest bet. Up the middle is speedster Joey Wong and fast freshman Garrett Nash (replacing Barney), with additional speed to be found in leadoff man Chris Hopkins and JuCo transfer Daniel Robertson in the outfield. If Casey can get an 80 percent success rate on the bases with those four, and defense to match that of the 2007 Beavers, that plus this pitching staff adds up to enough talent for what might seem an unthinkable return trip to Omaha.

North Carolina
Players Used in Omaha: 25
RP), Matt Danford (RP), Reid Fronk (LF), Josh Horton (SS), Benji Johnson (C/DH), Luke Putkonen (SP), Bryan Steed (OF), Robert Woodard (SP)
2007 Strength: Pithing depth
2007 Weakness: Top-heavy with mature talent

It’s very easy in covering college baseball to overemphasize the loss of talent to graduation and/or the pros. Last season, I didn’t give the Tar Heels much of a chance after the departure of two first-round arms from their 2006 runner-up squad (Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard). Heck, even Jay Cox and Jonathan Hovis had left for pro ball. However, the talent the Tar Heels retained was more important, as the team didn’t lose much in way of depth. Robert Woodard and Luke Putkonen would stay on campus and anchor the weekend rotation. The team also effectively replaced Bard and Cox with two of the nation’s best freshmen in Alex White and Dustin Ackley (the latter a star first baseman who hit .402/.448/.591). The damage this offense has taken in the loss of Fronk, Horton, and Johnson is significant, but if Ackley continues to hit, and if Tim Federowicz and Chad Flack should take those final steps forward, that might combine to push this offense to a decent point. The key will be finding similar pitching depth upon losing two weekend starters and two of their best relievers. This puts a lot of pressure on two fabulous freshman pitchers: Matt Harvey, who will be a regular starter for the team, and Nate Striz, who coaches expect to help replace Andrew Carignan in the bullpen. A year ago, I overestimated how much the loss of a few players at the top would impact the Heels; this year, I might be underestimating how much of a loss nine good college players will be.

Players Used in Omaha: 17
Graduated/Drafted/Transferred (8): Bobby Bramhall (RP), Brian Friday (SS), Tyler Henley (CF), Danny Lehmann (C), Chad Lembeck (OF), Scott Lonergan (RP), Joe Savery (SP/1B)
2007 Strength: Well, everything
2007 Weakness: Ran out of fuel

On April 13 last season, University of Houston ace Aaron Brown shut down the Rice’s offense for seven innings en route to a series-opening win. In the eight games preceding Brown’s dominance, the Owls hitting attack was unstoppable, scoring 69 runs and winning each time. That Houston game seemed merely to be a hiccup in an incredible run, as the Owls would win 28 of their next 29 games, scoring six or more runs 22 times, while allowing less than five runs 23 times. It was a team playing flawless baseball heading into a tournament where many of their toughest competitors had been knocked out. But then, in what essentially played out as a three-game series against the Tar Heels, Rice fell flat.

There is much separating that team from the new 2008 version. Gone is NCAA MVP Joe Savery, as well as such fantastic up-the-middle talents as Lehmann, Friday, and Henley. Gone are two bullpen arms from the nation’s deadliest bullpen. A lot of value remains, and there’s enough firepower for a return trip, starting with Ryan Berry and Matt Langwell, the Owls two most consistent arms. Cole St. Clair will head a depleted bullpen, but at least it has him, last season’s best closer in the nation. On offense, the team brings back Aaron Luna’s 13 home runs, and Jordan Dodson’s eight. In Brian Friday’s shortstop spot is one of the nation’s top freshman, Rick Hague. In Joe Savery’s Sunday spot will either be one of the nation’s top transfers in Lucas Luetge or one of the top seniors in Chris Kelley. No, the 2008 Owls will not be the team that existed between April 13 and mid-June last season, but they’ll be better than the team that showed up in Omaha.

Players Used in Omaha: 23
Graduated/Drafted/Transferred (10): Dylan Axelrod (CL), Cody Cipriano (2B), Blair Erickson (RP), Wes Etheridge (SP), Taylor Holiday (1B), Matt Morris (LF), Bryan Petersen (RF), Zach Robinson (PH), Luis Tovar (3B), Tyler Vaughn (3B)
2007 Strength: Pitching, small-ball execution
2007 Weakness: Bouts of offensive ineffectiveness

The story of the Anteaters’ quick rise from California start-up to Omaha Cinderella was an amazing one. In their years at Irvine, John Dave and Dave Serrano quickly built up a legitimate program by recruiting good good talent and instilling tremendous discipline. The Anteaters might not have been one of the most eight talented teams in the country last season, but they played their brand of baseball with enough precision to win a lot more games than they lost. However, that’s a lot of talent that to have lost. Cipriano and Holiday represent the offense’s two best producers, generating 69 extra-base hits. Axelrod and Erickson were dynamic as a 1-2 punch in the pen, and Etheridge was a fantastic Saturday starter. And perhaps most significantly of all, also gone is Serrano, the man that pushed Irvine over the top and engineered its unique style of play.

