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

OMAHA, Neb. — One hallway at the Southeastern Conference offices recently underwent a transformation. In it now hangs a display of photos from every national championship game or event that pitted two league teams.

“A new tradition,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “There’s still space to add to that collection.”

Sankey has come to Omaha from Birmingham, Ala., in search of the next photo. Saturday as he watched Arkansas and Ole Miss win on Day 2 of the College World Series, Sankey wore a green shirt adorned with the SEC logo. It’s the only color that won’t get him in trouble here, because nothing about it shows 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 and relentless mix of teams, almost any of which in most years could win a national championship, likely by defeating a lineup of league rivals along the postseason road.

Sankey, increasingly at odds over the past year with other Power 5 commissioners on the details of College Football Playoff expansion, can sit back and smile at the CWS. He can envision the football version of Ole Miss-Auburn in a round-of-eight game. Or a bitter elimination contest between Texas and Texas A&M, as Sankey got to see Sunday at the CWS, with the winner still alive in its bid for a national title.

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

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

SEC vs. SEC for the title

BASEBALL SEASON NATIONAL CHAMPION RUNNER-UP

2011

south carolina

Florida

2017

Florida

USL

2021

Mississippi State

Vanderbilt

FOOTBALL SEASON NATIONAL CHAMPION RUNNER-UP

2011

Alabama

USL

2017

Alabama

georgia

2021

georgia

Alabama

“You don’t do that through mediocrity,” Sankey said. “You do that by lining up against the best. And both now and in the future, when we add Oklahoma and Texas, that expectation will be more clear than in any other conference on a weekly basis. 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, the SEC representation ties a record for the highest number of teams from one conference at a CWS, most recently established by the SEC in 2019.

Tennessee, the best team in the nation through the regular season, is not here. It was bounced by Notre Dame in a super regional. The same thing happened last year to Arkansas, which was 50-11 before NC State denied the Razorbacks a trip to Omaha with a pair of victories.

Arkansas made it this year. And after a 17-2 win against Stanford on Saturday, it plays Ole Miss on Monday night. The winner will own the inside track to the championship series, which starts Saturday.

And speaking of Ole Miss, it is perhaps the hottest team in the whole tournament. The Rebels marched through six postseason games behind superb pitching after they lost five of six weekend series in the SEC and sneaked into the 64-team NCAA field as the last at-large team chosen.

It serves as compelling evidence that no SEC team deserves to be labeled an underdog.

“The SEC prepares you like no other conference,” said Ole Miss left fielder Kevin Graham, who homered Saturday night in a 5-1 win against Auburn. “It’s a gauntlet. You’ve got to run through it. Everybody can beat everybody. It’s not the best team that wins. It’s the team that plays the best.”

Preparation in the SEC doesn’t ensure victory at the CWS, according to Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, but it reduces the likelihood of encountering a surprise.

“Whether it’s a big-time lefty with velocity or a right-hander with a plus slider, you’re going to have seen it,” Van Horn said. “There are other teams in other leagues that are good, but we just have a lot of great teams.”

Texas A&M coach 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, ‘It just means more’ phrase, that’s a little bit elitist,” Schlossnagle said. “And it’s not that it means more, no disrespect to the SEC or Commissioner Sankey. It means more to more people.

“The league itself, literally, is a gauntlet, because of the level of play, every single team. Alabama and Kentucky didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. If you would have told me two weeks ago that Alabama and Kentucky would be in Omaha, it wouldn’t have shocked me in the least, not for one second.”

Sankey devised a theory that the 2020 season, canceled less than one month after it began because of the COVID-19 pandemic, led to a heightened intensity among SEC baseball fans and players that has yet to subsidize.

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

“People so wanted to be a part of something when the stadium capacities went back toward normal,” he said, “a switch had been flipped.”

He credits the energy around SEC baseball last year, culminating in a CWS championship series, worthy of a hallway picture, as Mississippi State beat Vanderbilt, with fueling intensity early into the 2021 football season. Sankey attended Clemson-Georgia, Texas-Arkansas and Alabama-Florida football games in September.

“That was another level of intensity,” Sankey said. “It was just pent-up energy, and it began when we opened up baseball stadiums.”

This year, by the way, Mississippi State, the reigning national champion, finished last in the SEC — and not because it was a bad team.

Texas and Oklahoma are taking notice. Both programs got back to Omaha in the first year after the announcement that they were headed to the SEC.

The bar has been raised. Momentum is on the upswing. On Friday on the morning of its CWS opener, Oklahoma unveiled plans for a $30 million renovation of its baseball stadium.

“They showed me (renderings of) the field,” Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson said. “It was amazing. It’s really going to be a new stadium. I mean, we’re fixing to go into the SEC. They’re moving toward that.”

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

“There’s a chance you’re going to be playing Friday night games, and there’s going to be 15,000 (in attendance),” Pierce said. “That’s pretty awesome. And every weekend on the road, you’re facing that. It’s a whole ‘nother level when you get into those fan bases and bring in those types of schools that aren’t just good in baseball, they have the history in athletics.”

Sankey, a native New Yorker who played baseball as a backup catcher at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, has found another home in Omaha. This June, he came on the opening weekend of the CWS for just the second time.

Other trips brought him for the championship series. But with 75 percent of the CWS field connected to his league now or in the years ahead, Sankey said he felt he had to get in early. The eighth-year commissioner traveled here with his wife, Cathy, for the first time.

As Texas and Notre Dame took the field Friday night, the Sankeys left the ballpark. They had reservations for dinner at 801 Chophouse, a premier downtown steakhouse. It was a power move, not unlike hanging pictures in the hallway back in Birmingham, by the man in charge of the league that continues to take charge in college sports, one championship at a time.

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

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