Off The Bat: SEC, Big 12 Title Races Come Down To The Wire

1. After several years of runaway winners in the SEC, this year provided a proper title race. The conference championship wasn’t decided until the final day of the season for the first time since 2017, with the drama playing out across three different ballparks.

The weekend began with Arkansas leading the race, a game ahead of Florida, 1.5 games ahead of LSU and two games ahead of Vanderbilt. With the Razorbacks visiting the Commodores, it was never going to be an easy ride to the finish. Meanwhile, Florida was visiting Kentucky and LSU traveled to Georgia.

After the first two days of the weekend, Arkansas and Vanderbilt and Florida and Kentucky had split their series. LSU had won twice at Georgia. That left a bit of a convoluted mess going into the final day, but it boiled down to Arkansas having a chance at the outright title with a win. LSU needed to win and the Razorbacks to lose. Florida needed to win and both the Razorbacks and Tigers to lose.

In the end, the Gators (42-13, 20-10) got what they needed. Florida defeated Kentucky, 5-2, while rival Georgia took down LSU, 9-5. The final piece of the puzzle was in Nashville, where Vanderbilt edged past Arkansas, 7-6.

Florida watched the finish from the concourse of Kentucky Proud Stadium. Once Vanderbilt closed out its victory, the Gators celebrated. They shared the title with the Razorbacks (39-15, 20-10) but Florida will be the No. 1 seed at this week’s SEC Tournament. It’s the Gators’ first SEC title since 2018.

2. Florida has really found its form over the last two weeks. After a brutal series loss at Texas A&M that saw the Gators lose on a run rule and a walkoff balk on back-to-back days, they’re 5-1 with series wins against Vanderbilt and at Kentucky.

One of the keys for Florida has been its starting pitching. Setting aside Hurston Waldrep’s rain delay-shortened start last week against Vanderbilt, Waldrep, Brandon Sproat and Jac Caglianone have combined to throw 30.2 innings in five games. Waldrep on Thursday threw six scoreless innings against Kentucky and Caglianone finished the weekend with seven scoreless, his best start of the season.

With its rotation pitching like that, Florida is tough to beat. Staying on schedule will be particularly important for the Gators, but the good news is they’ll have home-field advantage through the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament and they’ve won 10 straight games at Condron Ballpark.

3. After losing a series at Alabama, getting swept at Florida and then losing Thursday’s opener against Arkansas, Vanderbilt found itself in a real funk. It got deeper Friday, when the Razorbacks took an 8-2 lead to the bottom of the ninth at Hawkins Field.

Facing another tough defeat, however, the Commodores roared to life. They scored eight runs in the eighth inning to erase the six-run deficit (making it their largest comeback since 2019) and they won, 10-8. They won again Saturday in the regular-season finale, claiming the series with a 7-6 victory.

Vanderbilt was again operating without starters Carter Holton and Hunter Owen, but on Saturday got a solid start from Ryan Ginther (4 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K) and six innings Friday from Devin Futrell. The Commodores would still benefit greatly from getting healthier on the mound, but importantly they did find a way through the weekend without two-thirds of their rotation. How repeatable that will be during the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen, but the good news is that Vanderbilt will likely have home-field advantage through the first two weekends and they’re 25-6 at the Hawk.

4. On paper, LSU’s final weekend assignment looked to be the easiest of the four SEC contenders. While Arkansas, Florida and Vanderbilt all had to deal with top-20 opponents, LSU drew a trip to Georgia, which was fighting to lock up a bid to the SEC Tournament and had just gotten swept at Missouri.

But Georgia has been good at home this season. It swept Arkansas and won series against Kentucky and Tennessee. LSU, meanwhile, had lost back-to-back series against Auburn and Mississippi State.

LSU had to fight for it, but the Tigers came away with an important series win. They won the opener, 8-5, in 12 innings, fending off Georgia’s comeback. The second game was a more straightforward 8-4 victory. But the Bulldogs won the finale, 9-5, a win they needed to qualify for the SEC Tournament.

The Tigers may rue the missed opportunity to win the SEC title, but really they should still be kicking themselves for last weekend against Mississippi State, not Saturday at Georgia. Win either of the games they blew late a week ago and they’re SEC champions.

Regardless, LSU had some players take important steps forward this weekend in Athens. While righthander Thatcher Hurd blew the save Thursday night, he stayed in the game and threw three scoreless innings in extra innings to save the rest of the bullpen and give the offense time to push across the winning runs. In Friday’s win, righthander Ty Floyd (7 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 1 BB, 7 K) was again solid and righthander Gavin Guidry threw two scoreless innings to end the game.

