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On the Mark

This is a great week to be a college baseball fan.
Every direction you turn, there is a meaningful series. That is especially true in the SEC. In my 12 years of covering college baseball, I do not recall a final weekend where every conference series will have an impact on the Regional picture. This is true not only at the top but with each tier of teams.
Florida and South Carolina stand at a flat-footed tie as they get ready for their cage match for the belt. This is the way it should be; Two National powers with Omaha dreams battling in a televised, jam-packed facility for the conference crown. Weekends like this make us remember why we like sports. They also create new fans which is why the television part of the equation (all three games on SportSouth/FSN) is important.
The SEC gets a lot of credit for its fan support but realistically, only four of the programs are drawing big crowds. Fortunately, the only one in the SEC East just happens to be the venue for this showdown. Showing packed, enthusiastic crowds in high-pressure environments should lead to some quality theatre this weekend.
On one side you have the uber-talented Florida club. Three consistent weekend starters are the team strength along with a potent middle of the order. I think they have the highest ceiling of any SEC club.
Awaiting them is South Carolina, a team I have underestimated all season. They don't wow you with their pro prospects, although they certainly have their share. They win with strong starting pitching, a deep bullpen that allows them to match up late in games, and clutch hitting. Frankly, for South Carolina to win they have to scratch and claw for everything they get. We can respect that - although they don't have a lot of margin for error. If the Gamecocks are going to snatch the title from the Gators this weekend, they need to make this into a "knife-fight in a ditch" (a term us ol' country boys refer to when we outwork, outhustle, and yes - outfight someone who is probably a little more talented than we are).
So that will settle the SEC crown. There are plenty of other matchups as well to whet your appetite. Auburn's trip to Ole Miss has me excited. What a job Auburn coach John Pawlowski and his staff have done. The last time Auburn qualified for the SEC Tournament, they came by covered wagon and lost two pitchers to an Indian raiding party. This time, they'll cruise in style with only Alabama fans to evade but they could be easy to find by a Division title glow.
To win the West, they will have to earn it. Auburn takes that powerful lineup into a raucous Oxford University Stadium to face Drew Pomeranz, Aaron Barrett, and a horde of quality Rebel arms. There are not a lot teams that match up with Pomeranz, the probable first college pitcher taken in June's MLB draft. However, Auburn should be a quality test for an Ole Miss club that has dropped their last two series and desperately needs to take two games this weekend to boost their hosting hopes.
Staying in the SEC, Arkansas heads to Vanderbilt in what just might be a host elimination series. As we pointed out this week, history suggests the Selection Committee does very much care about conference finish in dealing out host spots - so a fourth place finish beats the heck out of fifth or sixth.
There are races at the top but also at the bottom where Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, and Kentucky are all fighting not only for a tournament invitation but also an at large Regional berth. LSU and Mississippi State are in a combined 4-28 stretch and neither is pitching well. Look for fireworks in this one as the Tigers try to salvage what was once a promising season. Kentucky's trip to Georgia is dangerous - the Bulldogs pitched well at Florida last week. Some of us are wondering if last week was Kentucky's improvement or just scheduling luck benefiting from the purple and gold implosion? Regardless, Kentucky is a heavy road favorite to win their way to Hoover before a stop in Louisville as a Regional #3 seed.
Alabama and Tennessee intrigues me this weekend. Alabama is moving Jimmy Nelson - who worked a complete game Saturday - into the Thursday spot. How will his arm react to the short rest? The Vols' Stephen McCray has been really good during the recent uptick. The team gets that gets the quality starts should prevail. Neither wants to rely on more than a couple of guys in their pen.
Whew, that's just the SEC. There are plenty of other big stories around our sport this weekend. Virginia's trip to Miami is monster series in its own right. Virginia looks like the class of the ACC with series wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Virginia Tech. They visit a tough venue in Miami. Does Miami throw Eric Erickson who missed last weekend's series at Georgia Tech? He really adds another dimension to their team. Miami can send a message with a win this weekend.
