OMAHA, Neb. – Dear SEC office . . .
You’ve heard by now, no doubt, they’re down to the final two at the College World Series. One of yours — card-carrying SEC party member Arkansas — and these troublemakers from the Northwest. These trespassers from Oregon State.
Apparently, they didn’t get the memo. The one about Omaha really being the SEC Invitational. Everyone knows in June, college baseball has two divisions. You’re either from the SEC, or you’re not.
And everyone knows who’s supposed to rule the world, right? It was that way last year, when Florida won the CWS finals because LSU didn’t. Or maybe that was the other way around. Anyway, been that way for a decade. In the past 10 years, the SEC has produced five national champions and six runners-up. And that’s involved six different conference schools. You come to Omaha in waves.
Thirteen of the current 14 members have been in the College World Series — 10 of them since 2005. Alabama and Auburn haven’t shown up here since the late 1990s, but then, they always have bowl games in January. The only school never to make it here is Kentucky, but then, the Wildcats always have March.
Look at this current CWS. By Friday, three of the four teams still in town were Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi State. And to even get here, they had beat three other SEC teams — South Carolina, Auburn and Vanderbilt — in the super regional.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said Sunday that this is the deepest he’s ever seen the league. “There were no weekends off . . . there was never a break. It makes you resilient, No. 1. It teaches you how to prepare for what’s about to happen every weekend. And if you don’t show up or if you have a bad weekend, you’ll get hammered.”
He remembers that Arkansas trip to Mississippi State in April. Got swept three games. “We limped out of there,” Van Horn said. Mississippi State went 15-15 in the SEC — and barely missed the College World Series finals.
Van Horn figured the Razorbacks would have to get through couple of conference cousins to make it this far. “It’s just the way it is. It’s like the old cliché, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
And why is the SEC the best? Nice weather helps, but the weather is swell in a lot of the Pac-12 and ACC, too and they’re not overrunning the place. Matter of fact, perennial powers such as USC and Arizona State have hit something of an Omaha lull.
Miami missed the entire NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. But here was Florida four years in a row in Omaha. Texas A&M and LSU last year. Mississippi State and Arkansas this month. Auburn nearly made it, after being away two decades. Vanderbilt had never been before 2011, and has a title, a runner-up and a third place finish in the past eight years.
The reasons? ESPN college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson had a few thoughts.
“I don’t think there’s another conference in the country that just from an economic standpoint commits more to the sport than the SEC. When you look at the facilities, when you look at coaches’ salaries, when you look at just the level of importance that athletic departments within that conference put in that sport, there’s not another conference that can say the same thing.
“That doesn’t mean the other conferences don’t care, but the SEC kind of started the arms race from a facilities standpoint. Kentucky will open a $50 million stadium. Mississippi State is spending $50 million on a stadium. If you looked at this 10, 12 years ago, the idea that a college baseball program would spend $50 million on a stadium was a little bit crazy.
“A lot of it comes back to interest and importance. This game has changed so much in the last 10 years from a coaching standpoint. If you don’t win and you’re at one of those places, you don’t have a 10-year timeline anymore. You have a four or five. There’s a fan expectation, there’s fan interest, when you look at the attendance figures. If you have a fan base that’s demanding a winner, you’re going to pay more attention. All those things are reasons why the conference just looks at the sport different than any other conference.”
You knew that, right? You’re confident there’ll be another trophy added to the Omaha haul soon. And there might be. Arkansas could be the fifth different SEC team to win a national championship in 10 years. Some of the Razorbacks went fishing Sunday to relax. They've only had to play three games here so their pitching rotation is set.
But about these Oregon Staters.
“We talk about it all the time, how are they doing it?” Van Horn said. “It’s been incredible to watch from the outside.”
Nor do they seem properly in awe of the SEC aura. Matter of fact, to be candid, they’ve slapped your guys around lately. They’ve played four NCAA tournament games against the SEC — two against LSU and two here against Mississippi State — and gone 4-0. Not a soft 4-0, either. Combined score of those games: 43-4.
What in the name of Nick Saban and John Calipari and all the SEC holds dear is up with that? Well, the first three Oregon State hitters who went at Mississippi State Saturday were all taken in the first round of the MLB draft. And the cleanup man will likely be one of the first picks next season. And as stated before, they know how to win. And win. And win. But as Beavers coach Pat Casey said Sunday, when that splashy two-year record of his was mentioned, “Ultimately nobody cares how many games you win, unless you win the last one.”
So take this as a friendly warning for the next two or three days. The SEC is still the super-power, still the T-Rex of TD Ameritrade Stadium. But there’s rebellion in the wind.