Originally Published: February 16, 2011

Season's greetings

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

OK, that's enough! It's been 235 days since the last pitch.

I figure eight months of offseason strife, off-field bad news, program elimination and rule-change complaining is long enough. C'mon, let's toe the rubber and get this thing started already.

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Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireIf he's cleared to play, Garrett Wittels could make history this weekend.

The 2011 season promises to be filled with a lot of transition. There are new bats, a new pitch clock, new definitions of national powers and new conference affiliations on the horizon.

So the road starts here, people. We've got 300 hopefuls, but only one championship trophy to parade around the new downtown stadium.

Going into the opening weekend, there are about 5,000 questions we could have about the new season, but we'll start with the five most important questions as we unwrap opening weekend, crank up the heavy metal thunder and hit the road to Omaha.

After all, there are only 122 days until the College World Series.

1. How will the new bats affect the sport?
This has been a hot-button subject all offseason. The NCAA has mandated new restrictions on the bats that are used in college baseball, and once again, it has deadened the "trampoline effect" even more. We'll have more on this subject below, but that's it in a nutshell.

2. When will FIU's Garrett Wittels' hit streak end?
He's got 56. The venerable Robin Ventura had 58. Southeastern Louisiana will be the opponent. ESPN will be manning the cameras. This should be fun. Two big obstacles lie in his way, however. One, the new bats, which won't help. And two, the highly underrated pitching staff of SLU. (Wittels, who was charged with rape in the Bahamas in December, was cleared by FIU to play on Wednesday.)

3. Have we seen the end of the four-hour game?
The NCAA has also instituted rules to speed games up. Now there will be a 20-second limit between pitches, and also 90 seconds between innings. My guess is that the pitch clock will eventually die of silence and become a non-issue. Pitchers will adjust quickly -- pun intended. But one of the things you won't see as much of anymore is the team taking the field, stopping and waiting for everyone to gather before they take infield warm-ups every half-inning. Also, the onus will fall on pitchers to hustle out to the mound and get their warm-up pitches in as well. In other words, these rules seem aimed more at the West Coast teams.

4. Can South Carolina repeat?
Don't bet on it. No offense to the Gamecocks and the remarkable job Ray Tanner did last season, but you just can't count on the Oregon States of the world happening again in this age of parity. But be warned: Tanner has pulled off miracles before, so don't ever count him out. Plus, CWS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr. returns as a team leader (and ESPN Preseason All-American).

5. Will this be the final go-round of the Mount Rushmore of college coaches?
There are four national championship-winning coaches that keep us wondering how long they will grace our sport with their significant presences. If Augie Garrido of Texas, Wayne Graham of Rice, Gene Stephenson of Wichita State or Mike Gillespie of UC Irvine make it to Omaha or -- gulp! -- win the 2011 national championship, will that make this their final go-round in college baseball? I hope not, of course. But you have to wonder.

Powering down

By Walter Villa
Special to ESPN.com

University of Miami coach Jim Morris said the new bats that will be used in college baseball this season will drastically reduce the number of home runs hit.

Asked whether Canes third baseman Harold Martinez can repeat last year's total of 21 homers, which tied for the ACC lead, Morris said, "I don't know if our whole team can hit 21 homers."

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Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIMiami slugger Harold Martinez may see his numbers dip because of the new bats.

Canes hitting coach Joe Mercadante was more optimistic.

"When you have guys like Harold or some of the other power hitters in the ACC, they are still going to hit home runs," he said. "It may not be 20. It may be 12 or 15. But these big strong guys will get a hold of a ball pull-side and it's going out, no matter if it's last year's bats or this year's bats."

Aluminum bats have been used in college baseball since 1974. Manufacturers made the bats more potent each year after that, culminating with the 1998 College World Series, which featured a 21-14 championship game victory for USC over Arizona State.

The 1998 season featured records that still stand for homers per game (2.2) and runs (14.2).

The NCAA reduced the ball's exit speed off the bats after '98, and safety was part of the focus. Pitchers and infielders were at too much risk of being seriously injured because of the potency of the bats.

But Morris believes the NCAA made "too big an adjustment" this year.

"I think the bats were too hot in the '90s, but I think they were pretty good last year," Morris said.

Morris said he hopes the reduction in power across the country won't hurt attendance.

"Fans enjoy seeing home runs," he said. "We played 23 games this fall, and we hit 13 home runs as a team. If you double that, for a 56-game regular season, that's 26 home runs for our whole team. The ball doesn't carry as well here in the fall as it does in the spring. That said, I can't see anyone hitting 20 home runs in our ballpark with these bats."

Morris said his team, which hit 106 homers last season, will adjust as long all teams have to play with similar bats, which he said has not been the case in the past. He added that his team will play more "small ball" this season.

"Even if we used the same bats, I don't think we'd hit for the same power this season," he said. "We have more speed. It's going to be more like a wood-bat league. We have to put the ball in play, bunt, hit and run. All our fast guys have to get on base."

Ten places to be this weekend

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

We can't be everywhere, but if we could, here's our top 10 for the weekend:

1. Southeastern Louisiana at Florida International
History could be made as Garrett Wittels takes his 56-game hit streak from last year and goes for the NCAA consecutive-games record, which Robin Ventura currently holds at 58 games. Beyond that, both teams are legit BracketBusters, being two of the better mid-majors in the country.
Key matchup: The Panthers were 16th in the country with a .337 team average. But the Lions have all three weekend starters back from the 27th best pitching staff in the country (4.29 ERA).
TV info: Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com; Saturday at 1 p.m. on ESPN3.com; Sunday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU/ESPN3.com.

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Rice Sports Information Rice's Anthony Rendon will face a tough test in the opening weekend of play.

