The ACC looks to build on a season in which it had two teams reach the College World Series, three teams earn National Seeds, and eight teams earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. This season the conference welcomes in newcomers Pittsburgh and Notre Dame is bound to be even better in the future with the addition of Louisville in 2015. These are my pre-season top 10 for 2014:
1. Florida State (47-17, 20-10 ACC)
I struggled with this decision, as Virginia is loaded this year and could also make a strong case to be in this position (heck, they're #1 overall in some national polls). However, Florida State has the best pitching staff in the ACC and returns a great hitting line-up to give them the pre-season #1 slot in my pre-season rankings. The Noles’ won 47 games a year ago earning a National Seed. On the mound, FSU returns three excellent starting pitchers in Luke Weaver (2.29 ERA, 19 BB, 119 K) Brandon Leibrandt (3.44 ERA, 30 BB, 77 K), and Mike Compton (2012: 2.87 ERA, 28 BB, 64 K). At the plate the Noles’ return OF DJ Stewart (.364, 5 HR, 59 RBI) and INF Jose Brizuela (.324, 4 HR, 44 RBI). Florida State also has a Heisman Trophy winner on its roster in OF/P Jameis Winston who could prove to be the X-Factor with his leadership. This is an experienced, deep, and talented team Mike Martin is fielding in his 34th season at the helm. One that may bring him and the school its first national title.
2. Virginia (50-12, 22-8 ACC)
This team is absolutely loaded at the plate. The Cavaliers return five batters that hit above .300 last season led by INF Mike Papi (.381, 7 HR, 57 RBI), INF Brandon Downes (.316, 10 HR, 59 RBI), and OF Joe McCarthy (.336, 4 HR, 51 RBI). Virginia will hit the ball at a very high clip this season and won’t have trouble scoring in any way. Last season UVA won 50 games on their way to a National Seed, but it was their pitching that faltered and ended their season at home to Mississippi State in the Super Regionals. This season on the mound the Cavaliers must replace Scott Silverstein (3.15 ERA, 28 BB, 70 K) but return some good arms including Nick Howard (3.38 ERA, 15 BB, 52 K) and Josh Sborz (1.98 ERA, 12 BB, 47 K). The pitching staff will have a good starting rotation and a very strong bullpen. This Virginia team will likely reach the College World Series and could very well win it all this season.
3. North Carolina State (50-16, 19-10 ACC)
The Wolfpack check in at #3 after a year in which they won 50 games and reached the College World Series. The Pack’ return arguably the nation’s top pitcher in Carlos Rodon (who seems like he’s been at the school for a decade). The lefty was spectacular last season posting an ERA of 2.99 while walking 45 and leading the nation in strikeouts with 184. Logan Jernigan (1.56 ERA, 28 BB, 30 K) and Temple University transfer Eric Patterson (3.03 ERA, 15 BB, 69 K) will join Rodon as solid arms in the starting rotation for NC State. At the plate the Pack will be lead by one of the best position players in the country in INF Trea Turner (.368, 7 HR, 42 RBI, 30 SB). The Wolfpack also welcome back OF Jake Fincher (.313, 83 H, 29 RBI) and bring in Rafael Palmeiro’s son Preston Palmiero. This is a Wolfpack team that is very talented and has two of the best players in the entire country. NC State will make a strong run to Omaha again in 2014.
4. Clemson (40-22, 18-12 ACC)
The Clemson Tigers ended 2013 in the regional round and this year bring back plenty of experience that will give them a chance at a fantastic season. On the mound the Tigers were very strong last season and return all three weekend starters in Daniel Gossett (2.56 ERA, 38 BB, 91 K), Matthew Crownover (2.19 ERA, 17 BB, 45 K), and Zack Erwin (3.45 ERA, 20, BB, 32 K). At the plate the Tigers will be led by DH Garrett Boulware (.308, 8 HR, 45 RBI) and INF Shane Kennedy (.317, 5 HR, 35 HR). I like this Clemson team a lot as this is a battle tested and talented group that has a great shot at reaching Omaha this season if they continue to progress.
5. North Carolina (59-12, 22-7 ACC)
This was another hard decision as Miami could also be in this #5 spot. However, the Tar Heels are the choice here as they look to build on a record setting 2013 season in which they won 59 games and reached the College World Series. The Heels will have to replace some fantastic bats as Colin Moran and Cody Stubbs are now in the Minor leagues. They do return two excellent hitters in INF Landon Lassiter (.358, 92 H, 28 RBI) and OF Skye Bolt (.321, 6 HR, 51 RBI). On the mound North Carolina will look to replace ace Kent Emanuel and Hobbs Johnson, both who had tremendous careers for the Tar Heels. Returning is Benton Moss (3.77 ERA, 34 BB, 92 K) and Trent Thornton (1.37 ERA, 19 BB, 81 K) will make the move from bullpen stopper to the weekend rotation. This North Carolina team lost some very good players from last year’s Omaha squad but should regroup to have another solid campaign. They won’t win 50 games again but should strongly contend to be a regional host.
