'The Usual Suspects' In College Baseball Are Unusually Suspect This Year
DALLAS – Fans unfortunately could see this coming three weeks into the 2023 Southeastern Conference baseball race.
Defending NCAA champions Mississippi State (2021) and Ole Miss (2022) started the SEC race with combined 0-14 marks in league activity. Certainly, the competition for the first three conference series for both teams represented perennial NCAA powers Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky.
Now in mid-May, Ole Miss enters its final weekend troika with Alabama at 6-21 in the circuit, already mathematically eliminated from the SEC tourney in Hoover, AL, May 23-28. And, Mississippi State started its SEC finale series at 8-19, needing a probable sweep of Texas A&M, plus help from opponents facing the 10-17 SEC hopefuls Georgia and Missouri in weekend action. Tiebreakers, many of which are still in flux themselves, will have to be calculated if the Nos. 11-13 teams in the SEC non-divisional race end up at 10-20 or 11-19 in loop competition without any head-to-head results. Suddenly, 12th place never seemed so important before! Even those who manage to slip in to the lower SECT seeds are still looking at having to go deep in, if not outright win, the conference tournament for any realistic consideration.
It probably speaks of the annual powerhouse strength of the SEC that the Bulldogs and Rebels find themselves in this precarious situation, or outright eliminated already.
In fact, there are 13 teams in this loop with NCAA Rating Percentage Indices of 43 or higher (MSU is at 43; Ole Miss stands at No. 69), and the conference is looking at a crop of 9-10 (maybe more) bids to the NCAA tourney, which begins June 2 with 16, four-team regionals. That has been the case since the last NCAA meet expansion to 64 teams in 1999. Some now even advocate a 68-team field similar to Division 1 basketball, with two play-in contests, if not an 80-team field with imbalanced regionals, like back in the days when the field held half that many.
At any rate, SEC teams have gone 277-64 against outside opposition for the nation’s top non-conference winning rate at .811, and all 14 teams have appeared in one of the Division I Top 25/30 national polls since pre-2023.
So where does this leave the MSU and Ole Miss programs?
Bulldog faithful can take hope in the 2-1 games series win at LSU, which has been ranked No. 1 nationally most of the campaign, including a 14-13 comeback win in 10 innings last Sunday after trailing 13-4 in the fifth frame. And, the Bulldogs stayed alive in the “Race for Hoover” (the SEC tournament) at least one more day by walking off Texas A&M in the bottom of the 9th Thursday night, while LSU helped them out by beating Georgia in extra innings. Assistance to State from Auburn in the form of sweeping Missouri will have to wait another day, due to a rainout on the Plains in Alabama.
Ole Miss can look back at a series victory against Georgia and individual victories over State, Arkansas, and LSU as building blocks from a young ’23 edition.
Both schools realize that rebuilding their pitching staffs (the Bulldogs were allowing a school-record 6-plus walks per nine innings throughout the year; Ole Miss has had key injuries similar to MSU and major bullpen issues) is a priority along with immediate-help transfers and holding 2024 signees through offers from the MLB Draft in July.
In the interim, there are 12 other schools re-tooling standout programs and competing nationally with “COVID” seniors (players who gained a fifth year of full eligibility thanks to the pandemic) and NCAA transfer portal members playing key roles and hoping to clinch that automatic SEC bid for the NCAA tourney by conference championship day May 28. The always-interesting NCAA Selection Show with the 34 at-large choices and 30 automatic conference berths will be televised live on Monday, May 29 (Memorial Day), via ESPN2 at 11 a.m. (CDT).
And, there’s another perennial power that won’t make its conference tournament, Florida State in the ACC, much less add to its record number of NCAA appearances, as the Seminoles had their own adjustment issues under first year coach Link Jarrett and endured their first losing record in 76 seasons. It's also the first time FSU has failed to make the ACC baseball tournament since the Seminoles joined that conference in 1992, and that ends an NCAA-record 45-season trek to the NCAAs. The Seminoles started baseball in 1948 (one year after the MCWS began), after FSU was Florida State College for Women 1905-47.
Likewise, fellow ACC member Louisville, a regular NCAA and Omaha fixture itself, is likely relegated to finishing its season this weekend as well. And, North Carolina State, which came tantalizingly close at Omaha in 2021 only to literally run into the COVID bug, is also dealing with not making the NCAA field since that bittersweet run two years ago.
And besides the SEC and ACC stalwarts, here are some other teams to watch on bid day and into the postseason:
-DBU – started the weekend at 40-12 overall and having clinched the Conference USA title in its first year after coming over from the Missouri Valley Conference. Baseball is the Patriots only DI sport.
-Wake Forest – one of as many as 8-9 Atlantic Coast Conference members expected to be in the Big Baseball Dance. The Deacons opened the year at 43-8 and are No. 1 nationally for the first time in school history.
-Coastal Carolina – the 2016 NCAA champs (first-ever NCAAA Division I team champ in any sport for the Big South Conference before moving to the Sun Belt) may be 34-17 overall through 51 games but carry a No. 9 RPI registry into their final conference series.
-Indiana State – the Sycamores have a solid tradition of winning baseball and contention for the Missouri Valley Conference title as they lead the MVC at 21-3 prior to a series at always-tough Missouri State. ISU appears to have filled the Valley’s void from the sudden departure of DBU and can make some ’23 noise.
-Alabama State – yes, the Hornets are 37-15 as they tackle their concluding Southwestern Athletic Conference series and have been getting Top 25/30 votes in multiple major polls. ASU has some of the best talent since College Baseball/ABCA Hall of Fame coach Roger Cador built a dynasty at Southern U. in the SWAC in the late 1980s-2000s and features a dominating pitching staff.
-West Virginia – The 39-13 (as of May 17) Mountaineers need one win in a three-game set at Texas to capture their first Big 12 Conference baseball crown since joining the circuit in 2011-12. Historians are calling this squad the best in school history, along with the 1985 NCAA-contending Mountaineers nine.
It only gets more fun from this point, baseball fans. If your team is one of those enduring a down year, it’s easy to hook on to another team in this great sport for the rest of the season and cheer them on!
Trivia Questions taken from the COLLEGE BASEBALL CENTRAL LIBRARY (answers below):
Today’s Bo’s Baseball Bites talks about teams seeking to make the NCAA baseball tournament. There are 15 teams that have made the tournament 35 times or more over the years, all of them with an appearance in the last 10 years. Who has gone the longest of them since appearing?
With Mississippi State’s national championship in 2021 taking it off the list of teams with 35 or more tournament appearances without an NC, four teams now remain. Many people know Florida State (58 appearances, no title) is first on the list, but who are the other three?
This team was a dominant force in college baseball during the 50s and 60s, making six MCWS appearances 1952-63 and earning runner-up once, but has only made two Division 1 tournament appearances since 1967. Who are they?
Bo Carter is the Executive Director of the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) and is a long time professional in sports media and information. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and has plied his trade in the Southeastern Conference, the Southwest Conference, and the Big 12 Conference. In addition to his NCBWA duties, he also serves as a consultant and columnist for the National Football Foundation. Follow the NCBWA, which produces ranking polls for D1, D2, and D3, as well as naming All America teams at both the D1 and D2 levels and the Dick Howser Trophy (presented each year in Omaha at the Men’s College World Series) at @NCBWA. And, if you’re a college baseball fan, you don’t have to be media to be a member, check them out at ncbwa.com and join today!
1. Southern California, last appeared in 2015
2. Clemson (38), St. John’s (37), and Texas A&M (35)
3. Western Michigan, 1955 runner-up, in the tournament 1989 and 2016