The SEC produced another banner season. Vanderbilt won the national championship with a team that has a case to be one of the best ever and set an SEC record with 59 wins. The conference got four teams in the College World Series, the most it has had since 2015. The conference again fell just shy of placing a record 11 teams in regionals, settling instead for merely matching the record of 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
All in all, 2019 was an excellent season for baseball in the SEC. In addition to the on-field successes, Kentucky and Mississippi State both opened new stadiums that cost a combined $137 million, and Florida broke ground on a new stadium of its own. The SEC also sponsored the proposal to transform the volunteer assistant coach position into a third full-time assistant coach. While the Division I Council rejected that proposal, it showed yet again that the SEC is the leader when it comes to innovation in college baseball.
Presented here are team-by-team analysis for every team in the SEC, as well as the trajectory of the program this season.
The on-field results didn’t always reflect it, but Alabama was notably improved this season. It produced its first winning season since 2016—Mitch Gaspard’s last season with the program—but it did win one less SEC game than it did a year ago.
The Crimson Tide is still building under coach Brad Bohannon, who is entering his third season at the program’s helm. They were a younger group this year, which made competing in the SEC difficult. They’ll look to take another step next year, ideally one that is easier to identify in the win-loss record.
After last season’s runner-up finish in the College World Series, Arkansas kept the pedal to the metal in 2019. The Razorbacks won the SEC West and returned to Omaha, marking the first back-to-back College World Series appearances in program history. They did a good job replacing several key players from the 2018 team on the fly, as righthander Isaiah Campbell emerged as an All-American ace and Matt Goodheart and Trevor Ezell lengthened the lineup.
Arkansas’ season ended with two tough, one-run losses in Omaha, bringing a quiet end to the season. But the Razorbacks’ season can’t be defined by those two games. They produced another impressive regular season and ended the year in Omaha—two hallmarks of a successful campaign.
Every year under coach Butch Thompson, Auburn has taken a step forward. This was the Tigers’ biggest step yet, as they returned to Omaha for the first time since 1997 after an impressive postseason run through the Atlanta Regional and Chapel Hill Super Regional. In the process, they knocked out Georgia Tech and North Carolina, two national seeds and two of the ACC’s best teams. And they did it all a year after losing ace Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
Auburn’s return to Omaha felt like a year ahead of schedule, as its sophomore class was the core of the team. That group, headlined by righthander Tanner Burns, is back next year, and the Tigers will have lofty expectations. But this season was another breakthrough for Auburn as it continued its rise under Thompson.
After making four straight trips to Omaha and with the core of the 2017 national championship team having moved on, Florida had a very young team in 2019. The Gators struggled early in SEC play, losing three of their first four series—and twice getting swept. That put them in a hole they had to dig out of in order to extend their streak of consecutive regionals appearances that dates back to 2008, but they were able to do just that with a sweep of Missouri on the final weekend of the regular season.
Ultimately it was a step back for Florida, but an understandable one. This year should have been a growing experience for the young Gators, and it was. Now with another premium recruiting class headed to Gainesville this summer, Florida should be able to rebound quickly in 2020.
The Bulldogs showed big promise this spring and had the second-best record in the SEC, two games off Vanderbilt’s pace. They earned a top-eight national seed for the second year in a row, this time No. 4 overall, and finished fourth in the country in ERA (3.24).
But, for the second straight year, Georgia was upended at home in regionals. It was unable to slow down Florida State, twice losing to the Seminoles to bring its season to a disappointing end. The future remains bright for the Bulldogs, especially with likely 2020 first-rounders Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox leading the rotation next season. But they will need to find a way to take the next step and produce an extended NCAA Tournament run.
The Wildcats were always likely to take a step back this season after losing 13 players in the 2018 draft. It turned out to be a pretty big step back and could have been even more if not for All-American lefthander Zack Thompson, who stymied SEC hitters for a 5-1, 2.27 mark in conference play. The Wildcats won just two SEC games that Thompson didn’t start and missed the conference tournament.
Perhaps the biggest development for Kentucky in 2019 was the opening of Kentucky Proud Park, which replaced the 50-year-old Cliff Hagan Stadium. The stadium cost $49 million to build and will be a key for the program moving forward, especially in recruiting. But the Wildcats will need to get back on track on the field to take advantage of those benefits.
The Tigers came into the season with great fanfare having had great success in the draft and in recruiting. Righthander Zack Hess and outfielders Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson all chose to return to Baton Rouge after being draft eligible, and LSU landed the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. That helped them start the year ranked No. 2 in the Top 25, but the season proved to be more up-and-down than the preseason hype would suggest.
