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May 2, 2011

USC One of Three Teams Racing for Title

It's been a staple of SEC baseball that a 20-win season in the conference has usually been the plateau to determine a regular-season champion. Only once since the league adopted its current format of playing 30 conference games in 1993 has the regular-season champ not won at least 20 games - Arkansas and Georgia were co-champions in 2004 after each finished 19-11.

As the 2011 season hits the home stretch, with only three regular-season weekends remaining, the SEC is facing an unusual circumstance - not only will 20 wins likely not determine the regular-season champ, it might not even determine the SEC East champion.

"A lot of times, you look at our conference, and you go, 'Hey, somebody wins 20 games, they're probably going to have a chance to win the whole thing, certainly win your division,'" South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said on Sunday. "It's going to be different this time."

The Gamecocks, Florida and Vanderbilt each finished three-game sweeps over the weekend to remain huddled at the top of the SEC East. Each team is 17-4 with nine SEC games to play, meaning it will be quite the race and quite the watch to see if one overall champion emerges.

"It is a bit unusual," Tanner said. "They don't seem to play that many close games. We're just plugging along. We're going to try to win as many games as we can, finish out."

Barring a complete collapse by those three teams and a miraculous surge by SEC West leaders Alabama and Arkansas (each 10-11), the champion(s) will be one of the three SEC East stalwarts. It's fitting, as each has been a fixture in the national top five all season - the No. 5 Gators and No. 4 Commodores were each ranked No. 1, before No. 2 USC took series victories against each of them.

The Gamecocks control their own destiny as they seek their first regular-season title since 2002. They hold tiebreakers over Florida and Vanderbilt but the tiebreakers are only used for tournament seeding - if there is a tie for division or the regular-season crown at the end of the year, all tied teams are honored as champion.

What USC has to do is simply keep pace with the other two and wait for the penultimate conference weekend. On May 13-15, while the Gamecocks host Arkansas, Florida will be tussling with the Commodores in Nashville.

Somebody will have to lose at least two games that weekend, giving the series winner and the Gamecocks a boost.

If they can keep pace until then and afterward.

"We don't really look at the record too much," first baseman Christian Walker said. "We don't really talk about it. It's one of those things that never really comes up. We're playing good baseball right now, even though everybody's not really clicking on the same page, and we're winning games."

USC continues to win despite losing outfielder after outfielder to injury. The Gamecocks are the walking wounded but keep finding ways to claim series - they're the only team in the league to win their first seven SEC series, tying a school record.

The Gamecocks travel to Ole Miss (9-12) this weekend, then host Arkansas and finish at Alabama. Florida is at Arkansas this weekend, then travels to Vanderbilt and hosts Kentucky (4-17). The Commodores are at Kentucky this weekend, then host Florida and finish at Georgia (13-8).

USC has a chance to make history over the next three weeks. The Gamecocks own the SEC record for wins in a league season, after they went an incredible 25-5 in 2000. They can tie that with eight wins or break it with nine. Florida and Vanderbilt are challenging for the same prize, although only one can possibly get it.

But only the Gamecocks have a shot at another claim. Since 1993, when the league switched to a 30-game format, no team has ever won all of its 10 SEC series. The Gamecocks came close, winning nine series in 2002.

They are 7-0 in series this year.

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