First thing's first: after weirdly leaving the Owls off the baseball schedule last season, I am pleased to report that Texas will be playing their biggest out-of-conference rivals three times in 2014. Mark your calendars for February 28, when the Texas-Rice series resumes in MinuteMaid Park in the Houston College Classic. This was also an event Texas was left out of last year, as the Aggies made an appearance instead. Texas will follow up the Rice matchup with contests against Houston on March 1 and Sam Houston on March 2. The Longhorns will face the Owls again twice in the first week of April, with a visit to Houston on April 1 and Rice coming to the Disch on April 8.
Rice enters the season ranked 15th in the Baseball America poll. Texas will get a good early test against Owl ace Jordan Stephens, who will likely start the teams' MinuteMaid matchup as that is the marquee game of the weekend. The other two UT-RU games are midweek affairs which will feature each team's fourth starter.
Moving back in time, Texas will once again take on perennial power Stanford in an early-season series--this year in Austin, February 21-23. The schedule mercifully starts with Stanford's rival, the Cal Bears, rather than the Cardinal this year so that the Longhorns can get a bit of game experience under their belts before facing a big-time program. That said, the Cardinal finds itself in a similar position to Texas after a disastrous 2013. Stanford swept the Longhorns early last year on route to a 10-2 start, but then dropped six of their next seven and stumbled to a 32-22 finish, missing the NCAA Tournament. They come in unranked by Baseball America, after losing ace Mark Appel as the top pick in last year's MLB draft. A failure to take a pair of these games at home would be a big early-season disappointment for Augie's boys.
Two other non-conference opponents piqued my interest upon reviewing the schedule, as both are small schools that have had some recent success. First, on March 18, Texas hosts Dallas Baptist for a single game in Austin. DBU, you may recall, took the Forth Worth Regional in 2011 before falling to Cal in the super regional round. The Patriots have now joined the Missouri Valley Conference and will therefore compete with traditional power Wichita State, so that should be a fun game against an up-and-coming program.
Finally on the non-conference front, Texas welcomes defending Ivy League champs Columbia to the Disch the following weekend, March 21-23. Columbia won the Ivy last season by virtue of winning the Lou Gehrig division (not joking) in the regular season, and then defeating Red Rolfe division (still not joking) champ Dartmouth in the league championship series. The Lions were sent to Fullerton as the four-seed, where they staged a dramatic elimination-game comeback to erase a 5-0 deficit and defeat New Mexico 6-5, before eventually being eliminated by Arizona State. The Lions will be Texas' last non-conference three-game series of the season.
The Big 12
Texas' conference schedule shapes up nicely for the Horns to be very much in the running for the Big 12 title through the first half of the conference season. The other two teams ranked in the Baseball America preseason poll, TCU & K-State, both appear on the back half of the Longhorns' schedule. The Big 12 slate starts March 14-16 in Austin against the Kansas Jayhawks; Texas has had some trouble over the past few years at Hoglund Park in Lawrence, but getting KU at home is an opportunity to start the conference season off with at least a pair of wins and maybe even a sweep. A failure to take at least two in this one may not be a red flag, but it would at least be a yellow flag.
The Horns' next two conference series are at Texas Tech and at home against Baylor. Tech presents a winnable road series as always, and Baylor looks to be the fourth or fifth team in the conference based on most preseason predictions. If indeed Texas is a better team than last year, getting them in Austin should mean the Longhorns have a shot at winning their first three conference series. Coming out of these first nine games any worse than 6-3 would be a disappointment, and honestly Texas fans should be hoping for at least one sweep in this stretch.
Then comes Texas' biggest in-conference rival, and a team no one can agree on heading into the season. Baseball America has Oklahoma not ranked and not even making the NCAA Tournament (that site predicts Texas, TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Baylor as the Big 12's representatives in the Tournament). But something called College Sports Madness (USA Today-related, maybe?) has OU ranked 20th and making the postseason. The Sooners were eliminated from last year's Tournament in the Baton Rouge Super Regional and gave LSU a run for their money, but they lost a significant amount of talent from last year's roster.
As the linked article explains, OU loses both its top two hitters and its top two pitchers from the 2013 squad. It's hard to say where the Sooner pitching staff and offense will be by the time April 11-13 rolls around; they may be in contention for a bid, or their season may have already fallen apart. If Texas takes care of business in the first three series, though, they should be able to afford going 1-2 in Norman and remain in the conference title hunt.
Next comes the most crucial stretch of the schedule for Texas (assuming they're still in the race): back-to-back home series against TCU and Okie State. The reason it's so crucial for Texas to be successful here is that these series represent the Longhorns' last home games of the Big 12 season. Add to that the fact that TCU should be one of Texas' main competitors for the conference crown and Oklahoma State is a dark horse contender, and it's clear why Texas will have a tiny margin for error in these six games. I would provide some notes on the TCU squad, but instead I'm going to recommend that you go listen to the interview our friends at Frogs 'O War managed to arrange with head coach Jim Schlossnagle. As for the Cowboys, they return some solid pitching and offense off last year's team that lost in the regional finals to Louisville. Their likely ace is Vince Wheeland, who had an ERA under 2 in 73 innings a season ago. It will likely be vital for Texas to take a pair in that series as well.
The Longhorns finish the season with road series at West Virginia and at Kansas State. The 'Eers have a couple of solid hurlers in Harrison Musgrave and Sean Carley, but this is another series where, if Texas is truly to contend for the conference title, they need to come away with at least two wins. If all goes well, then, the Texas-KSU season finale in Manhattan could have major conference implications.
College Sports Madness has K-State as its #13 team nationally and tops in the Big 12. Baseball America has them third in the conference and #22 nationally. The Wildcats' offensive success or failure will depend heavily on a couple of JuCo transfers in the outfield, as all three starting outfielders from last year's conference championship team are gone. KSU does, however, return last year's stud freshman Jake Matthys on the mound, who turned in a 2.05 ERA in 34 appearances (nine of them saves). On the psychological side of things, a program like K-State that is not used to big-time success found itself one win away from Omaha last year before dropping a pair to Oregon State. Will they build on that accomplishment, or will they suffer a letdown after getting so close and failing?
We'll have individual previews of each series as the season rolls along, but this is your open thread for discussing the baseball schedule in general and what you're looking forward to. Hook 'em!