Minute Maid field includes four ranked teams

College baseball has no starting date -- though plenty of coaches and administrators currently are haggling over that fact -- so the start of the season tends to sprawl from the end of January through the beginning of March.

There are key events each year that signal the beginning of the season in different parts of the country. Cal State Fullerton versus Stanford normally jump-starts things in Southern California. Miami playing Florida wakes up a lot of the Southeast, especially now that bragging rights for the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences are factored in.

Baseball's kickoff in football-loving Texas comes at the Minute Maid College Classic. It's scheduled a week after the Super Bowl, and spring practice hasn't started yet on the college campuses, so there's no better time. And few things are more enticing than the annual fields at the event. Rice and Texas each played there at the beginning of their respective national championship seasons in 2003 and 2002.

This year's participants don't disappoint. Four ranked teams dot the guest list -- No. 11 Baylor, No. 13 Texas A&M, No. 19 Rice and No. 23 Oklahoma State -- while Houston and Tennessee each figure to make NCAA Tournament pushes from Conference USA and the SEC.

"They're very good teams. It's always going to have good teams, because you're going to have Big 12 schools and us and Houston every year," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "It's a pretty loaded tournament."

Graham's team started its season last weekend with a single game against Central Missouri State, and Oklahoma State played three games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but each club is integrating so many new faces this season that they won't have much of an advantage against the other four clubs that have yet to play this year.

Teams that start with the customary early-season jitters and spotty play could find themselves in a rough spot Monday morning after opening against this caliber of competition. "We need to be sharp fairly quick," Texas A&M coach Mark Johnson said.

Yet Tennessee coach Rod Delmonico, whose team opened against Morehead State before facing Miami in 2004, points out an advantage to starting the slate against top teams.

"The intensity level is higher in practice because you know you're going to play quality people," Delmonico said. "I don't have to do much motivation to get the guys up to play three teams like this and in Minute Maid Park -- it's a major league park and guys are excited."

Players are also excited to show their skills in front of the large throng of scouts, who will dust off the radar guns and recalibrate the stopwatches for the chance to see eight of Baseball America's top 100 college prospects in one place.

There's at least one per team, including two of the top righthanders available in Tennessee's Luke Hochevar and Baylor's Mark McCormick, both preseason first-team All-Americans. Texas A&M boasts three top 100 players in shortstop Cliff Pennington, righthander Robert Ray and closer Kevin Whelan. Oklahoma State offers lefthander Brae Wright, and hometown schools Rice and Houston each have an intriguing two-way performer in Lance Pendleton and Kevin Roberts.

"Everyone's going to be here to see everyone," said Pennington, himself a third-team All-America pick. "It's a great chance for some of us to go against some top players and for other guys to show what they've got against those kind of players."

Players in that group include three transfers on the mound in Rice's JC duo of Josh Geer and Bryce Cox, who each reach the low-90s, and Texas A&M righthander Clayton Turner, who led the Southland Conference in strikeouts at Northwestern State last year. Baylor seniors Michael Griffin and Josh Ford hope to boost their stock with one more year in school.

They have that idea on their minds, at least. A National League scouting director warned that there won't be too many decisions made over the weekend. Just like the players, the scouts are just glad to be back in ballparks again.

"I think it's too early to see those guys, quite honestly," he said. "A lot of those kids aren't ready to be seen. You end up going back anyway to see them later.

"It still works out pretty good, just from a quantity standpoint, there's good numbers (of players) to look at. Some of us are getting a little stir-crazy anyway."

Around the Nation

Eleven Top 25 teams open their seasons this weekend, and 20 are in action overall. Things start up in Louisiana, where No. 1 Tulane faces Southeast Missouri State and No. 2 LSU opens against Nicholls State. The top ranking has generated all kinds of Green Wave buzz in New Orleans, but coach Rick Jones maintains it won't affect his club. "If we can't keep our head down and play games, that's on me," he said. "I don't care what we're ranked, you've got to play the games. You're not going to float on a cloud to Omaha. I've been there once (in 2001) and know how hard it is to get there."

  • Four games into his 33rd season as Norfolk State's baseball coach, Marty Miller decided serving as acting athletics director and baseball coach was too much. He resigned from his baseball duties Tuesday, appointing assistant head coach Claudell Clark as the interim skipper. Miller, who was named acting A.D. on Dec. 16, stands as the CIAA's winningest coach with a 718-543-3 record that includes 17 conference titles. He is a member of the NSU and CIAA halls of fame. He reached his decision following an 0-4 road trip to Savannah State, but said the results did not affect his choice.

    "This is one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make," Miller said. "I realized when we returned from Savannah that I needed to make a decision about my future. We got back at 4 a.m., then I had a meeting with (school president) Dr. (Marie) McDemmond early that day along with some other assignments I had to complete. It made me realize that I wouldn't be able to put the necessary time into both jobs."

