Yes, the usually talent-laden Southeastern Conference is loaded again this season.
"It really is the big leagues of college baseball," Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri said. "Honestly, it's a lot of fun. There's no humpty dumps in this league. How you play on a given weekend will determine your success. If you play good baseball, you'll be rewarded. If not, you'll get beat."
The 56-game season starts today across the SEC, and as usual, its teams are among the nation's most prominent. Six out of the league's 12 teams were nationally ranked in the USA Today/ESPN preseason poll, including four in the top 15.
Florida was picked to win the SEC in a preseason poll of the league's coaches. The Gators return eight position players and 11 pitchers from last year's SEC champion, including Austin Maddox (.333 batting average, 17 homers, 72 RBIs) and three pitchers — Brian Johnson, Alex Panteliodis and Hudson Randall — who started at least 14 games.
Florida was dominant for most of last season, finishing with a 47-17 overall record, 22-8 SEC record and a spot in the College World Series. But it was a disappointing trip to Omaha: The Gators lost their first two games in the double-elimination tournament.
"It's probably a small source of motivation, but we've got a lot of work to do to put ourselves in that position again," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "This league's just too tough to put the cart before the horse. We've got some good pitching and some good depth and I like what we've done, but we can't be thinking too far ahead."
Vanderbilt was picked to finish second behind Florida in the Eastern Division. The Commodores return most of their pitching staff from last season, including right-hander Sonny Gray, who finished with a 10-5 record, 3.48 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 2010. He also pitched well for Team USA over the summer.
"We've put ourselves in position to be really good," Gray said. "We had a great fall and guys really worked hard to get better. Now it's just about grinding through the next four months and not letting any distractions get in the way of what we want to accomplish."
South Carolina, the defending national champion, was picked to finish third in the Eastern Division. The Gamecocks return star outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who hit .368 with 13 homers and 60 RBIs last season, but will need to find reliable pitchers to take over for Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson, who combined for 19 wins, 227 strikeouts and 38 starts last season.
Inevitably, the talk around South Carolina's program has centered around a repeat, but coach Ray Tanner said he doesn't expect his team to be pressured by expectations.
"The good news for me, as a head coach, is that there's some guys on the field that understand perspective," Tanner said. They understand adversity. I think that's a reason they played well last year at the end - they never really got too concerned with things when they didn't go well."
Kentucky is picked to finish fourth in the Eastern Division, with Georgia fifth and Tennessee sixth.
LSU was picked to win the league's Western Division, returning several key players like outfielder Mikie Mahtook, who hit .333 with 14 homers, 50 RBIs and 22 stolen bases. Arkansas was picked to finish second, with Auburn, Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State picked third through sixth, respectively.
"I can't speak for everyone, but it seems like the Western Division has a few more unknowns this season," said Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco. "That being said, we're really excited about some of the young guys we're putting out on the field. And you know all the other teams in our league feel the same way."
The wild card for the season is the NCAA-mandated new standards for aluminum bats, which have long led to high-scoring games across college baseball. Coaches and players have said there's a drastic difference with the new bats — which were implemented to provide better safety and behave more like wood — and that scoring should take a significant dive.
Mainieri said "it's really going to cut down on cheap homers." O'Sullivan said he expects "a significant change in the way the game is played. There's not going to be as many big innings."
But coaches said players were starting to get used to the change.
"It's a non-issue. It's a bat and everyone has the same rules," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "If you square it up and hit it in the sweet spot it will still go a long way. It won't change that the best team on the field still wins and that's what is most important."
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this story.