Not just the SEC’s Western Division, as noteworthy a feat as it would be for a program with that odd gap in the record. Mississippi State finds itself one big weekend from claiming champion of the SEC for the first time since 1989. There isn’t a Diamond Dog on the roster who was on this planet when that last happened.
There aren’t any of this generation who don’t believe they can end Mississippi State’s championship drought.
“Our kids can feel it,” said Coach John Cohen, who himself was a junior outfielder on that ’89 title team.
Mississippi State (37-14-1, 18-9 SEC) is feeling really fine these May days. With Sunday’s victory the Bulldogs completed a sweep at Auburn, their second-straight broom job of a Tiger team. It is the first time since 2003 a State squad has scored consecutive SEC sweeps.
But where sweeping Missouri last weekend improved NCAA Tournament position…romping through Auburn has pushed Mississippi State into the top tier of conference title contenders. That and, naturally, help in the form of just the right losses by the right peers. The Bulldogs hadn’t rolled back into town yet when South Carolina finished salvaging a split with Texas A&M. That result, combined with State’s torrid May streak, means what looked like an Aggie West runaway is going down to the final series.
For four Division teams, no less. Two of them, 18-9 A&M and 17-10 Ole Miss, play each other in College Station. At the same time 17-10 LSU is hosting the league’s overall and East leader, 18-8 Florida.
Meanwhile, back at Dudy Noble Field… The Diamond Dogs will spend the last weekend of the regular schedule playing Arkansas and trying not to follow other games in progress. All SEC series start Thursday, and all must be done by Saturday night with no carry-over to Sunday for anyone.
There is one other conference overall contender, 17-9 South Carolina. Notice that they and Florida each have one less game-played; because their series was cut short by weather after a split. This brings up the key to tracking standings: it’s all by win-loss percentage, not total wins or losses. Whether playing less or more turns out to be an advantage or disadvantage won’t be known until Saturday evening.
If the SEC Office had tried, they could hardly have scripted a better last-week schedule. For their part the Bulldogs have few complaints how 2016 has played-out right down to this frantic finish.
“They want this,” Cohen said Sunday. “They want to compete for a SEC championship, a Western Division championship. And they’re doing everything they can to make that a reality.”
This season’s reality is rather…unreal. At least in the aftermath of 2015’s frustrations. For that matter, by a team with such a mix of old hands who endured some tough times, and newcomers too fresh (or transferred) to know anything much about SEC marathons. Unless any read this it’s unlikely they even know when State’s last overall conference crown was won.
Nor should it matter. This isn’t ignorance but innocence on display. If they don’t know they were supposed to grind to a middling SEC finish in ’16 and be happy just to play post-season again, why should anyone remind them now? They wouldn’t listen anyway.
As their coach reminds, this Bulldog bunch is just too busy making their own names. Seeing that team name right near the top of the stretch-run standings does not rattle them at all.
Besides, “We have a lot of goals we have not accomplished yet,” Cohen said.
Most immediately, winning first the West and then the SEC. Here reality does arise in that State can’t entirely do it themselves. Not the overall title, that is.
Division-wise, State merely needs match wins with the Aggies now. While Texas A&M does hold the direct tiebreak, in the form of an April sweep which was the only lost series all season for State, the SEC will recognize a pair of teams who share first as equal Division leaders. A&M would get the higher seeding at the SEC Tournament of course.
But in this scenario the Bulldogs would also share with the Aggies and two other contenders a free Tuesday in Hoover and be guaranteed two games. Likely too ‘good’ RPI games to further improve their NCAA seeding. More on this in a MSU moment.
By virtue, or now luck, of their third-game rainout with South Carolina, the Gators still have an inside track on the SEC title. But they are visiting a LSU Tiger team which has gotten back on a better track since losing consecutive series to State and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs would also have the direct tiebreak on Florida were weather to shorten State’s own final series. Just as State has the head-to-head on both the Rebels and LSU.
“That’s the neat thing about the last weekend,” Cohen said. “With all the scenarios it’s a pretty important week.”
Mississippi State has muscled its way into a pretty important position the best way. They are on an eight-win streak, are unbeaten in May, and getting about as well-balanced a quality of play as any coach could ask at this point of any season. The Bulldogs battered Auburn pitching for 43 base hits, 17 of them for extra bases with six home runs and even a pair of triples.
The starting rotation is, at last, really a rotation. Righthanded veterans Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton have turned in consecutive strong weekends against the two Tiger teams, after the inevitable mid-season adjustments. But if the coaches still insist on not calling lefthander freshman Konnor Pilkington the third Dog in a real rotation then it’s pure stubbornness. Relief staff roles seem settled as well with no shortage of arms either.
Even if the defense is still prone to lapses, they haven’t hurt much if at all. That’s a measure how productive the offense has become whether measured by average, by consistency through the order(s), or just good old ‘clutchness’. The Bulldogs have also become a club that thrives on scoring first, then expanding leads against increasingly-anxious opponents.
Those are also the factors which up to now have had fans focused on post-season potential. When the Bulldogs left for Auburn talk was primarily on what is needed to push State from just—just!—an assured first-round Regional host to solidly in the national seeds picture. If sweeping Auburn won’t do a lot, either way, for State’s RPI the wins and SEC contention will matter more now in seeding committee minds.
By that same token, the Bulldogs are still in something of a more-to-lose-than-win situation re: NCAA play. Arkansas (7-20 SEC) arrives hoping somehow with their own wins and outside help to make the SEC Tournament. Anything they take off Mississippi State will cut into Bulldog ratings.
“Arkansas is a good club,” insists Cohen. “They haven’t been playing as well recently. But they have some great arms. And for a while they were leading our league in home runs. So they’re capable of beating you.”
However. The Razorbacks won’t face a home team looking ahead to post-season. This shot at SEC titles will focus Bulldog minds, or will as long as they tune-out scoreboard updates. Don’t be surprised if stadium staff are instructed to keep mum on other games.
Then again, given how this unusual ball club has kept to its own business home, away, anywhere (they are the first MSU team since 1997 to win all five SEC road series), maybe nothing can distract them from the immediate goal. No, not even the ultimate goal.
“It will be a very interesting week and our kids are excited about that opportunity,” Cohen said. “We have a lot on the line and we need to play well.”
SEC STANDINGS (by %) 1. Florida .692 18-8, 2. Texas A&M .667 18-9 and Mississippi State .667 18-9; 4. South Carolina .654 17-9; 5. Ole Miss .630 17-10 and LSU .630 17-10; 7. Vanderbilt .556 15-12 and Alabama .556 15-12; 9. Kentucky .481 13-14; 10. Georgia .370 10-17; 11. Missouri .296 8-19 and Auburn .296 8-19; 13. Arkansas .259 7-20 and Tennessee .259 7-20.
Florida and South Carolina split a two-game series; Ole Miss beat LSU; Missouri beat Auburn; Vanderbilt and Alabama did not play; Arkansas and Tennessee did not play.
FINAL WEEKEND SERIES:
Arkansas @ Mississippi State
Florida @ LSU
Ole Miss @ Texas A&M
South Carolina @ Alabama
Auburn @ Vanderbilt
Tennessee @ Georgia
Missouri @ Kentucky