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Auburn, Alabama having dramatic power surge

MONTGOMERY, Ala. | Kent Matthes has already swung right through those 20 home runs from his first three seasons at Alabama.

Then there's Auburn's Ben Jones, who in his senior season has now swatted 10 times his previous career total.

The Crimson Tide and Tigers both have had dramatic power surges in the homer-heavy Southeastern Conference this season, including the notable transformations of Matthes and Jones.

The Tigers' school-record 97 home runs leads the nation and tops the 96 Auburn managed the last two seasons combined. Alabama has belted 91 home runs, fourth nationally and 16 more than all of last year.

Both have 10 regular-season games to go.

Matthes leads the nation with 23. Jones has a comparatively modest 10, but only managed one in his first three seasons as a pinch-hitter and occasional starter.

"I really think it has a lot to do with the maturity factor of the guys we have in our program," first-year Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. "I think the bottom line is that we've got some guys in our lineup that have been through the SEC. I think they've gotten stronger, but the biggest thing in my mind is the maturity."

Half of the SEC was ranked among the nation's top 18 slugging teams through last weekend's games: Georgia was sixth with 83 led by Rich Poythress, who has 20 home runs while batting a league-best .410. That's followed by No. 13 South Carolina (72), No. 16 LSU (70) and No. 18 Tennessee (68). The Volunteers have already hit one more than all of last season.

"There are some good offensive teams in this league," Vols coach Todd Raleigh said. "If you can't pitch down a little bit or you're getting behind in the count, you're going to get hurt."

Matthes has been 'Bama's biggest slugger. He had 11 homers last season, eight two years ago and one in a limited role as a freshman.

"Kent has just put it all together," Tide coach Jim Wells said. "He always had power, but you could strike him out. I think it's just confidence, maturity. All those things came together."

For the team, too. The Tide has had 15 players homer this season with much of the wallop coming in the middle of the lineup with Matthes and Jake Smith (16) for the league's top hitting team.

"We had a lot of guys back but we did not foresee what they have done this year," Wells said. "I knew we would be solid but didn't see all the home runs. It's just a good offensive team."

Matthes said his biggest adjustment has been generating power more through his legs and exercising more discipline.

"I feel great at the plate," he said, "so it's paying off."

Auburn has five players in double-digits, led by Joseph Sanders (18).

The Tigers had homered in nine straight games before Troy managed to keep them inside the fence on Wednesday night (still losing 13-8). That came one night after Jones hit two of Auburn's five homers in a 26-6 shellacking of the Trojans.

"It's definitely been a big surprise for me to hit as many as I have this year, but you never go out and try to hit home runs," Jones said. "You try to hit line drives and if it happens, it happens. You just try to drive the ball and take good swings.

"It's been a great year so far. If it ended now, I'd be happy the way my senior year has gone."

Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan has faced both Alabama and Auburn this season, winning five of the six games. He still came away with respect for their power hitters.

"Auburn's got really big, strong, physical guys and they can hurt you if you make mistakes," O'Sullivan said. "Alabama's got an older club. They've got two guys in the middle — Matthes and Jake Smith. They're very experienced guys and they've gotten bigger and stronger since their freshman year.

"There's no question those two teams feature a lot of offense and some power in their lineup."