A series loss at Kentucky may have slowed the momentum, but the Vols remain number one in three different polls. Seven weeks atop the polls means the baseball program has now spent more time at number one than our men’s basketball program all-time. And Tennessee locked up the SEC East title over the weekend as well.
Much of Tennessee’s chase within itself goes back to the Todd Helton glory days of 1994-95. Those are the program’s last two league championships, and join 1993 as three straight SEC Tournament titles. The Vols are four games up on Arkansas with six to play, closing at home vs Georgia (13-11 SEC) and at Mississippi State (9-15). Arkansas is home vs Vanderbilt (12-12) and at Alabama (10-14). The Vols and Hogs do not meet in the regular season, which will surely make things spicy should we run into each other in the SEC Tournament. But Tennessee not only controls its own destiny to win the league, but can do so at home this weekend via sweep even if Arkansas does the same.
The more interesting history, at least for the next two weeks, is how far up the recent SEC leaderboard this team can climb.
Those 94-95 Vols were the last of an old scheduling model, which saw each SEC team play eight regular season series, then added the SEC Tournament results to the totals to determine the overall league champion (weird!). The Vols finished 24-5 in 1994 and 22-8 in 1995. Since 1996, SEC teams have played a 30-game, 10-series league schedule. The format held through the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M.
The Vols are currently 20-4 in league play. Under the 30-game format, here are the best to ever do it in this league (records via Wikipedia):
SEC Baseball Best Regular Season Records, 1996-2021
|2000||South Carolina||25-5||0.833||Super Regionals|
|2010||Florida||22-8||0.733||College World Series|
|2011||FLA, SC, Vandy||22-8||0.733||CWS Finals, Champs, CWS|
So a 5-1 finish for Tennessee would tie 2000 South Carolina as the second-best SEC regular season of the last 26 years. Sweep the next two weekends, and the Vols will tie 2013 Vanderbilt with a best-ever 26 regular season wins.
You’ll also notice, of course, how the situation changes in a hurry. We haven’t been doing this great-at-baseball thing very long, but it looks more like the college basketball conversation every day. Play for and make the breaks as much as you can in the regular season, and celebrate like crazy when you do…and then, when the tournament comes our way, try to score. But there are no guarantees you will.
The 1994 Vols were bounced in the regional finals by Arizona State. The 1995 Vols made it to the College World Series and won a couple of games before bowing out to the eventual champs from Cal State Fullerton. Tennessee also went back to Omaha in 2001, 2005, and last season despite not winning the SEC.
Those two very best teams of the 30-game era? They were both bounced at home in the super regionals. In 2000, South Carolina was the number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, swept their way to the super regionals, and beat Louisiana Lafayette 6-3 in the first game. But they fell 7-1 and 3-2 in the next two, coming one win shy of Omaha.
In 2013, a Vanderbilt team with Dansby Swanson and Walker Buehler spent the last five weeks of the regular season ranked #1 or #2, and were the #2 overall seed at tournament time. But they fell to Louisville in two straight games in the super regionals, 5-3 and 2-1.
We watched this happen to Arkansas last year: number one overall seed, beat NC State 21-2 in the opener of the super regional…then lost a pair of one-run games, and it’s over.
Of the 11 SEC teams to win at least 22 regular season games in the last 26 years, only six made it to Omaha. Only three of them won it all. There are no guarantees.
We looked last summer at what regular success in baseball might look like. Half the SEC has made it to Omaha in the last four years; it’s a good expectation for every player to come into your program as a freshman to get there at some point in his career. But making it every year just doesn’t happen, even in this conference:
College World Series appearances (since 1999)
- 8: Florida (last in 2018), LSU (2017)
- 6: Arkansas (2019), South Carolina (2012)
- 5: Mississippi State (2021), Vanderbilt (2021)
- 4: Georgia (2008)
- 3: Tennessee (2021), Texas A&M (2017)
- 1: Alabama (1999), Auburn (2019), Ole Miss (2014)
- 0: Kentucky, Missouri
We’ll get to that in about three weeks. For now, there is plenty of history and an SEC Championship available for this team in the regular season. We should celebrate that like there’s no tomorrow. And when tomorrow does come, this team will have given itself a great opportunity to make even more history.
Great write-up, Will. About to head to LNS for my first game of the season – tickets are hard to find these days! GBO.