Taking Serrano’s place is Mike Gillespie, a former USC coach, and he’ll have a lot of work to do. With much of the offense gone, Gillespie must find a power source to go with defense-first talents like Ollie Linton and Adam Lowenstein. However, the Anteaters will continue to have top pitching, so if Gillespie attempts the same bunt-and-run offense that the Anteaters used so successfully last year, don’t be surprised. Scott Gorgen is capable of 140 innings, and there might not be a pitcher in the nation who will feel more comfortable on Saturdays. Bryce Stowell is challenged with replacing Etheridge, but Stowell has a first round arm and better stuff that any on the staff, and maybe in the conference. Finally, Tom Calahan was dominant in the bullpen last season, so Gillespie will count on a continuation of that level of performance. However, with Irvine’s offense, there is a long way to go, so the luck involved in a lot one-run games might determine the outcome of Gillespie’s first season.

Players Used in Omaha: 17
Graduated/Drafted/Transferred (10): Daniel Burton (1B), Jorge Castillo (DH), Chris Cates (SS), Kyle Hollander (RP), Isaiah Howes (LF), Logan Johnson (2B), Trystan Magnuson (CL), Skylar Meade (RP), Pete Rodriguez (RF), Boomer Whiting (CF)
2007 Strength: Pitching and senior leadership
2007 Weakness: CWS-level talent

In an Omaha filled with Cinderella stories, the Cardinals‘ was among the most impressive; they were literally a team filled with seniors who were not ready to give up on a dream. But after losing to Rutgers in the Big East championship, the road was tough going: the Missouri regional had both the Tigers and Miami in Louisville’s way. However, Louisville found a way to outslug the Hurricanes and outpitch the Tigers, and in five games, they walked out ready to host a Super Regional. Drawing Oklahoma State at home initially, Louisville’s pitching staff came through by allowing just four runs in three games. The gas ran out a bit in the College World Series, or perhaps more specifically, Louisville lost to better teams in Rice and North Carolina. This year, no team that went to Omaha faces a larger turnover than the Cardinals, who lost six from their regular lineup, as well as the top arms in a very good bullpen.

Happily, still remaining is a good weekend rotation in Zack Pitts, Justin Marks, and, returning from injury, B.J. Rosenberg. The team does have to absorb the loss of Colby Wark to injury, which is mildly devastating for a team already dealing with so much turnover. However, Gavin Logsdon returns to the bullpen, and the team has a pair of talented newcomers in Mississippi State transfer Matt Lea and freshman Thomas Royse. Louisville also has the nation’s top transfer in powerful Andrew Clark, who will fill a Burton-sized hole at first base. Clark has outstanding power, and the club will be leaning on him to replace either Howes or Johnson’s .650+ slugging percentages. Talented redshirt sophomore Chris Dominguez also must take a step forward, which will mean striking out less than 88 times. The team is also expecting big things from Justin McClanahan, playing second base full-time this year after 100 very good at-bats last year. It will be hard for the Cardinals to match their inspired team play of last year, but the Big East will be easier this season, so the road promises to be a bit less difficult.

Arizona State
Players Used in Omaha: 21
Graduated/Drafted/Transferred (9): Jarred Bogany (CF), Brian Flores (SP), Scott Mueller (RP), Joe Percichina (SS), C.J. Retherford (3B), Andrew Romine (SS), Tim Smith (LF), Matt Spencer (CF), Eric Sogard (2B)
2007 Strength: Offense, offense, offense
2007 Weakness: Pitching depth

This season, Arizona State will jump right into the crucible almost at the season’s first pitch, testing their mettle against Vanderbilt and Oregon State in the season’s opening weekend. The next weekend will bring a tournament to Tempe with Michigan coming to town, and not long after Pat Murphy’s crew will play Arkansas. That kind of early-season challenge wasn’t something the Sun Devils faced last year, when they prepared for their trip to Houston’s Minute Maid Classic by hosting a weekend series against Southern Utah. Three wins, eight runs allowed and 61 runs scored later, Arizona State had positioned itself as one of the nation’s dominant offenses. They never let go of that title, but in the end, a team with essentially only four good pitchers proved a bad fit for Omaha. While some of the power left Tempe after last season, the biggest bats still remain, as Brett Wallace, Ike Davis, and Petey Paramore hold promise for what should be a 900-plus OPS offense yet again.

