Needless to say, Selection Monday was a major moment in SEC baseball history. Never before had a conference contributed seven schools to the pool of 16 host sites for the NCAA Baseball Tournament Regionals — until the SEC did this year. On top of that, four of those seven were among the eight national seeds. News flash: that's also a record. For over half of the conference's tournament participants, the Road to Omaha runs through their ballpark. That puts the conference in a great position to send a team to the College World Series championship series for the the 10th time in nine years (2011 was an all-SEC final between Florida and South Carolina) and potentially claim the crown for the fifth time in that span.
It's safe to say that every team in the conference is capable of hoisting the trophy on June 28 or 29, but will your team get it done? Here's why they will — and why they won't.
We'll start with the National Seeds, then go with the remaining hosts in alphabetical order.
#1 Florida (47-13, 19-10 SEC)
Friday's NCAA Tournament Opener: Bethune-Cookman, 6 p.m., SECN
Why they will: The Gators have been the consensus no. 1 team in America for much of the season for a reason. An impressive 29-4 home record and a 25-1 record against non-SEC opposition bode well for a tournament run through Gainesville. LHP A.J. Puk, a near-certain top five pick in this month's MLB Draft, had one of his best games of the year in the SEC Tournament opener against LSU, scattering six hits over 7.1 innings and allowing just two runs, both in his final inning of work. Puk also struck out seven in what turned out to be a no-decision. For a pitcher who had struggled at times with longevity in his starts, that game was a major sign of progress. Plus, the Gators don't make mistakes behind their pitchers. Florida enters NCAA play with an impressive 98.3% fielding percentage. And offensively? That missing piece in their lineup in Hoover? Well...
Why they won't: Alonso hasn't played since May 13, so will he be the same player he was? Or will he struggle with timing upon returning from injury and wind up hurting the Gators lineup? It's not likely, but it's something to think about. Also, RHP Logan Shore, the Gators' Friday night ace, has only thrown three innings since May 14. His start at LSU was limited to two innings due to weather, and then a stomach bug sidelined him in Hoover until Sunday's championship. Even when Shore took the mound against Texas A&M, he only tossed an inning, allowing a run. On top of that, the Gators' regional includes UConn and Georgia Tech. UConn LHP Anthony Kay (9-2, 2.46) is a bona fide ace, and Georgia Tech has RHP Brandon Gold (8-3, 2.38) in the same boat. A good outing by one of them against the Gators could be enough to spoil the party.
#4 Texas A&M (45-14, 20-10 SEC)
Friday's NCAA Tournament Opener: Binghamton, 9 p.m., SECN
Why they will: Offense. The Aggies' never-say-die offensive attack took Hoover by storm, especially during the tournament's final three days. A&M plated 37 runs in their last three games in Hoover — a 13-3 mercy-rule win over Vanderbilt, the 12-8 comeback over Ole Miss in the semifinals, and a 12-5 win over Florida for the title. Four Aggies were named to the SEC's All-Tournament Team (DH Jonathan Moroney, 2B Ryne Birk, SS Austin Homan and OF Nick Banks) for their role in the offensive explosion. Banks took home tournament MVP honors after a two-homer championship game. We haven't even mentioned INF Boomer White, who garnered SEC Player of the Year honors with an average that currently sits at .395. A&M leads the SEC in team average (.316) and home runs (55). Additionally, the pitching isn't too shabby, either. Just ask Vanderbilt. The Aggies even got a season-high 5.1 innings from RHP Turner Larkins in the SEC Championship, giving them even more mound depth.
Why they won't: The teams in A&M's regional are similarly built. Wake Forest is second in the ACC with 55 homers, and features 2015 ACC Player of the Year Will Craig, he of the .392 average and 16 long balls in 2016. Minnesota? Well, they lead the Big Ten with 47 round-trippers. A&M outslugged their opposition in Hoover, but the opposition this weekend is capable of hanging in with the Aggies in a slugfest.
