Weekend Preview: SEC Division Titles On The Line

SEE ALSO: Top 25 Coverage

Teddy Cahill and Michael Lananna each break down three of the biggest storylines going into this weekend’s action.

SEC title on the line: The Southeastern Conference schedule couldn’t have worked out any better for the final weekend of the season. With No. 5 Florida hosting No. 8 Kentucky and No. 11 Mississippi State taking on No. 10 Louisiana State, both divisions will have de facto championship series this weekend. Florida (38-14, 19-10) holds the overall lead in the SEC, with Kentucky (37-16, 18-9) and LSU (35-17, 18-9) a game off the pace and Mississippi State (34-19, 17-10) two games back. In addition to chasing a conference title, all four teams are also looking to shore up their resumes to be regional hosts and national seeds.

Florida simply needs to win the series to win its first conference title since 2014, as it holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against LSU. Kentucky also holds the head-to-head tie breaker against LSU, leaving the Tigers in need of a sweep to win their second conference championship in three years. Mississippi State needs a sweep and a Kentucky series win (but not sweep) to claim back-to-back SEC titles. Kentucky would win its first SEC title since 2006 with a sweep, or a series win and an LSU series win.

Both series have plenty of intrigue beyond the championship at stake. This will be the first meeting between LSU coach Paul Mainieri and Mississippi State coach Andy Cannizaro, who was an assistant coach under Mainieri for two seasons before leaving in November to take over the Bulldogs. Florida and Kentucky, meanwhile, have split the series almost as evenly as possible over the last 10 years. The teams are 16-16 against each other, both have won five series and the average score of those 32 games is Florida 6.4, Kentucky 6.2.

— Teddy Cahill

War on I-4, Part II: At last, we’ll finally get some clarity in the American Athletic Conference standings, which have been a logjam for the entirety of the spring. Heading into the final weekend of play, there’s a three-way tie for first place between No. 25 South Florida (39-13, 13-8), Central Florida (36-17, 13-8) and Houston (34-18, 13-8). The Cougars are playing Cincinnati, while the Bulls and Knights are playing each other. Since both South Florida and UCF beat Houston head-to-head during the regular season, they both have the tiebreaker advantage. Thus, whoever wins the series between South Florida and UCF will likely win the regular season AAC title, as well.

When the two teams met in the beginning of April, South Florida swept the visiting Knights. Two of the three games were one-run games, while the finale was a two-run game. UCF hasn’t lost an AAC series since, and the Bulls are coming off a series loss at Connecticut. Players to watch include South Florida shortstop Kevin Merrell (.390/.476/.588), who can impact a game with his bat and speed, and UCF’s big basher is Rylan Thomas, who is batting .301/.358/.534 with a team-leading 12 home runs.

— Michael Lananna

Big Ten set for wild weekend: Going into the final weekend of the regular season, Minnesota (32-17, 14-6), No. 22 Nebraska (32-17-1, 14-6-1) and No. 19 Michigan (40-12, 14-7) are separated at the top of the Big Ten Conference standings by the thinnest of margins. Three more teams (Indiana, Iowa and Maryland) are within three losses of first-place Minnesota. None of the six teams play each other this weekend, which will make for a sprint to the finish with plenty of scoreboard watching.

Minnesota on Tuesday passed Nebraska for first place when it swept a doubleheader against Rutgers, making up two games of a series that was cancelled earlier this season when bad weather prevented the Scarlet Knights from traveling to Minneapolis. Now the Golden Gophers, who are attempting to win back-to-back Big Ten titles, control their own destiny going into their series against Purdue. Nebraska, which is seeking its first-ever Big Ten regular season title, travels to last-place Penn State. Michigan, meanwhile, is set to tangle with rival Michigan State.

Outside of the top six, the race for the final two spots in the Big Ten Tournament is just as tight. Purdue and Northwestern are tied for seventh at 7-11. Michigan State is a game off the pace, while Illinois, Rutgers and Ohio State are all within three games. Only Penn State has been eliminated from contention.

— Teddy Cahill

ACC Showdowns: As detailed in the latest Field of 64, two Atlantic Coast Conference teams could benefit from a win or two this weekend against high-RPI competition. Florida State (33-20, 12-14), which goes into the weekend in fifth place in the Atlantic Division, can’t afford to be swept this weekend at No. 2 Louisville (46-7, 23-4). The Seminoles rank No. 26 in the RPI but could be derailed by a poor conference record. The Cardinals haven’t lost a series this season and just snapped a 15-game winning streak Tuesday at Indiana. They’re the frontrunners to win the conference outright at 23-4 in the ACC. The Seminoles will have their hands full—particularly in Louisville, where the Cardinals are 29-2—but if they could come away with even one win, it could help bolster their regionals case before next week’s conference tournament.

In Raleigh, N.C., North Carolina State (31-21, 14-13) hosts No. 14 Clemson (38-15, 16-11) in a series of two teams trending in different directions. The Tigers, at one point a projected national seed, have been swept on back-to-back ACC weekends against North Carolina and Louisville, and while their Top 10 RPI should keep them safely in hosting contention, they certainly can’t afford a third straight ACC sweep. The Wolfpack, meanwhile, has played its way back into the Field of 64 but is still very much on the bubble. One win against Clemson would at least assure N.C. State a .500 conference record and could help boost its No. 36 RPI.

— Michael Lananna

Player to Watch: Jayson Rose, rhp, Utah. Utah (24-21, 12-12) travels to UCLA (25-23, 14-10) this weekend for a Pac-12 Conference series critical to both team’s NCAA Tournament hopes. Both teams are on the bubble for an at-large bid to regionals, and the winner of this weekend’s series will have a leg up.

