Most of the powerful baseball programs in the Southeastern Conference have cruised through the early portion of their schedule nearly unscathed.
That's probably going to change this weekend.
The league's 30-game conference schedule begins on Friday with several marquee series, including LSU at Vanderbilt, Mississippi at South Carolina and Arkansas at Florida.
South Carolina (16-0) is the league's only undefeated team, but LSU (16-2), Ole Miss (16-2), Vanderbilt (16-2) and Tennessee (15-1) also are off to good starts. Pitching has been dominant: Six teams have a sub-2.00 ERA.
LSU Coach Paul Mainieri says there is "an embarrassment of riches on the mound" across the league. Tigers' ace Aaron Nola is one of the best — the right-hander hasn't given up an earned run in 27 innings.
But Mainieri said the competition and expectations change drastically once conference play arrives.
"As a general rule, you know you're going to win 10 conference games and lose 10 games because everyone in the SEC has talent," Mainieri said. "How you do in the other 10 games determines if you have a good or bad season."
South Carolina's perfect start can be largely attributed to a pitching staff that has an SEC-best 1.12 ERA with nine shutouts. The Gamecocks have outscored opponents by a 119-20 margin.
"Our guys have thrown the ball incredibly well," South Carolina Coach Chad Holbrook said. "They throw strikes and they locate their pitches. They've also benefited from really good defense behind them. We pride ourselves on having our opponents earn things."
There are still a few hitters thriving in the pitching-centric league. Kentucky's A.J. Reed is hitting .414 with a league-leading eight homers. The Wildcats are hitting .337 as a team, while Ole Miss is second at .323.
A few SEC teams have struggled during non-conference play. Mississippi State has been inconsistent with a 13-7 record despite returning most of a roster that advanced to the College World Series championship series last year before losing to UCLA.
Florida (11-6) and Arkansas (8-5) are also off to relatively slow starts.
But Mainieri said those teams won't be down for long.
"It's almost soothing to know that conference play isn't that complicated," Mainieri said. "If you play well, you'll win. If you don't, you'll lose. It's an unforgiving league."
Five things to watch
Here are five things to watch as the Southeastern Conference begins conference play on Friday:
Powerful arms: Almost all of the league's teams have a true ace, which could lead to some epic Friday night showdowns. LSU right-hander Aaron Nola hasn't given up an earned run in 27 innings this season. Mississippi's Chris Ellis has held opponents scoreless through 272⁄3 innings. Thirteen pitchers in the league have thrown at least 20 innings and have a sub-1.00 ERA.
Surprising Vols: After several years of struggling, Tennessee looks like it might be relevant in the SEC race once again. Third-year coach Dave Serrano has the Vols playing good baseball, with a 15-1 record. "The record, yeah, I'd say it surprises me," Serrano said. "But the way we're playing doesn't surprise me. The thing that's probably the greatest thing for a coach to think is that we can still get better too."
The usual suspects: Several familiar teams are expected to compete for the SEC title. South Carolina won the College World Series in 2010 and 2011 and is the league's only undefeated team going into conference play. Vanderbilt and LSU also are very good again. The Commodores had the league's best conference record last season, while the Tigers won the SEC Tournament and advanced to the CWS.
Hitting isn't extinct: Pitching might be dominant, but the SEC still has some quality hitters. Kentucky's A.J. Reed leads the league with eight homers and is a two-way star, with a 3-0 record and 1.38 ERA on the mound. South Carolina's lineup is leaning on Grayson Greiner (.370, 3 HRs, 19 RBI) and Kyle Martin (.368, 3 HRs, 12 RBI).
Got to get better: Some of the SEC's traditional powers have struggled during non-conference play. Florida (11-6) and Arkansas (8-5) haven't been able to build much momentum. The Gators are last in the league with a .257 batting average and have hit just four homers as a team. Mississippi State (13-7) has a deep pitching staff on paper, but hasn't yet been able to duplicate the success of last year, when the Bulldogs made it to the national championship series before losing to UCLA.