If LSU wins a Southeastern Conference championship in 2017, it’s going to be because it earned it.
At the halfway point in their conference schedule, the Tigers have five weekends remaining. Four of those will be against teams that either have a similar record to LSU’s 9-6 mark or are above the Tigers in the SEC standings.
“Everything is kind of right there for the taking. ... This is why you come to LSU,” junior outfielder Greg Deichmann said. "This is why you come play in the SEC; for this challenge against these good teams in the back half, seeing what you’re made of."
It starts this weekend in Lexington, Kentucky, against a Wildcats team that has epitomized the upside down nature of the SEC this season.
The coaches' preseason poll tabbed the Wildcats to finish in a tie with Georgia for fourth place in the Eastern Division in their first season under new coach Nick Mingione. At the halfway point, Kentucky has the best record in the East and owns the league’s highest RPI.
That same poll picked Mississippi State (fourth), Arkansas (fifth) and Auburn (sixth) to finish in the bottom of the West, but all of them are ahead of LSU in the standings, and two of them are still on LSU’s schedule with five weeks to go.
And that, LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, “is what you want: You want to play those teams so that you can kind of control your own destiny to some degree.”
Heading into this weekend’s games, only four teams were more than three games out of first place in their division, and eight SEC teams are above .500 in conference play.
That thin margin between the top and the middle of the pack heightens the intensity of an already competitive league, senior infielder Cole Freeman said.
“It’s not like somebody has pulled away and showed they’re this really elite team,” Freeman said. “Everyone is pretty much a game or two within each other. Everybody who is seeing us on the schedule is saying the same thing.
“It’s really even this year, and I think that makes the competition that much more fun. Each weekend is really exciting. You’ve got to bring it, because you have one bad weekend, take one weekend off and that could be your season.”
Freeman said it’s a much better feeling to know the team’s fate is directly tied to how well it plays, not hoping for another team to lose in order for LSU to make up ground.
This comes with a caveat, though.
“That also means we’re playing much better teams,” Freeman said.
Though the Tigers have a trip to last-place Alabama on the docket, their other four remaining opponents — Kentucky, South Carolina, Auburn and Mississippi State — went 38-22 against conference opponents in the first half of the SEC schedule.
LSU has some work to do against some solid teams. The general rule of thumb is that it takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 wins in conference play to compete for a conference title.
The past decade has only seen three divisional champions with fewer than 19 wins, and only one team — LSU in 2012 — has won the conference outright with less than 20 wins in that same span.
This means LSU likely needs to go 10-5 or 11-4 down the stretch to truly give itself a good shot at a league title, illustrating the importance of each game in a tight league race.
Mainieri says he keeps thinking about the game his team lost to Texas A&M, when it blew a three-run ninth-inning lead to lose the series. If LSU hung on and added a win in that situation, it would be 10-5 and one game behind an Arkansas team it took two of three from on the road.
Then Mainieri thinks about the two unlikely late-inning rallies against Arkansas and Florida. All that matters is what happens from this point on.
“You can’t keep looking back,” Mainieri said. “We’re 9-6. We’ve got 15 to go.”