- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC dominate the rankings in college softball, but only one of the three stages a conference tournament. With all seven games televised on the ESPN family of networks, that puts the softball spotlight on Oxford, Miss.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 Mississippi State
Watch: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN3.com
Big question: How good is Alabama's offense?
We're dealing with only the upper ranges of the scale here, somewhere between "very good" and "unstoppable," but that may be the margin between back-to-back tournament titles (to go with back-to-back regular-season titles) and disappointment. The Crimson Tide looked like a juggernaut this past weekend on the same field they return to this week, piling up 36 runs in 17 innings to sweep three games from Ole Miss, but the competition is stiffer this time around.
En route to winning the SEC double last season, the Crimson Tide led the league in both slugging percentage and on-base percentage during conference play, by modest amounts in the case of Florida and lap-the-field amounts in the case of every other team. Four Alabama players slugged at least .600 in SEC play a season ago, a mark that only one player with a full allotment of plate appearances, Amanda Locke, reached this time around. Overall, the Crimson Tide's offense ranks fourth in slugging percentage and third in on-base percentage.
So why the question mark? Because with so many of the same pieces in place from last season, notably minus Charlotte Morgan, it's still not clear that this team has scratched the surface of its offensive potential. Run producers like Courtney Conley, Cassie Reilly-Boccia and even freshman Jackie Traina, who started strong but slumped at the plate in recent weeks and pitched in only the final series of the regular season, have shown an ability to do more. Kayla Braud, who stole just nine bases in 25 conference games after stealing 41 in 27 nonconference games, could regain her footing as the most dangerous leadoff hitter in the conference. Whether they do will answer what kind of offense the Tide really have at their disposal.
Alabama player to watch: Kelsi Dunne, P
No matter how they play out, the weeks ahead are Dunne's stage to work with. Not unlike Arizona's Alicia Hollowell before she finished her career with a national championship in 2006, Dunne has long been one of the best starting pitchers in the country -- and long been a pitcher who can't seem to catch a break at the right time. But as coach Patrick Murphy is fond of noting, all that experience might make her the most resilient player in the conference, if not the country. Consider that after playing a part in back-to-back late-inning losses against Florida, then enduring the far-more-substantial adversity of the tornadoes that ripped through Tuscaloosa, she went out in Alabama's first game back on the field and no-hit Ole Miss this past weekend, the ninth no-hitter of her career.
Mississippi State player to watch: Ali Bainbridge, SS
There's no more Chelsea Bramlett for the Bulldogs, the All-American catcher and one of the nation's best base thieves before she graduated last season, but Bainbridge can build a rally by herself. The senior from just a short drive up the road from the Alabama's campus stole 20 bases during the regular season and gave herself every opportunity to swipe them with a .500 on-base percentage. She was 0-for-7 in Mississippi State's three losses at Alabama earlier this season but managed to reach base three times via a walk, hit by pitch and catcher's interference. The Bulldogs are going to need luck to pull the upset, but luck starts with runners on base.
No. 2 Florida vs. No. 7 Auburn
Watch: Thursday, 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU/ESPN3.com
Big question: Is Florida's pitching now an asset?
When asked this week how her team would handle Florida's potent lineup. Auburn coach Tina Deese had a simple answer.
"Very carefully," the veteran coach offered.
It's as wise a plan with these Gators as with their zoological namesakes. Florida led the SEC in slugging percentage and ranked second in walks, a good recipe for scoring a lot of runs. But for a time this season it wasn't clear that even that lineup could score enough runs to win consistently, not with an injured presumptive ace, Stephanie Brombacher, and an up-and-down freshman, Hannah Rogers, in the circle. Those concerns came to a head in the final week of March and first week of April, when the Gators lost six conference games in a row to Kentucky and Georgia and were outscored 54-23 in the process. By way of comparison, Florida gave up 67 runs in 2009 -- in 68 games.
So as daunting as the lineup is, it can't help the sleep pattern of opposing coaches to look down at the stat sheet and realize that in the final 18 games of the regular season, Florida pitching allowed just 31 runs. Brombacher hasn't gone a full seven innings since returning to action April 16, although coach Tim Walton said this week she's healthy, but her return has given the team another veteran presence and given Rogers just enough innings off to stay fresh.
"I think she's going to be able to do the same thing moving forward that we've pretty much done over the past three to four weeks, where she's been able to start games," Walton said of Brombacher. "I think her workload could improve -- she could throw more innings, but I really like the combination of the games. I like her starting and Hannah finishing. It really gives the batters a tough look."
Florida player to watch: Cheyenne Coyle, SS
Rogers isn't the only freshman surging at the right time for the Gators. Aja Paculba, Megan Bush, Kelsey Bruder and Brittany Schutte are the proven run producers in the heart of Florida's lineup, but Coyle ranked seventh in slugging percentage and 12th in on-base percentage during conference play, both the best marks of any freshman. Walton raved about her in the preseason and her again this week. When he starts doing that, it's usually worth paying attention.
