|Florida Gators||9-6||23-13||--||Alabama Crimson Tide
|South Carolina Gamecocks
||1.0||Ole Miss Rebels
||7-8||27-10||2.0||Mississippi St. Bulldogs
||6-9||17-17||3.0||Texas A&M Aggies
We're starting to see a little bit more separation as the season goes along, which is generally how division races play out. No one is quite out of their division race if you count even the improbable happening -- though Auburn is getting close -- but both divisions have clear-cut leaders and clear-cut contenders.
This weekend marked the halfway point of the season, meaning it's time to assess where everyone stands in the conference race.
Florida: The Long Road Back-ish
On the surface, you could look at Florida's series win against South Carolina this weekend as something like the end of the Gators' long road back to being one of the top teams in the SEC. Florida now holds the tiebreaker over the only other SEC East team with a winning record in conference, has sole possession of first place in the division and has only one SEC series left that seems truly daunting -- a trip to Alabama early next month.
The low point for Florida baseball over the last two years was arguably a 4-3 loss in 11 innings to Ole Miss last March, which left the Gators at 11-16 overall and 2-5 in the conference. Since then, Florida has gone 41-27 overall and 21-17 in the SEC. That's not jaw-dropping stuff, but it's very good baseball.
But narratives like that have to be accompanied with a little bit of nuance. Yes, Florida is No. 1 in the SEC East right now -- but its league record is 9-6, not that far off where Florida was when it swept South Carolina last year to get to 8-7 in the SEC. Kevin O'Sullivan's team would finish two games under .500 in the conference.
And it's worth noting that each of Florida's wins this weekend were by a single run. And while Alabama is the only team with a winning record on the SEC left on Florida's slate, Vanderbilt is still dangerous -- and Tennessee and Georgia could also do some damage. The SEC East is now essentially Florida's to lose, but the Gators still have to be considered capable of losing it.
South Carolina, meanwhile, has lost three of the five series it's played so far. For a team that was expected to be among the class of the nation and the division, the Gamecocks are basically now playing to keep their heads above water. The schedule lets up a bit from here on out -- two of three worst teams in the SEC by conference record are coming up -- but only a bit. If the Gamecocks are going to make a move, they have to do it now.
The Tide's Test
Two of the better starting pitchers in the SEC met this weekend in one of the least intense Auburn-Alabama rivalries (not that the rivalry is not at least a little intense in just about every sport the two teams play). Dillon Ortman and Spencer Turnbull both sport ERAs right around 2.00 (Ortman's is 2.02, Turnbull's is 1.71) and both are the leaders of their respective staffs. Neither is Aaron Nola, but both are very good.
And Ortman outpitched Turnbull in the first game by a sliver as Auburn won, 2-1. Ortman allowed just the one run on four hits over seven innings, while Turnbull last just as long and allowed two runs on six hits. Turnbull has six strikeouts to Ortman's two, but he also walked and hit six other batters, compared to three by Ortman. And that was as good as it got for the Tigers.
Alabama took the other two games, cranking out 13 hits to win 4-1 on Saturday and getting a walk-off double from Casey Hughston in the ninth to take a 4-3 victory on Sunday.
Which keeps alive Alabama's lead in the SEC West, but we're about to find out how much of that is the Tide's strength and how much of that is the Tide's schedule. Here's the remainder of Alabama's conference slate: at Tennessee, at South Carolina, Florida, at LSU, Mississippi State. None of those teams are teams that you can sleepwalk through. If Alabama wins the division, they're going to have earned it.
For its part, Auburn is tied with Missouri and Tennessee for the worst record in the SEC at 6-9. "Only" twelve teams go to the now ridiculously large SEC tournament, meaning that those three could be battling it out for the final spot in Hoover.
Don't look now, but the Bulldogs are suddenly in third place in their division. No, not the Mississippi State variety -- their expectation-busting season continues apace. (More on that in a moment.) But the Dawgs from Athens stand at 7-7-1, just a game and a half out of first place and coming off their third straight SEC series win. Scott Stricklin -- again, the Georgia one, not the MSU one -- might not get his team to the national championship this year, but he's already getting much better results than Dave Perno saw at the end of his tenure.
They're doing it so far with pitching. The Bulldogs are 12th in the SEC in on-base percentage in conference games, 13th in batting average and dead last in slugging -- but they are second in ERA, though just a decent sixth in opponents' batting average. There were mixed results on the mound this weekend -- Tennessee scored five, one and four runs in the three series games -- but Georgia still came away with two wins, putting the Dawgs a half-game ahead of perennial contender Vanderbilt in the SEC East. But Georgia still faces Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and mirror image Kentucky (all batting, not so much with pitching), so let's hold off a bit.
