SEC series begin this week, and while it can be dangerous to look at non-conference play, with the varying degrees of schedule difficulty and the like, and try to divine what that means as we enter the conference schedule. So let's do just that.
The East right now stacks up pretty cleanly: With its strong start, Tennessee has established itself along with South Carolina and Vanderbilt as one of the early front-runners in the division. Whether you're sold on the Volunteers yet or not, they have at least earned the right to be considered a contender. Kentucky, which spent the last two games beating Ball State by a combined margin of 50-4 (not a typo) after losing the first game of the series, is officially the most enigmatic team of the division, looking capable of beating anyone but quite possibly capable of losing to anyone not named Missouri.
Back in the pack a bit are Florida and suddenly red-hot Georgia, which has won eight straight games to get to 10-6 on the season. Don't get too excited -- though eight games have not been against the highest grade of competition, though they include a win against Georgia Tech; still it's a lot better than the Dawgs were doing at the beginning of the year. Missouri is still doing Missouri things, most of which involve being bad at baseball.
The West is a little bit tougher to decipher. Mississippi State went 1-3 on its trip to Tuscon this weekend, losing twice to UC-Santa Barbara and once to Arizona, reinforcing just about every doubt anyone's voiced about the Bulldogs this year. In the meantime, LSU and Ole Miss have charged out to 14-2 records. The remaining five teams, including MSU, all have winning percentages between .600 and .688. Some of these teams are hot -- Alabama has won five in a row -- and some of them are less so -- Arkansas has lost five of its last six games -- but all of them are in the same neighborhood. It's going to take awhile to figure out who, if anyone, is going to challenge LSU and potentially Ole Miss for the West.
Tennessee Passes Its Test
If this weekend was, as we suggested on Friday, a test for Tennessee's bona fides as a quality team, the Volunteers have to be considered to have passed with at least a solid B. They won two of three from Arizona State in a series that was sloppy -- the teams combined for nine errors in the first two games -- but still something of a milestone for an emerging team looking for validation.
There are still some hiccups in late-game pitching for Tennessee. Saturday's game, for instance, ended with the tying run on second base after the Sun Devils scored once in the eighth and one more in the ninth. But the Vols are still not Ole Miss, which has developed the death-defying habit of racking up one-run win after one-run win. Shoring up the bullpen would be nice, but it's not precisely urgent just yet; Tennessee's first conference opponent is Missouri.
Big Bat Nation
Part of the success that Kentucky has had this season, and one of the reasons they have to be considered a threat going forward, is the best offense statistically in the SEC. In some cases by a pretty solid margin.
Kentucky has scored 10 or more runs in seven of their 16 games. They have scored fewer than seven runs once. They are first in the SEC at batting average (by 23 points) at .345, first in on-base percentage (by 45 points) at .461 and first in slugging percentage (by 60 points) at .510. To give you an idea of the kind of margins we're talking about here, the gap between Kentucky and Tennessee, the second-best team in OBP, is the same as the difference between Tennessee and Auburn, the ninth-best team in the category. The Wildcats have scored 65 more runs than anyone else in the conference.
Some of that is undoubtedly because of the schedule; see the 50-4 margin against Ball State mentioned above. But these are still the kind of wild run totals we used to see in college baseball. If there's a problem with the baseballs, no one's told Kentucky.
It's time to get to the Top 25. Or the Top 24, as apparently USA Today is suffering from acute triskaidekaphobia.
USA Today Top 25 Poll
|1||South Carolina Gamecocks (17)||15-0||733||1|
|2||Florida St. Seminoles (7)||12-2||713||2|
|3||Vanderbilt Commodores (2)||15-2||696||4|
|4||Oregon St. Beavers||14-3||670||6|
|7||N.C. State Wolfpack||13-2||607||8|
|8||Cal State Fullerton Titans||8-5||518||5|
|10||Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns||13-2||423||13t|
|13||North Carolina Tar Heels||10-4||335||17|
|14||Cal Poly Mustangs||11-3||332||16|
|16||Oklahoma St. Cowboys||11-4||228||12|
|19t||Mississippi St. Bulldogs||12-7||177||10|
|23||Texas Tech Red Raiders||14-3||141||NR|
|24||Miami (FL) Hurricanes||10-5||139||23|
|25||San Diego Toreros||10-4||94||NR|
Others Receiving Votes: Sam Houston St. 89, Florida International 55, Houston 53, Memphis 52, Indiana 31, Texas A&M 31, Fresno St. 27, UC-Santa Barbara 24, Georgia Southern 23, Kansas 23, Virginia Commonwealth 20, Indiana St. 17, California 15, Pepperdine 10, TCU 10, Arizona St. 8, Arkansas 6, Florida 6, UAB 5, Charleston 4, Washington 3, Baylor 2, Maryland 2, Seton Hall 2, Alabama St. 1, UC-Irvine 1
Nothing much changes for the top teams in the league; South Carolina, Vanderbilt and LSU remain in the Top 10, with the Commodores and the Tigers each moving up a spot. Ole Miss leaps three places. Tennessee and Kentucky are starting to move up the polls, replacing teams like Florida that have dropped out. The Vols have already passed Mississippi State, and Kentucky is getting very close to doing so.
Now, over to our friends at Baseball America, who -- for all their shortcomings -- are usually pretty good about including 25 teams in their Top 25.
Baseball America Top 25 Poll
|1||South Carolina Gamecocks||15-0||3|
|2||Florida St. Seminoles||12-2||2|
|4||Oregon St. Beavers||14-3||5|
|5||N.C. State Wolfpack||13-2||6|
|6||Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns||13-2||7|
|9||Cal State Fullerton Titans||8-5||4|
|11||Cal Poly Mustangs||11-3||11|
|13||Miami (FL) Hurricanes||10-5||16|
|18||Sam Houston St. Bearkats||13-3||20|
|19||North Carolina Tar Heels||10-4||21|
|23||UC Santa Barbara Gauchos||10-2||NR|
|24||Mississippi St. Bulldogs||12-7||12|
There are still a few oddities -- Indiana, really? -- but simply admitting that Virginia is not the No. 1 team in the nation is a start. Baby steps.