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SEC Baseball Weekend Schedule: How Every Conference Series Matters for the NCAA or SEC Tournaments

Whether it's the race for the NCAA tournament or a contest for the top spots in Hoover, every game this weekend will shape how far certain teams go when the regular season ends

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

This could be a rare season for SEC baseball, and not necessarily in a good way. Right now, the conference is tottering at the edge of having fewer than nine of the 14 current members make the NCAA tournament for just the third time since 2002. It's not the end of the SEC's claim to be one of the best conferences in college baseball, if not the best -- it's still extraordinarily likely that the conference will get half its teams in, and maybe more -- but it is something that we don't see too often.

Combine the race for the national playoff with the battle to see which teams get first-round byes during next week's SEC tournament in Hoover -- the top four seeds skip the first day -- and you have a weekend where literally every conference series matters. Here's how.

Getting to the NCAA Tournament

SEC BIDS IN NCAA TOURNAMENT (Post-2012 Members)
Season SEC Teams Missouri/Texas A&M (Big 12 Seasons) Total
2014 10 N/A 10
2013 9 N/A 9
2012 8 2 10
2011 7 1 8
2010 8 1 9
2009 8 2 10
2008 9 2 11
2007 5 2 7
2006 8 1 9
2005 9 1 10
2004 9 2 11
2003 8 2 10
2002 7 0 7

For those, particularly from other conferences, who think I might be playing games with the numbers by counting Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC for these purposes when they got bids as members of the Big 12, you can do the exercise another way. If you take the proportion of the 12-member SEC that got in each year and apply it to a 14-team league, you get roughly the same numbers, with a few differences -- nine in 2009 and 2012 and six in 2007, for example -- but nothing major.

In any case, the historical benchmark for the number of NCAA baseball tournament bids awarded to the 14 current members of the SEC over the last dozen years is nine. (The average is actually 9.5, but it's very rare that the number dips below nine, so we'll set that as the benchmark.) It would almost be safe to say that the conference is likely to get nine teams in just about every year, but -- well, look at the current state of the SEC.

SEC Overall RPI
LSU 19-7 44-8 5
Vanderbilt 18-9 37-16 10
Texas A&M 17-9 42-9 8
Florida 17-10 38-14 6
Arkansas 15-11 31-19 43
Missouri 14-13 28-24 52
Ole Miss 14-13 29-24 28
Kentucky 12-14 28-23 57
Auburn 12-15 33-20 24
South Carolina 12-15 31-22 56
Alabama 11-16 29-24 47
Georgia 9-17 25-26 84
Tennessee 8-18 21-25 71
Mississippi State 8-19 24-27 103

There are several teams whose fates are pretty clear. LSU, Florida, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt are mortal locks to make the NCAA tournament. Barring some sort of epic collapse, and maybe even accounting for one, Ole Miss and probably Auburn are also in. That gives the SEC six teams in the national tournament. On the other end of the spectrum, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi State are out barring a miracle run through Hoover -- and two of those teams are probably going to miss the tournament to begin with, so there will be no miracle for them.

If the SEC is going to hit its historic benchmark -- and there's no guarantee that it will, mind you -- that means three teams will come out of the group of Arkansas, Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky.

Right now, Kentucky, South Carolina and Missouri fans should be nervous. There are 31 conferences with automatic bids to the NCAA tournament, and some of the teams that fill them are going to come from outside the Top 64 in RPI. In fact, we already know of one: Columbia, the Ivy League champion, currently sits at No. 67.

If the committee were to follow RPIs strictly (which it generally does to some degree, but not rigidly), and the season were to end today, all it would take would be eight champions from outside the Top 64 to knock Kentucky out, nine for South Carolina and 13 for Missouri. The last of those is less likely to happen, but a team that has lost eight of its last 10 games, and 12 of its last 16, should probably be more worried about making sure it clears .500 and avoids further damage to its RPI than the fact that the Horizon League champion will take up a spot. (A team has to have a winning record to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.)

Which brings us to the first series this weekend with something at stake: Kentucky at Missouri. This might very well knock one of these teams out of any realistic contention for the NCAA tournament. If the Tigers get swept at home and then lose their first-round game in Hoover, their record drops to 28-28 and they're done. Even if Missouri were to get swept and then win that first-round game, it would have to win at least one more game in Hoover (because after the first round, the tournament is double elimination for a while) to remain above .500. And its RPI would probably be shot at that point anyway, not to mention the fact that the committee would be hesitant about taking any team that dropped 15 of its last 19 regular-season games. Even losing two of three to Kentucky would likely be it for Mizzou.

The same things could be said of Kentucky, though the Wildcats are guaranteed to clear .500. Winning one of three and then making a deep run in Hoover might salvage a tournament bid, but that's incredibly unlikely. A series win, on the other hand, not only knocks out a likely competitor for an at-large bid, but provides a small-ish boost to the resume.

The one team that least wants to leave its fate up to what happens in Hoover is also a team that pretty much regards its spot in the NCAA tournament as a birthright. And that's why LSU at South Carolina is, simply speaking, the most important series of the year for the Gamecocks. The good news for South Carolina is that the series takes place in Columbia, and the Gamecocks are a completely different team at home (24-9) than on the road (6-12). The bad news is that five of those home losses came in their 12 conference games in Columbia. A sweep would boost South Carolina's chances of keeping their lengthy tournament appearance streak alive, but a sweep is exceedingly unlikely.

Taking two of three should probably be the goal, and it's almost essential. South Carolina simply does not play well in Hoover, and while the Gamecocks are guaranteed to finish above .500 this year, they need to build up the RPI to even work their way onto the bubble. A one-and-done showing for the Gamecocks in the SEC tournament would also likely end their hopes of another trip to the postseason. The Gamecocks might not be completely dead yet, especially if they get some mileage out of their pedigree, but they need a lot of things to go right to make a regional. A lot.

