The Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament begins today in Hoover, Ala., and with it, the 12 participating teams all have different goals. Some hope to bolster their cases to be one of the NCAA’s eight national seeds (that means winning a regional would guarantee hosting a super regional), while others are merely hoping to boost a hosting case. Others, meanwhile, are just hoping to get into the NCAA Tournament field, while others just need to get out of the week and get on towards next week healthy.
Anyway, here’s a look at each team’s “homework assignment” in Hoover this week, in order of how each team is seeded. Any RPI figures are courtesy of WarrenNolan.com, unless noted.
1. Florida (37-19): Stay healthy. Yep, that’s it. If the RPI continues to be as important as it has been in the past, the Gators really don’t need to do anything in Hoover outside of keep their roster intact as-is. The NCAA generally looks at how teams do against top-level teams and in that regard, the Gators (14-7 vs. top 25 RPI teams, 8-6 against RPI teams ranked 26th through 50) lap the field in that area. Add in a No. 2 RPI and a No. 1 strength of schedule, and it’s hard to see how the Gators could conceivably fall out of the national seeding picture.
2. Ole Miss (40-16): Earn a national seed. The Rebels were better than anyone expected, and ended the season not only as the Western Division champs, but also in the running for a national seed. At first glance, thanks to that gaudy 19-11 SEC record, Ole Miss would seem to belong, and Ole Miss’s Pythagorean record of 22-8, which says how many games a team would generally win given the runs it scored and gave up, suggests the Rebels’ season should be even better.
But here’s the bad news: the selection committee couldn’t care less about the Rebels’ Pythagorean record. What it does care about is RPI and at No. 13 coming into Hoover. Ole Miss’s biggest problem is that it wasn’t great against top 25 RPI teams (5-7) and that it also piled up 13 of its wins over teams that rank 150th or worse in the RPI, thanks to a non-conference strength of schedule of 139.
The NCAA isn’t much speaking publicly about its selection process this season and so it’s hard to say for sure, but assuming the usual emphasis on RPI, it looks right now like Ole Miss would host, but not get a national seed.
Well, here’s a good way to remedy that: win a bunch of games in Hoover. There are six other SEC teams — Florida, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, LSU, Kentucky and Alabama — which all rank in the top 25 in the RPI. If the Rebels keep winning, they’ll have a chance for three games against top 25 teams, and you can bet that determines whether Ole Miss hosts one weekend, or two.
3. LSU (40-14-1): Secure a regional hosting bid. LSU’s overall record is impressive, but look a little closer — the Tigers had a strength of schedule of 267 in their 25 non-conference games — and it loses a lot of luster. Of course, finishing 17-11-1 a brutal SEC proves that the Tigers are an excellent team, but that 4-8 mark against the top 25 will also be an albatross around LSU’s neck.
The NCAA loves to give Baton Rouge a regional, and the Tigers are probably deserving of one — but barely. If LSU can win a couple of games in Hoover, it can probably feel pretty good about staying in its backyard in the first weekend, but if it goes 0-2, my guess is that the Tigers will be on the road for the rest of the year.
4. South Carolina (42-14): Get a national seed. A lot of people thought that last weekend’s series between Vanderbilt and Carolina would determine a national seed, and the Gamecocks absolutely helped their case by going to Nashville and winning two of three games. The fact that Carolina is now 8-7 against the top 25 with an 8 RPI are things in the Gamecocks’ corner, but a few other things — a No. 157 non-conference strength of schedule, an 8-9 road record — detract from the case somewhat.
Carolina’s going to host no matter what, but I would think that the Gamecocks probably need to get to the weekend to feel great about hosting twice.
5. Mississippi St. (35-20): Find some hitting. The Bulldogs figure to be in the tournament no matter what, and probably as a 2-seed thanks to a 30 RPI and a 13-12 mark against the top 50. Last year, MSU surprised everyone and got hot in the NCAAs, making it all the way to the College World Series finals. This year, MSU isn’t exactly finishing strong heading into the postseason: in its last 13 games, MSU scored five runs or more just three times, and five times it scored just one or two runs. The Bulldogs have a fantastic bullpen and that will play well in postseason, but if there’s no lead to protect…
6. Vanderbilt (40-16): Get a national seed. The Commodores have been under a microscope all year from their own fans and the pollsters, and at times they’ve looked more than a little shaky in terms of starting pitching and defense. Those memories must be firmly implanted in the minds of pollsters as two have Vandy 10th, and the other two major rankings place the ‘Dores 18th and 19th.
