LSU softball coach Beth Torina believes the Southeastern Conference is stronger this year than ever before.
That’s saying something.
Few leagues dominated college softball for one season the way the SEC did in 2017.
Of 13 teams, all 13 reached an NCAA regional — the most in history.
Eight of those teams were national seeds and just as many reached super regionals. Another three advanced to the Women’s College World Series where Florida fell in the finals.
Torina’s prediction could be accurate. There is room, however small, for improvement.
But for the rest of the country’s sake, the SEC is due for an off season.
Just don’t expect teams to give up the throne without a fight.
On the eve of conference play, the SEC has 10 teams in the coaches poll, including five in the top 10. Two more programs received votes.
Three-time defending regular-season champion, Florida, remains at the top of the list as the No. 2 team in the country. LSU — who opens SEC play against No. 10 Auburn on Friday — is a few spots below at No. 8.
Maybe Torina’s bold claim is not so bold after all.
“We can still move people up,” Torina said. “(LSU) can be in the national championship game like baseball. (The SEC) can have both teams in the national championship game.”
The league climbed over the past decade, picking up speed as programs built up infrastructure to lure the nation’s top talent.
When Alabama coach Patrick Murphy first took over the Tide 21 years ago, when the league was in its infancy, teams were lucky to have basic equipment and facility needs met.
As a result, the West Coast, and more specifically the Pac 10 (now Pac 12), had a stranglehold on the sport, claiming 26 of the first 30 national champions. It wasn’t until Tennessee in 2007, an SEC team, made the finals.
But over the last decade, programs built new stadiums or made major renovations to old ones.
Then with the introduction of the SEC Network in 2014, the league was lifted into new heights as talent flooded into the region to play on TV.
Since 2011, the SEC has been represented in the final series by at least one team every year.
Alabama brought the first national championship to the SEC in 2012 in the first final not to feature a Pac 10/12 program since 1986. Florida later won back-to-back championships, including an all-SEC final against Alabama in 2014.
“I think the ADs realized they had a sport they could win, particularly with weather and then obviously the schools and the football tradition. It’s just a perfect storm for a sport,” Murphy said. “The South has gotten better in terms of summer ball and high school ball. Every state around us improved tremendously since I started. Now you can get a kid from the South and compete against anybody.”
It’s to a point where several coaches believe its harder to win a SEC title than it is a national championship.
That isn’t big talk.
Florida hasn’t won a tournament crown since 2013.
LSU, with its three straight trips to the WCWS, hasn’t won the SEC tournament or finished higher than fourth in the regular season since Torina took over in 2012.
Just last season, Ole Miss won the conference tournament as the No. 8 seed after finishing the regular season with a losing record against SEC opponents.
“You’re battle tested by the time you get to the SEC tournament,” Ole Miss coach Mike Smith said. “Once you get into postseason, we’ve played as tough a schedule as anybody in the country. Playing a regional and even a super regional is really not as stressful as playing in the SEC for eight weeks.”