College World Series: Another all-SEC finals? Well, we're halfway there already ...
While college football and college basketball remain the revenue kings of the SEC, the truth is that the league’s best sport is probably baseball. Throughout the College Football Playoff or basketball’s NCAA Tournament, the haters of the SEC have a common refrain.
The SEC isn’t really great at football — it’s just Bama and Georgia (or LSU, when they were on top, or Florida when they were on top, etc.), and then a bunch of other teams. Basketball is just Kentucky and Arkansas or Auburn or Florida or whomever.
Overblown? Perhaps. But there is some fire within the smoke behind those theories.
Only 3 SEC teams have made the CFP, which is nearing a decade of existence. SEC men’s basketball has only a handful of repeating Final Four teams: Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida, LSU, and then one appearance each for Auburn, Mississippi State, Georgia and South Carolina.
But baseball — while its history is pretty similar — is becoming noticeably different. The SEC’s dominance is most apparent on the baseball diamond. Yes, LSU’s 6 national titles are still the class of the SEC, and probably will be for a while. But in the past 15 years, South Carolina won a pair of CWS titles, Vandy won a pair, and Florida and now Mississippi State have claimed titles (in addition to Georgia winning the league’s first CWS back in 1990).
And now, in 2022, 3 of the 4 teams in the College World Series semifinals are SEC teams — and the kicker is that they’re all doing as much or more than they’ve ever done. It’s not the same SEC squads that were dominating a generation ago … which has to be good for the overall health of the league.
Dave Van Horn’s Arkansas Razorbacks, after outlasting Auburn on Tuesday, punched their semifinal ticket. The Razorbacks are the team that most resembles MSU from a year ago — a consistently excellent team that hasn’t quite broken through in Omaha.
Arkansas has been to the CWS 7 times as a member of the SEC (and 4 more times before its SEC days). In 2018, the Hogs missed their CWS title on a dropped pop-up 1 out from winning the championship. They also finished 3rd in 2009 and 2012. But after those near-misses, the Hogs are very much in the hunt for their own championship glory.
On the other hand, Texas A&M would have loved some near misses. The Aggies have now won as many CWS games in 2022 (2) as they had in their program’s prior history. Under first-year head coach Jim Schlossnagle, the Aggies certainly don’t qualify as the SEC’s old guard. Their most recent College World Series win had been in 1993. But Schlossnagle, who had taken TCU to 5 CWS berths, including 4 in a row from 2014 to 2017, has helped his squad bounce back from a tough opening loss to Oklahoma with a pair of back-to-the-wall wins that set up a rematch with the Sooners in Wednesday’s semifinal. The Aggies need to beat OU Wednesday and Thursday to advance to the finals.
Ole Miss has just 5 total College World Series wins in program history, and had been to Omaha only once since 1972. The Rebels have stood by their man, 22nd-year coach Mike Bianco, despite a tenure full of fair-to-middling SEC seasons (Bianco has a career .544 winning percentage in the SEC). This season alone, some were speculating that Bianco might be fired after Ole Miss limped to a 14-16 SEC campaign, a No. 9 seed in the SEC Tournament in Hoover, and purportedly the last spot in the NCAA Tournament. But, of course, the Rebels have been the hottest team in the NCAA Tournament field, reeling off a 7-0 NCAA mark (by a combined margin of 64-17). They’ll face Arkansas in the semifinals, a team they already beat, needing just 1 win to reach the finals. Arkansas must beat the Rebels twice to reach the finals.
Ole Miss’ postseason run is living proof that college baseball is certainly a more unpredictable sport than football or basketball. But whatever happens Wednesday (or Thursday), the SEC is guaranteed at least 1 team in the CWS finals (Ole Miss or Arkansas) and is a couple of A&M wins from a second consecutive all-SEC CWS finals.
And the most impressive thing is that in a season when Tennessee, the sport’s undisputed top team, got upset in the Super Regionals, when long-time powers like LSU and Vanderbilt fell short of Omaha, and when the sport’s defending champion had a horrible, injury riddled-season that left them out of postseason play, the SEC is still there — with a different set of teams.