By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
SEC Year in Review
The 2017-18 college athletic season wrapped up after Oregon State defeated Arkansas in the College World Series. The Razorbacks won the opening game of the best-of-three series, 4-1, and had a lead over the Beavers in the ninth inning of the second game.
With two outs, however, Arkansas missed an opportunity to seal the game. The Hogs led 3-2 with two out and one on, and Cadyn Grenier hit a pop up into foul territory. Three Razorbacks swarmed around the ball, but all three missed it. Grenier drove in the tying run, and Trevor Larnach then crushed a home run into the right-field bullpen to give the Beavers the lead. Oregon State held on for a 5-3 win to force a Game 3.
In the series finale, the Beavers blanked the Razorbacks, 5-0, to win their third national championship in school history. Freshman pitcher Kevin Abel pitched a two-hit shutout while striking out 10.
Arkansas just missed out on taking home its first NCAA baseball championship in school history. The Hogs finished as national runners-up for the second time ever and the first time since 1979.
Overall, it was a very successful year in all sports for the Southeastern Conference. Despite Arkansas falling just short in the College World Series, three SEC teams made it to Omaha. Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi State all made it to at least the semifinals. Ten SEC teams made it to the NCAA Tournament, and six of those advanced to the Super Regionals.
In softball, both Florida and Georgia made it to the College World Series. Nine teams from the SEC made the Super Regionals, including Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Tennessee.
In other spring sports, Vanderbilt finished as the runner-up in women’s tennis. The Commodores lost to Stanford in the championship match. Georgia’s men’s outdoor track and field team won the national championship. The Bulldogs became the third straight SEC team to win the title. Florida won in 2016 and 2017.
Georgia’s women’s indoor track and field team also won the national title for the first time in school history. The Florida men’s indoor track and field team won the national championship. It was the fourth time in school history the Gators have won the indoor track national title, and all four championships have been won since 2010.
The SEC produced excellent seasons in both men’s and women’s basketball. On the men’s side, a record eight teams made the NCAA Tournament. Auburn, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Missouri all made the Big Dance. No team from the league made it past the Sweet 16, but it was a ma-jor improvement for the conference overall.
Auburn won the SEC in the regular season, and Kentucky won the conference tournament. Next year could be even better for the league from top to bottom.
In women’s basketball, Mississippi State was perhaps the best team in the country all season. The Bulldogs made it to the championship game for the second year in a row but lost, 61-58, to Notre Dame. It was a still a great season for the program, and the last two years have been the best in school history.
While the SEC stepped up its game across all sports, it’s still primarily known as being a college football conference. Fittingly, the 2017-18 national championship game featured two SEC schools.
Both Alabama and Georgia made the national semifinals, which marked the first time two schools from the same conference made the four-team playoff. The result was an instant classic as the Crimson Tide defeated the Bulldogs, 26-23, in overtime on a deep touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa.
UA won the title despite not winning the SEC or even the SEC West Division. It was another masterful season for Nick Saban, who outmaneuvered protégé Kirby Smart in the title game. Alabama is the favorite to win it all again in 2018.
In basketball, Avery Johnson led Alabama to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. The Tide had plenty of ups and downs throughout the year but still made it to the tournament, defeating Virginia Tech in the opening round.
It was a disappointing season for Alabama in baseball, but Brad Bohannon didn’t exactly inherit a great roster. He should be able to turn the program around in the next two seasons.
For Auburn, it was a great season in all three major sports. The Tigers won 10 games in football, including a 26-14 win in the Iron Bowl and an appearance in the SEC title game. Auburn didn’t finish the season on the best note, but overall it was still a successful year, with head coach Gus Malzahn earning a seven-year, $49 million-dollar contract extension.
Bruce Pearl led Auburn to one of the best – and most unexpected – seasons in school history. Two of the Tigers’ best players were ruled ineligible before the season and an assistant coach was arrested in connection with an FBI investigation.
Nevertheless, the Tigers won the SEC in the regular season and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. AU advanced to the second round before an unceremonious exit.
Perhaps the best news for Auburn fans is that the Tigers could be even better next season when center Austin Wiley returns.
In baseball, Auburn also made the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers joined the short list of programs in the country to accomplish the following: earning a bowl bid and making the NCAA Tournament in both basketball and baseball.
In addition to making the baseball tournament, the Tigers also won the Raleigh Regional and advance to the Super Regionals for the first time since 1999. No. 1 Florida eliminated Auburn in three games, but it was a very successful season for the program. Additionally, pitcher Casey Mize was selected No. 1 overall in the MLB Draft.
Both Auburn and Alabama could be in store for more successful season in all three sports in 2018-19. And if recent trends continue, the SEC once again will be the premiere conference in the country.