Five years gives you a pretty good idea of how things have gone recently for an individual program. The same is true for looking at trends across a conference by tracking its five-year standings, postseason teams, draft results and coaching changes.
So that’s what we’re going to do this offseason. Going one conference at a time, we’ll take a look at five years’ worth of data as a way to analyze where the league has been and where it might go.
The Southern Conference has developed into an extremely competitive league at the top, with no one team the clear best over the last five years.
The most consistent team over the last five seasons is Mercer. The most dominant team in any one season of conference play was UNC Greensboro, which went 18-3 in 2018. UNCG and Wofford are the only two teams in the league that haven’t had a season under .500 in league play in this sample. The only team to eclipse 40 wins overall in a season was Samford in 2019.
As a conference that dates back to 1921, the SoCon’s entire history is tied up in conference realignment. A majority of the schools that are now in the SEC and ACC were at one point members of the league, for example, and there are dozens of schools all across the South that count themselves as former members.
In modern times, the pace of change has slowed, but the SoCon still hasn’t been immune from the shifting, and from a baseball standpoint, the losses of College of Charleston prior to the 2014 season, and Elon and Georgia Southern prior to the 2015 season, were big.
Those departures might have damaged the SoCon’s ceiling as a conference, at least initially, but the vacuum is beginning to be filled by Mercer, which joined the league in time for the 2015 season, and Samford, which joined prior to the 2009 season and has only gotten more consistent with time under Casey Dunn. UNCG and Wofford are also better programs right now than they were in previous iterations of the league.
The clear next step for the league is to improve its standing so its representatives can get out of the No. 4 seed slot in regionals. Each team to reach the postseason in the last five seasons has been on the four line, which makes it tough to get much traction in a regional. Only once it has accomplished this can the SoCon really get serious about becoming a multi-bid league again, and then in all likelihood, it won’t be until then that it can talk about a team from the conference winning a regional.
The SoCon hasn’t put multiple teams into regionals since 2012, when it got three into the field, but two of those teams, College of Charleston and Appalachian State, are no longer in the conference. The league also hasn’t had a team make it out of the regional round since College of Charleston’s 2006 super regional run.
SoCon teams typically handle themselves pretty well against top competition, but they have some work to do in order to truly compete nationally.
*2020 records not included
|East Tennessee State
The top two spots in the five-year standings could not be much closer, with Mercer ahead of UNCG by just one win. If the Spartans change any one loss to a win in SoCon play over the last five seasons, they’re the ones leading the way, not the Bears. At the same time, it’s fitting to have Mercer at the top of the standings, as it was the most consistent program in the conference during this sample. Each season ended with at least 35 wins overall, and it’s the only team during this five-year run to have three seasons of 15 or more wins in conference play. The overall standings and conference standings mirror each other with one exception, East Tennessee State, which fared far better in its overall schedule than it did in the SoCon.
Team-by-Team Five-Year Trends
The following are summations of how each SoCon program performed over the last five full seasons. The arrow designation of up, down and to the side represent the results of the last five seasons, not a projection of the years to come.
It speaks to how consistent the Bears have been under coach Craig Gibson that the last five full seasons, as good as they were, are not much different than the five seasons prior. In each case, the Bears got to two regionals, and they actually won more games overall from 2010-2014. But what makes this an arrow up instead of an arrow to the side for Mercer is its three SoCon regular-season titles compared to just one league title for the five years prior.
The last five seasons were a runaway success for the Spartans under Link Jarrett, who last summer took the job at Notre Dame. They got to a regional in 2017, the first for the program as a member of the conference. They were even better in 2018, when they won the league with an 18-3 mark, but got left on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble after losing in the SoCon Tournament. It’s not hyperbole to say that the last five seasons have completely changed the overall trajectory of the program.
Like Mercer, Samford’s 2015-2019 looks very similar to its 2010-2014. In both samples, the Bulldogs made one regional appearance and their overall record isn’t altogether different. But also like Mercer, there are subtle improvements that make this an arrow up rather than an arrow to the side. Most notably, Samford won a conference regular-season title, its first as a member of the SoCon, in 2019, but it also didn’t have any losing seasons in the last five, whereas it did suffer a losing season back in 2013.
The Terriers have found another gear in the last five years. After winning more than 28 games in a season just twice this century prior to 2015, they have done so in each of the last five full seasons, peaking with a 39-win campaign in 2015. Wofford is also the only team other than UNCG in the conference to not suffer a losing season in conference play in this sample. It is clearly the best team in the SoCon that didn’t get to a regional at any point in the last five seasons, so that will be the next challenge for the program.
