The easy choice here would be South Carolina.
Not only did they defeat a mighty UCLA squad for last year's title, but they also return some of their most talented players, including outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. Bradley Jr. was sensational last year for the Gamecocks, especially deep into the CWS. He came up with huge hit after huge hit, and was mostly responsible for USC's six-game winning streak to end the season.
Carolina's biggest question mark should be their rotation, where they saw 13-game winner Blake Cooper depart via graduation and future ace Sam Dyson sign a deal as a fourth-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays. They do have some talent available, just not tons of experience. The best of the bunch is Matt Price, who was nearly unhittable down the stretch. He worked solely out of the bullpen in 2010, but necessity could force a switch to the rotation. Lefty Nolan Belcher might also get a shot after making six starts last season, as could sophomore Colby Holmes, who made six starts last season as well.
South Carolina should be primed for another good season, but the best team they are not.
To me, that honor comes down to one of five teams, ranked from five-to-one, in the order of my opinion.
We'll begin with...
#5 Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns had a great season in 2010, but their ride ended a bit early at the hands of in-state rival TCU, who took two out of three games from UT. Still, the Longhorns have plenty of momentum working for them. They did lose Chance Ruffin as well as Brandon Workman to the draft, but they return plenty of talent.
Taylor Jungmann leads what should be a stellar rotation. Jungmann went 8-3 last season and posted a 2.03 ERA. He's now 19-6 for his career with an ERA around 2.00. Backing him up is Cole Green, the 2010 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year after a season in which he went 10-0 in conference play, posting an 11-2 overall record and a 2.74 ERA. Green turned down an offer from the Detroit Tigers to return to Austin.
In the field, Cohl Walla returns, leading an offense that scored nearly seven runs per game last year. Walla did a lot of the damage himself by hitting .316 with eight homers, 40 RBI and 14 steals.
Joining Walla will be freshmen Mark Payton, the top high-school player from Illinois who has plus-speed, a solid arm and a quick bat. The rookie platoon is further solidified with Christian Summers, one of the best defensive high-school shortstops last year, and Jacob Felts, a rookie catcher who looks like he's going to develop into a legit power hitter.
#4 Vanderbilt Commodores
For all the crap Vandy's football squad takes on and off the field, at least the school has a storied baseball program. They should be in fine form once again in 2011 as the Commodores are led by pitchers Sonny Gray and Jack Armstrong, as well as infielder Jason Esposito—all of whom profile as top picks in the 2011 draft.
Gray was named Baseball America's Summer Player of the Year from the college ranks and it was a well-deserved honor. Gray has had a solid career at Vandy and he could further promote his draft stock by leading the Commodores into the CWS regionals, where both he and Armstrong had trouble last year.
Armstrong should be a top-pick as well, but only if he can reign in the control issues that have plagued him the past few years. The sky is the limit for him, though, and if he can get on a roll Vandy should be tough to beat.
In the field they have another star in Esposito. He hits for average and is a stellar defensively with the leather, the kind that puts former Vandy star Pedro Alvarez to shame multiple times over. He's got some deceptive power in his bat and this might be the year that he finally breaks out. He could reach the 20-homer mark if he can tap into some of that power.
Infielder Anthony Gomez returns as well after leading Vandy with a .379 average, along with IF/OF Aaron Westlake who could profile as a middle-of-the-order bat someday if things fall into place for him.
#3 UCLA Bruins
It's tough not to like UCLA as the number one team in the country with a rotation that features Trevor Bauer AND Gerrit Cole. Really! They are easily the best one-two tandem in the country.
Both pitchers epitomize the word "domination," as they combined to go 23-7 with 318 strikeouts in 254.1 innings last year. Further, neither shows any signs of slowing down. It hurt to lose arms like Rob Rasmussen (Florida) and Daniel Klein (Baltimore), but they still have Erik Goeddel coming back.
At the plate UCLA returns Mr. Everything Beau Amaral, as well as Dean Espy, Tyler Rahmatulla and Cody Regis, who led the Bruins in home-runs as a freshman. They aren't a team that can out-slug anyone, but they are incredible at clawing and scratching for runs anyway they can.
With that rotation, they should be a lock as one of the final four teams left at the end of the year.
#2 Florida Gators
Looking at their roster, it's a wonder they didn't win the whole thing last year.
Coming back they have: Preston Tucker (.331 11 HR, 49 RBI), Nolan Fontana (.287 15 2B, 53-29 BB-K), and Austin Maddox (.333 17 HR, 72 RBI). That doesn't even include Josh Adams, who had a rough 2010, but still hit nine homers and drove in 42 runs. They also have two-way star Brian Johnson, who hit .405 in 27 games last season, and Tyler Thompson, who hit .301 with six homers in 146 at-bats.
On the mound, the Gators are similarly stacked.
Alex Panteliodis went 11-3 and anchors a staff that includes Brian Johnson (6-4, 51 K, 14 BB), and the appropriately named Tommy Toledo (3-2 4.39 ERA). Their bullpen is stocked too, featuring stud sophomore Steven Rodriguez who went 2-0 with a 2.57 ERA in 20 appearances and Nick Maronde (2-0 37K in 26.1 IP).
The Gators will also have an impact freshman in Karsten Whitson, the highest pick from the 2010 draft (#9) to not come to an agreement on a contract. Whitson could be a huge addition—especially out of the bullpen—and could blossom into a great late-season star.
#1 TCU Horned Frogs
TCU's dream season ended at the hands of the UCLA Bruins, and if fate has it's way, the two teams could end up being two of the final squads left come next June.
TCU's impressive roster starts with Matt Purke who is a potetntial number one pitching prospect in the 2011 draft. He was downright dominant last season as a freshman, posting a perfect 16-0 record and 142 strikeouts in 116.1 innings.
But TCU's pitching doesn't stop there.
After Purke comes Kyle Winkler, a short but talented right-hander who posted a 12-3 record last season. Winkler throws in the low 90s and has had nothing but success dating back to high-school. But, if you can get through Purke and Winkler, you still have to deal with Steven Maxwell, who went 11-2 and posted the best ERA of the three last season (2.70).
Out of their bullpen, Kaleb Merck (1.47 ERA in 22 outings) and Trent Appleby (3-1 in 23 appearance) return, as does Erik Miller, who struck out 30 in 27 innings last season.
In the field and at the plate, TCU returns two of it's better hitters in Jason Coats (.361 13 HR, 69 RBI) and Josh Elander (.356 11 steals). Brance Rivera (.342 and six homers in 187 at-bats), Taylor Featherston (.338 eight homers and 52 RBI) and Jerome Pena (.313 with 11 HR and 52 RBI) also return. As do role players Jantzen Witte (.374 and 39 RBI in 32 games) and Jimmie Pharr (.363 and 21 RBI in 26 games), who figure to have bigger roles this year.
TCU also bolstered their pitching staff with four touted freshman: Tony Rizzotti, who throws in the low 90s, Andrew Mitchell, Nick Frey and Stefan Crichton.
Given the three-headed beast of a rotation, as well as the returning talent at the plate and in the field, TCU is hands-down the team to beat this year.