Marshall: Is Auburn In Or Out Of NCAA Field?

The Tigers are on the bubble as they wait to find out if they are going to receive a bid to the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

Auburn's baseball team has a week to wonder. Is its season over?

The only answer at the moment is that no one knows for sure. Sunday's 11-9 loss to Alabama in the series finale was a damaging one. Going into the day, the Tigers needed either for Vanderbilt to lose or both Arkansas and Mississippi State to lose. All three of them lost. That meant a win over Alabama would mean a spot in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and almost certainly a trip to an NCAA regional.

Instead, the Tigers finished their season 32-24 overall and 13-17 in the SEC. They will spend the week practicing and waiting for next Monday and the announcement of the 64-team field for the NCAA Tournament.

There are good reasons to believe that Auburn could be the third SEC team in as many years to make the NCAA field without playing in the league tournament. There are also reasons to believe it might not happen.

Reasons for the Tigers to be optimistic:

They played an incredibly difficult schedule, taking on 32 teams ranked in the Top 25. That's far more than any other SEC team. They have one win over Florida State, one over Georgia Tech and two over Clemson. Florida State athletic director Charlie Carr, the selection committee chairman, is known to put a lot of stock in strength of schedule.

They were left out of the SEC Tournament not because Arkansas is a better team but because of a three-team tiebreaker. They have series wins over both West Division co-champions, LSU and Ole Miss.

Their RPI, something strongly considered by the committee, was No. 16 going into the weekend and will almost certainly still be in the Top 20 coming out.

Mississippi State was the ninth SEC team in last season with a 13-17 league record. Florida got in the previous year with a 13-16-1 record. Auburn has a claim equal to what either of those teams had.

Reasons for the Tigers to be pessimistic: They lost four of their final five SEC series, falling to South Carolina and Florida, beating Ole Miss and falling to Georgia and Alabama. They were 2-8 in Sunday SEC games, raising the question of whether they have enough pitching depth to reasonably be expected to seriously compete for a regional championship.

You have to wonder if the selection committee is going to continue giving the SEC the plum of getting teams into the field that don't make the league tournament.

I'd be afraid to guess what will happen next week. Alabama coach Jim Wells said Sunday "a source" had told him that the SEC is likely to get eight teams. Does that leave Auburn out? Not necessarily.

If Arkansas goes to Hoover and goes two-and-out, does it deserve to go to a regional ahead of Auburn? How about Mississippi State? That's a question the selection committee will have to answer. Both played far weaker schedules than did Auburn. There are those close to the process who believe Auburn could go ahead of either of those teams if they don't perform well in Hoover.

The one thing that seems certain is that Auburn is the next team in line if the SEC gets more than eight. Unless 10 teams are invited--and many projections say there will be--Vanderbilt probably fell behind when it was swept by Florida over the weekend.

Regardless of what happens when the selection committee meets, first-year coach Tom Slater and his staff have clearly done an outstanding job with this team.

Putting it bluntly, the Tigers don't have enough talent to seriously compete in the SEC.

Karl Amonite has been a strong performer for the Tigers.

Clete Thomas, Karl Amonite and Josh Bell are good enough hitters to play for anybody in any college league. But the problem is when you go past them. The No. 5-9 hitters in the batting order went 0-for-16 Sunday against Alabama pitching that was far from overwhelming.

Arnold Hughey and Josh Sullivan are good, but not great starters. Relievers John Madden and Michael Nix were terrific all season. But the pitching depth is not there.

Yet, the Tigers were there until the end. With a break here or there, they'd be on their way to Hoover even with having lost to Alabama on Sunday.

Slater already has a terrific recruiting class in hand. His day will come, but it might not be next season. He faces a similar situation to what basketball coach Jeff Lebo faces. He played this season short-handed, but he loses the nucleus of what he did have.

The Tigers will be more talented next season, but they will be very young. And that is not a good thing in SEC baseball.


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