Florida State's trip to Clemson is getting overshadowed but that is a big series itself. The Seminoles can clinch a host spot and get some momentum for the postseason. Winning at Clemson can be tough and the Seminoles have slipped under the radar a bit the last few weeks. As for Clemson, they really need a series win after dropping two games at Wake Forest last weekend. A season that started with so much promise has deteriorated quickly. Two wins would provide an adrenaline boost entering the conference tournament.
Georgia Tech can help their National seed aspirations with a series win at Boston College. The Eagles could propel themselves into the postseason by turning heads this weekend.
North Carolina is aiming for a return trip to the postseason but will have to knock off Virginia Tech to do it. How about that for trading places? The Tar Heels have to win one more game than NC State does versus Duke or Boston College does versus Georgia Tech. It is certainly possible considering the Heels were two walkoff losses away from a series win at Virginia.
Southern Miss hurt themselves with three losses in four games. That puts this weekend's series with third place Memphis is a do-or-die situation. The Golden Eagles flourished in that role a year ago. Can lightning strike twice in Hattiesburg?
My take on the SEC and 10 teams
Repeat after me. A team that finishes 10th in a 12 team conference should not play for a national title. That was true last year with Oklahoma State (9th out of 10) and it is still true this year.
I understand that these lower-echelon power-conference teams could probably beat a lot of the teams that will get a Regional invitation. That is not the point. If you are not competitive in your conference then you should not play for a National title. I'm not hung up on qualifying for the conference tournament or not. To me, that is immaterial.
The question I ask is, 'Are you competitive in your peer group?' These are the teams that recruit similar players, have similar budgets, and similar access to players and opponents. If you are not, I will need convincing why you get to play the National title.
Feel that LSU is competitive with their peers? Right now, no. Four weeks ago, absolutely.
That is the decision point. Over the course of the season, have these teams remained competitive (i.e. winning as much as losing, not hanging tough and losing every game) with the Regional worthy teams. If so, they have a case.
That is my opinion - and worth what you paid for it in this free story.
With that out of the way, the committee has not shared that sentiment in years past. Baylor and Oklahoma State were examples last year. Baylor lost 12 of their last 15 games (LSU critics take notice). Were they good teams with talented rosters? Absolutely. Did they do enough during their seasons to play for the National title? Probably not.
But they got the opportunity. And there are some SEC clubs that are going to get a similar opportunity this year. Are there 34 at large teams better than the SEC quartet? No. Are there 34 with more quality wins? I'd say no to that too. Because of that, Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU will receive Regional berths and I think Tennessee does as well if they beat Bama twice. That is ten teams from the SEC. Eight, nine, been there before. Ten has never happened.
A similar scenario did occur in 2005 and nine teams got in. There were five teams within a game of 7th and 11th.
Team Overall SEC Standing RPI Regional
Miss State 42-22 13-16 7th RPI 23 (won SEC Tournament - #2 seed in Miami)
Auburn 34-26 13-17 T8th RPI 18 (#2 seed in Tallahassee)
Arkansas 39-22 13-17 T8th RPI 19 (#2 seed in Austin)
Vanderbilt 34-21 13-17 T8th RPI 30 (Left out)
Georgia 30-25 12-17 11th RPI 27 (Left out)
Compare that this season
Team Overall SEC Standing RPI
Alabama 31-21 12-15 T7th RPI #15
Kentucky 30-23 12-15 T7th RPI #20
LSU 34-19 12-15 T7th RPI #27
Tennessee 30-23 12-15 T7th RPI #41
My guess is if Alabama and Kentucky stay in the top 20 RPI, they are going to get in. LSU has the quality wins so baring two losses this weekend, the Tigahs have a good chance as well. Tennessee needs to win this weekend or risks getting the '05 Vanderbilt treatment.
You could see it. Ten SEC teams still playing in June. Release the hounds.