#6 Mississippi State (41-16-1, 21-9 SEC)
Friday's NCAA Tournament Opener: Southeast Missouri State, 2:30 p.m., ESPN3
Why they will: The Bulldogs have been riding the wave of their worst-to-first journey through the SEC in 2016. John Cohen was a very well-deserved SEC Coach of the Year for guiding his team on a stretch in which they won 13 of their last 15 conference games. A huge reason why MSU was so successful was RHP Dakota Hudson. Hudson's 9-4 record and 2.35 ERA as a Friday night ace meant that the Bulldogs often had a leg up on the competition to start off a series. Speaking of starting, Bulldog leadoff man OF Jake Mangum has been a spark plug at the top of Coach Cohen's lineup, leading the SEC with a .423 average (.475 OBP) in 57 games. The path to Omaha is relatively seamless for MSU, as their regional doesn't feature a glamor visiting team. Cal State Fullerton is solid, but a 35-21 overall record shows that this isn't one of the Titans' best teams, plus they will have the long travel to Starkville to deal with. If the top seeds hold, Mississippi State will see Sun Belt champion Louisiana-Lafayette in the Super Regional. The Ragin' Cajuns are just 15-11 away from home this year, and 0-3 against power conference foes overall.
Why they won't: It took until May 7 for Mississippi State to complete a sweep in conference play. Winning three games in a row was a major problem for MSU at times this season — in fact, their first three SEC series all went win, win, loss for the Bulldogs — and this tournament is all about stringing wins together. When MSU did get hot down the stretch, their 9-for-9 finish to conference play came against no. 11 seed Mizzou, along with Auburn and Arkansas, the two teams that didn't make it to Hoover. When the Bulldogs got to the tournament, they only went 1-2 and seemed lifeless in Friday's 12-2 loss to Florida. Can the Bulldogs put it together against quality competition?
#8 LSU (42-18, 19-11 SEC)
Friday's NCAA Tournament Opener: Utah Valley, 3 p.m., ESPN3
Why they will: A certain rodent.
DON'T DOUBT THE POWER OF THE POSSUM!!
Okay, enough of that. LSU is playing with a massive amount of momentum on their side right now. Heading into May, even hosting a regional was in doubt for the Tigers, much less earning a national seed. But Paul Mainieri's squad has won 14 of their last 16 games, with the only two losses coming to Florida. The Tigers swept Arkansas, took a road doubleheader at ACC foe Notre Dame, swept Tennessee in Knoxville, picked up a home win over Northwestern State before beating Florida in 2-of-3 at home. Then in Hoover, the Tigers rallied past Tennessee and Florida in consecutive nights before beating Dakota Hudson on a third. Only a masterful outing by Florida's Scott Moss sunk the Tigers in a 1-0 pitcher's duel in the SEC semifinals. LSU passes the eye test right now with flying colors. A potent 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation strikes fear in opponents. Alex Lange (7-3, 3.56) and Jared Poché (7-4, 3.61) are more than capable of carrying the team and picking up a lineup that lacks the power numbers of a Texas A&M or Mississippi State. Even so, a .295 average and 89 stolen bases (third in the SEC), is more than enough to carry the team.
Why they won't: LSU hasn't lost many games since April 23, but when they have, only once have they scored more than two runs in a loss. A great pitching performance has the ability to beat the Tigers. Luckily for LSU, their path to Omaha doesn't include many aces that jump off the page.
Ole Miss (43-17, 18-12 SEC)
Friday's NCAA Tournament Opener: Utah, 8 p.m., ESPN3
Why they will: Ole Miss has a lineup that is among the conference's most potent top to bottom. SS Errol Robinson sets the table with a .327 OBP, and is followed by a group that includes 2B Tate Blackman (.329, 3 HR), CF JB Woodman (.327, 14 HR) and C Henri Lartigue (.362, 4 HR). Lartigue, a switch-hitting catcher with some power (!), has shown a flare for the dramatic this season, evidenced by his walk-off homer against Kentucky and 4-for-5 game with a homer and four RBI against South Carolina in Hoover. This veteran team has the ability to produce runs with the best in the conference, and there's no reason why that can't continue into the postseason. Plus, RHP Brady Bramlett heads up the rotation with an 8-3 mark to go with a 3.14 ERA.
