Why the SEC is the biggest story this college baseball season

JJ Bleday has helped Vanderbilt to the top of the SEC standings. Vanderbilt Athletics

With less than two weeks until the NCAA college baseball tournament field is announced on Memorial Day (noon ET on ESPNU), most conferences are wrapping up regular-season play this weekend.

The first four tickets to the NCAA tournament will be punched this weekend, with the Ivy League, MEAC, Patriot League and SWAC all crowning champions on Saturday or Sunday.

If you're just getting caught up on the first three months of the college baseball season, here's what you need to know.

The SEC is king

Stop me if you've heard this before, but the SEC is the deepest conference in college baseball. Eight teams from the conference are ranked in the latest USA Today Coaches' Poll, and the conference has 11 teams ranked in the top 35 in RPI.

That puts the SEC in position to threaten the record for the most teams from a single conference to make the NCAA tournament in one year. That record currently stands at 10, first achieved by the SEC in 2014 and since matched by the ACC in 2016 and SEC in 2018.

It's not just the depth of the conference that's impressive. The SEC has four of the top six teams in RPI, which is the selection committee's main tool for determining NCAA tournament seeding. The top four teams in the conference -- Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Georgia -- all have the chance to earn a highly coveted top-eight national seed, which means they wouldn't have to go on the road in the NCAA tournament until the College World Series.

Tennessee is 10th in the conference -- and 10th nationally in RPI -- which should be good enough to snap its long regional drought. The Volunteers haven't played in the NCAA tournament since reaching the College World Series in 2005.

The wild card for the conference breaking the record is Florida, which has reached the College World Series each of the past four seasons and made the NCAA tournament in each of Kevin O'Sullivan's 11 years as head coach. The Gators enter the final weekend of SEC play with a 10-17 conference record. Only two SEC schools have earned at-large bids to the NCAA tournament with fewer than 13 conference wins: Vanderbilt in 2009 and Mississippi State in 2006 (both finished 12-17).

Players to watch

The Golden Spikes Award, college baseball's version of the Heisman Trophy, will be handed out in Omaha, Nebraska, on June 14, the day before the College World Series begins. Several of the 25 semifinalists could have a major impact on the NCAA tournament.

• Arizona State's Hunter Bishop leads the Pac-12 with 22 home runs, three more than teammate Spencer Torkelson (who led D-I last season). Bishop only hit 10 homers in his first two seasons.

JJ Bleday has hit 23 home runs this season, a new Vanderbilt single-season record and tied for the most in Division I.

• Louisville's Reid Detmers leads the ACC with a 2.59 ERA and 127 strikeouts; his presence on Friday night is a big reason why the Cardinals are atop the conference standings.

Jake Mangum led the SEC in batting average as a freshman in 2016 and has kept raking since then. The Mississippi State outfielder is hitting .392 this season and is the new SEC hit king with 368 career hits.

Alek Manoah leads the Big 12 with a 1.89 ERA and 121 strikeouts and has West Virginia on the cusp of earning a top-16 seed in the NCAA tournament. He has gotten hot in conference play, allowing one or fewer runs in five of his past six starts.

• Georgia Tech has been one of the biggest surprises in Division I this season, and catcher Kyle McCann has been one of the big reasons. He leads the ACC with 21 home runs despite drawing more than one walk per game.

Adley Rutschman was the most outstanding player at least year's College World Series and hasn't skipped a bit this season. The Oregon State catcher leads the nation with a .581 on-base percentage, on pace to be the highest in Division I this decade.

• Imagine the surprised looks on the faces of the unsuspecting No. 1 seed that draws Navy as its No. 4 seed in the regional. Noah Song leads Division I with 150 strikeouts in 87 innings -- a ridiculous rate of 15.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He's also second in the nation with a 1.03 ERA.

• Cal's Andrew Vaughn won the Golden Spikes Award last season and is looking to become the first person in the award's 42-year history to win twice. His numbers aren't quite as gaudy as they were last season, when he nearly finished with the Pac-12 triple crown, but his .374 average and 14 home runs has California in position to make the regionals for the first time since 2015.

The West is back

Three years ago, there wasn't a single regional west of Texas. That marked the nadir for West Coast baseball, and even that year Arizona and UC Santa Barbara both followed the long road to reach the College World Series.

The Pac-12 has been flying high since then, with Oregon State winning the title in 2018 and UCLA spending the past nine weeks occupying the top spot in the coaches' poll.

The Pac-12 doesn't hold a conference tournament, and with two weeks left the Bruins are in a three-way tie for first with Oregon State and Stanford. UCLA took the regular-season series from both the Beavers and Cardinal and have a strong case for the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA tournament on the strength of five series wins against teams currently ranked in the coaches' poll.

The Beavers and Cardinal aren't far behind in the national pecking order. Both are in the top 20 in RPI and in position to host a regional. Stanford hosts Oregon State this weekend, with the winner improving its case for a top-eight national seed.

Behind a pair of powerful offensive attacks, Arizona State and California are also in position to reach the NCAA tournament. That would give the Pac-12 five bids for the first time since it sent six teams to the 2015 tournament.

