By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- Now, the fun really begins.
With almost exactly a month of the 2012 season in the rear view mirror, conference play is set to begin this Friday in the Southeastern Conference. Teams will now face off against each other, as they begin the long trek to the league tournament in Hoover at the end of May.
Thirty conference games are now all that stand in the way of a championship trophy and a chance to capture the coveted top seed in "new look" SEC Tournament. For those that don't remember, 2012's edition of the league end affair includes 10 teams, instead of the normal eight, leaving two more spots up for grabs.
This is historic for many reasons (by definition because it is the first time), but it can also be the key in making more SEC teams eligible for a National Championship.
When deciding to move the tournament to a 10 team field, the hope was it would remove a popular argument for keeping SEC teams out of the NCAA field. Not making the SEC Tournament when it was an eight-team affair was viewed as a negative in the selection process, and this change hopes to address that issue. We can't know if this will actually make double-digit SEC entrants possible, but I along with many others feel this gives that idea a better chance than the prior alternative.
As I'll explain in the space below, eight might not be enough when looking at the entire SEC.
1. We Keep Playing, We Keep Winning...That's It
The Number: 0 losses
Playing off a phrase I introduced a few weeks back, the Kentucky Wildcats have continued to use that motto in their opening contests of the season. Kentucky has played 17 games this year, and they have won them all. If that sounds good, especially when discussing Wildcat history, it’s because it is. This is the third best start in the 100-plus years of the Kentucky program, trailing only 2007 and 2008 in terms of wins to open the season.
Kentucky is tops in the nation in wins, winning streak and is the lone undefeated team among programs that have played at least four Division I games (hat tip to UK SID Brent Ingram for that note).
Their last win also had a historic feel to it, as freshman AJ Reid re-wrote the school's record book. Not only did Reid pick up the win on the mound for UK, but also batted in the cleanup spot (4th) for the Wildcats as well. Not to be outdone as a hitter, Reid went 3-for-4 with his second home run of the year. That double effort was tremendous and marked the first time in Kentucky's modern era (1979-to the present) that a player started on the bump and hit fourth in the lineup.
Tip of that hat to young Reid.
The Wildcats winning ways are getting noticed nationally, as they currently sit in the 20th spot in the latest USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll. While Kentucky's schedule isn't full of past NCAA Tournament teams, UK's latest 9-1 win over 2011 participant Wright State is a move in the right direction. You can make the argument that because of the strength of the SEC as a whole, there really isn't a need to try and face a murderer's row in pre-conference play.
Think about it. Should Kentucky win games against its division opponents, they'd pick up victories against the current 1st (Florida), 3rd (South Carolina) and 19th teams (Georgia) in the country. So if the Wildcats continue to win, the strength of schedule will be there in the end. There is plenty of time to find out just how good UK is, but in the meantime let's give them credit for an amazing start.
It isn't often you do something in athletics that has only happened three times in the past 100 years.
2. SEC Baseball: Better Than SEC Football?
The Number: 8
When it comes to college football, the Southeastern Conference is widely regarded as the best in the country. The SEC has won six straight football National Champions, culminating in this year's BCS Title Game, where two conference teams actually competed against each other for the crystal ball. What often flies under the radar is just how good SEC baseball is, and when you compare the two you can actually make a case that baseball in this league is even better.
Though SEC football has the edge in National Championships (22 to 9), baseball has more than held its own. The league has won three straight titles (South Carolina twice and LSU), and if you figure the fact that SEC teams are regularly playing each other in the College World Series, it further explains just how good the competition is. South Carolina's title win last year came against conference rival Florida, with Vanderbilt finishing third in that very CWS. The SEC is often competing against itself for National Championships.
Let's look further.
Since 1990, 43 (!) SEC baseball teams have made it to the College World Series. Let's do some math (admittedly not my strongest subject). That's 22 years of CWS brackets to account for. In those 22 years, 176 teams have participated in the crown jewel of college baseball (eight teams a year). Divide the numbers, and you see that over 24 percent of all teams competing in the CWS the past 22 years have come from the SEC. Since 1990, no conference has played in or won more games at the College World Series than the SEC.
This year looks even stronger than usual. Eight league teams are currently ranked in the top 25 this week, including three of the top seven (Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas). In the history of SEC football, eight teams have appeared in the top 25 only once, that being the preseason poll of this past year (2011). The 2012 out of conference schedule confirms the league's strength, with the SEC's 12 teams combining for a 139-47 record (74 percent winning percentage).
The SEC is head and shoulders above the rest of the country in the sport of baseball. What is even more amazing is what you see on the horizon.
What do I mean? You know who ranks 8th in the country this week?
3. Good Pitching Beats Good Hitting
The Number: 1.55 ERA
If you follow baseball at all, you have heard the following cliche a million times.
"Good pitching beats good hitting."
While somewhat outdated, the ideology still rings true. Championships and general success as a baseball team usually revolve around the pitching circle, especially now with the new bat modifications implemented across college baseball last season. Pitchers have more of an advantage now than they've had in years, being able to attack both sides of the plate and not be terrified of pitching inside. College bats now mimic their professional wooden counterparts, changing the approach of coaches and pitchers across the league.
When I and Sean Cartell went to Georgia for one of our "Life in the SEC" trips, I got the chance to talk with Bulldog head coach Dave Perno on the trip. Our conversation quickly moved to hitting and pitching approaches, as I was excited to pick the brain of the top notch skipper in the SEC. When we talked about what you can do differently now with the new bats, he explained it allowed pitchers to be more aggressive. They could throw fastballs more, and feel comfortable challenging hitters instead of trying to "nibble" (pitching to the corners) like they had in the past.
What this means is that for teams who already focused on pitching, like two-time defending National Champion South Carolina, is that the tide was turning even further in their favor. 2012 backs that up to this point, with the Gamecocks essentially lapping the field in pitching categories in the SEC. USC, lead by one of the nation's top hurlers, Michael Roth, have a 1.58 ERA as a team through 136 innings pitched. No other conference squad is under 2.28, showing just how dominate Ray Tanner's arms have been.
ERA isn't the only statistic South Carolina is at the top of. They currently lead the SEC in opponents batting average (.163), hits allowed (79), runs allowed (28) and saves (9). Their starters are a combined 9-0 on the season. Again wins aren't everything, but those win totals are coming via outstanding performances. To explain further, only twice this year has South Carolina given up more than two runs in a game.
This formula isn't new for South Carolina or SEC fans. In last year's run, it was Roth's arm and Matt Price's resiliency that lead them to a National Championship. This weekend provides a stern test though, as the Gamecocks open SEC play with our #1 subject, the Kentucky Wildcats.
Let's see if the famous cliché holds up this weekend in Lexington. South Carolina is banking on it.