Gamecocks, Gators battle for SEC title

South Carolina’s Blake Cooper will start tonight against No. 4 Florida (7 p.m., SportSouth).

COLUMBIA -- Postseason baseball has come early for South Carolina and Florida.

With matching 20-7 conference records, they are the SEC's top two teams entering the three-game series that begins tonight at Carolina Stadium.

The winner of the weekend series is the winner of the conference. Simple as that. It's a three-game playoff series between the No. 6 Gamecocks (42-11) and No. 4 Gators (38-12) for the SEC title.

"There's a little spice to this one, for sure," Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. "It doesn't get any better, I don't think, for the Southeastern Conference."

Game times are 7 p.m. tonight and Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday. The first two games will be televised on SportSouth. The Saturday game has been moved to Fox Sports South.

"Besides the national championship, I think the SEC is the next-hardest thing to win," USC outfielder Whit Merrifield said Tuesday. "It would be a great accomplishment if we could win it."

Gamecocks senior right-hander Blake Cooper (10-0, 3.01 ERA) will start tonight against Gators sophomore southpaw Alex Panteliodis (8-2, 3.34).

"I just want to have the same mentality I've had all year," said Cooper, who's helped the Gamecocks to stay undefeated in SEC Friday night games this season (9-0). "I want to give my team a chance to win, throw strikes."

In addition to the SEC ramifications this week and weekend, there could be some beyond that.

A sweep at Arkansas sure figures to have significantly helped USC's claim for a national seed, which would earn the Gamecocks homefield advantage in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

However, sitting 14th in the latest RPI, they could ensure that fact with a series win and conference title. A few wins next week at the SEC tournament would help, as well.

As noted the past month or so, the Gamecocks haven't hosted a regional since 2007. But they haven't held a home super regional series since 2004 -- their last trip to the College World Series.

"We win two out of three, and we win the SEC and pretty much clinch a national seed," Merrifield said. "We always want to play at home. To play at home, we've got to win this weekend -- and we're playing at home. It's going to be a blast. I can't wait."

Stop, really, to consider the uniqueness of the scenario. Two teams play entire conference seasons to end up with the same record-- and play the final series of the year against one another. It's downright mythical.

Tanner wondered aloud Tuesday evening whether it had ever happened before. Although records of the sort aren't necessarily kept, it's hard to imagine that two SEC teams -- the only two that could win even a share of the league's crown -- would meet to decide things on the field.

It requires good play, sure, but it takes some serious spinning of fate's web to bring about the timing.

Because of that, fever pitch -- a phrase used Wednesday by Tanner -- is expected today, Friday and (possibly) Saturday at Carolina Stadium.

"Festival" was another word Tanner used to describe what he expects at the 2-year-old park, which, at least in its infancy, has never seen bigger games.

The series is sold out.

"I'm hoping it's busting at the seams and fire marshals are everywhere," Tanner said of the 6,400-seat facility, which can hold more in standing-room only ticketing. "We need all the help we can get. This Florida team is extremely talented. They've got so many weapons, we need everything going in our favor that we can have."

The Gators are predicated on talent, yes, and young talent.

In addition to Panteliodis, the Friday-Saturday starters, right-hander Hudson Randall and left-hander Brian Johnson, are both freshmen.

"They're pitching guys right now that could be in professional baseball," Tanner said, "but they chose to go to school."

The team leader in home runs, Austin Maddox (17), is a freshman. The starting shortstop, Nolan Fontana and his one error all season, is a freshman.

So it'll be interesting to see how Florida's youth responds in the series and this environment. Tanner has said he likes the blend of youth and experience on his own team, and that chemistry has led to a lot of success the Gamecocks have had so far.

"They handle adversity pretty well together. They handle success pretty well," Tanner said. "I think they're excited to be in the position they're in. I don't think any of our players would tell you we're a great team or we're awesome, but we've been able to battle and win some close games."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).