By David Brandt/The Associated Press
South Carolina and Florida are expected to be the class of the Southeastern Conference after the two powerhouse programs played for the national championship last summer.
They haven’t disappointed.
The Gamecocks and Gators have cruised through the non-conference portion of their schedule and are the favorites to win the SEC as league play begins on Friday throughout the league.
Other programs — including Mississippi, Kentucky, LSU and Arkansas — have also started well.
South Carolina has a much different roster than the past two seasons, when the Gamecocks won back-to-back national titles, but they’ve infused new talent into the lineup.
The Gamecocks (15-3) travel to face Kentucky (18-0) on Friday, with senior left-hander Michael Roth (2-0, 0.93 ERA) taking the mound. The Gamecocks’ lineup will include a few familiar faces, but also has freshmen like outfielder Tanner English and catcher Greyson Greiner, who have quickly become crucial to the team’s success.
The Gamecocks routinely start four freshmen.
“First time in the league, just try and make sure (the freshmen) are comfortable,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “This game is too hard to play when you’re not. You’ve played some games now, got some experience, have some fun, and be the best that you can be. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. It happens in our game.
“The biggest problem you have is when you’re tentative. Then it’s tough for good things to happen.”
Florida has a veteran lineup led by power hitters Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker, who have combined for 13 homers. The Gators have a 16-1 record while facing quality competition like Cal State Fullerton, Miami and Florida State.
Florida will host Vanderbilt (7-10) beginning Friday.
Zunino, the reigning SEC player of the year, is off to another terrific start, hitting .417 with seven homers and 23 RBIs. But the rest of the lineup is right there with him — the Gators have socked a league-high 27 homers.
Gators’ coach Kevin O’Sullivan said he’s pleased with the depth, which should bode well for the long grind of SEC play.
“It’s a long season — there’s 30 conference games,” O’Sullivan said. “Each one of them is important, there’s no one that more important than the others. But you definitely want to get off to a good start and play well at home, so I hope we do that this weekend.”
Even though Florida and South Carolina appear to be the class of the SEC, there’s plenty of depth. Seven teams are ranked in Baseball America’s latest top 25 poll, including Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia and Mississippi State.
Ole Miss and LSU are hoping to bounce back from subpar seasons, when both programs didn’t qualify for the eight-team SEC tournament or make an NCAA regional.
The Rebels have a 14-3 record and host Auburn (10-7). LSU (14-3) hosts Mississippi State (14-5).
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said one reason for the bounce-back season is a year of adjustment to college baseball’s new bats, which have dramatically reduced scoring and put an emphasis on pitching and defense.
But the Rebels have also hit. Second baseman Alex Yarbrough leads the SEC with a .471 batting average while designated hitter Zack Kirksey leads the league with eight homers and 30 RBI.
“We didn’t completely change the way we recruit, but there’s certainly an emphasis on getting balance in your lineup,” Bianco said. “We still need guys who can hit the home run, but we also need guys who can handle the bat, bunt and steal a base when it’s needed. I think we’re better at all those things this season.”
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this story.