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Tennessee clinched the Southeastern Conference regular season title a year ago with a week to spare before finishing 49-7 and 25-5 – 10 games ahead of the next team.
The Vols are 38-18 and 16-14 now and a mere No. 7 seed in the 2023 SEC Tournament that opens Tuesday at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Alabama. Tennessee is scheduled to play No. 10 seed Texas A&M (32-23, 14-16) at 2 p.m. on the SEC Network, which will televise all games through Saturday. The championship game will be at 3 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2.
Tennessee Recovers From Rough Start
A&M won the West last year at 35-17 and 19-11 and advanced at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. But now the Aggies are below .500 in the SEC? Tennessee was supposed to be in the CWS last year as it was No. 1 through most of the season, but it fell to upstart Notre Dame in the Super Regional.
But the Vols are hot again, having won 11 of their last 15 SEC games.
“What we have with this group here is a lot of lessons learned, a lot of momentum maybe kind of coming together and kind of marching forward,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said after taking two of three at South Carolina over the weekend. That was the Vols’ first road SEC series win of the season. They swept four road SEC series last year.
“The question you’ve got to have over your head is, ‘Have we played our best ball yet?’ And I don’t think the answer would necessarily be yes,” Vitello said.
No. 11 seed Georgia (29-26, 11-19) was scheduled to open the SEC Tournament at 10:30 a.m. against No. 6 seed South Carolina (38-17, 16-13). Georgia finished tied in the East a year ago at 35-20 and 15-15, while South Carolina struggled to a 27-27 and 13-17 finish.
Defending National Champion Ole Miss Already Done
Ole Miss – the 2022 national champions – did not qualify for this 12-team tournament. It finished 25-29 overall and last in the SEC at 6-24 for the Rebels’ worst season since a 22-31 and 6-24 mark in 1997. Mississippi State (27-26, 9-21) also did not qualify for the second straight year after winning the national championship in 2021.
Of course, Ole Miss was not looking great at this time last year, either. The Rebels were the No. 9 seed in this tournament at 32-21 and 14-16. Then they lost on opening day when the format is single elimination and went home.
What is up with this league? The second you’re enjoying the penthouse, look out – you’re in the latrine. And vice versa.
“There is not one SEC team that we played this season that could not be a regional champion,” LSU coach Jay Johnson said. “I really believe that.”
Second Division SEC Teams Ranked Nationally
Johnson strikes a good point. Four teams that struggled to finish over .500 in the league who are playing today without byes are ranked – No. 13 Tennessee (16-14), No. 19 Auburn 17-13), No. 24 Alabama (16-14) and No. 25 Kentucky (16-14).
LSU, which was No. 1 all season until just two weeks ago and is now No. 5, plays on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. against the South Carolina-Georgia winner. The Tigers lost back-to-back series to start this month to teams who were near the bottom of the league at the time – Auburn and Mississippi State.
“I do know the ninth place team in the league, who should or should not have been in the NCAA Tournament last year, won a national title,” Johnson said of Ole Miss. “And they won the national title because they’re battle tested, and they played well at the right time. And they’re a very deserving national champion.”
LSU Experiencing Late-Season Swoon
LSU, on the other hand, has not been playing well at the right time, like Tennessee is now. The Tigers went 4-5 to close the SEC season at 42-13 and 19-10, blowing a chance to win their first overall SEC regular season title since 2017 as well as the West. Florida won the East at 20-10, while Arkansas won the West at 20-10.
The Tigers finished third in the West last year at 37-18 and 17-13 in Johnson’s first season, but there was a late-season fold. Ole Miss swept three in LSU’s last home series. Then the Tigers lost two straight in the SEC Tournament after one win and lost two straight in the NCAA Regional after winning the first two. That added up to a 3-4 postseason.
“What you want to have is confidence in knowing that you’ve played well enough to win tight games,” Johnson said. “Knowing that, there’s nowhere to go but forward.”
Unless, Johnson and pitching coach Wes Johnson do not solve their pitching issues after ace Paul Skenes (10-1, 1.76 ERA).
SEC Tournament Is Another Test
Jay Johnson has similar pressure on him to get to Omaha and advance as Vitello had last year. Johnson clearly has the two best players in the SEC, if not the country in Skenes and center fielder Dylan Crews. The two juniors could each go in the top five of the Major League Baseball Draft this summer, if not higher. And they took the SEC pitcher and player of the year awards on Monday, respectively.
Skenes leads the nation in strikeouts with 164 and in strikeouts per nine innings with 17.03. And Crews is third in on-base average at .573 and seventh in batting average at .423. Crews became the first SEC player in history to win the player of the year award in consecutive seasons.
So, how can you not get to Omaha with those two? And don’t forget transfer Tommy White, who is second in the nation in RBis with 89.
“We’ve been tested,” Johnson said. “Everybody in this league has been tested.”
Final exams, though, are coming soon. And some tests this week in Hoover could have an impact on whether the top SEC teams get a top eight national seed for the home field advantage in the NCAA Tournament rounds that begin next week.
SEC Tournament Schedule
Here is the SEC Tournament schedule with all games televised by the SEC Network until the title game Sunday on ESPN2:
TUESDAY (Single Elimination)
No. 6 seed South Carolina vs. No. 11 Georgia, 10:30 a.m.
No. 7 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Texas A&M, approximately 2 p.m.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Alabama, 5:30 p.m.
No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 12 Missouri, approximately 9 p.m.
No. 3 LSU vs. South Carolina-Georgia winner, 10:30 a.m.
No. 2 Arkansas vs. Tennessee-Texas A&M winner, approximately 2 p.m.
No. 1 Florida vs. Kentucky-Alabama winner, 5:30 p.m.
No. 4 Vanderbilt vs. Auburn-Missouri winner, approximately 9 p.m.
Loser Game 5 vs. Loser Game 6, 10:30 a.m.
Loser Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8, approximately 2 p.m.
Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6, 5:30 p.m.
Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 8, approximately 8 p.m.
Winner Game 9 vs. Loser Game 11, 4 p.m.
Winner Game 10 vs. Loser Game 12, approximately 7:30 p.m.
Winner Game 13 vs. Winner Game 11, 1 p.m.
Winner Game 14 vs. Winner Game 12, approximately 4:30 p.m.
Championship Game, 3 p.m., ESPN2.