story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
With Kentucky’s eighth national championship on the hardwoods clinched Monday night, the Southeastern Conference can now claim the reigning national champions in all three men’s major sports (Alabama – football, Kentucky – men’s basketball, South Carolina – baseball).
In case you missed that point, you must not have been paying much attention to the sports world as any and all fans of SEC institutions are readily available with this weapon in their smack-talking arsenal.
The league’s dominant stronghold on the big three championships doesn’t seem to be letting up any time soon. As the Wildcats were putting the finishing touches on an unbelievable season down in the Big Easy, the school’s baseball counterparts kept on winning and found itself as the No. 1-ranked squad in Collegiate Baseball’s latest rankings released Monday.
At the time of last week’s Southeastern Conference baseball forecast, the University of Florida baseball had lost just twice on the season and won 20 of 21 contests at one point. However, the No. 2-ranked Gators dropped two games to suddenly hot Ole Miss and then fell in a midweek contest against North Florida on Tuesday.
Suddenly, UF (24-5, 6-3 SEC) is no longer atop its own division in league play and faces a daunting challenge in this weekend’s opponent, LSU (23-6, 6-3 SEC).
The Bayou Bengals have now won six-straight games after sweeping then-No. 3 Arkansas last week coupled with another W courtesy of Louisiana College on Tuesday.
LSU is now back in the top 10 of the national rankings (No. 7) and is tied with Auburn for the West Division lead with a third of the SEC schedule now complete.
Florida gets back home after an eight-game road trip for the showdown, and LSU hasn’t been nearly as dominant on the road as it has been at home. However, if the game is close, it’s hard to ignore LSU’s 5-2 record in games decided by a single run so far in SEC play. This is a crucial series for both as jockeying for the top seeds in the SEC Tournament is starting to heat up for the entire league.
The game times are as follows: Thursday – 6:30 p.m. CT (ESPNU); Friday – 6 p.m. CT; Saturday – 3 p.m. CT.
Bold prediction: Florida 2-1
• Georgia (18-11, 4-5 SEC) at No. 11 Arkansas (22-6, 5-4 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:35 p.m. CT; Saturday –2:05 p.m. CT; Sunday 12:05 p.m. CT
Arkansas hit just .171 as a team in the series with LSU as the Hogs were swept and lost a series for the first time in 2012. However, despite putting up a 5.00 team earned run average in the three-game set with the Tigers, the Razorbacks are still leading the SEC in team ERA with a 2.79 mark overall.
Meanwhile, Georgia has dropped back-to-back series against Vanderbilt and No. 1 Kentucky. If the SEC Tournament were to start today, the Bulldogs would still be comfortably in the 10-team field in Hoover, but a third-straight series loss would be devastating with road trips to Florida and LSU as well as a home matchup with Ole Miss still looming in April.
At Baum Stadium, Arkansas is nearly unbeatable and sports an 18-1 record for 2012. This doesn’t appear to be a helpful stat for a team that’s reeling a little bit like Georgia.
Bold prediction: Arkansas 2-1
• No. 21 Ole Miss (20-9, 5-4 SEC) at No. 1 Kentucky (27-2, 7-2 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:35 p.m. CT; Saturday – 3:05 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1:05 p.m. CT
After winning a series against Georgia for the first time since 2000, Kentucky’s best start in school history has helped the Wildcats to reach the highest heights in the national rankings as the team took over the No. 1 ranking from division mate Florida at the beginning of a great week in Lexington.
More important than the national ranking is the No. 1 spot UK holds in the SEC overall standings as it is the only team with a 7-2 mark through nine league outings.
The Cats had better not get too comfortable, however, as No. 21 Ole Miss comes to town riding high off a 2-1 series win over the Gators last weekend in Oxford.
Sophomore pitcher Bobby Wahl had himself a great series against UF, tossing 8.0 scoreless frames in Friday’s 5-0 blanking of the Gators – earning National Pitcher of the Week accolades from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association along the way. Wahl also scored the winning run after coming in as a pinch runner in the bottom of the ninth of Sunday’s series-clinching 7-6 triumph.
This has the potential to be the SEC’s most entertaining three-game set of the weekend.
Bold Prediction: Kentucky 2-1
• Tennessee (19-10, 5-4 SEC) at No. 18 South Carolina (21-8, 3-6 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6 p.m. CT; Saturday – 7 p.m. CT (ESPNU); Sunday – 12:30 p.m. CT
Tennessee wrapped up a 10-game homestand Wednesday night with a 6-3 victory over Memphis. After struggling in the first two weeks of SEC games, the Vols seem to have hit their stride during this stretch as UT had an 8-2 record with a current six-game winning streak (which includes last weekend’s sweep of Alabama).
The Gamecocks needed 13 innings on Sunday in Nashville, but USC finally got its first series win of the SEC slate with a pair of victories over Vanderbilt. Persevering on the road and succeeding in a must-win situation is a true test of a winner, and it’s hard to argue with labeling the Gamecocks winners after the past two seasons.
This matchup has much more intrigue than it had a week ago thanks to Tennessee’s recent positive results. Winning in Columbia is a bit tougher than Knoxville, however.
Bold Prediction: South Carolina 3-0
• Vanderbilt (12-17, 3-6 SEC) at Mississippi State (18-11, 3-6 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:30 p.m. CT; Saturday – 2 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1:30 p.m. CT
While rain battered the states of Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday, forcing Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn to cancel midweek contests against in-state non-conference foes, Vanderbilt took advantage of a hapless opponent in UT-Martin at Hawkins Field, upping its gaining confidence with a 16-2 blowout over the Skyhawks.
While the Commodores didn’t win the series against South Carolina last weekend, it was extremely close to pulling out a stunning victory on Sunday which could have sent the Gamecocks’ season into a tailspin. Tim Corbin and Co. have come a long way in two weeks after getting swept by nearly every opponent they faced in February and early March.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, can’t seem to get that second victory in an SEC weekend after Chris Stratton does his thing on Friday nights. Stratton shut down LSU, Arkansas and Auburn in his first three SEC outings and has a 2-0 record in league series openers (no decision vs. LSU on March 17). Being back at home should help MSU to take a pair and finally win an SEC series.
Bold Prediction: Mississippi State 2-1
• Auburn (17-11, 6-3 SEC) at Alabama (10-19, 1-8 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:30 p.m. CT; Saturday – 3 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
Four runs are all that separates Auburn from having an undefeated mark in league play, while not all of AU’s SEC wins have been comfortable by any stretch. The Tigers overcame the first Friday night loss in league action with a pair of victories on Saturday and Sunday to claim the first three SEC series for the first time since 2003.
The Tide is dangerously close to falling completely out of the race for Hoover after getting swept for the second time in three weeks at Tennessee. Alabama was able to dispose of South Alabama Tuesday night, 9-5, to stop the bleeding and get back on the winning track.
The two heated rivals faced off in Montgomery on March 6 in the Capital City Classic. Auburn won for the fourth-straight year by a final count of 8-3 in the non-conference matchup. Much like the first three series for AU, this one is a must-win as the league schedule gets much tougher the last six weeks of the year. Doing so at the Joe, however, is a tall order.
Bold Prediction: Auburn 2-1