Auburn player to watch: Morgan Estell, OF/1B
Auburn was outscored 35-10 in losing all three games to Florida during the regular season, making it easy to see why Deese said she'll likely use all three of her primary pitchers, if not more, to try to change up looks. But the Tigers, who closed the regular season with back-to-back series wins against Georgia and Kentucky, could help their pitchers by building momentum at the plate. That starts with Estell, the freshman leadoff hitter. She was 6-of-9 at the plate against the Gators in the regular season and ranked in the top 15 in league play in slugging and on-base percentage.
No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Kentucky
Watch: Thursday, noon ET on ESPNU/ESPN3.com
Big question: How much of an underdog is Kentucky?
Short answer: Not as much as in seasons past. Tennessee had a chance to win the conference outright before being swept at Florida in the regular season's final weekend. It's a team with legitimate national championship aspirations built around a deep, talented pitching staff and a deep, talented batting order that punishes pitchers with walks, steals and doubles as much as three-run home runs.
The thing is, you don't need to alter the description all that much to have it apply to Kentucky, the SEC's most upwardly mobile program under coach Rachel Lawson, a rising star in her own right.
Kentucky lost an All-American to graduation in shortstop Molly Johnson, a player who isn't likely to be unseated as the best in program history for a long time, yet managed to improve dramatically on offense. A season after essentially ranking as the best of the second tier in the conference, the Wildcats were right on the heels of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in slugging and on-base percentage. Consider that they walked a total of 125 times in 59 games last season but enter the SEC tournament with 189 walks through 49 games. With that patience has come increases in power (already 20 more home runs than last season) and speed (already surpassed last season's total of stolen bases). And with hitters like Megan Yocke (1.150 OPS) and Brittany Cervantes (1.212 OPS), they don't need to catch breaks to beat top teams; they just need to play their own game.
"They're more confident at staying in the count and staying in a little bit deeper in waiting for their pitch to drive, so that's first and foremost," Lawson said. "And then we've just made it a priority all year, starting in September, to have better pitch selection. I think because we have a better grasp of the zone and concept of the zone, we've been able to not only walk better, but you can see all of our hitting numbers are up."
Tennessee players to watch: Raven Chavanne, Kat Dotson and Kelly Grieve
Freshman pitcher Ellen Renfroe two-hit Alabama, held UCLA to a single run while striking out 10 Bruins on a neutral field in California and beat Georgia in Athens, so she obviously bears watching. But balance is the name of the game at Tennessee, and the trio of Kat Dotson, Kelly Grieve and Raven Chavanne might be the most balanced outfield in the country. All three stole at least 19 bases and hit .365 or better for the season, and all three play quality defense. The key for this weekend and beyond may be Dotson rediscovering her power.
Kentucky player to watch: Chanda Bell, P
Bell is the other half of the equation for Kentucky, the ace who makes every run scored by her offense that much more demoralizing to opponents struggling to get runners on base. She was not as effective in conference play as she was earlier in the season and shared innings almost equally with Ellen Weaver and Rachel Riley. But there's no substitute for strikeouts in the postseason, and Bell's strikeout rate of 9.3 strikeouts per seven innings was the best among starting pitchers in conference play.
No. 4 LSU vs. No. 5 Georgia
Watch: Thursday, 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU/ESPN3.com
Big question: How much does momentum mean?
The first time these teams met this season, LSU scored three runs and was swept in three games at Georgia, twice lasting just five innings before the run rule kicked in and ended games. Georgia moved to No. 1 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 the next week; LSU dropped to No. 25. As the seedings here suggest, things change.
LSU still doesn't offer much in the way of offense -- it ranked ninth in SEC play in slugging percentage and was closer to league-worst Mississippi than league leader Georgia in on-base percentage. But after it hit rock bottom following the Georgia series, LSU closed the regular season on a 23-3 run, largely on the strength of Brittany Mack's arm (she's 13-4 with a 1.53 in SEC play) and the best fielding percentage and second-fewest errors in league play.
"We played phenomenal defense and we just kind of squeak out runs and we just hold on until something good happens for us most of the time," coach Yvette Girouard said.
By contrast, the numbers say Georgia shouldn't be in nearly the state that is having fallen from first in the nation to fifth in the conference. Pitching has long been a question mark, even during the World Series runs of the past two seasons, but the Bulldogs have a better team ERA than Florida. The offense is a juggernaut -- none of the eight regulars are slugging worse than .481 and six of them are at .545 or better.
LSU player to watch: Juliana Santos, SS
Anissa Young is the big bat in the lineup and Simone Heyward has the speed at the top of the lineup, but on a team that hit .222 in conference play, Santos is someone who actually got better at the plate against conference pitching. The junior hit .277 in SEC play and had nine of her team's 34 extra-base hits. She also made just three errors at shortstop, teaming with third baseman Tammy Wray to keep the left side of the infield a strength when it could have been a weakness without injured defensive stalwart Jessica Mouse.
Georgia player to watch: Alisa Goler, 3B/SS
All you're watching for when Goler is up to bat is that one ball a pitcher leaves just a little too close to the strike zone. One of the most remarkably disciplined sluggers in the game, much to her own frustration, Goler drew 57 walks and struck out just 12 times in all games during the regular season, including a league-high 26 walks in conference play. But when she makes contact, opponents pay for it. Of her 20 hits in conference play, 11 cleared the fence.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
The SEC boasts many of the nation's best teams -- and with Selection Sunday looming, the tournament provides the conference's teams a last chance to state their cases.