Much was made in the “staffed by people who can stand or sit properly” portion of the Florida beat a few weeks ago about the Gators obtaining their 250th SEC championship via the efforts of the men’s tennis team that now begins the 2021 NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed in the field.
But title No. 250 may be where Florida stands on its laurels for the 2020-21 academic year. With most titles awarded in even the spring sports that constitute the remainder of the composite schedule, Florida’s softball and baseball teams are among the very few teams — along with Florida’s outdoor track outfits, whose pursuit of SEC titles is pretty well secondary to their ultimate goal of national titles — still with a chance to add hardware for topping their respective conferences.
And yes, those teams are both still alive in their respective chases. It’s just that one is far more so than the other.
If you guessed that team was Florida softball, you may collect your meager winnings at the window: Tim Walton’s Gators, despite being behind in the race for the SEC essentially from their opening weekend of conference play onward, will still fashion their own fate.
Florida is 16-5 entering its final series against Texas A&M, three games back of an Arkansas team that is 19-5 and has clinched its first SEC softball title. All the Gators have to do to win a share of the conference title, which would be their first since 2018, is sweep the Aggies, who come in at a mere 8-13 in conference play but 31-17 overall.
The Gators do have a legitimate bone to pick with the SEC’s schedule makers, who handed Arkansas what ended up being an easier slate than Florida’s. The Razorbacks played series against the bottom four teams in the SEC — none of which is better in conference play than Georgia’s 7-14 mark — and hosted series against Alabama and Missouri, the only other teams in the league’s top five that they saw this year.
Arkansas also lost those series to Alabama and Missouri, but has been a sparkling 17-1 against lesser SEC competition; Florida, on the other hand, hasn’t lost an SEC series, but has dropped single games at Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia, and lost home meetings against Kentucky and cellar-dwelling South Carolina, which has just three other SEC wins this year (and yet, in an indication of how incredibly deep the conference is in softball, has a winning record overall.)
To be clear, though, any schedule imbalance isn’t an outrage, nor is it a COVID-19-based one-off. Arkansas has earned its record fairly, and is a legitimately very good softball team; it’s also unclear whether there have been any significant ill effects of COVID-19 on this SEC softball season, a refreshing reminder that the lingering effects of the pandemic have begun to truly dwindle in America, even in the hard-hit SEC footprint.
But the SEC’s scheduling this year permitting its likely top two seeds in the conference tournament to potentially share a conference crown without ever meeting in the regular season is an odd quirk resulting from the main problem the SEC faces in scheduling every year: Vanderbilt not having a varsity softball program leaves the league to schedule 13 teams for nine three-game series each, which has the potential to occasionally produce unbalanced results like this, and 13 teams playing nine series must naturally miss four opponents.
And these problems are endemic more to a series-based regular season rather than softball in particular. While similar problems of fairness exist in volleyball — again, a Vanderbilt-free sport — the match-based nature of volleyball scheduling ensures that the league’s teams see each other at least once each. And while SEC baseball teams much more likely to be advantaged or disadvantaged by the schedule, they do play 10 series, rather than nine.
Until now, though, these lopsided schedules also hadn’t prevented Florida and Alabama, the titans of the league in softball, from winning every SEC title from 2008 to 2019. And if Florida should fail to sweep A&M — entirely possible! — and give Arkansas the crown to keep for itself alone, I would not be shocked to see some subtle changes made to scheduling going forward.
As for the Gators’ other stick-and-ball sport in SEC play, the chances of winning the conference are slim to none — if, mathematically, closer to life support than full health.
Florida’s 7-5 loss to Kentucky on Thursday night — in which the Gators rallied back from a 5-0 deficit and then booted the ball around to give up two decisive eighth-inning runs — dropped the Gators to 13-9 in SEC play with five games remaining, which is going to make passing up every team ahead of them a very tricky proposition. Currently, Florida sits behind 14-7 Tennessee and Vanderbilt teams in the SEC East, and also trails 15-6 Arkansas, 14-7 Mississippi State, and 13-8 Ole Miss from the West.
And while every team ahead of Florida could lose out this weekend, with none of them meeting any of the other top six teams in the league, the only one of that sextet playing a ranked-vs.-ranked series is Mississippi State, which is visiting South Carolina. I’d say it’s far more likely that at least one of Arkansas (hosting Georgia), Tennessee (visiting 5-16 Missouri), and Vanderbilt (hosting Alabama) pulls off a sweep and puts itself in the driver’s seat entering next weekend’s conclusion of league play than that the entire field spits the proverbial bit and allows Florida to make up ground.
But a scenario in which Florida wins out, while unlikely, is also a potent road to winning the league. Doing so would get the Gators to 21-9, but it would also keep final weekend foe Arkansas from winning more than 21 games (and ensure a head-to-head advantage over the Hogs in any tiebreaker), and position them well to take advantage of weekend meetings between Tennessee and Arkansas and Vanderbilt and Ole Miss a week from now.
It’s not impossible to foresee a league in which no team has more than 18 or 19 conference wins entering that last weekend of play — and, should Florida somehow go to Arkansas and sweep the Razorbacks in that scenario, it would be impossible to deny that the Gators would be deserving, if improbable, SEC champions.
This team’s more present and pressing concern, of course, is figuring out how to take care of business against Kentucky. Exiting the Bluegrass State with fewer than 15 wins would be devastating to Florida’s SEC hopes, to say nothing of its NCAA Tournament aspirations.