If we're being realistic, all three of those teams face long odds to make the field. That's why Vanderbilt at Alabama is probably a bigger series in terms of deciding how many SEC teams get into the national playoff. The Crimson Tide's fate from here on out will depend entirely on what happens in Hoover, but in a different way: the cavernous ballpark near Birmingham has also served as Alabama's temporary home stadium this year. The Tide are guaranteed a winning record, but again, that RPI ranking could put them almost literally on the border between "in" and "out." A series win against a Top 10 team in the RPI would be an enormous help. Avoiding a sweep and doing well in Hoover could also do the trick, but the hopes would be very dim at that point.

Rounding out the will-they-or-won't-they slate is Arkansas at Georgia. Arkansas probably has the easiest draw of any of the teams mentioned here; Georgia's win at Kentucky last weekend was the first time the Dawgs have taken a series since late March. The flip side of that is that dropping this series could be a huge blow to the Hogs' RPI. If the Razorbacks win, they'll be in good shape headed to Hoover. Regardless of the outcome this weekend, it would be a major surprise if Arkansas were to miss the NCAA tournament, but it's best not to leave anything to chance.

Getting to Hoover

Georgia has its own motive to do well, though, because it wants to lock up a ticket to Hoover. (Obligatory "this is the only time you will ever hear that about Hoover" joke goes here.) There are four teams fighting for the last two spaces in the laughably large SEC tournament field.

RACE FOR HOOVER
SEC Overall RPI
Alabama 11-16 29-24 47
Georgia 9-17 25-26 84
Tennessee 8-18 21-25 71
Mississippi State 8-19 24-27 103

The most important series here could be the battle royal of awfulness Mississippi State at Tennessee. This one is simple for Alabama fans: Cheer for Mississippi State. Anything but a Tennessee sweep guarantees the Tide a spot in the tournament no matter what happens in the Vanderbilt series. (Alabama has the tiebreaker against Mississippi State.) That is another way of saying Alabama's magic number is one -- the next Alabama win or Tennessee loss sends the Tide to Hoover.

The bigger fight -- and we'll use this term loosely, since we're talking about a contest for the 12th spot in a 12-team tournament -- is among Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi State. Georgia's magic number here is two in a sense, though it's a bit more complicated than that, because the magic number of two is vis a vis both Tennessee and Mississippi State. So, for instance, Georgia could get swept by Arkansas and see Tennessee lose two games -- but that would do the Dawgs no good at all, because Mississippi State would then get the final spot in Hoover. If Georgia wins two, its position is unassailable; if it wins just one game against Arkansas or gets swept, things could very interesting in Knoxville.

Who's No. 1? No. 2?

The only purpose of getting too far into the seeding debate with regard to Hoover would be to give all of us a migraine. When Missouri, for example, could end up anywhere between No. 4 and No. 10 based on this weekend, there's very little that's cut-and-dry about which team will end up where in the bracket.

But we can give some pretty clear-cut scenarios on which team will win the conference's regular-season title and the division titles; the division winners automatically get the top two seeds in the conference tournament. Because not everyone ends up playing the same number of conference games in a normal season (due to rain-outs and the like), even that's a little complicated.

RACE FOR THE TOP SEEDS
SEC Overall RPI
LSU 19-7 44-8 5
Vanderbilt 18-9 37-16 10
Texas A&M 17-9 42-9 8
Florida 17-10 38-14 6

LSU's magic number to win the conference title is two -- any combination of LSU wins and Vanderbilt losses that adds up to two means the Tigers are the No. 1 seed. The Bengals' magic number to win the No. 2 seed is one, because they hold the tiebreaker over Texas A&M. (Technically, if LSU and Texas A&M end up tied, they are co-champions of the division and/or conference, because participation trophies are pretty.) Unless South Carolina sweeps LSU and the Aggies take all three in the Texas A&M at Ole Miss series, then LSU will at least be the No. 2 seed in Hoover.

Conversely, that means the elimination number for Vanderbilt in the conference race is two -- because of the different number of games, they can't tie LSU -- and the elimination number for Texas A&M is one when it comes to either of the Top 2 seeds and two in both the division and conference races. Florida's elimination number in the conference race is also one, meaning they need a sweep in the Auburn at Florida series and a lot of help elsewhere.

But the race for the East is a bit tighter. Florida won its series at Vanderbilt last weekend, which gives it the tiebreaker for the No. 2 spot. So the Commodores' magic number to win a share of the division title is two, but its magic number for the second seed is three. Because of the tiebreaker, though, Florida's elimination number for a share of the division title and the No. 2 seed is the same: three.

And that's just for the first two seeds. Understand now why it's virtually impossible to go through all 12?

The Slate

Day Series Time TV/Streaming
Thursday Mississippi State at Tennessee 6 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Auburn at Florida 7 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Arkansas at Georgia 7 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Kentucky at Missouri 7 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
LSU at South Carolina 7 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK
Texas A&M at Ole Miss 7:30 p.m. ET ESPNU
Vanderbilt at Alabama 8 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Friday Mississippi State at Tennessee 6 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Auburn at Florida 7 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Arkansas at Georgia 7 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Kentucky at Missouri 7 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Texas A&M at Ole Miss 7:30 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
LSU at South Carolina 8 p.m. ET ESPNU
Vanderbilt at Alabama 8 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Saturday Auburn at Florida 1 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Arkansas at Georgia 1 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Mississippi State at Tennessee 1 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK
Kentucky at Missouri 2 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Texas A&M at Ole Miss 2:30 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK+
Vanderbilt at Alabama 4:30 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK
LSU at South Carolina 8 p.m. ET SEC NETWORK