Friday’s opening game will feature a matchup of UCLA righthander Griffin Canning and Utah’s Rose. The Utes will need Rose (7-2, 3.31) to be at his best while matching up against the Preseason All-American. Rose has limited opponents to just an unearned run in 14.1 innings over his last two Pac-12 starts. Friday will also be an important start for the junior’s draft stock, as plenty of evaluators will likely be in attendance at Jackie Robinson Field.

— Teddy Cahill

Player to Watch: Stephen Villines, rhp, Kansas. Kansas is the one of the last teams in this week’s Field of 64—and the seventh Big 12 team. But to secure that standing, the Jayhawks (29-23, 11-10) will need to pick up a win or two at No. 4 Texas Tech this weekend in order to improve their No. 59 RPI. To pull it off, the Jayhawks could use a strong performance from their closer. Villines is a low-slot senior righthander who has 14 saves this year and a 2.63 ERA, striking out 46 to just five walks in 37.2 innings. To beat the Red Raiders, Kansas will need someone to shut the door late, and Villines could be the one to do that.

— Michael Lananna

Off the Wall

Going into the final weekend of the regular season, Jacksonville holds a one-game lead on Stetson in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Dolphins will head across town to take on rival North Florida this weekend with a chance to win their first regular season title since 2009.

Senior outfielder Nathan Koslowski is Jacksonville’s leading batter and enters the weekend hitting .336/.406/.473 with four home runs. Baseball America caught up with Koslowski to talk about the Dolphins’ season and this weekend’s series.

What has been the key to the team’s success this season?

Really just as a team we don’t overcomplicate things. It’s really simple for us, there are two options: either you do or you don’t. We just continue to do. Once you stop worrying about the things that don’t really matter, you can really focus on the game itself. Once we really locked ourselves in the rhythm of the game, it just became a little more natural for us.

Chris Hayes is in his first season as head coach. What has he brought to the team?

He’s been great preparing us for anything that gets thrown at us. We’re a young team and we’ve learned to build off a lot of our experiences. We’re comfortable in uncomfortable situations thanks to Hayes. JU’s been his home. He’s played here and he’s coached here in the past and he’s a Dolphin through and through and a coach that we have tremendous respect for. He preaches respect for the game and taking care of business when we’re called on and that’s what we do.

What do you guys have to do to finish the season strong?

This weekend’s big because it’s the Jacksonville city rivalry with UNF and JU. It’s always exciting playing our crosstown rival. UNF is right behind us, they’re nipping on our heels. It’s always a challenge playing on the road, but we’re ready to take it on. We’re really in the driver’s seat of our own destiny at this point, so as long as we continue to take care of business, we should be fine.

What’s your walkup song and how did you pick it?

My walkup song is “Your Love” by The Outfield. I kind of copied one of my favorite players from MLB. It’s Charlie Blackmon’s walkup song. He actually has a big influence on my game. I watch him a lot and I try to take things away from his game. He’s got the beard, too, I’ve got the beard going on. So I said why not. And I just rolled with it and it’s been working for me.

Who is the toughest pitcher you’ve faced?

That’s a tough one. For me, it would have to be one of our own pitchers in scrimmages, to be honest with you. I can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head except Mike Baumann. Just playing against ourselves, he’s got that presence. He’s dominant and other teams just fear him. It is tough to face a guy who knows you so well, so I’d have to say him.

What is your go-to order at Chipotle?

I definitely get a double steak bowl, with brown rice, pinto beans, I have to get the onions and peppers, with the mild salsa, I don’t like anything too spicy, and a lot of sour cream, a lot of guac, a lot of cheese and a little lettuce thrown in there.

— Teddy Cahill

Top 25 Series (Where to Watch)
Washington State at (1) Oregon State (Pac-12 Networks)
Florida State at (2) Louisville (ESPN3)
Duke at (3) North Carolina (ESPN3)
Kansas at (4) Texas Tech (Thursday and Saturday on Fox Sports Southwest, Friday on Fox College Sports)
(8) Kentucky at (5) Florida (Thursday on ESPN, Friday on SEC Network, Saturday on ESPN3)
(6) Texas Christian at California (Friday and Saturday on Pac-12 Networks)
Hawaii at (7) Long Beach State
Washington at (9) Stanford (Streamed on gostanford.com)
(10) Louisiana State at (11) Mississippi State (Thursday on SEC Network, Friday on ESPN3, Saturday on ESPNU)
(12) Virginia at Georgia Tech (ESPN3)
(13) Cal State Fullerton at Cal State Northridge
(14) Clemson at North Carolina State (ESPN3)
Pittsburgh at (15) Wake Forest (ESPN3)
(16) Arkansas at (23) Texas A&M (Thursday and Friday on ESPN3, Saturday on SEC Network)
(17) Arizona at Arizona State (Pac-12 Networks)
(18) Southern Mississippi at Texas-San Antonio
(19) Michigan at/vs. Michigan State (Thursday and Friday on Big Ten Plus, Saturday on Big Ten Network)
Oklahoma State vs. (20) Oklahoma (Thursday on Fox College Spots, Friday and Saturday on Fox Sports Oklahoma)
Villanova at (21) St. John’s (Thursday and Friday on ESPN3, Saturday on Big East Digital Network)
(22) Nebraska at Penn State (Streamed on gopsunow.com)
Mississippi at (24) Auburn (ESPN3)
(25) South Florida at Central Florida (Thursday and Friday on ucfknights.tv, Saturday on CBS Sports Network)

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