Like grits, sweet tea and sausage gravy, SEC softball possesses a distinctly regional flavor. Only time will tell if the national acclaim that still eludes the foodstuffs awaits one of the newest members of softball royalty.
By taking two of three games from top-ranked Tennessee over the weekend, No. 5 LSU erased memories of a disappointing midweek loss against Southeastern Louisiana and kept its hopes alive for a regular-season conference title. Combined with No. 2 Alabama's three-game sweep against Kentucky and losses for No. 3 Arizona and No. 4 Oklahoma, LSU's success also might have opened the door for the SEC to claim the top three spots in this week's ESPN.com/USA Softball poll.
Sole possession of the top three spots in the poll this late in the season would be a bold statement for any conference, but it's all the more intriguing in this instance. Unlike the Big 12 and Big Ten, the SEC has never formalized its challenge to the Pac-10 softball dynasty by stealing away a national championship, as Oklahoma did in 2002 and Michigan did in 2005 (Fresno State and Texas A&M, in the days before the Big 12, are the only other teams to interrupt the Pac-10's string of titles).
Instead of a backdrop of Tucson, Westwood or Austin, the most-hyped series of the regular season will get underway in Knoxville next weekend when Alabama and Tennessee clash. Fresh off the heels of record-setting crowds at both LSU and Alabama over the weekend, these are banner days for the SEC and softball in general. Growing the sport in places like Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama provides another year-round base for developing the talent that will stock rosters for generations in not only the SEC but the Big East, Big Ten, Conference USA and many other emerging leagues.
All of which makes it a slightly awkward time to posit the decidedly contrarian notion that we might be getting ahead of ourselves. Alabama, LSU and Tennessee all seem like championship material at the moment, but to paraphrase former NFL coach Dennis Green for a family audience, it might be best to hold off crowning them just yet.
For all the success, for all the talent and for all the passion turning at least some in football country into spring softball junkies, the fact remains that the list of impressive nonconference wins earned by the top three teams is a little short on substance.
Alabama: Louisiana-Lafayette (2), NC State (2)
Tennessee: UCLA, Fresno State
LSU: Missouri, Houston
The counter argument is lengthy and legitimate. Tennessee did travel to Palm Springs for a tournament in which they beat UCLA and Fresno State. LSU left the comforts of home for Seattle, dropping a pair of close games against a Washington team that increasingly looks like the third-best team in the always loaded Pac-10. And while Alabama didn't travel to distant stadiums this season, it did turn in a good showing at the Kia Classic in Fullerton last season.
And in case we forget, both Alabama and Tennessee made it to Oklahoma City last season, while LSU was one of just two teams to beat Arizona in the postseason despite eventually falling to the Wildcats in a super regional in Tucson.
It was a banner weekend for the SEC, and the conference deserves to bask in the glow of attention as the new rankings come out and fans across the country start talking about the upcoming showdown between Tennessee and Alabama, as well as LSU's trip to Georgia.
But in the language of another Southern staple, it only matters who is out front when the checkered flag waves. And in a few weeks, we'll learn if the three SEC teams fare as well in the traffic of the NCAA Tournament as they have in clean air out in front of the pack during the regular season.
• Strength of schedule aside, LSU pitchers Emily Turner and Dani Hofer upstaged Monica Abbott's date with history over the weekend, shining through even as Abbott tied Cat Osterman's record for career strikeouts.
With the possible exception of Texas A&M's tandem of Amanda Scarborough and Megan Gibson, no team in the top 10 has as strong a mix of balance and excellence in the circle as LSU. Both Emily Turner and Dani Hofer have the talent to fill the relatively exclusive role pitchers like Monica Abbott, Taryne Mowatt and Katie Burkhart will undertake in the postseason, but having the two of them together puts the Tigers in a unique position.
More often than not, a team with two starters sharing the load is a team without an ace, but that's not quite the case in Baton Rouge.