With LSU’s powerful offense, it doesn’t need its pitching staff to be great. It just needs to find a few options behind ace Paul Skenes. If Floyd, Guidry and Hurd can be that the Tigers only need two or three more pitchers to step up in the postseason. Finding who those pitchers might be is the most important thing LSU can do this week at the SEC Tournament.

5. In 2016, seven of the top 11 teams in RPI were from the SEC. All seven hosted, which was a record number of hosts for one conference. Today, as conference tournament week begins, six of the top eight teams in RPI are from the SEC and nine of the top 16. So, the question is, how many hosts can one conference have?

The good news for the selection committee is that it doesn’t have to make a decision today. Perhaps, over the course of the week, some of the teams on the hosting bubble, either in the SEC or beyond, will play themselves out or show firmly that they belong. The bad news is that at this time of the year, RPI is relatively static, especially in the ACC and SEC. The selection committee’s recent precedent is also not to weigh conference tournaments especially strongly. Two years ago, Mississippi State was run-ruled twice in Hoover. It got a top-eight seed anyway. Last year, North Carolina State and Rutgers were left out of the NCAA Tournament despite reaching the championship game of their respective conference tournaments.

So, again, how many hosts from one conference is too many? The selection committee would argue that it doesn’t evaluate things that way. It merely is trying to find the 16 best, most deserving hosts regardless of conference affiliation. This year might be the greatest test of that theory yet.

There’s almost no way the SEC ends up with less than six hosts. Nine feels unlikely as well. If I’m forced to predict (and I will be tomorrow for the Projected Field of 64), I’d say seven feels most likely. But squeezing two potential SEC hosts off the bubble won’t be easy.

6. As much fun as the SEC finish was, the Big 12 provided even more drama as it ended in a three-way tie atop the standings.

West Virginia went into the weekend with a two-game lead on Oklahoma State and a three-game edge on Texas. The Mountaineers held the tiebreaker on the Cowboys, so if they won just once in their series against the Longhorns, they would be the Big 12 champions. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, was playing rival Oklahoma on the road.

Texas won the first two games of the series, while Oklahoma and Oklahoma State split. That set up a final day with the Cowboys and Longhorns both a game behind the Mountaineers. West Virginia could win the title outright with a win. A Texas win, meanwhile, opened the door for a three-way tie if Oklahoma State also won.

The conference delivered full chaos. Texas scored four runs in the first and opened a 6-0 lead after three innings, en route to a 7-3 victory. Oklahoma State also left little doubt, scoring twice in the first and never looking back on the way to an 11-1 victory. So, the trio shared the title at 15-9 in Big 12 play. Texas (38-18) won the tiebreaker for the top seed in the Big 12 Tournament by virtue of its 4-2 record against Oklahoma State (37-16) and West Virginia (39-16). The Cowboys went 3-3 against the other two teams, while the Mountaineers were 2-4.

Not only are Oklahoma State, Texas and West Virginia tied atop the standings, they’re all also bunched from 20-23 in RPI. At least one of them and possibly two are going to host a regional. But that race is likely to continue through the weekend in Arlington.

One not so fun wrinkle to that race is that the Big 12 Tournament championship game isn’t scheduled to begin until 6 p.m. ET, just a couple hours before the host sites will be announced. Will there be enough time for the committee to react to the championship game? Last year’s championship game was still being played when the hosts were announced and the champion, Oklahoma, was snubbed as a host.

7. A lot was made a month ago of Texas getting swept at home by Oklahoma. At the time, the Longhorns fell to 27-15, 8-7 and out of the rankings. The Sooners were struggling coming into the weekend and landed their first-ever sweep in Austin, concluding with a doubleheader in which they never trailed.

Since then, however, Texas has been rolling. It is 11-3 since that weekend, including a 7-2 mark in conference play. The Longhorns surged to the top of the standings and are back in the hosting race.

Texas dominated this weekend’s series. It never trailed at the end of an inning, it played clean defense on the weekend and outscored West Virginia, 29-9, in the series.

It was an all-around romp for the Longhorns. Outfielder Porter Brown went 6-for-11 in the series and homered three times in the opener. Outfielder Dylan Campbell went 7-for-13 with two homers and two doubles. Lefthander Lucas Gordon threw seven scoreless innings in the opener and righthander Lebarron Johnson Jr. struck out 11 in 5.1 innings the next night. Righthander Tanner Witt, who is still working back from Tommy John surgery, had his best outing yet, throwing three scoreless innings Saturday.

The Longhorns’ development hasn’t been linear this season, but coach David Pierce seems to have them peaking at the right time.

8. Oklahoma State rolled to a series win in Bedlam, sandwiching blowouts around a tough, 5-0 loss Friday. The Cowboys opened the series with a 13-2 win and closed it out with an 11-1 victory.

Coach Josh Holliday said after Saturday’s game that the Cowboys would celebrate by getting ice cream on the way back to Stillwater.