Why they won't: Goodness, what did the Rebels do to deserve this regional?! The visitors to Swayze Field this weekend include American Athletic Conference regular season champion Tulane, who spent much of the season in the top 25. They'll be joined by a Boston College team that won 14 games in the ACC, the country's no. 1 RPI conference this year. The Eagles have series wins over Louisville, Virginia and NC State, three teams that are hosts. Utah may only be 25-27, but the Utes won the Pac-12 regular season. Sure, the Pac-12 is way down this year, but Utah is a champion of a Power Five conference. That's not something to take lightly. Ole Miss is the one host that will have truly proven themselves if they escape this weekend. If they do, they'll likely need good outings from their bullpen. RHP Andy Pagnozzi and RHP Will Stokes have been relatively solid, with the ability to go long, and LHP Wyatt Short is a shutdown closer. Beyond that, though, there are question marks. The 3.47 team ERA of the Rebels is second-highest among the SEC teams that qualified for the field of 64.
South Carolina (42-15, 20-9 SEC)
Friday's NCAA Tournament Opener: Rhode Island, 7 p.m., ESPN3
Why they will: Much like Mississippi State, the Gamecocks are a major turnaround story for 2016. Chad Holbrook's club missed the 2015 NCAA Tournament, but bounced back with a torrid 23-2 start to the 2016 season. RHP Clarke Schmidt has carried the team on Friday nights, going 9-3 with a 2.96 ERA and striking out 115 in 100.1 innings of work. On the back end, LHP Josh Reagan has been dominant out of the 'pen, saving 11 games and carrying a 1.69 ERA. Opponents hit just .167 against the southpaw. At the plate, Carolina's .288 average ranks fifth in the SEC, with four regulars hitting over .300.
Why they won't: Since the 23-2 start, the Gamecocks have sputtered, going "only" 19-13 in their last 32 games. An ugly SEC series loss at Georgia and midweek losses to non-NCAA tournament teams North Carolina and College of Charleston certainly hampered the team's chances at being a national seed. Much like Ole Miss, the journey to Omaha is tough. Rhode Island features LHP Tyler Wilson (12-1, 2.08) as a Friday night starter. The southpaw will give the Gamecocks a good test on Friday to start off the tournament. The other teams in Columbia are a solid UNC Wilmington ballclub (39-17, CAA regular season champion) and Duke, making their first NCAA trip since 1961. The Blue Devils are 23-9 since March 28, with series wins over Clemson and Florida State. Speaking of Clemson, if South Carolina wins the Regional, the Super Regional will likely be in Clemson. The regular season edition of the Reedy River Rivalry went to the Tigers, two games to one. That's no easy task for the Gamecocks.
Vanderbilt (43-17, 18-12 SEC)
Friday's NCAA Tournament Opener: Xavier, 8 p.m., ESPN3
Why they will: Can you believe that there was discussion about an 18-win SEC team, with 43 wins overall, not hosting? Well, that discussion went for naught, as Vanderbilt is hosting again. Don't sleep on Tim Corbin's ballclub in June. Especially when they have a 3.12 team ERA, second best in the SEC. Vandy has gotten 40 starts from the trio of RHP Kyle Wright (8-4, 2.60), RHP Jordan Sheffield (8-5, 2.73), and RHP Patrick Raby (7-1, 2.61). As we've discussed above, winning this tournament is all about stringing together wins, and a great way to do that is through dominant pitching. That's an area where Vanderbilt is certainly set. Plus, OF Bryan Reynolds is a very competent offensive threat, with a .335 average, 16 doubles and 13 homers. The Nashville regional is also a favorable draw, with Washington and UC Santa Barbara both fading down the stretch and having to make the long trek to the Music City. Xavier is only 30-28 overall and won a weak Big East.
Why they won't: The Super Regional draw. It's a 2013 rematch as Vandy is set to face Louisville if the regionals go chalk. The Cardinals have been hitting their stride of late and many prognosticators around the country think they could win it all. This series would take place in the Derby City as well, so Vandy would be tasked with winning a Super on the road for the second season in a row. With star OF Corey Ray and two-way player Brendan McKay, not to mention RHP Kyle Funkhouser, the Cardinals have the ingredients to win it all. It could be three straight trips to the College World Series finals if Tim Corbin can work his magic this year.
So there you have it. Good luck to your team, and enjoy the wall-to-wall baseball this weekend. Keep it here at Team Speed Kills, as we're all over the SEC's journey to Omaha.