Previewing the 2011 baseball season, Part I
Remember that whole conference realignment thing last year? Yes, it's all about football. But as it turns out, these Tigers and Aggies will be playing in all the other sports the SEC has as well. And that means baseball. (It also means basketball and gymnastics and other college sports that Yankees pay attention to, but let's focus here.)
So what does that mean for hardball after this season -- the last one in which the SEC will be a 12-team baseball league?
The major concrete change is a 10-team tournament, which is (inanely) being tried out this year. More on that later.
At the same time, the conference is not expected to add any games to the 30-game schedule. As a practical matter, that really only means that each interdivision team will only come around slightly less often. The current format allows for 10 series, meaning each team only misses one team from the other division each year. Now, they'll miss three. (There's now space for four interdivision series, instead of five, and there will be an additional team in the other division.)
In terms of what the SEC is getting in its two newest members, neither Texas A&M nor Missouri is exactly a slacker on the diamond, though the Tigers are probably going to have a lot harder time adjusting to life in the SEC.
The Aggies have been to the NCAA tournament 27 times in their history and made five appearances in the College World Series -- most recently last year, when they lost a bizarre game to South Carolina en route to being swept out of Omaha. Texas A&M claims seven Big 12 trophies, though that depends on how you count them -- that includes four regular-season titles and three tournament championships. Which might not be quite so dubious if it didn't mean 2011 counts as two championships. Overall, A&M has 23 championships.
And they're expected to be, um, pretty good again this year. If by "pretty good" you mean the nearly unanimous choice to win what is left of the Big XII in the Aggies' last season in the league. (It's a nine-team league given the departure of Nebraska and the fact that Iowa State and former Big XII member Colorado don't play baseball.) This is no small feat in a league that includes perennial powerhouse Texas.
Missouri has had some success in recent years, which is one of the reasons why Tim Jamieson is part of a long line of coaches who have spent a long time coaching in the "other" Columbia. John Simmons first coached in 1937 and stayed until 1973. Gene McArtor took over in 1974 and wasn't done until 1994. At which point Jamieson was tapped to be the head coach at Missouri.
With decent results. Missouri has finished fifth or worse in the Big XII 10 times in Jamieson's 16 seasons, but the Tigers have also been to the tournament eight times, including seven in a row from 2003 to 2009. They won at least 35 games in each of those seasons.
Still, it's been a long time since the Tigers have been truly, nationally relevant in baseball. They've only been to one Super-Regional since Jamieson took over (2006) and haven't been to the College World Series since 1964. Missouri does have a national championship, but it dates back to about the midpoint of Simmons' tenure -- 1954.
Which is really not a big deal when you're heading into a division that includes both of the finalists in the 2011 College World Series and has four of this year's preseason Baseball America Top 11. Or maybe it is.
Every year, Missouri is going to be competing for a division title against the machines in Gainesville, the original Columbia and Nashville. And every other year, Georgia will also be part of the mix. (This is something like clockwork, though it's sometimes off by a season or two.) Missouri can still get into the SEC tournament without placing highly in the division, given that the teams with the best records get in regardless of division -- but only if they can stand up to the competition to get that record.
Missouri will actually get a slight taste of SEC baseball this weekend when they play at Auburn, though that's akin to saying someone will get a slight taste of SEC football when they play Kentucky.
Not that Texas A&M is going to have things easy in the SEC West, which features a great program at LSU. Most of the time. Arkansas and Ole Miss also regularly field tournament teams, and Mississippi State landed in the postseason Top 25 as a surprise team last year.
But the No. 7 Aggies would be the second-highest ranked team in the SEC West this year. Whether they can keep up that kind of performance in the most dominant conference in college baseball is another question.