2013 preview: 5 key questions for college men

With the spring college season slated to begin in a little more than a month, we take a look at five questions facing the men as the chase for the NCAA title begins in earnest . . .

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1. How long can Cal stay perfect?

It seems inevitable that No. 1 Cal, which won all five of its fall tournaments, will lose at some point this season. An undefeated season is all but impossible. A regular-season loss will be quickly forgotten if Cal can win this year’s national championship, though. The Bears are the clear favorite to claim this season’s NCAA title after winning the Gopher Invitational, Ping/Golfweek Preview, Pac-12 Preview, Alister Mackenzie Invitational and Isleworth Collegiate Invitational. The Golden Bears have shown their games can travel; their five fall victories came in five states, including a win at the Ping/Golfweek Preview at NCAA host Capital City Club. Cal has won seven of its past eight events, dating to last season’s Pac-12 Championship. The Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters will be Cal’s toughest test among its regular-season spring starts.

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2. And the player of the year is . . .

Cheng-Tsung Pan starts the spring season at No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, and deservedly so. The Washington sophomore won the Husky Invitational and finished no worse than third in four fall starts. He heads what promises to be a tight player-of-the-year race, one that likely won’t be decided until the NCAA Championship. Other front-runners: Cal’s Michael Kim, Texas’ Brandon Stone, Alabama’s Justin Thomas and Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers. Thomas, who won this season’s Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate, is trying to become the first player to win consecutive Haskins Awards since Phil Mickelson, who won in 1990-92. UNLV’s Kevin Penner (No. 16 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings) and Missouri’s Jace Long (No. 13 in the Sagarins) are two players who could make a run at the award this spring.

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3. Cal’s main challenger is . . .

Alabama is the last team to beat Cal, and looks to be the Bears’ main challenger for the NCAA title. Alabama beat Cal in the semifinals of last season’s NCAA Championship. Now the Tide, led by Justin Thomas and Bobby Wyatt, enter the spring season at No. 3 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings (the Bears won the teams’ most recent meeting, at Isleworth, though). No. 2 Texas will have to find a way to overcome the loss of sophomore Jordan Spieth, who was No. 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings when he turned pro in December. New Mexico and Florida are Nos. 4 and 5, respectively, while Washington is sixth in spite of Chris Williams’ fall struggles.

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4. Who could surprise us at the NCAA Championship?

The national championship’s match-play format often produces surprises. There’s a good chance that could happen again. UCLA seems like one of those teams who could fare well in match play, especially in Georgia. The No. 7 Bruins played well at the Preview (T-5) and the U.S. Collegiate (2nd) at the nearby Golf Club of Georgia. No. 10 Georgia Tech, which shared the Preview title with Cal, has the home-course advantage at Capital City Club and won at the U.S. Collegiate, making the Yellow Jackets undefeated in the Atlanta suburbs. Thirteenth-ranked Arkansas seems like the kind of team that could make a run when it gets hot, as well.

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5. How will Texas handle the loss of Jordan Spieth?

It’s going to be a tough one for the defending NCAA champs. There’s no denying that. He was a 2011 Walker Cup team member, first-team All-American in 2012 and was No. 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings when he turned pro. Texas has two players in the top 50 of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings – Brandon Stone (No. 3) and Cody Gribble (50) – and returning All-American Julio Vegas. Beau Hossler arrives in Austin in January, though it’s likely he’ll redshirt. The Longhorns, currently No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, still have a good chance to make an appearance at the NCAA Championship; their odds of repeating just got longer, though.

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