SEC EAST

Contenders

Florida (13-5): Consider this: Florida has gone 13-5 despite the fact that its talent laden lineup is hitting an SEC-worst .247. That’s not going to continue, and I’m not talking about the good record.

South Carolina (11-5): The Gamecocks are behind where they thought they’d be, but will be in the hunt because of their phenomenal weekend rotation. It’s combined for the following line: 6-2, 1.60 ERA, 67.1 IP, 42 H, 82 K, 24 BB.

Dark Horses

Vanderbilt (12-6): The Commodores have gotten off to a bit of a disappointing start, but have won six of their last seven. The record becomes encouraging when looking at slow starts by studs Jeren Kendall and Kyle Wright.

Missouri (16-1): I keep wondering when the bubble is going to burst for Mizzou. The Tigers hold the best record in the league at the start of conference play, but their opponents have a combined record of 48-85.

Kentucky (12-6): The Wildcats are off to a great start in their first season under coach Nick Mingione, winning 12 of their last 14 games. But, like Missouri, it’s largely come against sub-par competition.

Tennessee (12-2): We knew the Volunteers could hit, and they’ve done that, hitting .326 as a team through 14 games. What remains to be seen is if their pitching staff can keep up their 2.86 ERA once the competition gets stiffer.

Also Ran

Georgia (8-10): Georgia is the lone team in the SEC that enters conference play with a losing record. The Bulldogs have lost series against sub-.500 teams like Charleston and Ryder. It could be a long year in Athens.

SEC WEST

Contenders

LSU (13-5): What many considered the Tigers’ strengths going into the season — the top of the lineup and the rotation — have delivered through the non-conference slate. But there are some chinks in the armor, most notably in the bullpen.

Texas A&M (14-4): Outside of two mystifying blown leads against TCU and Baylor, the Aggies have been fantastic this season. They have six regulars hitting better than .310, and their rotation has been outstanding through 18 games.

Dark Horses

Ole Miss (12-5): Ole Miss is a bit of a wildcard. They are loaded with talented freshmen who are key contributors, but with that comes some inconsistency. Since the Rebels started 7-0 they’ve gone 5-5.

Mississippi State (12-6): Considering what first-year coach Andy Cannizaro had to replace, the Bulldogs have probably exceeded expectations. They’ve been hit and miss against some of the better teams they’ve faced, though, and their 4.55 team ERA is concerning.

Arkansas (14-4): The Razorbacks have the best record in the west going into conference play, and could be an intimidating bunch to play. They lead the SEC and rank No. 8 nationally in home runs (25).

Also Ran

Auburn (14-5): Auburn has one of the better win-loss records in the league, but have just one win in three tries against teams with a winning record. I’m not optimistic they can keep up the winning ways against league competition.

Alabama (10-7): Alabama is three games above .500 against what has been a pretty soft non-conference schedule. Their opponents have gone a combined 57-75 this season. That said, the Tide haven’t played poorly in their losses.

TRENDING NOW

Strikeouts: As a whole, SEC pitching staffs have struck out 2,371 batters in 2,210.1 non-conference innings. That’s an impressive average of 9.7 per nine innings league wide. The best swing and miss group in the league is Ole Miss, who is racking up nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings. The Rebels were one of the worst strikeout teams in the SEC last season.

Surprise, surprise: Arguably the three most surprising teams in the league currently are Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee — who, coincidentally, the Advocate picked as the bottom three teams in the SEC east at the start of the year. It’s not hard to see why the turnaround has been so dramatic, at least early in the year: They’re the top three hitting teams in the league.

Running wild: Mississippi State, under the direction of former college baseball stolen base artist Andy Cannizaro, is on pace to steal about 125 bags in the regular season alone — which would be 30 more than his SEC-leading LSU team accounted for in 66 games last year. His Bulldogs aren’t alone in their thieving ways: Five SEC teams are on pace for more than 80 steals in the regular season.

BREAKOUT PLAYERS

Brent Rooker, OF, Mississippi State: Rooker is putting together the type of season that might merit some Golden Spikes consideration if he can keep it up. The junior outfielder enters SEC play as the league’s No. 3 hitter (.431), and he leads the conference in slugging (.831), RBI (27), doubles (11), total bases (54) and stolen bases (12).

