TEAM TO BEAT: Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are the best story in the conference, going from a last-place finish in 2015 to winning the title on the final day of the regular season. State is powered by ace Dakota Hudson and its .313 team batting average.
DARK HORSE: Alabama
Pitching wins baseball tournaments, and the Crimson Tide has plenty of it. Its rotation of Geoffrey Bramblett, Jake Walters and Nick Eicholtz all have sub-3 ERAs. Add to that 11-save closer Thomas Burrows with his 0.72 ERA, and Alabama has the arms to make a deep run.
MOST TO GAIN: Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and LSU
All three head to Hoover believing they’ve secured a regional host site, but all three face a single-elimination game Tuesday. Winning that and making a deep run could solidify each team’s résumé in a season when the SEC could grab as many as seven host sites.
MOST TO LOSE: Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and LSU
That’s not a typo. The SEC is so top-heavy that the top four seeds (Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Florida) have all but assured themselves national seeds. For these three, though, losing the single-elimination game might put them on the cutting-room floor for a regional host site.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR LSU
1. How will the Tigers handle a longer road to the title?
For the first time since the field expanded to 12 teams, LSU plays a single-elimination game as the No. 5 seed. Should the Tigers beat Tennessee, they would need four straight wins for Paul Mainieri’s sixth tournament title. A loss after Tuesday could further complicate the path.
2. Can Beau Jordan and Jordan Romero dump their funks?
At one time or another, these were LSU’s most potent power threats. Since a three-hit game against Tennessee on May 14, Romero is 0-for-15. Jordan has slid considerably in the lineup while mired in a 2-for-23 slump.
3. Will a third starter separate himself?
Yes, this is the annual question. The Tigers enter Hoover with three pitchers — John Valek III, Caleb Gilbert and Riley Smith — who have proved effective in SEC starting roles. All three will be relied upon and needed if LSU intends to make a deep run.
THE BIG BATS
Texas A&M 3B Boomer White
A TCU transfer who sat out last season, White hit .467 and slugged .647 in 30 SEC games, steadying the Aggies’ veteran lineup. Sixteen of his 21 extra-base hits came in conference play.
Mississippi State CF Jake Mangum
An electric true freshman who didn’t crack the Mississippi State lineup until early April, Mangum hit .437 with 55 hits in conference play. His .427 average is more than 10 points higher than any other SEC player’s.
South Carolina RF Gene Cone
Cone, the only Carolina hitter over .300 in conference play, has buoyed an otherwise-scuffling Gamecocks offense. He’s at an even .400 in 28 SEC games with 13 extra-base hits and 26 walks.
THE POWER ARMS
Vanderbilt RHP Kyle Wright
The Commodores’ second starter behind Friday night ace Jordan Sheffield, Wright is the only SEC pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA (1.76 through 14 starts), and teams are hitting just .214 against him.
Florida RHP Logan Shore
Before rain halted his final start against LSU — which Florida lost when the game resumed two days later — the Gators had won each of Shore’s previous 18 starts. The command-centric, four-pitch righty is 10-0 with three complete games and 76 strikeouts in 85 innings.
South Carolina RHP Braden Webb
The true freshman leads the conference with 109 strikeouts, 88 of which came in conference play. His command can waver at times, as evidenced by his 42 walks, but only 14 of his 65 hits allowed have gone for extra bases.