The defending SEC champion Florida Gators enter the 2024 college baseball season exactly where they finished a season ago, ranked second in D1Baseball’s preseason Top 25 (No. 4 in Baseball America’s Top 25).

To move up 1 spot in the D1 rankings by June and capture the program’s second College World Series crown, the Gators will need a host of talented, but unproven arms to effectively complement what should be one of the nation’s best offenses.

Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who was just handed a significant raise ($1.2 to $1.8 million) through the 2033 season, knows he has the bats to win his 7th SEC title at Florida and return to Omaha. Even without Wyatt Langford, the All-American Golden Spikes finalist who remarkably went on to be the Minor League Player of the Month in Class A ball and Double-A ball after being selected No. 4 overall and signing with the Rangers in July, the Gators should score runs in bunches, according to their skipper.

“There’s no replacing Wyatt, one of the most special talents we’ve ever had at Florida. But we have a lot of veterans who have produced and young guys where you saw what was coming late last season,” O’Sullivan said. “People on a national level don’t talk about (second baseman) Cade Kurland and (utility man) Luke Heyman. Cade, you just kind of take him for granted but he had a phenomenal freshman year. And Luke did great things, too. They hit 29 home runs last year and were constantly on-base. You throw in a kid like Colby (Shelton), who led Alabama in home runs and other categories, and you get the idea.”

Note that O’Sullivan didn’t even mention returning All-American and Golden Spikes finalist Jac Caglianone, the pitcher/infielder who hit a BBCOR-record 33 bombs and drove in 90 runs a season ago. While Caglianone will be under immense pressure as the rare Golden Spikes finalist returning to a college baseball roster, but with protection in the lineup secured in the form of Shelton and likely jumps from the likes of Kurland, Heyman, returning starter Tyler Shelnut, and  currently injured CWS hero Ty Evans, Caglianone should put him tremendous numbers, assuming he handles the outside noise and added attention.

The combination could make the Gators the team to beat nationally, even though another Wake Forest, a CWS semifinalist a season ago, opens the season ranked No. 1 by most polls, including Baseball America.

For the Gators, a championship is the goal, of course.

“Winning the SEC was a goal. We look at those trophies,” O’Sullivan quipped with the media this week. “I don’t even know where the runner-up trophy (from the College World Series) is. I wouldn’t want to look at it. It’s too painful. For us, we are only as good as the last game we played. And we played poorly.”

Plenty of credit for why the Gators failed to leave Omaha with a championship last season goes to national champion LSU, of course. But the Gators also know that their starting pitching, a strength in leading them to the SEC regular-season title, wasn’t as electric as it needed to be in Omaha.

Heading into the 2024 season, pitching is a concern for the Gators, but mostly because it is unproven, as opposed to untalented.

Take Florida’s weekend rotation as an example.

Yes, Caglianone will pitch on Sundays, and when he’s on, he’s dominant. The issue there is consistency and control, and whether Caglianone can control the electric stuff that helped him finish 2nd nationally in missed bat rate (MBR), behind only Paul Skenes of LSU. Opponents hit only .190 against Caglianone, but his ERA was 4.74, thanks to 55 walks and 14 HBP in just 74 innings.

“We worked on his delivery a little bit,” O’Sullivan said of his All-American. “A lot of it is mental, though. Just staying focused and the things great big-league pitching prospects do consistently that he can do but has struggled with at times.”

If Caglianone turns in a consistent year on the mound, the Gators will have a brutal bookend to weekend series to complement Friday night starter Cade Fisher, a sophomore who is making the move to Friday night starter after excelling in a long relief role a season ago.

“We wouldn’t start him on Friday night if he wasn’t ready,” O’Sullivan said of the sophomore, who thrived as a starter in Georgia prep baseball, going 17-1 with 300 strikeouts in 157 innings. “The big thing we told him is if you start on Friday night, you better carry yourself different, prepare differently, work harder. It is a different type of challenge entirely than the one he had out of the bullpen.”

A freshman All-American a season ago, Fisher has responded to intense challenges already as a Gator, including fending off elimination in Florida’s regional last year when he threw 7 emergency innings against Texas Tech, allowing only 1 run. But Fisher doesn’t have elite velocity, and opposing hitters hit .262 against him a season ago. Does Fisher miss enough bats to be a dominant Friday night starter in the SEC?

If he doesn’t, a guy who will create whiffs is Florida’s projected Saturday starter, true freshman Liam Peterson. A top 50 recruit (34th) nationally according to Perfect Game, Fisher has high 90s velocity with a savage curveball and is a true intimidator at 6-5 with long arms.

The Clearwater product struck out 16.7 batters per 9 innings in high school, but the jump to SEC play and Saturday night starts immediately is a long way away from prep ball, even for a program as powerful as Calvary Christian.

How Florida’s weekend starters hold up is hardly the only question with this pitching staff. With Fisher gone from the bullpen, the path to All-American closer Brandon Neely could be bumpy. Neely, a converted starter, can pitch 2 innings per appearance, a luxury for a closer. But building a bridge to him needs to include solid production from the likes of veterans Fisher Jameson and Ryan Slater, redshirt freshman Jake Clemente, a former top-100 recruit with high 90s velocity who was injured a year ago, and a bounce back year from Blake Purnell, a 2022 Freshmen All-American who struggled mightily a season ago, posting a 9.28 ERA that made him a non-factor in league play.

Are those workable pieces? Absolutely. Is anything truly proven beyond Neely? Only if you are wearing orange and blue goggles.

If it all comes together, this Florida team will be a tough out, and the chances of making the final out of the college baseball season might jumpstart a celebration, instead of painful stares from an Omaha dugout.

If it doesn’t come together, Florida fans will still have one of the most exciting, entertaining teams in the country.

It just might be one that falls just short of a championship again.

RELATED: SEC baseball power rankings | Caglianone vs. Tommy Tanks