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Four best series in 2013

South Carolina begins preseason practice, along with the rest of college baseball, on January 25. As we count down the days until the start of the Chad Holbrook era, we take a look at the storylines entering the season. There are high expectations, once again, but there are also a lot of challenges. There are key components to replace and talented teams on the schedule.

Arkansas pitcher Ryne Stanek

Today, with four days before the start of the preseason, we take a look at the best opponents that the Gamecocks will play this year in a three-game series. There are quite a few high-profile matchups.

This list is in alphabetical order.

1. Arkansas: Even though this list is in alphabetical order, Arkansas would lead the way from a talent perspective. The Razorbacks return the bulk of a College World Series team that was one win away from making the national championship series. The Gamecocks, of course, won three games in two days - two of which were against Arkansas - to advance to its third straight title series.

Arkansas certainly has the credentials with one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country. The Hogs sport a pair of preseason All-Americans on the bump in right-handers Ryne Stanek and Colby Suggs. Both hard-throwing righties, Stanek is a frontline starter while Suggs was one of the best relievers in college baseball a year ago. The duo combined for a 15-5 record in nearly 200 innings of work. Not to be overlooked, veterans Randall Fant and Barrett Astin will also feature some of the best stuff in the conference.

Leading the hit parade will be first baseman Dominic Ficociello, another preseason All-American, who hit .301 in SEC play a year ago and had 20 multi-hit games. He has made 126 starts in his first two years with the Razorbacks and has a career average of .311. While he’s always spent time at first base, Ficociello could play at third or second base this season.

2. Clemson: The Tigers have had a mental block against the Gamecocks in recent years. That was until last season when Clemson showed great fight in all five games against its archrival. South Carolina came out on top in four of the five games but Clemson proved to be a game opponent again battling to the last pitch each time out. The series resumes the Clemson-Greenville-Columbia path across the state this year the first weekend in March.

Clemson, which was eliminated in the Columbia Regional last year, brings back a lot of key pieces but also adds what could be a program-changing class of recruits, which was built on pitching. Ace Daniel Gossett, who allowed two runs in 7 innings against the Gamecocks in the Regional last year, returns with a year of experience under his belt. Veterans Scott Firth, Kevin Pohle, and Jonathan Meyer return but they’ll be bolstered by a group of six freshmen who could play a significant role this year on the mound.

Centerfielder Thomas Brittle will lead the Tigers at the plate with first baseman Jon McGibbon supplying a lot of the power. Catcher Garrett Boulware is ready for his increased role behind the plate and figures to be a middle of the order hitter. Two freshmen - right fielder Steven Duggar and shortstop Tyler Krieger - will also make an immediate impact. The duo could easily have an impact similar to that of Tanner English and Joey Pankake as freshmen at South Carolina.

Florida pitcher Jonathan Crawford

3. Florida: Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan lost the bulk of his team from a year ago and also lost the primary pieces from his recruiting class. That doesn’t mean the Gators are going to face a significant drop-off as they’ve recently built one of the best programs in the country.

The pitching staff, which is what the Gators have been built on during their recent run of success, is depleted but Jonathan Crawford could be one of the best in the country. He had an incredible season-ending run in 2012, which included a no-hitter in the Regional round against Bethune-Cookman. The right-hander started nine weekends in conference play posting a 3-1 record and 2.56 ERA. At one point during the postseason, he retired a streak of 25 consecutive hitters. Gone are Hudson Randall, Brian Johnson, Austin Maddox, and plenty of other names that have become mainstays in college baseball. Karsten Whitson will have to elevate his game a notch and other young pitchers will have to emerge for the Gators to stay on top.

The Gators lost a lot of their top hitters, too, but they also have one of the better rising sophomore classes in the country. Infielder Josh Tobias is a great hitter and could play second or third while Taylor Gushue will play an even bigger role this year than his 39 starts a year ago. He struggled in SEC play but is ready to take the next step. Utility man Justin Shafer, who hit .315 in the Cape Cod League over the summer, will man an outfield spot after hitting .264 in conference play a year ago.

4. LSU: It feels like LSU almost has a rightful place in Omaha given their success as a program since the days of Gorilla Ball and there is certainly a team in Baton Rouge this year with enough talent to make it back to the College World Series.

Right-handed pitcher Aaron Nola will be one of the key cogs in the rotation after an excellent freshman season that saw him earn All-American honors with a 7-4 record and 3.61 earned run average in 89.2 innings. One of the top relievers in the league, Chris Cotton, will be at the back end of the game. He was 7-0 with a 1.49 ERA in 36 appearances a year ago for the Tigers.

Senior Raph Rhymes is one of the best hitters in the country, as evidenced by his nation-leading .431 batting average a year ago. He’s a contact hitter spraying singles across the park, but he’ll frustrate opposing pitchers all game long. With Rhymes likely on base, preseason All-American Mason Katz will be there looking to drive him in with a home run. He had 13 last year and could easily top that this season. The freshman to watch this year for the Tigers is Alex Bregman, who is taking Austin Nola’s shortstop position. He was a U.S. National Team player and 29th round selection of the Boston Red Sox last summer. He should be in contention for SEC Freshman of the Year at season’s end.

Ten day countdown

10: Why USC will make it to Omaha
9: Looking at the lineup
8: Best players USC will face
7: Why Carolina won’t make it to Omaha
6: Six players who need to elevate their game
5: Impact newcomers
4: Best series on the schedule
3: Three captains - are they the right ones?
2: What changes under No. 2 - Chad Holbrook
1: Changing of the guard

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