OMAHA, Neb. -- It's a good time to be a Southeastern Conference baseball program.
With LSU and Florida advancing to the College World Series finals, where the Gators emerged victorious, the SEC has now produced a national champion for the fifth time in nine seasons -- a streak that started when LSU defeated Texas for its last national championship in 2009.
They've had at least a chance in eight of those nine seasons: In three of the four seasons a non-SEC team won the title, an SEC team was the runner-up. This year was the second time in that nine-year stretch that two SEC schools met in the championship series.
That it happened this season is intriguing in its own way.LSU and Florida were the clear favorites at the beginning of the season, each earning six first-place votes from SEC coaches to finish atop the the preseason poll. Both were consensus top-five teams in the major rankings because both had the best ratio of returning talent and experience.
The rest of the league was hard to figure, though, leading to a few surprising finishes.
Perennial contender and defending SEC champion Mississippi State had to replace a healthy chunk of a productive 2016 lineup, its ace and its closer -- not to mention the fact it had a first-time head coach in Andy Cannizaro.
Texas A&M also had to replace seven regular starters in its lineup, and though the Aggies had some capable players to fill those spots, they were not expected to match their 49 wins of a year before.
Both teams outperformed their expectations. Mississippi State led the SEC all the way until the next-to-last weekend and finished two wins shy of Omaha. Texas A&M squeaked into the NCAA tournament but managed to win its regional and its super regional to make the eight-team CWS field.
Others, like South Carolina, underperformed. The Gamecocks were a trendy pick to challenge Florida in the SEC East, but they collapsed, finishing under .500 in league play and missing the NCAA tournament. Coach Chad Holbrook resigned after the season, and the Gamecocks are still searching for his replacement.
In South Carolina's place, Kentucky, and Arkansas turned in unexpectedly strong seasons after struggling last year. Both teams both entered the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to win their respective divisions.
Ditto for Auburn, which went 8-22 in SEC play last season but was in the thick of the overall SEC race until running out of steam at the end of the season. It appears to have found an excellent coach in Butch Thompson.
This was supposed to be something of a down year for the SEC, with two heavyweights and a bunch of question marks. Instead, seven teams were within one game of the overall SEC lead with three weeks to go.
Two played in the last game of the season. One emerged as champion.
The league appears to be as good as ever.
This article is written by Luke Johnson from The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.