But the polls have no bearing on what the NCAA does, and fans forget that other teams have flaws also. The fact is, when you compare Vandy against the NCAA field, the ‘Dores look pretty good: 8-6 against the top 25, 18 wins against the top 50 (that’s second in the country), and a No. 3 non-conference RPI. Across the board, there are no real red flags and so it’s hard to see any way Vandy’s not hosting, at the least.
Now… barring a couple of wins in Hoover, you can probably forget about a national seed. But if the ‘Dores make it to the weekend, it gets harder to make a case against them based on the way the NCAA normally does things.
7. Arkansas (35-21): Get a 2-seed. Speaking of Pythagorean records, the runs Arkansas scored and gave up suggest it should have been a 42-14 team. In other words, perhaps UA has some untapped potential. With a 14-14 mark against the top 50, the NCAA should look favorably upon the Razorbacks coms Selection Monday, and should UA beat Texas A&M and then Ole Miss, a 2-seed should be a no-brainer.
8. Alabama (34-21): Gain some confidence. Perhaps no team in Hoover has less power to change its NCAA seeding less than the Crimson Tide; at No. 24 in the RPI, it’s likely impossible that ‘Bama could be bad enough to fall to a 3, or good enough to rise to a 1. But you’d like to go into the postseason feeling good about yourself, and the ‘Tide, losers of 10 of their last 16 games, are going to have a hard time doing that if they go 0-for-Hoover.
9. Kentucky (32-22): Keep up the recent good work on the mound. UK, with a 22 RPI, is in the same situation with ‘Bama in that it should be a 2 no matter what. However, you generally need to pitch and defend well to go far in the NCAAs, and UK’s 178 runs allowed in the SEC ranked dead-last. The ‘Cats did shut out Georgia twice last weekend, though, so perhaps coach Gary Henderson found something there that he can carry forward into the rest of the postseason. It should help UK’s mound confidence that Hoover Metropolitan Stadium is a pitcher’s park.
10. Texas A&M (33-23): Secure its case for a 2. According to the NCAA’s RPI figures released on Monday, A&M figures to be safe with a 33 RPI, especially with nine wins over Nolan’s top 25 RPI teams. Of all SEC teams, only Florida has more top 25 wins. Of course, there are some flaws there to drop the Aggies down to a 33 RPI, and they include the fact that A&M is just 9-11 away from home. Win a couple in Hoover, and it would be quite difficult for the selection committee to justify dropping A&M to a 3.
11. Tennessee (31-22): Beat Vandy and LSU. Nobody has more to play for in Hoover than the Vols, who have quite the mixed case for an NCAA bid. On one hand, a 12-18 conference mark and a No. 260 non-conference strength of schedule argue loudly against a bid for the Vols. On the other, UT went a very respectable 14-14 against the top 50. For comparison’s sake, only nine other teams in the entire country won 14 or more against top-50 teams, and four of those teams won exactly 14.
I see it this way: UT may be able to get in the tournament with a win over Vanderbilt, or for that matter, even if it loses its opener and gets eliminated on the spot. But beat VU and LSU, and you give UT two more wins over top 25 RPI teams, and I don’t see much objective way you could leave Dave Serrano’s club out of the Big Dance.
12. Georgia (26-28): Win the tournament. The NCAA mandates that a team be at least a game over .500 in order to make the NCAAs. That would mean that the Bulldogs would have to go at least 4-1 in Hoover to be under consideration, and the only way to do that would be for UGA to get to the title game. However, with a 55 RPI coming in and an 11-21 record against the top 50, the only way for Georgia to be sure would be to win the Sunday finale.
Now, for the really bad news: given that UGA posted an 8-22 Pythagorean record, the chance of the Bulldogs actually pulling this off is quite remote.