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April 6, 2007

SCS.comFlorida on top again? They’ve done it in football as well as basketball in the last year, and now they’re doing it in baseball. No, they’re not on top of the national rankings, but instead the Gators are tied for a share of the SEC lead at 7-2 with Arkansas. Once again, there’s parody in the Southeastern Conference, and the team that finished in the SEC’s cellar last year is back at the top of the standings. This upcoming weekend, Pat McMahon’s squad hosts the South Carolina Gamecocks, a team that is ranked in the top 5 of many collegiate baseball polls. Other SEC games this weekend include Auburn at LSU, Mississippi State at SEC West leader Arkasas, Georgia at Mississippi, Alabama at top ranked Vanderbilt, and Kentucky hosting Tennessee. Here’s a quick rundown of the upcoming weekend in SEC baseball.

South Carolina (24-6, 5-4 SEC) at Florida (19-13, 7-2 SEC)

Coming to McKethan Stadium this weekend are the top-5 South Carolina Gamecocks. After dropping a home series to Vanderbilt last weekend, USC looks to rebound this weekend against the SEC East leaders, the Florida Gators. South Carolina is led by sophomore first basemen Justin Smoak along with junior right-handed pitcher Harris Honeycutt. Ray Tanner’s squad lost a tight game last Friday night that lasted 12 innings before dropping another contest on Saturday 12-1. But the Gamecocks would not get swept at home as they held off Vandy’s bid for a sweep, winning 8-2 and giving them momentum heading into this series.

On the other hand, the Florida Gators might be playing the best baseball in the country. In the past 2 weeks on the road, Florida has swept Auburn and Georgia. Matt LaPorta has earned National Player of the Week honors for back-to-back weeks and is carrying the bats. Improved pitching by the way of junior right-hander Bryan Augenstein and freshman Billy Bullock has helped the Gators’ stock rise. Florida’s home diamond, McKethan Stadium, is known as a hitter’s ballpark, and that will go a long way in determining who wins the series. Both teams boost exceptional power, but the key to the series will be whose starters can go further.

SEC series of the week prediction: Florida 2-1

Auburn (21-11, 1-8 SEC) at LSU (17-13-1, 3-5-1 SEC)

At Alex Box Stadium this weekend, the struggling Auburn Tigers pay a visit. AU, before Sunday, had lost 18 straight SEC games, but they finally came through and won their first SEC game of the season to improve to 1-8. Auburn is led by catcher Josh Donaldson in addition to third baseman Mike Bianucci, who both have hit over 8 HR’s and 30 RBI’s. When looking at Auburn’s staff ERA of 3.68, you wouldn’t think they were that bad of a team. But the Tigers have dropped many close contests and are obviously struggling because of that.

On the other hand, the LSU Tigers are coming off a road series win in Tuscaloosa against Alabama. The club showed resiliency with a 3-run comeback on Friday night and then won the Sunday game convincingly 7-3. LSU’s Charlie Furbush has been their best pitcher to date. Both of these teams are in the SEC West’s cellar, but if they improve in a few areas such as timely hitting with runners in scoring position, they could make a serious push towards the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. If LSU plays with that LSU swagger that college baseball knows about, they could win this series and maybe even sweep Auburn at the Box.

Prediction: LSU 2-1

Mississippi State (19-7, 5-4 SEC) at Arkansas (24-8, 7-2 SEC)

Traveling to Baum Stadium this weekend are the hot hitting Mississippi State Bulldogs. Coming off a series win at home against Kentucky, Ron Polk’s Bulldogs are hitting exceptionally while their pitching is struggling, although the staff did great on Sunday. They can hit for power and hit for average, being led by second basemen Jeffrey Rea and catcher Ed Easley.

Their opponent, Dave Van Horn’s Arkansas Razorbacks, are coming off an impressive sweep at Tennessee. The Hogs’ staff, led by Nick Schmidt and Duke Welker, can shut down any lineup, and in the bullpen stands Jess Todd, who, although he has given up a few runs lately, is still a dependable reliever who strikes out many batters. Arkansas has a scrappy lineup with players such as Logan Forsythe and Danny Hamblin, who come up with hits in the clutch. If the Bulldogs’ hitting can stay hot and knock Arkansas’ starters out early in the game and reach its bullpen, then they have a chance to win the series. But in the end, All American Nick Schmidt will have another good outing and either Duke Welker or Sunday starter Dallas Keuchel will pitch well enough to win.

Prediction: Arkansas 2-1

Georgia (10-19, 3-6 SEC) at Mississippi (22-9, 5-4 SEC)

Playing at Swayze Field this weekend in Oxford are the struggling Georgia Bulldogs. After sweeping their first SEC series of the year, the Bulldogs have been swept on the road at Tennessee and at home against Florida. Georgia’s problems in the recent weeks have been getting timely hitting and solid pitching out of the bullpen. Preseason All-American closer Joshua Fields has struggled as evidenced by his 1-4 and 5.23 ERA. But Georgia’s the kind of team who when they play to their ability, can play with the elite in the SEC. That hasn’t happened this year.

Their foe this weekend, the Mississippi Rebels, are coming off a series win at Auburn. UM is a College World Series contender and they’re led by right-hander Will Kline and junior infielders Zack Cozart and Justin Henry. This weekend, the key to the series will be how the Rebels’ hitting does against Georgia’s starters. If they can get into the bullpen quickly, then they could win each game by more than 5 runs. In the end, Mississippi is too strong of a team to get out hit or out pitched by the Bulldogs.

Prediction: Ole Miss 3-0

Alabama (19-12, 4-5 SEC) at Vanderbilt (27-4, 5-4 SEC)

In Nashville this weekend is Jim Wells’ Alabama squad. The Crimson Tide is coming off dropping a series at home against LSU. Their pitching staff has been banged up and that has been seen when they play their Sunday games, as they have been beaten bad in many contests. Alabama still has a competitive squad who is led by senior outfielder Emeel Salem and right-handed pitcher Tommy Hunter, who is still in the bullpen as the closer.

Tim Corbin’s Commodore squad is one of the top ranked teams in the nation. Led by All-Americans David Price and Pedro Alvarez, the Dores are the favorite and look like a lock to make Omaha. Freshman lefty Mike Minor has been lights out recently and they have a great closer in Casey Weathers. Winning the series at South Carolina showed a lot about this club and they are such a strong team in every facet of the game. Vandy’s timely hitting is what they do best.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 3-0

Tennessee (18-12, 4-5 SEC) at Kentucky (24-4-1, 4-4-1 SEC)

Coming to Lexington this weekend are the Tennessee Vols. Rod Delmonico’s squad is coming off getting swept at home against Arkansas, although they were in each of the games. The Vols are led by left-handed pitcher James Adkins and All-Americans Julio Borbon and JP Arencibia. The Vols’ recent struggles are due to a lack of timely hitting and not getting solid relief out of the bullpen.

John Cohen’s Kentucky Wildcats recently dropped a close series in Starkville against Mississippi State. Catcher Sean Coughlin and second basemen Mike Brown lead a Kentucky offense with a team average of .353. The Cats can swing the bats but their weakness is their pitching, who has looked just average during the SEC season. The key to this series will be whose starters go further and how the teams’ bullpens react to crucial situations.

Prediction: Kentucky 2-1

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