LSU won the Baton Rouge Regional and had a home super regional as well but was swept by a Florida State team that was on a mission to get back to Omaha in coach Mike Martin’s final season. It was a bitter end for the Tigers, who had their own sights set on a return to the College World Series after bowing out in regionals in 2018. Ultimately, LSU was undone by its pitching staff, which was hit by several key injuries and never seemed to line up.
The Rebels were streaky all season and were trending in the wrong direction at the end of the regular season as they had lost eight of their last 11 games going into the SEC Tournament. But Ole Miss turned that around, made a run to the SEC Tournament championship game and was rewarded with a home regional. After getting upset at home in a regional last year, Ole Miss rolled through the Oxford Regional this season to reach super regionals for the first time since 2014. Its season came to an end there, however, as it lost at Arkansas in three games.
There’s been some unease in Oxford as Ole Miss hasn’t been to Omaha since 2014 and Mississippi State has had the upper hand in the in-state rivalry, but this season was just about on the nose for the Rebels. They began the season ranked No. 13 and that’s exactly where they finished.
The Bulldogs had high expectations for 2019 and largely managed to exceed them in Chris Lemonis’ first year as head coach. Only Vanderbilt won more games than Mississippi State, and it also had the fourth-best winning percentage (.776) in the nation. It tied for the SEC West title with Arkansas and earned a top-eight seed, keeping it at home for regionals and super regionals in the sparkling new Dudy Noble Field.
But for a program that has everything but a national championship, what happens in Omaha in years like this one is magnified. And there, Mississippi State fell short, going just 1-2. It was a tough end to a great season and the hunt for that elusive national championship continues. But the future looks bright in Starkville, even as All-Americans Jake Mangum and Ethan Small move on to pro ball.
Before the season even began, things had gone sideways in Columbia. Two weeks before Opening Day, the NCAA unexpectedly hit the Tigers with a postseason ban as a part of an academic misconduct investigation for allegations that took place a few years ago. Missouri appealed the ruling, which kept it eligible for the postseason while the process played out.
For a while, it looked like that appeal would get Missouri into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. But the Tigers stumbled down the stretch, going 4-7 in May and losing five straight games to end the season. They narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament, officially listed among the first four teams out by the selection committee and had the best RPI of any team not to make the cut. The margins were very slim, but ultimately it was a missed opportunity for the Tigers.
The Gamecocks started the season well and won their series against archrival Clemson for the first time since 2014. But little went right for South Carolina once SEC play began in mid-March. The Gamecocks were swept at home by Georgia in their first conference series and won just one SEC series all season—against Kentucky in mid-May. Because they rarely got swept, they were able to sneak into the SEC Tournament, but that was of little consolation.
The pattern at South Carolina lately has been to make super regionals one season and then miss the NCAA Tournament the next. For a program that played in three straight College World Series finals at the start of the decade, that’s quite the downturn, and head coach Mark Kingston is charged with reversing that trend as he enters his third season at the program’s helm.
The Volunteers made great strides in coach Tony Vitello’s second year in Knoxville. They finally broke their NCAA Tournament drought, making regionals for the first time since 2005. Their 40 wins were also their most since that season.
Tennessee had some big highlights to the season—it didn’t allow a run until its fifth game of the year and it won series against both Georgia and Ole Miss. It was an important step forward for a program that hadn’t won more than 31 games in over a decade.
The Aggies had some big moments this season—sweeping through the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic and winning series against Vanderbilt and Arkansas—and they finished No. 23 in the Top 25 after not being ranked in the preseason. Their pitching staff—especially their rotation—was outstanding, finishing third in the nation in ERA (3.21).
But the Aggies were unable to put everything together consistently, in large part because of a disappointing offense. They just missed out on hosting a regional and then required a huge comeback to make the Morgantown Regional final, where they lost to Duke. It was a disappointing end to a season that had big promise but never quite delivered.
It isn’t easy to live up to the expectations that come with being ranked No. 1 in the Preseason Top 25. No team since LSU in 1996 had both started and finished the year ranked No. 1. But that’s just what Vanderbilt did this season.
The Commodores set an SEC record for victories, won the SEC regular season and tournament titles and then went on to win the national championship, their second ever and first since 2014. It was a special season for Vanderbilt, which will go down as one of the best teams in college baseball history.