Florida’s four homers send Miami packing _lowres

Florida pitcher Alex Faedo 

Associated Press photo

Predictions

Teams listed in predicted order of finish, with 2016 record in parentheses:

EAST

1. South Carolina (46-18, 20-9)

From top to bottom, the Gamecocks have what might be the best weekend rotation in the conference. Along with some potent returning bats, South Carolina has enough to hold off Florida for the top spot.

2. Florida (52-16, 19-10)

The Gators lost seven players in the first four rounds of the MLB draft but are somehow once again loaded with top-end talent. Friday night ace Alex Faedo is one of the most overpowering pitchers in college baseball.

3. Vanderbilt (43-19, 18-12)

Vanderbilt may not have the top-to-bottom talent of recent years, but it has studs in the right places to contend for a league title. Center fielder Jeren Kendall and ace Kyle Wright rank among the best in the SEC.

4. Kentucky (32-25, 15-15)

Gary Henderson resigned after last season, his second straight without reaching the postseason, but he left an experienced roster for new coach Nick Mingione. Eight of the Wildcats' top nine hitters returned.

5. Georgia (27-30, 11-19)

The Bulldogs lost their top two hitters to the draft as well as their Friday night starter, but they’re trending in the right direction after pulling in the nation’s No. 4 signing class, according to Perfect Game.

6. Tennessee (29-28, 9-21)

The Vols lost their two best players in Nick Senzel, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and Vincent Jackson. Pitching has been an issue, with an ERA of 4.00 or worse in four of coach Dave Serrano’s five seasons.

7. Missouri (26-30, 9-21)

Missouri has one of the league’s best pitchers in Tanner Houck, but beyond him the Tigers are not talent-rich. It won’t help new coach Steve Bieser that he lost his top three hitters from a team that hit an SEC-worst .249.

WEST

1. LSU (45-21, 19-11)

The Tigers have been bit hard by the injury bug in the days leading up to the opener, but they still might have the best returning talent in the SEC to go with a potentially great freshman class.

2. Texas A&M (49-16, 20-10)

A&M has to replace seven of nine starters from a lineup that led the SEC in hitting (.311), slugging (.467), runs (471) and home runs (62). The Aggies should contend anyway.

3. Ole Miss (43-19, 18-12)

Ole Miss had seven signees ranked in Baseball America’s top 500 make it to campus, and several of them are expected to play right away. It could take them a while to gel, but they could be a force by season’s end.

4. Mississippi State (44-18, 21-9)

New coach Andy Cannizaro inherited an inexperienced roster: The Bulldogs had 11 players drafted, including their ace, their closer and six of their top seven hitters by batting average from their SEC champion squad.

5. Arkansas (26-29, 7-23)

After a College World Series appearance in 2015, Arkansas imploded last season, closing the year with 13 straight losses. The big reason? The staff compiled a 6.07 ERA in SEC play. That should improve.

6. Alabama (32-26, 15-15)

New coach Greg Goff — previously at Louisiana Tech — has proved he can resurrect a program, but he must figure out a way to get the bats going. The Tide did not have a regular hit better than .291 in 2016.

7. Auburn (23-33, 8-22)

Auburn lost some outstanding offensive players in Anfernee Grier, Joshua Palacios and Niko Buentello (combined 28 home runs). The return of pitcher Keegan Thompson should help, but it looks like another long year.

Top position players

CF Jeren Kendall, Vanderbilt

Kendall has with a complete set of tools. As a sophomore, he hit .332 with 16 doubles, eight triples, nine home runs and 59 RBIs while also swiping 28 bases. He will almost certainly be in the mix for the Golden Spikes Award.

OF/P Jake Mangum, Mississippi State

All Mangum did as a freshman was hit .408 — including a whopping .437 against conference pitchers — to lead the prospect-rich SEC in hitting by 22 points. What’ll he do for an encore? Probably everything. Word is Andy Cannizaro will let him pitch this year, too.

1B Evan White, Kentucky

White has a full offensive arsenal, hitting .376 as a sophomore (third in the SEC) with 23 of his 85 hits going for extra bases. He’s also a standout defender, making just one error in 533 chances to earn Rawlings Gold Glove honors last season.

Top pitchers

RHP Alex Faedo, Florida

The following is the statistical line for pitchers Florida lost to the MLB draft last June: 29-8, 2.29 ERA, 362.2 IP, 409 strikeouts. The crazy thing about that: The Gators might still have their best pitcher. Faedo is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound monster who led the league in wins (13) and strikeouts (133) as a sophomore.

RHP Kyle Wright, Vanderbilt

The Commodores have a long line of supremely talented starting pitching, and Wright is the next big thing. The right-hander struck out 107 batters in 93.1 innings as a sophomore, and he should hear his name called early in the first round of the 2017 draft.

LHP Konnor Pilkington, Mississippi State

Pilkington may not be as heralded as some other pitchers in the league, but that’s bound to change. He’ll open the season as the Bulldogs’ Friday night starter and brings a devastating arsenal — mid-90s fastball, swing-and-miss secondary pitches — from the left side.

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.