"I think it's very rare for a lot of teams to have two ace pitchers," senior Kristen Hobbs said before the weekend. "I think we're very fortunate to have two aces, and two that can come in at any moment that we need them."
Turner improved to 17-5 with both of LSU's wins in the series, but coach Yvette Girouard's willingness to match up Hofer against Abbott in the opener spoke volumes, despite Tennessee's eventual 2-1 win behind 13 strikeouts from Abbott. Not only did Hofer allow just two unearned runs in seven innings, she kept her poise when bad bounces in the fifth inning allowed the Lady Vols to get runners in scoring position and take a 2-1 lead on Lindsay Schutzler's two-run single. Hofer held Tennessee scoreless the rest of the way, giving the Tigers at least a shot at rallying for the tying run.
Somewhat erratic as a freshman, Hofer has emerged in her second season as the kind of talent who may one day rank as the nation's top pitcher.
"I think that Dani has improved a lot from her freshman year," Hobbs said. "She's grown up a lot and she's done really well this year with hitting her spots and staying with batters, making them work for it and keeping them off balance. She's grown up a lot in the circle and on the team; it's so weird just to say she's a sophomore, because it seems like she's been here so much longer."
• Only one team's season will end with an opponent making the third out, and it's probably safe to assume it won't be Georgia celebrating that championship moment at the Women's College World Series. But when the Bulldogs found themselves two outs away from the potential end of their postseason relevancy during a midweek series against Mississippi, they showed the heart -- and bats -- of a team that wants to play a few more games before going home for good.
Trailing 3-0 with one out in the bottom of the seventh in the first game of a doubleheader against the Rebels, the Bulldogs scored four runs to claim a much-needed victory. And after winning the nightcap and sweeping three games from Arkansas over the weekend, they might have played their way off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament. Georgia entered the week with a dangerously pedestrian RPI of 34, one spot behind conference rival Mississippi State, but now has 40 total wins and 10 conference wins heading to LSU for the final series of the regular season next weekend.
Since a 12-5 loss to Mississippi State on April 22 that gave the visitors a series win on Georgia's home soil, Bulldogs pitchers Kasi Carroll and Christie Hamilton have allowed just nine runs in five games. If they continue pitching like that and Megan McAllister (44 walks and 25 strikeouts this season) gets some pitches to hit, this remains a dangerous team.
Around the nation
• Washington had about as good a week as a team can have during the grind of the Pac-10 season. The Huskies beat UCLA 8-3 on Wednesday. After a loss to Oregon State on Friday, the Huskies rallied for two wins against Oregon.
While the Huskies sometimes appeared to be counting on winning a bunch of games 1-0 behind ace Danielle Lawrie last season, Heather Tarr's team quietly has emerged as a legitimate championship contender this season by breaking out the bats. Despite getting blanked 2-0 by Oregon State's Ta'Tyana McElroy on Friday (Lawrie struck out 15 in the loss), the Huskies have scored 34 runs in their last five games and are averaging 4.4 runs per game in conference play, where 15 of 16 games have been against ranked opponents.
Dena Tyson hit her 17th home run during Sunday's 8-0 rout against Oregon and has to rank as one of the most improved hitters in the nation after hitting just .242 with six home runs last season.
• Five weeks ago, Missouri was coming off a 1-0 loss at Southern Illinois that marked the team's eighth loss in 13 games, including a three-game set against Western Illinois during which Missouri pitchers allowed 19 runs. What has happened in the intervening weeks stands as the most remarkable story of conference play anywhere on the softball map.
Fresh off splitting two games at Baylor, beating the Bears 4-3 on Saturday before dropping a 3-0 decision on Sunday, the Tigers remain tied for first place in a conference that has had three teams ranked in the top 10 for much of the season. They'll need some breaks beyond winning their games against Nebraska next weekend, but the Tigers remain very much in contention for a regular-season championship.
Jen Bruck was the hero in Friday's win, working through tough innings on the mound (5 IP, 7 H, 1 ER) and hitting a two-run home run at the plate to help her own cause. With a 1.45 ERA in 13 conference starts, Bruck has cut her season ERA of 2.82 nearly in half against league opponents.