2. No. 16 Stanford at No. 17 Rice
This will be the only matchup of the weekend that will see a pair of ranked teams going head-to-head. Both are looking for rebound seasons after the Cardinal finished 2010 at just 31-25 and the Owls were an un-Owl-like 40-23, losing the championship games of both the C-USA tournament and the Austin Regional.
Key matchup: Anthony Rendon is the best hitter in America (and an ESPN preseason All-American). If Jordan Pries and Brett Mooneyham, the Friday-Saturday starters, can keep him in check, Stanford has a chance at a series win. But Rendon is a firestarter with a potent, infectious bat.

3. The Big East-Big Ten Challenge
Eight teams from each conference will take part in the third annual early-season event, which is held in the Tampa Bay area. The best part is that teams from these two northern leagues play each other instead of spending a weekend getting waxed by Southern monsters who have had a bunch of outdoor practices.
Key matchups: Connecticut-Minnesota (see right column for more), Louisville-Michigan, Louisville-Minnesota, St. John's-Minnesota and Pittsburgh-Iowa. All of these teams will be a little ragged early in the season, having had few outdoor practices, but watch for them to excel come May and June.

4. The Auburn tournament
Teams involved: Auburn, Virginia, Arkansas State, UAB
Too bad it's not a full weekend of Auburn-UVa, but don't sell Arkansas State or UAB short because they'll play with large chips on their shoulders and have enough talent too. But the Cavaliers come in as the favorites, returning most of last year's squad that just missed a trip to Omaha.
Key matchup: The Tigers hit a blistering .348 last season as a team (sixth nationally) and return six batters from last year, led by Dan Gamache (.365) and Justin Fradejas (.358). But the Wahoos are -- as always under Brian O'Connor -- pitching strong. They'll toss out arms like Danny Hultzen (11-1 last year) and Tyler Wilson (drafted by the Reds last June).

5. The USC tournament
Teams involved: USC, Cal Poly, Missouri, North Carolina
All of these teams are looking for both redemption and a springboard to a better 2011 season. North Carolina will also play an additional game against Cal State Fullerton while in town. That should be a huge barometer for the Heels.
Key matchup: USC's comfort zone versus visitors. The Trojans need a positive start more than anyone else, with the turmoil on the coaching staff and all. If they can play well at home, and get power-slugger Ricky Oropesa uncorked early, they could win out here and start this as a legit bounceback season.

6. No. 10 Oregon at Hawaii
The Ducks are one of my sleeper teams for the national title, but are highly regarded in every preseason ranking out there. The Warriors are going to have some rebuilding to do and won't match UO pitch-for-pitch, but they are talented enough to pull a couple of wins, especially with all-world 2B/SS Kolten Wong stirring the pot.
Key matchup: Oregon versus the allure of the islands. It's gotta be a business trip, guys. Not a holiday. I mean, the Ducks have a lot of major league talent on their roster, but you know how the lure of paradise can turn a business trip into a nightmare for teams that enjoy the sun and sand too much and not take the Bows seriously enough.

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Icon SMITony Gwynn is battling cancer, but he's hoping to be in San Diego State's dugout.

7. The San Diego area
No. 4 Vanderbilt will travel to the city with the best weather in the country and take on USD (Friday and Sunday) and San Diego State (Saturday). The Commodores are standing in the shadow of the Florida Gators this preseason, but here's a chance to make an immediate statement, against the talented, but raw, Toreros and Aztecs.
Key matchup: The Coach versus Cancer. It was announced in October that SDSU coach Tony Gwynn would begin treatment for cancer of a salivary gland. His recovery has come along nicely, but his doctors are still telling him to take it easy. As of last week Gwynn maintained that he's near full recovery and plans to be in the dugout for Friday's game versus Winthrop.

8. The Fresno tournament
Teams involved: Fresno State, Oregon State, Gonzaga
The two Cinderella programs of the 2000s face off with another Northwest squad that should be much improved. All three teams will feature a handful of players who got drafted in June but decided not to go pro. Fresno's power lineup gives the Dogs a decided edge if the pitching is slow to get going.
Key matchup: Bulldog arms versus the bats of the Beavers and Zags. Fresno returns all four weekend starters (they play four in the WAC), and also get 14th-round draftee Tyler Linehan added to the arsenal. The Beavers hit a Pac-10-worst .267 last year and the Zags were a WCC-worst .282. Those two units must establish a better 2011.

9. South Florida at No. 3 Florida
OK, so the Bulls have been looking for a breakout season for quite some time now. If 2011 is going to be the year, a win or two in Gainesville is the perfect way to signal that. But then again … well, the Gators may just swallow them whole first.
Key matchup: Randy Fontanez and Andrew Barbosa versus the Gators bats. These two lockdown starters were both drafted by the bigs last summer, but came back to lead USF to bigger things. But the Gators will scare the bejesus out of you with their batting order. If Fontanez and Barbosa get in a groove early, this weekend could become thorny.

10. The Caravelle Resort tournament
Teams involved: No. 20 Coastal Carolina, Boston College, Tennessee Tech and Indiana
This won't be as big a cakewalk as you might think for the Chanticleers. BC has taken on a winning pedigree the last few years, Tennessee Tech won the Ohio Valley last year and Indiana should have its best team this millennium.
Key matchup: CCU's pitching versus Indiana's Alex Dickerson. It would be great to see Coastal All-American ace Anthony Meo go at Dickerson, but with this game being played Sunday, the Hoosier slugger will most likely face either Jim Birmingham or Ryan Connolly. Still, it'll be a treat.

Eric Sorenson, who runs College Baseball Today, and Walter Villa are regular contributors to ESPN's college baseball coverage. Follow Eric on Twitter: @stitch_head

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