Thanks in part to the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri to the conference lineup, the Southeastern Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships in late February were more competitive than they’ve been in recent years.

That was certainly true in the women’s division, where the team race went down to the last of 17 events. Arkansas held off LSU to claim the title by five points with Texas A&M and Florida also in the hunt.

On the men’s side, champion Arkansas had more breathing room at the end of the three-day meet although Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia and LSU made it competitive enough.

But with four extra events on the outdoor schedule, which could help some schools close the gap on the Arkansas teams, LSU coach Dennis Shaver is expecting more of the same at the SEC Outdoor Championships that got under way Thursday in Columbia, Mo.

“I’m looking forward to another SEC indoor meet,” Shaver said of the four-day outdoor competition. “We know that we’re going to have numerous teams with an opportunity to win on both the men’s and women’s side.

“I think the team races are going to be very close when we get into Sunday evening with both genders. But we’re again looking forward to the challenges this meet presents.”

Seven men’s teams are included in the top 20 of the latest U.S. Track and Field & Cross Country Coaches Association rankings, while five women’s teams are in the top 10.

Defending NCAA outdoor champion Florida, which sits atop the men’s rankings, is favored to take the title although second-ranked Texas A&M, No. 5 Arkansas and seventh-ranked Georgia are close behind. LSU is 12th, Ole Miss 16th and Alabama 20th.

Texas A&M, Florida and LSU hold the next three spots behind top-ranked Kansas in the women’s rankings, with Arkansas at No. 6 and Georgia 10th.

Shaver believes his Lady Tigers, who’ve won three SEC outdoor titles in a row and five of the past six, have enough firepower to extend the streak.

With the addition of the 4x100-meter relay and 400-meter hurdles, events that aren’t part of the indoor meet, LSU should pick up some valuable points to offset Arkansas’ depth in the distance events.

“I think our women have a chance to be one of those teams in the hunt Sunday if we can take care of business Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” Shaver said. “We have enough scoring opportunities and quality to have a shot at the title again.”

LSU has six leaders on the SEC’s descending order list, a group led by All-Americans Kimberlyn Duncan, Jasmin Stowers and Natoya Goule.

Duncan, who swept the titles in the 100 and 200 meters a year ago and also anchored the winning 4x100 relay, leads the league in the 100 with a time of 11.06 seconds and is third in the 200 at 22.82.

Duncan, who also won the 200 in 2011, could become the first woman in SEC history to win three straight outdoor titles at that distance even though she goes into the meet behind Georgia’s Shaunae Miller (22.41) and A&M’s Kamaria Brown (22.47). Brown is a Baton Rouge native.

Stowers will also go after a third 100 hurdles title in a row with the SEC’s top time at 12.88 seconds.

LSU’s other leaders are Goule in the 800 (2 minutes, 00.76 seconds), Laura Carleton in the 5,000 (15:44.41), Nikita Tracey in the 400 hurdles (56.51) and Karen Henning in the hammer (201 feet).

“Again, I think it’s going to be similar to the indoor meet,” Shaver said of his team’s chances. “Arkansas has the people to make a good run and you can never count Florida out. We may not have a good feel for who might win until Saturday night, so it’ll be exciting.”

LSU has only one SEC leader on the men’s side — Rodney Brown, who leads the discus with a best of 206-3 this spring. But Shaver said the Tigers have enough sprinters and the relays as well as some field events to pick up another top-five finish.

While Florida won the men’s indoor title, Shaver said Florida and Texas A&M both field stronger outdoor teams.

“I think Arkansas is probably the favorite, but not the same kind of favorite they were at the indoor meet,” he said. “They just don’t pick up as much outdoors as teams like Florida and Texas A&M and ourselves. That should make it a more interesting and a closer race.”

Tuttle scores point

LSU picked up its first point Thursday when Jeremy Tuttle was eighth in the hammer with a throw of 195 feet, 5 inches.

Meanwhile, Lady Tigers Kaitlyn Moreau and Therese Jernbeck were ninth and 11th, respectively, after the first four events of the seven-event heptathlon.

Moreau scored 3,101 points, a first-day personal best, while Jernbeck accumulated 2,997 points going into the final three events Friday.