The key will be pitching. Returning starters Josh Satow and Mike Leake must be better, and returning closer Jason Jarvis (4.50 ERA) needs to pitch to the level that his mid-90s fastball suggests he can achieve. Ultimately, however, the Sun Devils’ future lies elsewhere. The Sun Devils’ June destiny will be determined by Winthrop transfer Jason Franzblau, pitching on Sundays, Western Nevada transfer Stephen Sauer pitching in the bullpen, and star freshman Devin Fuller and Seth Blair pitching whenever Pat Murphy says they should. Pitching depth was this team’s downfall in 2007, and to win a championship in 2008, pitching depth is going to have to be a new and improved feature.

Cal State Fullerton
Players Used in Omaha + Super Regional: 20
Graduated/Drafted/Transferred (9): Dustin Birosak (RP), John Curtis (C), Clark Hardman (CF), Bryan Harris (CL), Nick Mahin (RF), Evan McArthur (3B), Billy Pinkerton (2B), Wes Roemer (SP), Matt Wallach (1B)
2007 Strength: Top pitching and good defense
2007 Weakness: Firepower

Bigger than any loss on the diamond-including Roemer-is George Horton, the architect of so many Titans runs. However, Horton’s desire to build an Oregon program from scratch demanded a big-name replacement ready to continue Fullerton’s tradition of success. Dave Serrano, a former Horton understudy with a previous program-build at UC-Irvine already etched on his resumé, is certainly that guy. The two share much in their styles in the dugout-both ride starters hard, love identifying a closer and sticking with him, coach very good defenses, and aren’t afraid to run. So while you might anticipate that Horton’s exit would suggest that much will change, Serrano’s presence makes me wonder how much really will. Compare the workloads of Roemer and Scott Gorgen’s for the Anteaters, or the 2003 Titans’ 116 steals to Irvine’s 140 last season. What we can expect in Fullerton is for star freshmen Chris Colon and Gary Brown to start and to run rampant, Jeff Kaplan to pitch 130 innings on Fridays, and Adam Jorgensen to pitch 100-plus on Saturdays. But from there, this team’s depth is in question, and no player on the roster hit five home runs last spring. Serrano is going to make it work in Fullerton, mark my words, but just as Serrano seems to have left Irvine at the right time, Horton may have done the same here.

Mississippi State
Players Used in Omaha + Super Regional: 23
Graduated/Drafted/Transferred (7): Wyn Diggs (DH), Ed Easley (C), Josh Johnson (SP), Brian LaNinfa (1B), Joseph McCaskill (LF), Mitch Moreland (RF), Jeff Rea (CF)
2007 Strength: Resilience
2007 Weakness: Depth, particularly on the pitching staff

By almost every account, the 2007 Bulldogs were a pretty average team. They would finish ninth in the SEC in ERA, third in batting average, tied for sixth in home runs, fifth in runs scored, and tenth in runs allowed. Then they squeezed into the Florida State regional and won three games in a row. Then they beat Clemson in two games, but the magic went away in Omaha, where they allowed 20 runs in two games. This was a team with a few very good players surrounded by a number of mediocre ones, and of the good, Easley, Moreland, and Rea are gone. Second baseman Brandon Turner and the bullpen’s tag team John Lalor and Aaron Weatherford remain, but that’s not a lot to work with; this is a team that has lost 29 of their 51 home runs and 128 of their 205 walks. To contend again, they need Connor Powers and Jeff Flagg to be better, and particularly more patient. They need transfer Luke Adkins and Turner, their returning star, to find some power to go with their contact-hitting abilities. Finally, the pitching staff that was so lackluster a year ago needs returning weekend starters Chris Crosswhite and Justin Pigott to be more consistent and improve, and for freshmen Forrest Moore and Shawn Marquardt to be very good, very quick. It’s a long way up for the Bulldogs, but if they can get to the eighth inning, it will be hard for teams to score on Lalor and Weatherford.

Ranking ‘Em: Oregon State, North Carolina, Arizona State, Rice, Louisville, Mississippi State, Irvine, Fullerton.