Tennessee, meanwhile, is getting perilously close to playing itself out of the SEC East altogether. After a white-hot start, the Volunteers are now tied with Missouri(!) for last place in the division and find themselves three games out of the lead with a brutal slate left to play (Alabama, at LSU, Kentucky, at Mississippi State, Florida). A spot in the SEC tournament -- which seemed almost assured a month ago -- is now on the line.
Not-So-Super Bulldog Weekend
It was SUPER BULLDOG WEEKEND for Mississippi State, the time of year when the spring football game is played, often with a baseball series riding along. The Bulldogs did well in the football game, winning it. They did not do so well in the baseball series.
Ole Miss spent most of weekend blasting away at the beleaguered Bulldogs, scoring 23 runs over the weekend to the eight pushed across by Mississippi State. The home team did manage to take the middle game of the series -- but only after putting together a four-run tenth inning rally to counter a three-run tenth inning by Ole Miss. Otherwise, the Rebels hammered away, winning 6-1 on Friday (despite State getting 10 hits) and 12-2 on Sunday, a game that featured 20 hits by Ole Miss.
The worst is behind Mississippi State now; only one of its remaining SEC opponents (Alabama) doesn't have a losing record in conference. But MSU also has a losing record in conference, and it's hard to see the Bulldogs passing two teams that they don't play and Alabama in the last half of the season. Right now, they're playing to get as high a seed as they can in the NCAA tournament.
As for Ole Miss, the division lead is within striking distance. But they have to win it outright after getting swept by Alabama. And LSU and a few other dangerous but struggling teams are still on deck.
Not that long ago, it looked like the Arkansas-LSU series might actually be painful to watch. Both teams were sputtering offensively, meaning that even the confines of Alex Box might not be able to avoid creating a prime example of the dead-bat era in college baseball.
There ended up being no need to worry. There were still impressive examples of pitching -- Aaron Nola extended his conference-leading strikeout number to 48 SEC batters, 14 clear of the next-highest pitcher -- but at least eight runs were scored in every game, and Arkansas alone put up 10 runs on eight hits in the Sunday game. But that was the only Razorbacks victory of weekend, as LSU put itself firmly in third place as the SEC West race enters the second half.
LSU has now scored at least five runs in six of its last nine games; Arkansas has done so in four of its last six. Both of them have the schedule to get back in the division race if they've truly turned the corner, but time will tell.
Aggies Down 'Dores
If there's a team whose stock is falling almost as fast as South Carolina's and Mississippi State's, it's Vanderbilt. The Commodores have been consistent contenders in the SEC East in recent years, but they now sit at 7-8 going into the season's final half and are coming off a series loss to Texas A&M, which had to win the series just to get to 7-8.
As long as no one runs away with the SEC East -- and, so far, no on has -- Vanderbilt is going to have a chance to get back into it with season-ending series at Florida and against South Carolina. But the Commodores can't do things like give up 23 runs over the course of a weekend to Texas A&M, a team that ranks sixth in on-base and slugging percentage and fifth in batting average, one week after giving up 21 to Tennessee in another series loss.
And Vanderbilt is still in a better place than the Aggies, who are part of that three-team tangle for the last spot into Hoover. Given that Arkansas or Mississippi State might be the easiest remaining opponent for A&M, the Aggies might have to pull several more upsets to get to Hoover.
Kentucky, Mizzou Batter Each Other
And just because there was a passing chance that something might happen this week that made sense -- Missouri took two of three games from Kentucky, placing the Wildcats into the mosh pit in the middle of the SEC East and keeping the Tigers' hopes to return to Hoover alive.
Kentucky's bats actually did their usual damage for most of the series, but Kentucky's pitchers also did what they often do in baseball games, and therein lied the problem. The Wildcats smoked the Tigers in the middle game of the series, rolling to a 12-0 win on 15 hits, four Mizzou errors and five walks. UK scored nine runs in the sixth inning alone. But a three-run eighth on Friday won the game for the Tigers, and a four-run ninth put the rubber game out of reach.
It's hard to tell at this point what's winnable or note for Kentucky, which has been almost as inconsistent as anybody this year -- and that's saying something in this season's SEC. But Mizzou fans should be careful before getting too elated, and look at the schedule, which still features series against Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, among others.