COLUMBIA -- The SEC baseball season began with most feeling as if Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt -- in some order -- were the class of the league. Entering the final weekend, that feeling has been more than validated. In fact, the pecking order among the trio is still far from settled.
The Gamecocks (42-11) are ranked third in the latest Baseball America poll. The Gators (39-14) are sixth and the Commodores (42-8) seventh. They've leapfrogged one another the past few months without falling out of the top 10.
All three teams have matching 20-7 league records with a series remaining.
"To win 20 games, you think you've got a chance to win the thing," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "It ain't going to work this time. I'm surprised. It's amazing to me. You've got three teams at this point that have been able to get 20 wins with three to go."
USC has the head-to-head advantage due to series wins against Florida and Vanderbilt. But that only helps so far as seeding for next week's SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. If there's a tie between two or more of the teams, the regular season title is shared.
Last season, USC struggled in the final weekend, but then in the SEC tourney, got its act together enough for the national title run. So, the SEC race is something, but it's not everything.
"We're not putting our eggs into this one basket," Gamecocks ace Michael Roth said. "We want to win this weekend, but we want to win our last game again."
Going strictly by the RPI, provided by boydsworld.com, Vanderbilt has the toughest of the three assignments this weekend. The Commodores travel to Georgia (27-26, 15-12), which is the RPI's No. 25 team.
USC is not far behind. The Gamecocks head to Alabama (31-22, 13-14), the current West leader by virtue of tiebreaks and the No. 36 team in the RPI.
Florida has the most favorable matchup, hosting Kentucky (24-28, 7-20) -- one of only two teams to be eliminated from SEC tournament consideration. The Wildcats will throw ace Alex Meyer tonight. If the Gators can get by him, a sweep is certainly possible.
Of course, how this weekend and the SEC tourney go will shape the picture for approaching NCAA tournament. Currently, Baseball America analyst Aaron Fitt believes all three East leaders will receive national seeds, with the right to host the regional and super regional rounds. That, of course, is subject to change.
"Certainly there's a lot to play for," Tanner said. "Everybody in this league has a lot to play for right now."
On an individual level, Roth, the junior left-hander, has a lot to play for this evening. Roth scuffled a bit last weekend against Arkansas, giving up a pair of runs on 10 hits in just his second loss of the season.
But Roth's resume -- 10-2, league-best 1.35 ERA, 83 strikeouts in 93 innings -- has him in the heart of the SEC pitcher of the year discussion. And that's a conversation with future first-rounders such as Meyer, Florida's Hudson Randall and Grayson Garvin, and Sonny Gray from Vanderbilt.
"It's special, that's for sure," Roth said. "There's a lot of great pitchers in the SEC. ... It's an honor just to be in the conversation."
With even a decent start tonight, there's a good chance he will be named the league's top pitcher sometime next week. That's not bad considering he was a reliever the bulk of last season and no one was entirely sure how his full-time entrance into the rotation would go.
"What he's done, even if he doesn't do anything else, has been incredible," Tanner said. "There was never any doubt he was the right kind of guy ... but to have the numbers that he's had, I couldn't tell you I saw that coming.
"He's been really special. Not only has he been one of the best guys in the conference, but one of the best guys in the country. It's been great for us. It's been fun to watch."
Roth will face Alabama ace Nathan Kilcrease (5-4, 3.74 ERA) in tonight's 7:30 start. USC freshman right-hander Forrest Koumas (5-0, 3.17) will go against junior left-hander Adam Morgan (5-4, 3.89) on Friday, another 7:30 p.m. start.
Alabama is not listing a starter for Saturday against USC sophomore right-hander Colby Holmes (5-2, 3.70), who is this week's SEC pitcher of the week following 8 2/3 strong innings in a win Sunday against Arkansas.
Tonight and Friday's games will not be televised, but Saturday's regular season finale, a 1 p.m. start, will be on CSS.