One of the biggest surprises this season has been UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos started the season unranked and didn't move into the coaches' poll until April 1. They've won 23 of their past 25 games and lead Division I with a .854 winning percentage (41-7). UCSB doesn't have lights at its stadium, but could look to host a regional off campus, as it did in 2015 at Lake Elsinore.

Not your usual suspects

At least this season, some of the teams that might not make the NCAA tournament are as a big a story as those that will be in the tournament field. Six schools have made at least 10 straight regional appearances; with two weeks left in the season, only two of them are locks this season.

This season was supposed to be a victory lap for Mike Martin in his 40th and final season as Florida State's head coach. The Seminoles opened the season as College World Series contenders, ranked No. 11 in the coaches' poll, and won 13 of their first 14 games as Martin picked up his 2,000th career win against Virginia Tech on March 9.

The Seminoles have struggled since then, posting a 21-17 record and dropping outside the top 50 in RPI -- a dangerous position for an ACC team hoping for an at-large regional bid. Florida State has won at least 40 games and reached the NCAA tournament in each of Martin's first 39 seasons, but both streaks are in peril with two weeks left.

Cal State Fullerton has reached the NCAA tournament in 27 straight seasons, the second-longest active streak in Division I. On Sunday, the Titans were eliminated from contention for the Big West regular-season title and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. With an RPI outside the top 100, Fullerton will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

Florida (11 straight regional appearances) and Clemson (10 straight) are both under .500 in conference play and will be hunting wins in their final series and respective conference tournaments.

Another surprising potential absence from this year's NCAA tournament field is Texas. The Longhorns got out of the gate fast, including sweeping then-No. 1 LSU the first week of March. Since then, Texas has won only two of nine series and enters the week in last place in the Big 12, in danger of missing the conference tournament.

Around the nation

The ACC has two schools -- Georgia Tech and Louisville -- in the top 10 in both the coaches' poll and RPI, and the Yellow Jackets and Cardinals lead their respective divisions with three conference games left. Both are well-positioned to earn top-eight national seeds.

Behind those two there's a four-way tie at 16-11 with Miami, NC State, North Carolina and Florida State. The Hurricanes enter this weekend ranked 16th in RPI and in position to snap a two-year NCAA tournament drought and host a regional. The Tar Heels host the Wolfpack this weekend, with the winner of that series improving its stock for a top-16 seed.

East Carolina is in the top 10 in the coaches' poll and fourth in RPI after running away with the American Athletic Conference regular-season title. The Pirates have an 18-3 conference record and host Memphis this weekend. With a series win, East Carolina will become the first AAC team to win 20 conference games in a season; Louisville currently holds the record with a 19-5 mark in 2014.

The Big 12 has four teams in the latest coaches' poll, headlined by Texas Tech at No. 10. The Red Raiders have made the College World Series in three of the past five seasons, and enter the week half a game behind Baylor in the conference standings. The first-place Bears visit third-place Oklahoma State this weekend in a series with big implications for the conference race and regional-hosting chances for both schools. This is the final scheduled home series at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium for the Cowboys before moving into their new $60 million home in 2020.

One of the tightest conference races with a week to go is in the Big Ten, where Michigan enters the week with a 1.5-game lead over Indiana and 2.5-game lead over Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota. The Wolverines finish with a three-game set at the Huskers, who are coming off a series win against then-No. 20 Arizona State. The conference has sent at least four teams to the NCAA tournament in three of the past four seasons, a number it's in position to match or exceed again this year.

Ready to advance

The first four bids to the NCAA tournament will be punched this week, with champions crowned in the Ivy League, MEAC, Patriot League and SWAC.

Regular-season champion Harvard will host Columbia in the Ivy League championship series on Saturday and Sunday. The Crimson won two of three regular-season meetings between the teams to earn the top seed, rallying from 6-0 and 8-3 deficits in the series finale to win in 14 innings. Harvard is looking to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, while Columbia represented the Ivy League last year and is looking to make its fifth regional trip in the past seven years.

The Patriot League will be represented in the NCAA tournament by a service academy, as top-seeded Navy hosts 3-seed Army in the championship series. Navy went 18-7 to win the regular-season title by three games, but lost three of five meetings against Army. The Black Knights are looking to make back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament; the Midshipmen are seeking their first regional appearance since 2016.

The MEAC champion will be determined by a six-team, double-elimination tournament in Daytona Beach. The biggest news from the regular-season is that tournament host Bethune-Cookman, which has represented the conference in the NCAA tournament in 16 of the previous 20 seasons, failed to qualify for the conference tournament this season. North Carolina A&T won the South Division and is looking for its second straight tournament title. Norfolk State won the North and is looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.

The SWAC championship game will air on ESPNews at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, the culmination of an eight-team double-elimination tournament in New Orleans. The local favorite is Southern, which won the Western Division and is seeking its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009. Alabama State ran away with the Eastern Division title and is looking to make its second regional appearance (2016).

It's possible that a fifth team could also punch its ticket this weekend. UC Santa Barbara leads the Big West -- one of two conferences that doesn't hold a conference tournament -- by two games over Cal Poly and three over UC Irvine. That gives the Gauchos a chance to clinch the regular-season title and the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with one week left to play.