SEC Baseball Preview: Season Really Gets Started as Conference Play Begins

USA TODAY Sports

It's time to start figuring out who the real contenders are. Also, umpires could be getting some help figuring out other things at Hoover

The On-Deck Circle

The SEC tournament has been used for experimentation in the past, most notably with the pitch clock in 2010. This year, the event is going to be one of several conferences to use something that until now has been limited to the College World Series: Instant replay.

The system is still relatively limited: Essentially, it can be used to determine if a hit or home run is fair or foul and whether what looks like a home run actually left the park. But that's it. And it still won't be used in the overwhelming majority of SEC games -- those played before the tournament.

But if the system works in Hoover, it's not far-fetched to believe that instant replay could soon be cutting down the number of mistakes in the regular season as well.

The Slate

Top Series: LSU vs. Vanderbilt
Friday, 7: 30 p.m. ET; Saturday, 3:15 p.m. ET; Sunday, 2 p.m. ET

There are two series this weekend that could go a long way toward sorting out which contenders are going to stay in the race for the SEC regular-season championship for a while. This is one of them. The Tigers have the best record in the SEC West -- it's not technically a lead, since non-conference games don't count toward division standings -- and the Commodores have the third-best winning percentage in the SEC East.

The only real warning sign here would be a sweep of either team or two lopsided wins. Someone has to win two games in this series, and both these teams are good enough to bounce back easily from a 1-2 record to get right back into things. But if one team wins too easily, the other could be in for a long season and some dashed dreams.

Both teams have good offenses and great pitching, at least statistically. How well they do against each other could tell us how true a picture those statistics are painting.

Ole Miss vs. South Carolina
Friday, 7 p.m. ET; Saturday, 4 p.m. ET; Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET

We know -- or are at least pretty sure -- that the last undefeated team in college baseball is pretty good. But the verdict on Ole Miss is still a little bit on the fence. The 16-2 record is impressive. However, the schedule strength is not. Going to Columbia and taking a series from the Gamecocks would indicate that the Rebels are for real; even a competitive loss would give fans a reason to take them seriously. South Carolina pitchers have tossed nine shutouts this year and allowed more than two runs in just three of their sixteen games. For the Gamecocks, it starts a tougher-than-expected stretch to begin conference play: at Tennessee and vs. Kentucky are the next two weekend series.

Kentucky vs. Alabama
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET; Saturday, 7 p.m. ET; Sunday, 2 p.m. ET

The Wildcats, who have scored 184 runs this year, bring the most statistically impressive SEC offense to Tuscaloosa to face on the conference's better pitching staffs. The Tide has won six straight games and is in the middle of the race for the middle of the SEC West. Shutting down the 'Cats Bats could give Alabama a boost in the polls.

Mississippi State vs. Georgia
Friday, 7 p.m. ET; Saturday, noon ET; Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

It's pretty hard for two teams to have records this similar -- State is 13-7 while Georgia is 12-6 -- and story arcs this different. The Western Division Bulldogs came into the season expecting to contend for the national title, while the Dawgs were believed to be headed for another year in the SEC East basement. But Mississippi State has lost a bunch of cachet over the course of the non-conference schedule, and Georgia enters this series having won 10 straight after a difficult start. It might not be clear for weeks whether this series has told us much about these teams.

Tennessee vs. Missouri
Friday, 7 p.m. ET; Saturday, 3 p.m. ET; Sunday, 2 p.m. ET

Anything less than a sweep for Tennessee should be viewed as a disappointment. The Volunteers are off to a 15-1 start, while Mizzou has an 8-7 record that's even less impressive than it sounds.

Arkansas vs. Florida
Friday, 7 p.m. ET; Saturday, 7 p.m. ET; Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

The Hogs got off to a hot start and then faded, while Florida is having trouble putting all the pieces together for a second straight year. Both of these teams might already be playing for their respective seasons.

Texas A&M vs. Auburn
Friday, 7 p.m. ET; Saturday, 4 p.m. ET; Sunday, 2 p.m. ET

Two middling teams in the SEC West face off. But given how competitive the middle of the SEC West might be this year, no one should rule out a competitive game.

On TV

The Florida-Arkansas series airs in its entirety for viewers that have Sun Sports for the Friday game and Fox Sports Florida for the next two. The first two games of Ole Miss-South Carolina are set for an ESPN3 broadcast. The Saturday edition of Georgia-Mississippi State is on some regional networks, largely FSN, and ESPN3. The Saturday clash between LSU and Vanderbilt also goes to some FSN affiliates and ESPN3.

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