The SEC’s intense championship chase concludes with this final weekend and six contending clubs. Mississippi State is right there with the frontrunners as play begins this evening. The Bulldogs are 18-9, tied with Texas A&M for the Western Division lead and both right on the heels of 18-8 Florida for the overall title.
It’s just about exactly where any SEC squad wants to be heading into the closing series. For a Mississippi State program which a year at this time was playing out the schedule, stuck in the SEC cellar…it is as complete a turnaround as the sport offers. It is also a chance to make history.
“It’s an exciting weekend,” agreed Coach John Cohen. He ought to know about it since he was a playing part of Mississippi State’s last successful run at a SEC Championship, way back in 1989. So the coach can also appreciate how not to handle this exciting situation.
Meaning, don’t lecture that it is just another SEC weekend.
“You don’t want to insult your players,” Cohen said. “They know what’s at stake. They want to win a championship. The one thing we talk about is controlling what we can do, not watching scoreboards, and just trying to compete pitch by pitch. We’ve been pretty successful doing that.”
Mississippi State has been very successful lately. Since letting game-two at Alabama slip away in extra innings, the Bulldogs have won eight-straight games with seven league victories and consecutive sweeps of Missouri and Auburn. This, as well as helpful losses by both A&M and Florida, has muscled Mississippi State into title contention.
Florida’s slender lead is due to both the SEC’s system of determining titles and seedings, purely on win-loss percentages; and that the Gators only played fellow East contender South Carolina twice. They split those two games. Whether that turns out to help or hurt, all will know by Saturday evening. That’s a reminder that no series will be extended into Sunday as the conference tournament begins next Tuesday.
The Bulldogs are close to locking-up a bye for that opening round, something State hasn’t done since the tournament was extended. That though is a very minor item on this weekend’s title-chase agenda.
Mississippi State hasn’t won an outright SEC title since 1989, the second year that the league went to a true regular-season championship. From 1953-87 the championship went to the winner of either a two-team playoff or four-team tournament from the top one, then two, teams representing eastern and western divisions. In fact that ’89 title is the only time Mississippi State has not won the SEC crown in a playoff or tournament format.
Now 27 springs later, these Bulldogs can match that feat. A starting outfielder on that ’89 lineup, Cohen doesn’t have to tell his team about history anyway. The present is what matters.
“I think they really get it.”
What the Dogs also get is, they need at least a little help to claim an outright championship. They can tie Texas A&M of course and both teams will forevermore be recognized as champions, not ‘co’ champions in SEC records. The Aggies would still be seeded ahead in Hoover by virtue of sweeping State, the only series the Bulldogs have lost this season. That brings up another historic item: this can be the first MSU team to win nine SEC series in a season.
State would hold the tiebreak on Florida of course, having won the series in Gainesville. That’s mooted by the Gators playing one less game. But Florida is at LSU, playing a 17-10 Tiger team that itself has a longer shot at winning both the West and the league.
Meanwhile the other West contender is on the road as 17-10 Ole Miss is at A&M. The Bulldogs have the tiebreak on the Rebels, who in-turn have the tiebreak on LSU, and State trumps both of them. And for that matter South Carolina needs lots of things to fall right to have any shot. But if the Bulldogs can’t sweep Arkansas, along with other factors they will need the Gamecocks to lose at least once at Alabama.
And so on and so forth go the projections and permutations. It’s good for radio to fill air time, for writers to fill space, and fans to discuss right up to the first final scores of this evening.
It is also good for the nation’s leading baseball conference, top to bottom, that the schedule ends with so much at stake for so many.
“You’ve got teams trying to get into the SEC Tournament, you’ve got teams trying to win the league,” Cohen said. “You’ve got teams trying to win Divisions. It’s extremely competitive and everybody in the league has something to play for.”
In Mississippi State’s case? The Bulldogs are playing for more than most anyone else. They’re playing for history.