With Washington-Arizona and Tennessee-South Carolina, will the weekend spawn a new No. 1?
Spring is in the air, even if fresh snow is on the ground for a chunk of the country. With the start of conference play this week in the Big 12, which gets a slow start every year because only seven conference members play the sport, college softball completes its transition to the season's second phase. There will still be the stray out-of-conference clash, including one below, but largely gone are the five-game weekends and cross-country flights of the first phase.
No. 9 Arizona at No. 1 Washington
With a loss to Arizona State already part of Washington's week, keeping the No. 1 ranking won't be easy for the Huskies, who host the three-game series after dropping two of three to Arizona State. Not only was Arizona the only team to sweep Washington in Pac-12 play a season ago, but it no-hit the Huskies and limited them to just five hits and two runs all weekend. That was the work of a two-pitcher rotation, Taylor McQuillin throwing a two-hit shutout between standout starts from Danielle O'Toole, who has since graduated. In its first Pac-12 series a week ago, Arizona used McQuillin for 17 of 21 innings. The Huskies are rolling this season in part because of their pitching depth and balance behind ace Taran Alvelo. Will the Wildcats match that?
No. 2 Tennessee at No. 15 South Carolina
As good as Caylan Arnold and Matty Moss have been in combination, Tennessee pitchers trail South Carolina in ERA, WHIP and home run rate. Indeed, despite their own lack of strikeouts, South Carolina's Cayla Drotar, Kelsey Oh and Dixie Raley continue to excel. As one example of what that requires, the batting average on balls in play against South Carolina -- that's everything in fair territory that isn't a home run -- is .225. The same number for Mississippi State, whose pitchers lead the SEC in strikeouts, is .285.
No. 8 Texas A&M at No. 6 Florida
The Gators, of course, had a frustrating weekend at Georgia, but they weren't alone. Texas A&M missed a chance to move up in the rankings by dropping a game to UConn in what was a relatively easy week, at least compared to the normal SEC grind (they may play just one game against an unranked team the rest of the regular season). The Aggies and Gators didn't meet last season, but the core of the current Texas A&M lineup did manage to score 12 runs in three games between the teams the season before that. The three-game series is scheduled for Saturday-Monday.
No. 14 Baylor at No. 11 LSU
Unlike everything else featured here, this is a one-game Saturday special in a tournament in Baton Rouge that also includes BYU and North Dakota State. LSU's pitching can keep it in just about any game, but run production must be a serious concern at this point. Seven runs were enough to sweep a series from Auburn because of the pitching, but LSU managed just one run and lost both games in a rain-shortened series at Kentucky. For Baylor, a trip to Baton Rouge is a chance to shore up its postseason résumé to host a regional.
Texas Tech at No. 5 Oklahoma
The two-time defending national champions finally get to conference play. On the other side, Texas Tech's Erin Edmoundson is in the midst of one of the most intriguing seasons in college softball. The team leader in wins (13), innings (97 1/3), ERA (1.37) and strikeouts (82) has started just four games while making 20 relief appearances. But two of those starts came last week, so how will the Red Raiders deploy her in the league?