“We’ll stop at OnCue on the way home and get some ice cream and then we’ll probably listen to them sing and have some fun and share some moments,” he said. “Then we’ll sleep and rest (Sunday) and then we’ll get ready for the Big 12 Tournament.”

Since losing a home series last month against West Virginia, Oklahoma State is 13-3, including a 7-2 mark in Big 12 play. The Cowboys’ offense has kicked into high gear and it’s now 10th in the nation in scoring (8.7 runs per game). That lineup is going to make Oklahoma State dangerous in the postseason.

9. One of the great moments of the college baseball season happened Friday night at Fenway Park, which was hosting Boston College’s annual ALS Awareness Game. Righthander John West got the start for the Eagles against Notre Dame and delivered an excellent performance, holding the Fighting Irish to three runs on four hits in seven innings. He helped lead BC to an 8-4, series-clinching victory.

Having that kind of game in Fenway Park to close out the regular season in style would have been meaningful for any player. But for West it was even bigger. He’s a native of Shewsbury, Mass., about an hour away from Fenway and grew up rooting for the Red Sox. The ALS Awareness Game means a lot for the Eagles due to the activism of Pete Frates, who was a captain and coach for the program before dying from the disease in 2019. West, however, has a more personal connection. His father, Ken, died nine years ago after suffering from ALS. After coming off the mound, he told ESPN’s Dani Wexelman that Friday’s start was the best moment of his life.

“I’m thinking of (my father) right now, I’m thinking of Pete,” West said. “What a beautiful day to celebrate ALS (advocacy) and come together as a community. You look around at all these people and we’re here for a reason, we’re here to strike out ALS.”

As meaningful as the night was for West and the program’s commitment to finding a cure for ALS, it also held significant on-field importance. With the win, BC improved to 34-17 overall and 16-14 in the ACC. Those marks, combined with BC’s RPI (14) and strength of schedule (30) have it in a strong position to host regionals. The Eagles aren’t assured of anything yet and a win in Durham during this week’s ACC Tournament would be a nice boost, but BC needed its win Friday night to really remain in the conversation.

10. In the middle of the eighth inning Friday, things weren’t looking great for Miami. Its series against Duke was a big opportunity for both teams in the hosting race and, up to that point, it was the Blue Devils who were capitalizing. They won the opener, 5-3, and held a five-run lead in the second game.

Miami pushed three runs across in the eighth inning and then tied the game in the ninth on a two-run hit from Renzo Gonzalez. Two innings later, Carlos Perez launched a walkoff, two-run home run to send the Hurricanes to a 10-8 victory. They kept rolling the next day, as they won the rubber game, 10-1, to take the critical series. First baseman CJ Kayfus led the offense in the two wins, going 6-for-11 with two doubles and a home run. He’s hitting .345/.456/.592 with 12 home runs this season.

Miami (37-18, 18-12) has a top-20 RPI and finished in fourth place in the ACC. Its hosting case isn’t a lock, but it’s a strong one. But beyond the specifics of their NCAA Tournament resume, the Hurricanes have played well down the stretch. Since the midpoint of the ACC season, they’re 17-6 overall and 10-5 in conference play. They’ll take momentum into the postseason.

11. Maryland and Indiana went into the weekend tied atop the Big Ten standings. In the end, it was the Terrapins who claimed the outright conference title after they won a series at Penn State, while the Hoosiers lost their series at Michigan State.

Maryland (37-19, 17-7) also won last year’s conference title and became the first team to repeat as Big Ten champions since Indiana did the double in 2013-14. The Terrapins are also on track for a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, which would be a first in program history.

This year’s Terrapins haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as last year’s team, which won the Big Ten and hosted a regional—both program firsts. Some of the lack of headlines around this year’s team is because their RPI is not as strong and they aren’t in a position to host. But some of it is because last year’s success has made what Maryland is doing seem more normal. But it shouldn’t be lost that Maryland, a team that before last season hadn’t won a conference title since 1971 and was mostly a middle-of-the-pack team upon joining the Big Ten in 2015, has become the conference’s bully. It hasn’t lost a conference series since 2021 and this season averaged 9.5 runs per game in conference play, nearly 1.5 runs better than the Big Ten’s second-best offenses (Indiana and Nebraska, 8.04).

12. Coastal Carolina and Southern Miss went into the weekend tied atop the Sun Belt standings. The Chanticleers claimed the outright conference title after they swept last-place Marshall, while the Golden Eagles finished a game back after winning a series against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Coastal (37-17, 23-7) joined the Sun Belt in 2017 and has won three titles in its six seasons in the league. This was its first title since 2018, however.

