C-USA baseball season off to surprising start
Before the 2010 season began, Conference USA had three teams ranked in the Top 25 by Baseball America, and for good reason.
Rice was ranked No. 5, after a 43-18 season in which they went 16-8 in conference play, won their fourth straight C-USA tournament and wound up in the Super Regional.
East Carolina was ranked No. 18 in the preseason. The Pirates went 46-20 last season, with 17-7 in C-USA to win the regular season title. East Carolina also made it to the Super Regional.
Southern Mississippi went 40-26 last season and was ranked No. 21. The Golden Eagles had the best finish of all when they made it to the College World Series where they lost to Texas and North Carolina.
Perhaps the most surprising struggles are those of Rice, who has perennially been considered an elite program. The Owls opened their season with a road series against Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., where they were unceremoniously swept. Granted, Stanford is an upper-echelon program, but rarely does a Wayne Graham-coached team receive that kind of treatment. According to baseballamerica.com, the Owls were last swept in 2005.
Rice followed up with a 13-7 loss to lesser-known Lamar (6-1) to start the season 0-4. Rice then won their next three games in the Rice Invitational. The Owls knocked off UH (2-5) 8-2 Tuesday to win four in a row and returned to .500. The Owls are still ranked No. 9, but their ERA is a troubling 5.94.
East Carolina has struggled, due in part to their challenging schedule. They’ve had two three-game series against preseason Top 25 teams, but have survived with a 4-3 record, and actually improved their ranking to No. 14.
Southern Mississippi has suffered the most with their 4-3 start. The Golden Eagles took two out of three against Northwestern State (5-2) at home, and stayed home to crunch Mississippi Valley State 20-2. They then proceeded to lose two out of three at home to Le Moyne College.
That ugly stretch dropped the Golden Eagles out of Baseball America’s Top 25. The Golden Eagles don’t have an impressive schedule, so they could already be in trouble if they don’t do well in conference.
The struggles of these three have coincided with the surprising success of UCF, sitting first in the standings at 7-1. The surprise is that Central Florida was 22-35 and 9-15 in C-USA last season. On the other hand, their opponents’ combined record of 7-22 tells the story.
The No. 5 Florida Gators, who beat UCF 7-6, have five of the seven wins. It should be expected for UCF to come down a little, but with their relatively easy schedule, anything is possible.