• One of the first teams to clinch a regular-season title this season turned out to be the same team that provided some of the best moments during the opening weekend of last year's NCAA Tournament.
Lehigh put the wraps on a nearly perfect conference season, and earned its ninth consecutive conference title, by sweeping two games at home from Colgate (although Lehigh played as the visitor after field conditions forced the games to be moved from Colgate).
Lehigh came close to advancing to a super regional last season, beating Texas A&M twice in regional play before falling to the University of Massachusetts in an elimination game. Coming off that performance, and returning a host of key starters, the team opened this season at the NFCA Leadoff Classic against a schedule worthy of a contender. Unfortunately, the early results looked more like those of a team getting a late start (most of its opponents already had played games), losing to Georgia, Virginia Tech, Coastal Carolina, Illinois State, DePaul and Hofstra at the tournament in Columbus, Ga.
Perhaps stung by the early haymakers, the Mountain Hawks proceeded to lost six of 12 against weaker competition. But once home in the comforts of conference play, all those early tests started to pay off and the team rolled to 17 wins in 18 conference games. In sophomore ace Lisa Sweeney (18-5, 1.54 ERA), senior Lauren Haney (.352, 4 HR, 40 RBI) and junior Kate Marvel (.404, 2 HR, 21 RBI), coach Fran Troyan has the foundation of a balanced team that has outhit opponents .313 to .215.
An at-large bid would be wishful thinking with an RPI of 123, but if the Mountain Hawks take care of business in hosting the conference tournament, they're once again poised to be a thorn in someone's side in the postseason.
• Perhaps the most interesting races outside of the power four conferences (Pac-10, Big 12, SEC and Big Ten) is coming down to the wire in the Colonial. Hofstra pulled out a crucial sweep on the road against Drexel over the weekend, allowing the Pride to keep pace with James Madison at 14-3 in conference play. The Pride finish the regular season next weekend with three games at home against UNC Wilmington (9-9 in conference play), while James Madison plays three at home against Towson (8-9 in conference play).
Sophomore Kayleigh Lotti has assumed almost total control of the pitching duties for Hofstra, even after Courtney Oliver threw a no-hitter last week in a nonconference win against Long Island. Lotti improved to 16-4 this season by earning two wins against Drexel, striking out a career high 15 in the opener and fanning a total of 32 in three starts (Oliver earned the in relief in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader).
More than bragging rights are on the line for both teams Hofstra and James Madison, considering the regular-season champion plays host to the conference tournament. With an RPI of 43 entering the series against Drexel and wins against Ohio State, NC State and Georgia Tech, Hofstra has a stronger case for at-large consideration than James Madison (RPI of 98) should things go wrong in the next two weeks, but both teams would love the security of the league's automatic bid.
• It's not quite time to start the countdown clock on her pursuit of Osterman and Abbott, but Kent State freshman Kylie Reynolds continues to pile up gaudy numbers for the MAC's best team and an emerging postseason sleeper.
Reynolds tossed a five-inning no-hitter, striking out 13 of the 16 batters she faced while coming within a walk of a perfect game, as the Flashes beat Buffalo 10-0 in the opening game of what turned out to be a doubleheader sweep. The freshman from Greensboro, Ga. is now 12-6 with a 1.25 ERA and 230 strikeouts in just 134.2 innings.
Despite an RPI of 68, Kent State has an impressive nonconference résumé , in part because of the job Reynolds did in keeping her team in games against Hawaii (losing 1-0 and 2-0 with Reynolds in the circle) and Oregon (losing 1-0 behind Reynolds).
As has been the case throughout the season, senior pitcher Brittney Robinson split duties with Reynolds over the weekend, leading Kent State to a 5-1 win in the nightcap against Buffalo, but the more Reynolds pitches down the stretch, the more dangerous this team becomes as a regional opponent.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.