Coastal has won seven straight games, including a win Tuesday against North Carolina. Its RPI (13), strength of schedule (14) and high-end wins (7-6 vs. RPI top 50) all have it firmly on track to host regionals for the first time since 2018. The Chanticleers this season are 23-10 at Springs Brooks Stadium and any team that gets sent there will have to contend with their high-powered offense and an excellent atmosphere.

13. While it wasn’t the biggest series of the weekend, Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton remains one of the best rivalries in college baseball and it’s a big deal anytime they meet on the diamond, as they did this weekend.

The Dirtbags won the first two games, 2-1 and 7-4, to claim the series. It was the third straight series win for Beach in the rivalry as coach Eric Valenzuela improved to 7-3 against the Titans in his four-year tenure.

While it was a big series win for Beach (30-22, 14-13), which has now won consecutive series against UC Santa Barbara and Fullerton, the Dirtbags are still mired in the middle of the pack in the Big West and won’t be going to the NCAA Tournament. The series meant more for the Titans (29-21, 18-9), which are still in the mix in the race for the Big West and the NCAA Tournament.

Fullerton’s win Sunday snapped its losing streak at eight games, but that skid has done a number on the Titans’ postseason chances. Their RPI has fallen to 65 and they’re now tied with UCSB in the Big West standings, 1.5 games behind UC San Diego. UCSD is not eligible for the postseason because it’s still in its reclassification period from Division II to Division I, so the Big West’s auto-bid will likely come down to the Titans and the Gauchos, though Cal State Northridge (31-17, 17-10) and UC Irvine (35-17, 16-11) remain in the mix.

Fullerton now likely needs the auto-bid, as its RPI is out of the range typical for an at-large bid and next weekend’s series at Cal Poly won’t help it. UCSB, meanwhile, travels to Hawaii. Fullerton’s series win earlier this season against UCSB gives it an edge, but it’ll need to play better with its postseason hopes on the line.

14. Louisville’s season came to a crashing halt this weekend as the Cardinals (31-24, 10-20) lost a series at home to Florida State and finished 13th in the ACC standings, ahead of only the Seminoles. It was a very disappointing end for Louisville, which was picked as the conference favorite in the ACC coaches’ preseason poll.

The Cardinals started the year impressively, sweeping through the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston and going 18-2 in the first month. But Louisville went 13-22 over the last two months and won just one series, a sweep of Boston College. The end result is the Cardinals will miss the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons and have missed their conference tournament for the first time since 1970.

After Saturday’s season-ending loss, McDonnell spoke with reporters in Louisville and was asked about his future, especially regarding the fact that his name is often connected with job openings in the SEC.

McDonnell started by saying that he always expected to be at Louisville. But he didn’t mince many words in his response as he laid out his expectations.

“I’ve been very vocal and challenging over the last 12 months,” he said. “Just look at the writing on the wall. You look at where this program has been, you walk through the dugouts, you walk under the stadium, you see what differently have we done since 2000-whatever. We want to be here. We love it here. But again, I want to work for people and be with people that want to win as well. Don’t tell me you want to win; show me you want to win. That’s all I ask for. I think our fans ask for that. I think our players ask for that. I’ve been recruiting these kids, they’ve been committed since their eighth, ninth, 10th grade year. Well, they showed up on campus and they haven’t seen a whole lot different. We said it was going to be different, we promised them it would be different, but it’s not different.

“As my phrase was at the leadoff banquet, are you interested or are you committed? I want to be at a place that’s committed when it’s all said and done. Because the kids were recruited to be at a place that’s committed. Ultimately, we’re trying to get to Omaha and win a national championship. It ain’t going to happen unless we make a full commitment.”

Louisville has fallen behind in facilities. McDonnell has been trying to get upgrades and an indoor facility for several years. There have been renderings, but there’s not been a lot of progress. That’s really wearing at him and the churn in administration hasn’t helped. Louisville is on its third athletic director in the last seven years, and it’s had as many presidents as well.

McDonnell remains one of the best coaches in the country and over the last 17 years, he’s built Louisville into a powerhouse. He has a substantial seven-year rolling contract (it has an annual option to extend), but the administration that worked that deal out with him is now gone. If there was ever a time for McDonnell to depart the program he built, it’s starting to look more and more like this is it.

Eight For Omaha

Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, LSU, Oregon State, Stanford, Wake Forest

Two changes to the field this week, as Auburn and Clemson replace Vanderbilt and West Virginia. While the Commodores got a big series win this week, that was coupled with not so great news on the injury front for starters Carter Holton and Hunter Owen. Vanderbilt can win without them, especially at home, but I’ll move it and West Virginia out of the field. Replacing them are Auburn and Clemson. Clemson is as hot as any team in the country and has been for a month now, while Auburn is more of a gut feel. I don’t want to bet against Butch Thompson and his Tigers, who are also rolling into the postseason having won four straight series.

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