6. Miami (35-25, 14-16 ACC)
The Miami Hurricanes check in at #6 after a season in which they reached the regional round, coming up short in the Louisville regional in 2013. The Hurricanes Achilles hill was that they were abysmal at the plate last season hitting just .258 as a team. This season, the Canes’ return INF David Thompson (.286, 6 HR, 46 RBI) and C Garrett Kennedy (.282, 3 HR, 16 RBI). Miami must improve its attack if it is to have more than just another regional appearing season. As bad as Miami was at the plate in 2013 they were the complete opposite on the hill. The Hurricanes had a team ERA of 3.38 and relied on its weekend rotation to keep them in games. This season Miami returns all three weekend starters in Bryan Radziewski (1.78 ERA, 30 BB, 109 K), Chris Diaz (1.64 ERA, 27 BB, 78 K), and Andrew Suarez (3.95 ERA, 19 BB, 57 K). Radziewski is one of the elite arms in the entire country and this weekend rotation will compete with FSU for tops in the conference. Bottom line is Miami will pitch at a high level but how far they go will depend on if the bats improve. With even an average improvement at the plate this team will be good enough to challenge for a regional hosting position.
7. Georgia Tech (37-27, 15-15 ACC)
The Yellow Jackets must replace five of their top six hitters including C Zane Evans (.361, 14 HR, 66 RBI) and 1B Daniel Palka (.342, 17 HR, 66 RBI) but INF Matt Gonzalez (.291, 3 HR, 37 RBI) returns to lead the Georgia Tech hitting attack. On the hill the Jackets return three starters in Cole Pitts, Dusty Isaacs, and Jonathan King, all looking to fill the void left by ace pitcher Buck Farmer (2.78 ERA, 35 BB, 122 K). Georgia Tech is known for its "gorilla ball" smash mouth hitting and last season was no different as they hit 58 homeruns as a team. This season they will need their pitching staff to use its experience to aide its offense in winning games. Tech always has hitters so I don’t feel that will be an issue, but if their pitching staff can give the bats some help Georgia Tech should contend for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
8. Pittsburgh (42-17, 18-6 Big East)
Pittsburgh is a new face in the ACC after joining the conference this season. Last season the Panthers won more than 40 games and won 18 conference games, yet they were left out of the NCAA Tournament altogether. The problem? They finished with an RPI of 62, an SOS of 202, and played in a terrible baseball conference known as the Big East. So why are they in my top 10 of a much, much stronger conference? Because they return a ton of players off a team that won over 40 games. Winning that many games is tough to do in any conference and PITT returns 6 of its 8 top hitters off a team that hit 49 homeruns a season ago. The Panthers also welcome back 5 batters who hit over .300 last season including OF Casey Roche (.339, 9 HR, 65 RBI) and OF Boo Vazquez (.337, 2 HR, 30 RBI). On the mound the Panthers return two starters from the weekend rotation in Rhys Aldenhoven (2.76 ERA, 27 BB, 54 K) and Matt Wotherspoon (3.70 ERA, 33 BB, 85 K). The Panthers also return some key bullpen guys that should help aid them in moving to a strong hitting conference. The Pittsburgh is a tough team to get a grasp on as they return many top guys, yet played a very weak schedule last season. PITT could either adjust well to the ACC and finish in the top half, or be overmatched and fall near the bottom. I’ll place them somewhere in the middle at #8 and say the experience will allow them to compete for a bid into the NCAA Tournament.
9. Duke (26-29, 9-21 ACC)
The Blue Devils finished 2013 with an under .500 record and only won 9 conference games a year ago. This season the Blue Devils return 6 of their top 7 hitters including its leading hitter in INF Andy Perez (.316, 4 HR, 25 RBI), INF Chris Marconcini (.284, 8 HR, 38 RBI), and INF Jordan Betts (.281, 7 HR, 48 RBI). This line-up should improve in 2014 and having their top 3 homerun guys will be a big plus for the Blue Devils. On the mound the Blue Devils bring back all three of their weekend starters from a year ago in ace Trent Swart (2.75 ERA, 26 BB, 71 K), Robert Huber (4.85 ERA, 32 BB, 53 K), and Drew Van Orden (5.94 ERA, 32 BB, 56 K). The experience in the rotation should pay dividends for Duke, as they look to take the next step and make an NCAA Tournament regional. Duke is a team that will have an experienced squad in both the line-up and in their rotation. How they fare this season will depend on if they can use their experience to help them win close games, pushing them closer to the .500 mark in conference play.
10. Virginia Tech (40-22, 15-14 ACC)
The Hokies are the final team on my top 10 list after a strong season in which they won 40 games and hosted a regional in the NCAA Tournament. The Hokies must replace some big names from last year’s line-up that mashed 55 homeruns including Tyler Horan (.342, 11 RBI, 50 RBI), Chad Pinder (.321, 8 HR, 50 RBI), and Andrew Rash (.315, 11 HR, 62 RBI). They do bring back a very good player in C Mark Zagunis (.341, 9 HR, 51 RBI) as well as INF Sean Keselica (.307, 5 HR, 31 RBI). On the hill VT loses their top two pitchers in Joe Mantiply (2.85 ERA, 25 BB, 50 K) and Devin Burke (3.11 ERA, 34 BB, 50 K). The Hokies do return Brad Markey (4.93 ERA, 21 BB, 75 K) but are also thin on quality arms in the bullpen. This Virginia Tech team will be solid at the plate again, but I feel will have problems on the hill trying to replace its top two rotation guys from a year ago. The Hokies will battle for a place in the ACC Tournament but will need some new faces to step up if it is to make the NCAAs once again in 2014.
Just Missed the Cut: Notre Dame, Maryland, Wake Forest, Boston College