The pot of gold at the end of the regular season rainbow. via prosportsetc.com
With a pair of wins over Georgia this weekend, the University of Kentucky kicked the old guard to the curb. The Wildcats ascended to the top spot in the SEC and rose to #1 in Baseball America's top 25 poll. While some may have thought that the 'Cats 17-0 run through the out-of-conference schedule was a fluke, they have backed up that hot start with series wins over South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia in SEC play.
Kentucky will have plenty of work to do if they want to keep that ranking. In the next five weeks, they'll have series showdowns with #21 Ole Miss, #11 Arkansas, #7 LSU, preseason top 10 team Vanderbilt, and #2 Florida. While their early season wins have rightfully earned them some attention, it's how they perform in this midseason gauntlet that will tell the rest of the SEC how legit these Wildcats really are.
The rest of the conference rankings were shaken up when the teams that formerly occupied the top two spots, Florida and Arkansas, each suffered series losses on the road. The formerly top-ranked Gators dropped two of three games to Ole Miss, while the Razorbacks endured a sweep at the hands of a resurgent LSU squad. These losses helped create a jumble amidst what had previously been a pretty cut-and-dry top three in the league.
Below them, Auburn and Mississippi's big wins helped push them ahead of a talented South Carolina team that is only 3-6 in conference play. While the Gamecocks have struggled against some of the league's best teams, they'll get a bit of a reprieve with Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Alabama all waiting for them over the next month. However, they'll have to hope that the Tigers start losing more games - Auburn is one of just two teams in the conference that has yet to lose a weekend series.
The SEC has begun its yearly tradition of cannibalizing itself, but that's only normal for a conference with elite teams at the top and the talent to send up to 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament. So far, only Kentucky has come out relatively unscathed, but they've still got plenty of work to do to hold on to that top spot. Meanwhile, other teams like South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt will look to claw out of the conference's depths and make a run back to relevancy. Three weeks into SEC play, we still don't have much more than a vague idea of how things will play out in college baseball's toughest conference.
The rankings are after the jump...
|The Old Guard (and Kentucky)|
|1)||3)||Kentucky||27-2 (7-2)||Beating a fading Georgia team isn't glamourous, but it's what the Wildcats needed to do to prove that they belong at the top. Now comes a hellacious month that will bring games against Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Louisville, and LSU. If Kentucky can run through that minefield without a series loss, they'll have the #1 overall seed in their sights.|
|2)||1)||Florida||24-5 (6-3)||Austin Maddox took a rare loss after allowing back-to-back singles in the ninth inning of Sunday's series-clinching defeat against Ole Miss. While the winning run was officially unearned, it was an uncharacteristic performance from the All-American. Could this be Maddox's "the Russian's cut!" moment from Rocky IV? Or will he continue to be an absolute machine on the mound (and at the plate) for Florida?|
|3)||6)||LSU||23-6 (6-3)||The Tigers finally broke through in 2012, exploding for 10 runs in their first game against the former #2 Arkansas and then winning a pair of pitcher's duels to secure the sweep. If we were grading baseball like we do NCAA basketball, then this past weekend would have constituted LSU's first "good win" of the season.|
|4)||2)||Arkansas||22-6 (5-4)||This was our first real look at Arkansas against a high level team (excepting a 7-3 win over Texas earlier in the season) and it was a disappointing one. After getting rocked in their first game against LSU, the Razorbacks ceded a pair of walk-off losses to a streaking Tiger team. While the team's pitching came up strong, questions remain about Arkansas's offense in 2012.|
|The Ever-Changing Middle Ground of the SEC|
|5)||5)||Auburn||17-11 (6-3)||The Tigers just keep winning, and when they do that it's tough to keep them away from the top tier. Auburn has series wins over Ole Miss, LSU, and Mississippi State so far in SEC play and have proven that they can hang with the league's better teams. Showdowns with Alabama and Vanderbilt in coming weeks will give them a chance to boost their record before facing the conference's elite.|
|6)||7)||Ole Miss||20-8 (5-4)||Sophomore Bobby Wahl limited an explosive Florida offense to just two hits in eight innings of his Friday start, and is 5-0 with an ERA of 1.91 so far this season. He's making a play for SEC Pitcher of the Year honors.|
|7)||4)||South Carolina||20-8 (3-6)||The Gamecocks had occupied the fourth slot in these rankings primarily since no other team had showed enough to overtake them. Some big wins across the league were enough to drop them despite a tight series win at Vanderbilt. South Carolina still has plenty of talent, but they've also got a lot of room for improvement.|
|The Jury is Still Out on These Teams.|
|8)||8)||Georgia||18-11 (4-5)||Series losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky have dropped UGA out of the national rankings. Will this be another year of disappointment for the Bulldogs, or will they right the ship this weekend with a big upset of Arkansas?|
|9)||11)||Tennessee||18-10 (5-4)||They've won five in a row against Alabama and Mississippi Valley State. Those two teams are a combined 16-42 overall.|
|10)||10)||Vanderbilt||12-17 (3-6)||Blew chances in three consecutive innings to score the series-clinching run against South Carolina, then folded when the Gamecocks took the lead in extra frames on Sunday. The 'Dores looked like they had turned a corner in their series win over Georgia, but it's clear that this team still has a ways to go.|
|11)||9)||Mississippi St.||18-11 (3-6)||Chris Stratton gives them a chance to win every Friday matchup they have this season. Unfortunately, they seem to be stuck in a rut once he steps off the mound. In the last two weeks, MSU has scored eight runs and allowed 2.5 in his starts against SEC teams. When he doesn't start? The Bulldogs score just 3.25 runs and allow 8.5 runs against.|
|Your Team is Bad, and You Should Feel Bad.|
|12)||12)||Alabama||10-19 (1-8)||Swept by Tennessee? That's a paddlin'.|