    The move isn't unprecedented. Skip Bertman became LSU's athletic director after retiring as its coach in 2001. And just this week, there were rumblings of South Carolina coach Ray Tanner perhaps making a similar move when he decides his coaching days are through. South Carolina athletics director Mike McGee announced he would retire June 30, and Tanner told the State newspaper he discussed the position in a recent meeting with school president Andrew Sorenson.

    "It's a situation that, certainly, in the future I have a great interest in," Tanner told the State. "I'm not sure the timing is right now."

    Tanner starts his ninth year at South Carolina this weekend against Longwood. His No. 7 Gamecocks got a bucket-load of bad news on the injury front. Junior righthander Shawn Valdes-Fauli will miss the year following Tommy John surgery. He transferred in for the spring semester after previously playing at Miami and figured to serve as the team's closer or top setup man. Senior third baseman Steve Pearce will not play after spraining his ankle fielding a grounder last week in practice. Junior infielder Chris Brown, who was in the race to start at second base, has a partially ruptured disc in his lower back, and is out indefinitely. Finally, senior outfielder Brendan Winn broke bones in his cheek after getting hit in the face (by the ball, not a fist). He might need surgery, but is likely to play this weekend.

  • Miami battled injuries in 2004 -- the Hurricanes had just nine healthy position players for one game -- and more health problems have beset the club already this year. Junior center fielder Danny Figueroa turned his ankle, forcing his twin brother Paco to move from second base to take his place against High Point.

    Back spasms put sophomore catcher Eddy Rodriguez out of action, forcing freshman Alex Garabedian behind the plate. Charles Johnson, Jorge Fabregas and Erick San Pedro all proved to be great catchers while at Miami, but none saw much time behind the plate as freshman because the team runs so many different signals through the position, from calling pitches to defensive alignments.

    "It was good to let him get his feet wet and make some mistakes," assistant coach Gino DiMare said. "It's like a quarterback, you throw a freshman into the fire and he's going to make some mistakes. He called some pitches wrong and other things, but he's learning."

    No. 5 Miami faces South Florida this weekend.

  • Early-season college baseball always means tournaments galore. There are two Coca-Cola Classics, each with Top 25 teams involved. No. 12 Arizona State, Gonzaga, Oklahoma and South Alabama are in Surprise, Ariz. The Classic in Rock Hill, S.C., features three W schools -- No. 25 Winthrop, Wake Forest and Western Kentucky -- along with Maryland, whose M is an upside-down W.

    The field for the Oakland Athletics tournament (held at their spring training complex in Phoenix) includes Kansas State, Missouri, Northwestern and Oregon State.

  • No. 3 Cal State Fullerton faces Fresno State after winning two of three games against No. 6 Stanford last week. Stanford abused Fresno State two weeks ago in a three-game sweep, so look up the transitive property to figure out what might happen in Fullerton this weekend. Stanford, meanwhile, faces a Kansas team that figures to be all nice and tanned as it returns from a four-game trip at Hawaii-Hilo. The Jayhawks rocked there, chalking up four wins and allowing only one run.

  • No. 11 Arizona faces Northern Colorado, which had its second straight season opener cancelled by snow on Tuesday. That shouldn't be a problem in Tucson, where Colorado natives Sean Jarrett, Mike Koons and Mark Melancon dot the roster.

  • No. 15 Florida starts its 2005 campaign against Charleston Southern, which gave Florida State a tough run two weeks ago in a road series. Charleston Southern coach Jason Murray served as a volunteer assistant at Florida in 2002, Pat McMahon's first year with the Gators.

  • Rounding out the Top 25: No. 20 Georgia Tech plays Georgia State at home Friday night before heading to Georgia Southern for games Saturday and Sunday. No. 22 TCU starts at home against future Mountain West Conference opponent Utah. No. 24 Oral Roberts stays home against Missouri Southern.

  • As always, a few series outside the Top 25 catch the eye. Auburn travels to Florida State, marking the first time the teams have met in the regular season since 1984. The Tigers topped the Seminoles in a 1997 regional to reach the College World Series behind Tim Hudson. FSU beat Auburn twice during a 2001 regional.

    Northwestern State travels to face Wichita State in a series that will feature the season debut of Shockers righthander Mike Pelfrey. The first-team All-American ranks as the top pitcher among BA's top 100 college prospects after an 11-2, 2.18 sophomore year with 125 strikeouts and 24 walks in 115 innings. "Pelfrey is by far the best pitcher we'll see all year, and we get him right away," NSU coach Mitch Gaspard said.

    Editor's note: ESPN.com has entered a partnership with Baseball America, who will provide weekly updates, analysis and Friday notebooks on college baseball.