Brett Moberg, 2B, Tennessee: Moberg has come out of nowhere to be an offensive force for the Volunteers. After missing most of the 2016 season — what was supposed to be his senior season — with a knee injury, the second baseman has dominated opposing pitching. Entering league play, he is hitting an SEC-best .475 to go along with five home runs and 19 runs scored.

Braden Shewmake, INF, Texas A&M: The freshman infielder has been a revelation for the Aggies, ranking among the league leaders in batting average (.415), doubles (10) and RBI (23). He’s played in 18 career games and has tallied multiple hits in 13 of them. He’s not just a bat, either. Shewmake has played three positions on the Aggies infield (shortstop, second base and third base) and has made just one error in 86 chances.

Konnor Pilkington, SP, Mississippi State: Pilkington wasn’t exactly unheard of before the season started — he was one of the Advocate’s players to watch — but he’s certainly opened some eyes with his ability as Mississippi State’s Friday night starter. The southpaw has struck out 33 batters in 26 innings this season, 13 of which came in a brilliant 7.2 inning outing last week against South Alabama. The Bulldogs have a star in the making toeing the rubber for them every Friday.

Drake Fellows, SP, Vanderbilt: The 6-foot-5 freshman right-hander has burst onto the scene as the Commodores best pitcher this season, going 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA and 27 strikeouts in his first four starts. He was recently named the SEC Freshman of the Week after allowing just two hits and an unearned run in eight innings against Saint Mary’s. Fellows is the first Vanderbilt freshman to start the season in the weekend rotation since eventual All-American Tyler Beede in 2012.

LSU numbers to know

.400 — It’s still very early, but considering his bona fides, it’s worth keeping an eye on Cole Freeman’s batting average as the season goes on. Fresh off a banner summer in which he led the prospect rich Cape Cod League in hitting, Freeman is hitting .444 through 18 games. Only four players in LSU history have ever topped .400 for a single season.

20 — Greg Deichmann has already mashed an SEC-best seven home runs in the first 18 games of the season, putting him on pace to become the first LSU player to hit 20 home runs in a single season since Ryan Schimpf in 2009. Though the competition is going to get stiffer, the weather should start to become more conducive to home run hitting fairly soon.

.980 — That’s the best fielding percentage in LSU history, achieved in back-to-back years by the 2012 and 2013 teams. It might be a number LSU can surpass this season. Though Wednesday’s four-error game dropped the Tigers below .980 for the first time this season, they have otherwise played outstanding defense this season. That could end up being the key in a tightly contested series down the road.

SEC PLAYERS IN BASEBALL AMERICA TOP 100 COLLEGE PROSPECTS

Alex Faedo, SP, Florida (1), Jeren Kendall, OF, Vanderbilt (2), Kyle Wright, SP, Vanderbilt (5), Alex Lange, SP, LSU (7), Tanner Houck, SP, Missouri (8), Wil Crowe, SP, South Carolina (11), J.J. Schwarz, C, Florida (15), Clarke Schmidt, SP, South Carolina (17), Dalton Guthrie, SS, Florida (18), Corbin Martin, RP, Texas A&M (23), Mike Rivera, C, Florida (28), Jake Mangum, OF, Mississippi State (29), Evan White, OF/1B, Kentucky (33), Tyler Johnson, RP, South Carolina (35), Keegan Thompson, SP, Auburn (45), Josh Anthony, 3B, Auburn (61), Zach Warren, SP, Tennessee (64), Zach Pop, RP, Kentucky (74), Brigham Hill, SP, Texas A&M (75), Michael Papierski, C, LSU (79), Will Toffey, 3B, Vanderbilt (80), Greg Deichmann, OF/1B, LSU (83), Alex Destino, OF, South Carolina (86), Deacon Liput, 2B, Florida (90), Kyle Serrano, RP, Tennessee (93), Bryce Montes de Oca, SP, Missouri (100)

*Note: these are draft-eligible players in 2017 and this list was constructed before the start of the 2017 season.

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.