Tennessee’s baseball team begins its final regular season series today at Mississippi State. The defending national champs have struggled this season, 9-18 in league play and fighting to make the SEC Tournament next week. Meanwhile, Tennessee already clinched the SEC title at 22-5, five games up on Arkansas. The Vols are 45-7 overall, the only team in the Top 25 (and, I assume, the nation) with single-digit losses on the year.
We looked last week at the relevant history this baseball team is chasing. It can feel a bit this week like history is the only remaining prize until postseason play begins. But there’s plenty of that to go around, starting with:
Most SEC Regular Season wins (Current 30-game format, 1996-2022)
- 26 – 2013 Vanderbilt
- 25 – 2000 South Carolina
- 23 – 2019 Vanderbilt
- 22 – 2022 Tennessee (tied with eight others, three games to play)
Avoid getting swept, and the Vols will have one of the three best regular season records in the SEC in the last 26 years. Sweep the Bulldogs, and the Vols will tie South Carolina for the second-best regular season record in that span.
An obvious truth that bears repeating here: the SEC is good. Like, really good. So anytime you win it – not just in baseball, but in any sport – you celebrate like crazy.
The Vols earned their third SEC regular season championship since 1994 and just their fourth ever. Those Todd Helton teams that went back-to-back in ’94 and ’95 won the SEC by 2 and 1.5 games respectively. The current squad is up five with three to play. There could be more available history here too:
SEC Baseball Largest Championship Margin (Current format)
- 5.5 games – 2000 South Carolina
- 5 games – 2022 Tennessee (three to play)
- 4 games – 2007 Vanderbilt
- 3.5 games – 2013 Vanderbilt
Again: celebrate this team because it won the SEC Championship, because that’s incredibly hard to do by itself! But in the midst of that, we’re seeing one of the best regular seasons of any SEC team in the last three decades…which automatically makes it one of the best regular seasons we’ve ever seen on this campus.
In the five biggest sports on campus, here’s how hard it is to win an SEC title:
Tennessee’s SEC Championships since 1980
- Football: 5 SEC Championships since 1985
- Men’s Basketball: 4 SEC Championships since 1982
- Baseball: 3 SEC Championships since 1994
- Softball: 1 SEC Championship in 2007
Wait for it:
- Women’s Basketball: 18 SEC Championships since 1980
Okay, hard for almost everyone. That’s 18 for Lady Vol basketball, 13 for the other four biggest sports combined. Word.
So this baseball team is already on a short list on campus, one worthy of celebration no matter what happens in the postseason. Just how high up that list might they go?
Again: the SEC is good. It’s hard to win championships, and even with your best-of-the-best teams, the margins are thin. We often speak of this when some of our very best teams – most recently 2019 men’s basketball – happen to coincide with some of the very best teams at other schools in the same year. The Grant/Admiral ’19 squad went 15-3 in the SEC – two games better than the previous year’s league champions – but LSU went 16-2. See also Spurrier, Steve, etc.
When the Vols have won those regular season championships, it wasn’t easy even with our very best teams. Consider the margins for those champions:
- 1985: Tied Florida at 5-1, Gators on probation (Florida won head-to-head 17-10)
- 1989: Three-way-tie with Alabama & Auburn (Vols beat Auburn, Auburn beat Bama, Bama beat Vols)
- 1990: Florida 6-1, Vols 5-1-1, Gators on probation (Vols won head-to-head 45-3)
- 1997: SEC East Vols 7-1, Florida & UGA 6-2. Vols beat Auburn 30-29 in Atlanta.
- 1998: SEC East Vols 8-0, Florida 7-1. Vols beat Mississippi State 24-14 in Atlanta.
With the exception of 1998, every one of those championships was a margin of one game or a split title. The ’98 Vols had the minimum two-game cushion an undefeated season provides in the division, but that was an elite Florida squad we almost saw again in the Fiesta Bowl. And nothing was ever easy for us in the Georgia Dome. Winning is hard.
- 1982: Tied with Kentucky
- 2000: Four-way-tie with Florida, Kentucky & LSU
- 2008: Vols 14-2, two games over Kentucky & Mississippi State at 12-4
- 2018: Tied with Auburn
Here again, only one of these outcomes had any cushion whatsoever. The 2008 Vols lost at Rupp Arena, and fell to Memorial Magic in the ultimate trap game. Their KenPom rating isn’t as high as the 2019 (or 2022) teams, but they secured the program’s only outright SEC title in my lifetime. Winning is hard!
- 1994: Won by 2 games
- 1995: Won by 1.5 games
- 2022: Up 5 with 3 to play
- 2007: Swept a double-header vs Alabama on the last day of the regular season to win
Winning is hard!
You have the opportunity for larger margins with more games being played, of course, so a dominant baseball or softball team can look stronger just by the margin. But as we’ve seen, only three SEC baseball teams have won the regular season title by more than three games in the last 26 years. In softball, that 2007 team featured Monica Abbott and was a 10-inning loss away from a national championship. But they needed the final day of the season to win the SEC title.
The ultimate conversation about “best team ever” will be heavily influenced by what happens in the postseason, and rightfully so. But right now, I think you’d put this baseball team on a very, very short list…and one that’s doing to include lots of:
Consider that the Lady Vols won the SEC regular season title by at least three games 10 times from 1995-2011 under Pat Summitt. The record there actually belongs to that 2011 squad: a 16-0 regular season champ, five games ahead of the field. They also won the SEC Tournament, before falling to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
Tennessee also won the regular season title by four games in 1998, 2004, and 2010. It’s that ’98 squad that will lead the way in any conversation about dominance: 39-0, with a third straight national championship. I count three single-digit wins in those 39 games: the regular season and SEC Tournament matchups with Alabama, and the Elite Eight comeback over North Carolina. So yeah: the dominance of that group may not be threatened in our lifetimes.
But as we move to the end of the regular season, this baseball team has put themselves in position to enter the holy of holies on campus. It is no exaggeration to put their regular season dominance in the conversation with 1998 football, 2008 men’s basketball, and a host of Lady Vol squads. If they continue to live into their number one ranking, we’ll continue to enjoy riding some outrageous trains of thought about the best teams to ever do it on this campus.
There is lots of fun left to be had here.