Monte Lee, Mark Kingston

South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston and Clemson head coach Monte Lee meet before a game earlier this season. The Tigers had the best regular season, including a series win against the Gamecocks. But a 17-13 record in the rugged SEC made South Carolina a better postseason team. John A. Carlos II /Special to The Post and Courier

Leave it to a veteran sports fan with SEC ties to coin a political phrase that can be tweaked to fit athletic competition.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was campaign advisor (and LSU grad) James Carville’s famous approach to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential race. Campaigners on both sides of the aisle have followed the advice.

Sometimes, in search of various winning formulas, we get distracted by less relevant data. For instance, college baseball’s Rating Percentage Index, which told us going into the NCAA Tournament that Clemson was No. 11 and South Carolina No. 43.

Now the Gamecocks are in Fayetteville, Ark., playing in a super regional and the Tigers are scattered and battered.

That’s because we forgot a lesson that made sense all season: It’s the conference games, stupid.

Not just for South Carolina and Clemson.

For College of Charleston, too.

All the other stuff — RPI, midweek upsets, non-conference results — pale in comparison to what happens with the red meat of the schedule.

This season, anyway.

Check the bodies of work:

South Carolina

Yes, the Gamecocks (36-24) lost to Presbyterian (No. 276 in the RPI), Charleston Southern (255), The Citadel (244), VMI (171) and Furman (151). Computer-ranking killers, all.

They also went 17-13 in by far the toughest conference in college baseball.

A record-tying 10 SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament and six are still alive in the super regionals — as many as any three other conferences combined.

“It’s probably above my pay grade to make any major decisions on the RPI. At times the RPI can be a good gauge on teams; at times it cannot,” South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston said. “At the end of the day, I think the SEC has prepared all of us to do well in the postseason. When you have to play the caliber of SEC teams every week for 10 straight weeks it makes you a better team, so that when you go to a regional and you’re facing non-SEC teams, I think you feel very prepared. You feel very confident.”

I am not saying midweek losses or bad non-conference losses shouldn’t count. Or that the RPI formula should be adjusted.

Just that common sense tells you the pitchers used in midweek games are usually not the same guys who appear in regional games.

Clemson

The Tigers finished with a nice 47-16 record. But Clemson’s 22-8 ACC mark is as deceptive as a Stephen Strasburg changeup.

The ACC was unusually down.

Two ACC teams have advanced to super regionals and Clemson did not face North Carolina or Duke this season.

Two other ACC teams (besides Clemson) made the NCAA Tournament; the Tigers went 0-3 vs. N.C. State, 2-2 vs. Florida State.

It’s the conference games.

More importantly, it’s the top-level conference games. They indicated Clemson’s stock was inflated, a trend that played out when the Tigers ran into Vanderbilt, one of those tested-tough SEC teams, in the regionals.

College of Charleston

Sweet sweep of Georgia in March.

Nice series win at Kansas State.

Quite an emphatic 9-0 victory over South Carolina in Chad Holbrook’s return to Columbia on May 9.

And a solid 15-8 record in the Colonial Athletic Association, which sent two teams, Northeastern and CAA Tournament winner UNC Wilmington, to the NCAA Tournament.

But the Cougars after taking a series from Northeastern had an 0-3 flop at sixth-place Hofstra. They missed second place by a game, allowing Elon to grab the No. 2 seed in the CAA Tournament.

Not only did that mean a first-round bye but the home dugout for College of Charleston’s 3-2, 12-inning loss to Elon on the second day of the CAA Tournament.

One more regular-season win — in a conference game — might have made the difference.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff