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SEC baseball shows College World Series what league football strives to be

OMAHA, Neb. – A hallway in the Southeastern Conference offices recently underwent a makeover. He now hangs a photo exhibit of every domestic league game or event that has featured two league teams.

“A new tradition,” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. “There is still room to add to this collection.”

Sankey arrived in Omaha from Birmingham, Alabama, looking for the next shot. On Saturday, as he watched Arkansas and Ole Miss win Day 2 of the College World Series, Sankey wore a green shirt emblazoned with the SEC logo. It’s the only color that won’t get him in trouble here, as there’s nothing showing support for one of his programs over another.

These are the problems of a commissioner whose conference dominates a sport.

SEC baseball is what SEC football strives to be: a balanced, relentless mix of teams, nearly all of which could win a national championship in most years, likely beating a range of current league rivals. post-season.

Sankey, increasingly at odds over the past year with other Power 5 commissioners over the details of the college football playoff expansion, can sit back and smile at the CWS. Can you imagine the football version of Ole Miss-Auburn in the Round of 16. Or a bitter elimination contest between Texas and Texas A&M, as Sankey could see on Sunday at the CWS, with the winner still alive in their national title chase.

Five SEC baseball programs have won seven of the last 12 championships. None of those five are among the four from the SEC who have qualified to play Omaha this year.

An SEC team has played an SEC team for the national title three times in football and three times in baseball in the past 11 years. Since the fall of 1998, when college football unveiled the BCS system for determining a champion, no other conference has succeeded once in men’s football, baseball or basketball.

SEC vs. SEC for title

BASEBALL SEASON CHAMPION NATIONAL FINALIST

2011

Caroline from the south

Florida

2017

Florida

LSU

2021

Mississippi State

Vanderbilt

FOOTBALL SEASON CHAMPION NATIONAL FINALIST

2011

Alabama

LSU

2017

Alabama

Georgia

2021

Georgia

Alabama

“You don’t survive mediocrity,” Sankey said. “You do it by lining up against the best. And both now and in the future, when we add Oklahoma and Texas, that expectation will be clearer than at any other weekly conference. That’s why SEC football is special. That’s what makes baseball special.

“The future is incredibly bright for people who want to step up and be a part of it.”

Not counting Oklahoma and Texas, both in action Sunday and set to join the SEC in the next three years, SEC representation set a record for the most teams in a conference during of a CWS, the latest established by the SEC in 2019.

Tennessee, the best team in the country in the regular season, is not there. He was bounced from Notre Dame in a super regional. The same thing happened last year in Arkansas, which was 50-11 before NC State denied the Razorbacks a trip to Omaha with a few wins.

Arkansas did it this year. And after his 17-2 win over Stanford on Saturday, he faces Ole Miss on Monday night. The winner will own the indoor track for the Championship Series, which begins on Saturday.

And speaking of Ole Miss, they’re probably the hottest team in the entire tournament. The Rebels played six postseason games behind superb home court after losing five of the weekend’s six SEC series and squeezed through the NCAA’s 64-team field as the final big pick in the NCAA. ‘crew.

This is compelling evidence that no SEC team deserves to be called a loser.

“The SEC prepares you like no other conference,” said Ole Miss left fielder Kevin Graham, who scored in a 5-1 win over Auburn on Saturday night. “It’s a glove. You have to go through it. Anyone can beat anyone. Not the best team to win. It is the team that plays the best.”

Preparation within the SEC does not ensure victory for the CWS, according to Arkansas manager Dave Van Horn, but it does reduce the likelihood of encountering an upset.

“Whether it’s a big left-hander with speed or a right-hander with an extra slider, you’ve seen it,” Van Horn said. “There are other teams in other leagues that are good, but we just have a lot of good teams.”

Texas A&M manager Jim Schlossnagle, in his first year with the Aggies after 18 seasons at TCU, said he watched SEC baseball from afar and admired the competition. He admired the atmosphere.

“But you’re also like, the whole phrase, ‘It just means more,’ is kind of elitist,” Schlossnagle said. “And that’s saying no more, no disrespect to the SEC or Commissioner Sankey. It means more to more people.

“The championship itself, literally, is a challenge, because of the level of play, of each team. Alabama and Kentucky did not participate in the NCAA Tournament. If you had told me two weeks ago that Alabama and Kentucky would be in Omaha, that wouldn’t have shocked me at all, not even for a second. »

Sankey offered a theory that the 2020 season, canceled less than a month after its start due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to greater intensity among SEC fans and baseball players who have not has not yet diminished.

When stadiums reopened in 2021, a flood of excitement was released, Sankey said.

“People wanted to be a part of something when the stadium’s capacities returned to normal,” he said, “a switch was flipped.”

He credits the energy to last year’s SEC baseball, which culminated in a hallway-worthy CWS championship series when Mississippi State beat Vanderbilt, with intensity fueled early in the game. 2021 football season. Sankey attended Clemson-Georgia, Texas-Arkansas and Alabama-Florida football games in September.

“It was another level of intensity,” Sankey said. “It was just pent up energy, and it started when we opened up ballparks.”

This year, by the way, Mississippi State, the defending national champion, finished last in the SEC, and not because they were a bad team.

Texas and Oklahoma take note. Both programs returned to Omaha the first year after it was announced that they were heading to the SEC.

The bar has been raised. The momentum is accelerating. Friday, the morning of its CWS opening, Oklahoma has unveiled plans for a $30 million renovation of his baseball stadium.

“They showed me (the court records),” Oklahoma manager Skip Johnson said. “It was amazing. It will really be a new stadium. I mean, we’re trying to get into the SEC. They’re going for that.”

Never wanting to be outdone, Texas also wants to grow. Coach David Pierce said he would like to lock up the outfield at Disch-Falk Field and double the 6,985 capacity as an SEC program.

“There’s a chance you’ll be playing Friday night games, and there will be 15,000 (attendees),” Pierce said. “It’s really cool. And every weekend on the go, you face it. It’s another level when you get into those fanbases and bring in those types of schools that are not only good at baseball, they have history in athletics.

Sankey, a New York native who played baseball as a reserve catcher at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, has found another home in Omaha. In June, he came on the CWS opening weekend for only the second time.

Further travels took him to the championship series. But with 75% of the CWS field connected to his league now or for years to come, Sankey said he felt he had to come in soon. The eighth grade commissioner traveled here with his wife, Cathy, for the first time.

As Texas and Notre Dame took to the field Friday night, the Sankeys left the stadium. They had dinner reservations at 801 Chophouse, a major downtown steakhouse. It was a powerful gesture, much like the pictures hanging in the driveway in Birmingham, from the man in charge of the league who continues to take the lead in college sports, one league at a time.

(Photo of Ole Miss celebrating after defeating Auburn: Steven Branscombe/USA Today)

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