Stacked SEC gets A&M, Mizzou
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 12:03 a.m.
The Southeastern Conference has won three of the past four NCAA baseball championships, so the league didn't need to get any tougher.
It might have anyway.
The SEC adds Missouri and Texas A&M this season, two solid baseball programs that increase the depth of a league that has no shortage of candidates to go to the College World Series. The season opens Friday for all 14 teams, with conference play beginning in March.
For Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, the four weeks of non-conference play provide a short window to make sure his team is ready for such a competitive conference.
“This is the premier league in the country, and the truth is someone's got to lose,” Corbin said. “It's a war of attrition. You've got to keep yourself from falling over, keep your gloves up. Everyone's good. Everyone's recruiting good players. There's very little difference between the 14th team and the first team.”
The SEC's coaches picked Arkansas to win the league title. The Razorbacks have one of the league's top pitchers — and a potential No. 1 Major League Baseball draft pick — in right-hander Ryne Stanek. Their lineup will be anchored by Dominic Ficociello, who hit .290 with six homers and 41 RBIs last season.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn knows that during the 56-game regular season, there's bound to be some ups and downs.
“We're trying to calm ourselves down a little bit,” Van Horn said. “We're ranked so high, that expectations, you're supposed to stay there all year. It's going to be tough.”
Vanderbilt was picked to win the Eastern Division. The Commodores struggled early last season, but rallied late to make the NCAA tournament. Most of the team returns, including lineup mainstays Mike Yastrzemski, Conrad Gregor and Tony Kemp.
But as usual, most of the league's teams have a realistic shot of making it to Omaha. Mississippi State, South Carolina, LSU, Kentucky, Mississippi and Florida join the Razorbacks and Commodores in Baseball America's preseason top 25.
The Gamecocks won back-to-back national titles in 2010 and 2011 and lost in the national championship series to Arizona last season. New coach Chad Holbrook takes over for Ray Tanner, who left the baseball program to become the school's athletic director.
There are some new twists to the league this season. The addition of Texas A&M and Missouri is widely viewed as a positive, but there's now a greater possibility that scheduling quirks could affect the outcome of the conference race. The 30-game schedule features three games against 10 opponents, meaning each team will miss three others.
Mississippi State looks as though it has one of the toughest schedules, with a weekend series against all of the preseason favorites.
“It's true that because of the schedule, somebody is probably going to have a big advantage over somebody else,” Bulldogs coach John Cohen said. “But truthfully, nobody knows who is going to be the best or worst team in our league right now. I think we'll see how it works this year and then make changes if needed. Our league is evolving. That's why we've pioneered in every sport.”
The SEC's postseason tournament has also expanded to include 12 of the 14 teams. Mississippi coach Mike Bianco said part of the reason the coaches voted for a larger tournament was to help offset the potential inequities of the regular-season schedule.
“Our league is so good from top to bottom, we thought it made sense to include more teams in the conference tournament, especially when you consider the possible scheduling issues,” Bianco said.
Newcomer Texas A&M has a traditionally strong program that's been to the College World Series three times in the past 20 years, including in 2011. Missouri doesn't have quite the same pedigree, but has consistently made the NCAA tournament under 19th-year coach Tim Jamieson.
Jamieson said coming to the SEC means a big-time atmosphere every weekend on the road. He said that in the Big 12, there were a handful of programs that provided the same challenge, but it would be more consistent in the SEC.
“We've always had success against the better teams in the Big 12,” Jamieson said. “We usually play better in those types of environments. But it's hard to compare our team to the rest of the SEC because there are so many unknowns. All I know is I like our team. I think it's going to be competitive.”