Spring is here, and that means another college baseball season is upon us. Which teams out of the Pac-12 have a chance at contending for a national championship? Which teams will take a step back in 2015? We break it all down below. Teams are listed in order of our preseason projections.
Toughest nonconference game: 3/6 vs Vanderbilt
Toughest conference series: 5/22-5/24 at Oregon
The Bruins folded down the stretch last season, finishing the month of May with a dreadful 3-11 record. Don't expect the same to happen this year. Led by RBI machines Kevin Kramer and Ty Moore, UCLA is a strong pick to finish atop the conference this season. On the mound, John Savage's club has five elite starting pitchers that will be competing throughout the nonconference season for those key weekend spots in the months of April and May. A trip to Eugene for three games against a similarly styled and talented Oregon team in the final week of the season could decide who gets the Pac-12's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Toughest nonconference games: 5/5 & 5/10 at Oregon State
Toughest conference series: 5/22-5/24 vs UCLA
After restarting the program from scratch in 2009, George Horton has taken Oregon to four NCAA Tournaments in five years. A return is imminent in 2015 as this might be his best team yet. What the Ducks lack in experience on the mound, they make it up in raw talent. Southpaw Cole Irvin is back after undergoing Tommy John surgery after he won 12 games in 2013, and will be leader of an always-stout group of pitchers for Oregon. On offense, the Ducks return their top two bats from last season and will get some help from a top-20 recruiting class. They should be able to take advantage of a soft nonconference schedule as they make a run at just their second ever national seed.
Toughest nonconference series: 2/20-2/22 vs TCU
Toughest conference series: 3/20-3/22 at Oregon
The Sun Devils return seven position players from a team that went 33-24 last season. Projected Friday starter Brett Lilek only won four games in 2014 but recorded 79 strikeouts and a 2.68 ERA along the way. He spearheads a dangerous group of arms that former Indiana head coach Tracy Smith inherits in his first year in the desert. ASU does not lose much of anything at the plate. Third basemen Dalton DiNatale is back after a 36 RBI and three home run sophomore campaign, and speedy center fielder Johnny Sewald returns after stealing 16 bases last year. Things seem to be in place for Smith to take the Sun Devils back to regionals for a third straight season.
Toughest nonconference game: 3/7 vs Vanderbilt
Toughest conference series: 4/10-4/12 vs UCLA
This might be a little higher than most projections for USC, but this team looks a lot like the Washington club that surprised everyone and finished second in the Pac-12 a year ago. The pitching staff is a little depleted but coach Dan Hubbs might make things work out by moving last year's closer Kyle Davis into the Friday starter role. Seven position players return and the Trojans get the top three projected Pac-12 teams at home at Dedaux Field. We'll get to see just how good they really are in early March when they face three top five teams (Vanderbilt, TCU, and UCLA) in three days.
Toughest nonconference series: 2/27-3/1 at Rice
Toughest conference series: 5/1-5/3 at Oregon
Speaking of tough schedules, Stanford is typically no stranger to them and that does not change this year. Teams like Indiana, California, Rice, Texas, and San Diego dot the Cardinal nonconference slate, which might mean a tough start out of the gates for them. Once Pac-12 play rolls around, however, this team has enough talent to finish inside the upper half and get an NCAA Tournament bid. They are led by outfielder Zach Hoffpauir, who hit for a .324 average in 2014 while not playing safety for Stanford's football team.
6. Oregon State
Toughest nonconference game: 2/19 vs Oklahoma State in Surprise
Toughest conference series: 4/2-4/4 at UCLA
This may be a rebuilding year for Oregon State, who was the country's top national seed just eight months ago. Gone are the freakishly-talented arms Jace Fry and Ben Wetzler, but the Beavers will still have one of the nation's top three-man rotations in Andrew Moore, Jake Thompson, and Zack Reser. The only question is whether or not coach Pat Casey can replace the power left behind by Michael Conforto and Dylan Davis. He'll have to dip into a strong recruiting class to find the answer. If he does, Oregon State should nab the Pac-12's sixth and final tournament bid.
Toughest nonconference games: 4/22 & 4/28 vs Arizona State
Toughest conference series: 5/15-5/17 at UCLA
The Wildcats have the potential to surprise this season, but are most likely still a year or two away from making it back to the tournament. Six of their top seven hitters return from last year's team, but that team struggled their way to a 22-33 record. The biggest question is how good will reliever Matthew Troupe be after sitting out last season because of Tommy John surgery. Last time we saw Troupe he was leading Arizona to a College World Series title. There's no way he can do it again, right?
Toughest nonconference game: 2/22 vs Oklahoma State in Peoria
Toughest conference series: 3/13-3/15 at UCLA
Somehow the Huskies won 41 games last year and finished second in the Pac-12. They lose more than half of their starting position players from that team, so I do not see a similar finish this time around. The pitching staff does look good, however. Reliever extraordinaire Troy Rallings will move into the Saturday starter role, and All-American Tyler Davis is back to serve as the team's ace. The Huskies aren't going to score a lot of runs but should win a lot of 2-1, 1-0 games.
Toughest nonconference game: 2/16 & 4/21 at Stanford
Toughest conference series: 4/16-4/18 at UCLA
The Golden Bears fell victim to multiple key injuries in 2014, and it's impossible to know how those players will do after healing up this season. A lack of pitching depth in a pitcher's conference is going to keep this team near the bottom, but the cupboard isn't entirely bare. Infielder Brenden Farney is back along with his 18 RBIs and .308 batting average and they also welcome in a top-40 recruiting class to help stay competitive. A fairly easy nonconference schedule should help their record before they get into league play.
10. Washington State
Toughest nonconference game: 2/20 vs Oklahoma State in Surprise
Toughest conference series: 3/27-3/29 vs UCLA
Only four position players and one weekend starter return from a team that finished 24-30 last year. Maybe that's a good thing? This team definitely needs to shore up their play on defense, as a lot of timely fielding errors cost them a chance at some upset wins in 2014. At the plate, Washington State needs to find two or three players that will get on base consistently and protect their top hitters. Right now this team just don't appear to have enough talent to slot this team any higher than 10th.
Toughest nonconference game: 2/21 vs Oklahoma State in Mesa
Toughest conference series: 3/20-3/22 at UCLA
The Utes only won four Pac-12 games last season and things don't figure to get much better. Only one weekend and one mid-week starter return for the Utes, leaving a whole lot of inexperience on the mound. Coach Bill Kinneberg is squarely on the hot seat and desperately needs someone to produce, but who that might be is still up in the air. With 15 freshmen on this year's roster it looks to be another rough season in Salt Lake City.