Plus, Fox said the Tar Heels have to survive an Atlantic Coast Conference schedule that includes a North Carolina State program that is on the rise and traditional powers in Florida State and Georgia Tech. The nonconference schedule has the Tar Heels playing 2012 CWS surprise entry Stony Brook next week and a March trip to Houston to play Rice, California and Texas A&M.
Vanderbilt (35-22) is well-positioned for a strong season with a mix of young players from recruiting classes ranked best in the nation two years in a row and veteran players who appeared in the CWS two years ago.
Coach Tim Corbin said catcher Spencer Navin is on the verge of breaking out after batting .298 with 13 extra-base hits and throwing out 20 base stealers. Tony Kemp, who moved from left field to second base in the middle of last season, stole 21 bases and is tied for the school record with 15 career triples.
First baseman Conrad Gregor hit .328 with three home runs, and senior outfielders Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski combined for 13 homers and 67 RBIs. Corbin said the Commodores go into the season unsettled at shortstop and third base.
T.J. Pecoraro (2-4, 3.40) came off Tommy John surgery to lead the pitching staff, and Corbin likes the potential of Tyler Beede and left-hander Kevin Ziomek.
Stanford (41-18), with star pitcher Mark Appel and a young lineup that is loaded with offensive potential, is picked to win the Pac-12 and will bid for its first trip to Omaha since 2008. North Carolina State, which made its only CWS appearance 45 years ago, has one of the nation's most dynamic players in shortstop Trea Turner and perhaps the nation's best left-handed pitcher in Carlos Rodon.
Chad Holbrook takes over as coach for Ray Tanner at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks return key pieces of the team that made it to the CWS finals for the third year in a row. Raph Rhymes, who led the nation with a .431 average, and pitchers Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades have LSU believing it can make it to Omaha for the first time since 2009.
And surely there will be surprise teams like Stony Brook and Kent State were a year ago.
Arizona will lean heavily on its pitching staff to get back to Omaha. Konner Wade, who won two games at the CWS as a sophomore, heads the staff along with James Farris, who started the title-clinching game against South Carolina.
The Wildcats also have their top setup man back in lefty Tyler Crawford and their closer in Mathew Troupe.
Wade (11-3, 3.96) takes over the top starter's role for Kurt Heyer, who led the nation in innings pitched. Lopez said Wade's CWS experience will allow him to pitch with confidence.
“I've had young guys go to Omaha as freshmen or sophomores and then when they come back the next year, they walk differently, they talk differently, they throw their bullpens differently,” Lopez said.
Arizona has back the Pac-12's leading hitter in Johnny Field (.370). The biggest question is at shortstop, where freshman Kevin Newman appears set to take over for Pac-12 player of the year Alex Mejia at shortstop.
As with any team, Lopez said, a big key will be how the newcomers adjust to the college game.
“With the younger guys, there should be a little bit of, `Hey, we're playing at the University of Arizona, they just won the national title, let's try to continue it,“' he said. “The balancing act to that is you hope the guys don't try to conquer the world in their first at-bat, strike out 15 guys with one pitch and do all the things that you would expect young people to do when they have the title of defending national champion and they've never played a college baseball game.”