- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

Determining college baseball’s most powerful conference is an easy task - depending on who you ask, of course.

The Southeastern Conference? Yep, plenty tough. The Atlantic Coast Conference? Sure, as usual.

The Pac-12? Well, it’s the home of the last two College World Series champions. And, the Big 12 is always a contender.

The traditional powerhouses again pack a lot of punch on the baseball diamond this season. And they each claim to be the toughest in the country.

“You have to come ready to play each day because the SEC is not a joke,” Louisiana State ace pitcher Aaron Nola said. “Every player is one of the best. You cannot underestimate any player that steps on the field.”

That’s because LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are all in the early conversations about teams that could be good enough to get to Omaha and play for a national title. SEC teams have played in the championship game in each of the last six years, with three - LSU in 2009, and South Carolina in 2010 and ‘11 - winning it all.

“Our goal every year is to roll out of bed and expect to go to Omaha to play for a national championship,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “In order to do that, you have to compete very favorably in the SEC.”

The ACC is also loaded again, with Baseball America preseason No. 1 Virginia topping a lethal lineup that includes Florida State, North Carolina State, Clemson, North Carolina and Miami among likely top 25 finishers.

“It’s kind of a who’s who of college baseball,” Notre Dame coach Mik Aoki said in an interview posted on the school’s official site.

The ACC is also the one conference of the top four that has a slightly new look this season as a result of realignment, with Notre Dame and Pittsburgh moving from the Big East. While the ACC is always well-represented in the NCAA tournament and at the College World Series, no team from the conference has won the national title since Wake Forest in 1955.

That’s an incredible drought considering the talent that comes through the ACC every year. And this season is no exception with Virginia, North Carolina State and Florida State boasting pitching staffs that are among the best in the country.

“I think it’s safe to say that if we don’t get back to Omaha, it’s pretty much a failure of a season,” said N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon, a possible No. 1 pick in this year’s draft. “That’s our goal. We’re not worried about the draft. We’re about winning.”

The Pac-12 has done plenty of that, coming out of the College World Series on top the last two years. It remains one of college baseball’s elite conferences - just ask any of the Pac-12’s coaches.

“I’m prejudiced, but there’s no doubt in my mind this is the toughest conference in the country,” Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “The last two national champions came out of the Pac-12 - Arizona and UCLA - and I don’t think UCLA was the best team in the conference last year, I think Oregon State was.

“Oregon State will be the favorite again this year. They’ve got pitching back, they’ve got their hitters.”

Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State, Southern California and Washington State are also projected as NCAA tournament teams.

“I don’t know the soft spot in the Pac-12 schedule,” California coach David Esquer said. “There really isn’t one.”

The teams in the Big 12 know the feeling. Augie Garrido’s Texas squad is expected to have a big bounceback season after finishing last in the conference a year ago. The Longhorns were a preseason top 25 team, along with Kansas State and Texas Christian, with Baylor and Oklahoma State projected as possible NCAA tournament participants.

That puts more than half the conference in the postseason conversation right off the bat.

“The thing about our league is, last year’s last-place team could win it this year, and vice versa,” West Virginia coach Randy Mazey said in his preseason podcast posted on the school’s site. “Every Big 12 conference game you play, any team can beat any team, so that’s what makes the league a lot of fun.”

Realignment will certainly make things interesting across the country, with 45 teams playing in new leagues this season and changing the looks of some conferences.

The ACC will welcome Louisville into the fold next season, but Dan McDonnell’s Cardinals first will spend a season in the newly formed American Athletic Conference after moving from the Big East. The AAC will be an intriguing conference to watch, with several other former Big East schools joining Louisville, including Cincinnati, Connecticut, Rutgers and South Florida. Also playing in the conference will be former Conference USA members Central Florida, Houston and Memphis, and former Atlantic 10 member Temple.

“We expect it to be even better just because of the Southern flavor that the AAC has,” McDonnell said. “We add Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, along with a trip to South Florida this year. So, it has a look of the Big East because we still have Connecticut and Cincinnati and South Florida, but yet we added another trip to Florida and another trip to Texas. So anytime you’re playing a college baseball program from Florida or Texas, you know it’s very talented kids and very talented programs.”

Other notable moves include Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio joining Conference USA; and the Western Athletic Conference gaining Chicago State, Grand Canyon, North Dakota, Northern Colorado, Texas-Pan American and Utah Valley, while losing Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio, along with Dallas Baptist (Missouri Valley), San Jose State (Mountain West), Texas State (Sun Belt) and Texas-Arlington (Sun Belt).

“The one thing you do know in college baseball, because of the parity, you’ve just got to get in the (NCAA) tournament,” Marquess said. “And if you play well at the right time, you can win it. That’s good. The thing you want to do is finish well in league or win the league and you get to host a regional normally. It’ll be very competitive as usual.”


AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.

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