SEC Baseball Weekend Preview: Trying to Sort Out the Division Races

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee-South Carolina, Ole Miss-Alabama, Kentucky-Vanderbilt and more games that will go a long way to establishing the pecking order for the rest of the year

The On-Deck Circle

The conference schedule is in full swing now -- the Thursday night games on ESPNU have started and everything -- but that's not a reason to miss out on some of the midweek games coming up next week. Unlike a lot of Tuesday and Wednesday night match-ups, which feature local mid-majors likely being pummeled by SEC teams, there are a few intriguing match-ups with major conference opponents looming after this weekend's game.

For example, Arkansas is hosting Nebraska for a two-game set starting on Tuesday. While the Huskers' 14-10 record doesn't scream "Omaha contender," they did beat both Oregon State and Washington soundly in the Pac-12 / Big 10 Challenge (before inexplicably losing to Utah) -- meaning they can be dangerous. The Tuesday game, at 7:35 p.m. ET, airs on CST and ESPN3. First pitch Wednesday, for a game that apparently won't be broadcast, is set for 2:35 p.m. ET.

Also Tuesday, Kentucky takes on perennial contender Louisville (18-6) at 6 p.m. ET in a game available on Fox Sports South. On Wednesday, Missouri travels to Busch Stadium to play Illinois, but there doesn't appear to be any television for that game yet. It's scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET.

The Slate

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

It's probably too early to call any series a must-win set for both teams, but this one certainly feels like it. Both the Volunteers and the Gamecocks got off to a great start in the non-conference slate, ending up as the last two undefeated teams standing, with South Carolina keeping that going until they started playing SEC teams. And both are now 3-3, tied with three other teams for the lead in the SEC East.

You can see it in the teams' stats. The Gamecocks' overall batting average is 28 points higher than their mark in the SEC (.301 to .273). In on-base percentage, the drop is 57 points (.379 to .322). And the slugging percentage is 39 points lower in SEC games (.385) than for the season as a whole (.424). The Gamecocks lead the SEC in ERA when all games are counted at 1.80; they are 13th in league games at 3.91.

Tennessee is not much better. There's a 23-point gap in batting average (.295 in all games, .272 in SEC games), on-base percentage is off 72 points (.386 to .314), and slugging percentage is down 44 points (.403 to .359). The difference in ERA is not dramatic -- Tennessee was a middling team overall (2.67) and is a middling team in the SEC alone (3.06) -- but it's there.

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

This series also looks relatively important for an early-season contest. Few saw Ole Miss leading the SEC West at this point of the year, and Alabama is doing pretty well by hanging just a game back of the front-runners. Ole Miss' offense is consistently better than Alabama's, especially on the underlying statistics. The Rebels are batting .268/.330/.419 in SEC play, while Alabama has managed just .234/.309/.371.

Pitching is more of a mixed bag. The Tide's team ERA is about a run higher than Ole Miss', but the Rebels allow opponents to hit for an extra 23 points of batting average. One of those numbers could end up being the deciding factor.

Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET; Saturday, 3 p.m. ET; Sunday, 2 p.m. ET

The Wildcats' bats have cooled off since they started playing other league teams -- Kentucky ranks seventh or worse in the SEC in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging in conference games -- and that might not be helped by going up against the Commodores' pitching staff. Vanderbilt has limited opposing batters to a .199 average, even if the ERA (3.46) isn't much to brag about.

The winner of the series has a good chance of at least sharing the SEC East lead when the weekend is over. The loser is guaranteed to fall behind by at least a game.

LSU vs. Florida
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET; Saturday, 1 p.m. ET; Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

In the recent past, this has been almost as much a marquee match-up in baseball as it usually is in football. And it still might be; we just don't know. If LSU had swept the Georgia series instead of tying in the final game, it would be part of the clump of teams atop the SEC West. And Florida is one of the five teams "leading" the SEC East. Expect an interesting series. Probably.

Arkansas vs. Mississippi State
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET; Saturday, 3 p.m. ET; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET

The Western Division Bulldogs try to keep their rebound going against one of the streakiest teams in the SEC. Arkansas' baseball season has been a roller coaster ride from the beginning, with the Hogs winning their first seven games, then losing seven of the next eight games, then winning eight of their last nine. Mississippi State, meanwhile, has bounced back from a nightmarish non-conference season to share the lead in the SEC West with their in-state rivals.

Missouri vs. Auburn
Missouri 4, Auburn 3 (Thursday); Friday, 7 p.m. ET; Saturday, 1 p.m. ET

Auburn's defense essentially blew the Thursday game with four errors -- and that doesn't include several boots on a double to left that scored two runs. Auburn came into the weekend tied with Kentucky for the most errors in the SEC at 36, and now has a hefty lead heading into Friday's games. And while counting errors isn't always the best barometer of a defense, those errors weren't caused by players getting to difficult balls -- these were largely everyday plays that should have been made.

Auburn really needs to take the next two games in this series. First, because losing a series to Missouri in baseball is embarrassing. Second, if the Tigers, Auburn variety, want to remain in contention for the SEC West, they have to win the easy ones. On the other hand, winning one of the next two games could give the Tigers, Missouri variety, something to build on as they look to establish a program that can't embarrass other teams simply by winning.

Texas A&M vs. Georgia
Friday, 7 p.m. ET; Saturday, 1 p.m. ET; Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

In a league full of inscrutable team, the Aggies are the most baffling to me. I just don't know whether they're good or not. The series against Georgia ought to tell us something, particularly if A&M loses. Or maybe it just makes Georgia that much harder to figure out.

On TV

There are no fewer than seven games being broadcast or shown on the Interwebs, including two games of the LSU-Florida series, with the game at 7:30 p.m. ET tonight showing on CSS and ESPN3 and tomorrow's 1 p.m. ET game airing on CBS Sports Network. Missouri and Auburn play at 1 p.m. ET Saturday on SportSouth and ESPN3. Ole Miss and Alabama's Saturday game will be on CSS and ESPN3 at 7 p.m. ET, while Kentucky and Vanderbilt square off on ESPNU at 2 p.m. Sunday. There are web-only broadcasts of the first two games of the Texas A&M-Georgia series, 7 p.m. ET Friday and at 1 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN3.

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