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The SEC bias in College Baseball

After the field of 64 was announced there were a lot of upset Big-12 fans, count me among them. The selection committee invited nine teams from the SEC despite the conference being in decline and ranked #4 in terms of RPI at the end of the season.

Two particular points were hit hard in various reaction pieces. Both LSU and Georgia were given super-regional seeds while no Big-12 teams were similarly honored.  Super regional status, (a top-eight seeding) is not just an honor, it also provides the awarded team with a significant competitive advantage by granting them home field advantage through the first two rounds of the tournament.  Three Big-12 teams which appeared stronger than Georgia were passed over.  This latest tournament seeding controversy further solidifed the growing opinion that a pro-SEC bias exists in the sport - a bias which damages college baseball's national appeal and skews the competitive balance of the championship tournament.

A second point beaten on all week was that Arkansas was given an at-large invitation to the tournament despite the Razorbacks failure to even qualify for the SEC tournament. The ire directed at the committee about this decisions was somewhat tempered by the inclusion of the apparently equally undeserving Oklahoma team. From my perspective, neither Oklahoma nor Arkansas truely earned an invitation.  That said, I don't see why Oklahoma’s selection attracted more negative commentary than that of the Razorbacks since the Sooners were at least as good as four SEC teams handed at large bids. OU finished with an RPI of 38. Compare that to Arkansas (36), Vanderbilt (37), Mississippi (44) and Alabama (48). If it had been up to me of those five only Vanderbilt would have been invited. Charlestown and Missouri State had as good a case as any of the others on that list and were left at home. Invitations to these "mid-major" schools would have at least shaken up this year’s dance card a little bit and helped the committee accomplish one of it’s publicly stated goals, to promote the growth of the college baseball on a national level.

I took the time to publish the above rant (but a good and reasonable rant) because what happened yesterday seemed to validate much of my frustration. The SEC went 3-5 in the first day of the tournament. SEC regular season champion Georgia, who was given the super regional over Nebraska, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, lost to Lipscomb at home 10-7. Missouri shutout Ole Miss, Pepperdine beat Arkansas, Tulane beat Florida, Michigan beat Kentucky and,… yes … Oklahoma beat Vanderbilt. The Big-12 went 5-1, the SEC went 3-6.

Maybe next year the selection committee will catch up with what many national analysts have been writing for some time now, the SEC has been relying on tradition for too long.  SEC baseball is not as good as it used to be, and not as good many still think it is.

If the SEC were to ask me how they might get their game back (no, I'm not waiting by the phone) one suggestion I'd make is to start playing non-conference schedules that involves leaving the south to face quality opponents. SEC teams seem to prefer playing comfortable non-conference schedules composed almost exclusively of home games vs. regional opponents rather than preparing themselves to face the best teams in the nation by leaving home and seeing how they stack up against the better teams across the nation. 

In 2008 the twelve teams of the SEC played only 24 non-conference games outside the region. In these contest they went 11-13. Arkansas accounted for nine of those games, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Vanderbilt played three each. Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina never left the south. The SEC played 97% of their games in the South. Win-loss records built on schedules like this are deceptive. The performance of the SEC in the College World Series over the last ten years bears this out. 

My real beef here is not with the SEC.  Those schools can follow whatever path they so chose.  My irritation is with the NCAA selection committee.  I wish the members would have done their jobs a little better, paid a bit more attention to what is happening across the nation, and stopped treating SEC teams like they all had a standing invite to the tournament which could only be revoked in years of total collapse.  The job of the committee is not to coddle established programs, it is to reward excellence.  They didn't do their job well enough this year.

Of course, SEC teams could go on a tear starting today and make me look like a complete idiot by next week. But I'll be brave and publish this just the same. It is well past time for more debate on this topic across the spectrum of college baseball. The status quo is simply hurting NCAA hardball - solidifying it as a regional rather than national sport.

Update: With the first round now complete, two of the nine SEC teams advanced.  One of the five Big-12 teams advanced.  Both conferences performed poorly.  The big winners of week one, the ACC (4 of 6 teams still alive), the Pac-10 (3 of 5 still alive), and the Big West (2 of 4 still fighting).