Quietly, the Paladins have been very consistent over the last five seasons, finishing just above .500 in conference play and just below that mark overall. They don’t have any seasons in which they truly bottomed out and they were competitive in the league every single season. The flip side of that is Furman also didn’t have any peaks that stand out about the rest. Its closest call came in 2017, when it finished fourth in the league standings and then fell one game short of the automatic big at the conference tournament. Its record in the last five seasons is actually slightly better than in the five years prior, but ultimately, the results weren’t much different.
The Catamounts have one of the strangest five-year samples in the data set. They have a regional appearance in 2016 to their name, the program’s first since 2007, but in 2018 and 2019, they also had two of the toughest seasons any team has had in the league during this time. In the end, the arrow points down for WCU, because while the regional in 2016 was a big achievement, the program doesn’t have any seasons over .500 overall in the last five seasons, and from 2010-2014, it won the league twice, won 32 or more games four times and only finished under .500 once.
East Tennessee State—??
When the 2020 season ended, the Buccaneers, led by star pitcher Landon Knack, were 12-3 and perhaps on the way to a breakout season. That’s one of the many unknowables from an abbreviated campaign, but what we can observe is that ETSU simply wasn’t as successful from 2015-2019 as it was in the five years prior. The Bucs were members of the Atlantic Sun from 2010-2014, so it’s not an apples to orange comparison, necessarily, but even still, two 36-win seasons and a regional appearance in 2013 eclipse the accomplishments of the last five seasons.
Virginia Military Institute—????
Like ETSU, VMI didn’t rejoin the SoCon until the 2015 season, after a decade of the Keydets playing in the Big South. Perhaps the program was a bit more consistent in the last five years than it has been in the past, with only one season of fewer than 20 wins in the data set, but the results have been about the same in the aggregate. The program is still looking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Bulldogs are a long way from where they were at their peak as a regular in the postseason under Chal Port and Fred Jordan and a participant in the 1990 College World Series, but the last five seasons have been particularly tough for a program with a strong history. After a 28-30 season in 2015, the next four years brought fewer than 20 wins each, bottoming out at 12-43 in 2019. Tony Skole, formerly the coach at ETSU and a member of The Citadel’s 1990 CWS team, is tasked with getting things pointed in the right direction from here.
Regional Teams by Year
|0-2 in Tallahassee Regional
|1-2 in Clemson Regional
|1-2 in Clemson Regional
|1-2 in Tallahassee Regional
|0-2 in Athens Regional
The overall record for SoCon teams here isn’t great, but there have been some highlights. Samford beat Florida State to begin the 2018 Tallahassee Regional, and UNCG’s showing in Clemson in 2017 was solid overall. It lost two games to the Tigers by a combined four runs and its win was over a St. John’s team that finished the season 42-13. Those two teams are also interesting because neither version was the program’s best during this five-year sample. In UNCG’s case, the 2018 team was better, and Samford’s 2019 team was better than its 2018 team. For that matter, Mercer might actually have been better in 2016 and 2017 than they were in 2015 and 2019. Such is life in one-bid leagues.
Top Draft Selections
|Kyle Lewis, OF, Mercer
|Will Gaddis, RHP, Furman
|Heath Quinn, OF, Samford
|Adam Scott, LHP, Wofford
|Ryan Clark, RHP, UNC Greensboro
Lewis, as the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft, is the highest-drafted player in Southern Conference history. From a total picks standpoint, the departures of College of Charleston, Elon and Georgia Southern hurt, as those three programs annually had multiple players drafted, and that’s reflected in the total number of players selected from the league. From 2010-2014, the conference averaged 21 players drafted, although it’s worth noting that the draft was still 50 rounds in 2010 and 2011, which led to four additional players being selected who wouldn’t have been in a 40-round draft. During this time, the SoCon also had three first-round picks in The Citadel’s Asher Wojciechowski (a supplemental first-rounder), Georgia Southern’s Victor Roache and Samford’s Phillip Ervin. Over the last five drafts, that average has dipped down to 13.4, with Lewis as the only first-round selection. The 2019 draft was the thinnest of this bunch, with just nine players selected, the fewest since 2004, when seven were taken.
|East Tennessee State
The Southern Conference had just four coaching changes in this sample, one of which, Tony Skole going from ETSU to his alma mater The Citadel, involved a coach going from one school in the league to another. Undoubtedly the biggest shoes to fill in the league are Jarrett’s at UNCG after his departure to be the coach at Notre Dame. Jarrett led the Spartans to an average of 34 win a year, their first SoCon regular-season title since 1998 and their first regional appearance as a member of the league. Godwin, previously the head coach at East Carolina for nine seasons, feels like a good fit to replace him. The toughest task of the bunch is likely the one Skole is undertaking at The Citadel. Not only is he taking over for a program legend in Fred Jordan, but the rebuild back to respectability could be a lengthy one for a proud program that has fallen on tougher times.