State's 2006 Fate Hinges On UMiss Series

Mississippi State wraps up the regular schedule with a full week at Dudy Noble Field, hosting four games in five days. But it will be the final three days that settles whether or not this 2006 season ends on the same date as the slate.

Yes, the days and not just the games. Because no matter how the Diamond Dogs come out of their series with Mississippi this week they don't entirely control their post-season fate. A sweeping at Kentucky has dropped State to ninth place in the SEC Tournament standings, or one spot outside the eight-team lineup that will play in the Hoover-Met next week. It's not a huge deficit. At 11-15 the Bulldogs are only one win, or a half-game total, behind eighth-place and 12-15 Louisiana State.

But it is enough to leave Mississippi State with essentially no margin for their own error, and even then in need of some assistance elsewhere during the final SEC weekend. Or week, rather, since the conference has scheduled the tenth series of the season to play a day earlier and run Thursday-Friday-Saturday. This was done to allow the eight SEC Tourney qualifiers an extra day to prepare for the five-day tournament that opens next Wednesday morning.

The Diamond Dogs aren't worried about when the conference classic opens, they just want to be at Hoover. Yet going into this week they are outside the elite eight and, while a half-game might not seem much to make up State is far too close to SEC elimination for any comfort at all.

The most obvious route to Hoover is to pass LSU. State can't catch the Tigers and use the tiebreak gained by taking that series seven weeks ago, because barring weather breaks this weekend the teams won't play the same number of SEC games. State had a contest with Tennessee rained out in March; LSU has played the full slate so far. In fact, that is the only conference game rained out all season so far. Yet there could be implications this week from weather two months ago.

With that head-to-head tiebreak eliminated State must win one more game this weekend than LSU, which travels to last-place Florida; and win at least as many as Tennessee. If MSU wins the series with Mississippi while the Tigers lose two-of-three at Gainesville, the Dogs will have a 44.8% in the SEC while LSU finishes 43.3%. If LSU takes two from the Gators and is 46.7%, the Bulldogs have to sweep the Rebels and finish 14-15 or 48.3%. State can afford to tie Tennessee as the Dogs took that series 2-0.

The SEC uses only win-loss percentage in league play to seed the Tournament field, and old rainouts are not made up. Also, a SEC official confirmed that even though this series is being played a day earlier, this does not mean Sunday can serve as an extra day in case of weather. It is officially regarded as a Monday during the regular season while school is in session with no play allowed, barring an extraordinary agreement among the respective athletic directors and conference commissioner.

There are other, tougher mathematical scenarios that can drag the Dogs into the top-eight. South Carolina and Vanderbilt go into the weekend tied for sixth at 14-13, and they play each other in Nashville. If either sweeps the loser ends up 14-16 or 46.7%. The Bulldogs would be able to slip past only by sweeping the Rebels. And other scenarios require even more numbers-crunching than fans care to attempt early in the week.

Renewing the Bulldog-Rebel rivalry would make for a big enough weekend. The SEC implications only add to what will be an intense series, for both sides. While State is desperate to get into the league tourney Mississippi locked up a berth Sunday by taking a home series from Arkansas. Now the Rebels (15-12) have the tiebreak on the Razorbacks and are fourth in the overall standings. They are also within striking distance, if 17-10 Alabama flops at Tennessee, to take the Western Division title and position themselves to host a NCAA regional the next week. A NCAA bid is essentially assured them already now.

Not so State, not at all. And where the past two years the NCAA invited nine SEC teams to regionals (including MSU in 2004) the popular opinion in 2006 is the league will do well to get just the eight Hoover participants in the field of 64. Some even think that, with the ACC having a banner year, only seven SEC teams will receive berths this time around. The Bulldogs do stack up reasonably well in the R.P.I.s published by unofficial outlets, but the NCAA's own rating-indexes are not published and State can't be too confident where they stand there.

The Dogs won't even help their R.P.I. case much by winning the last non-conference contest on the schedule, Tuesday evening against Tennessee-Martin. State has scheduled John Crosby to start the 6:30 game.

SEC Tournament Standings

1. *Kentucky 19-8 (.704) @ GA

2. *Alabama 17-10 (.630) @ TENN

3. *Georgia 16-11 (.593) vs. KY

4. *Mississippi 15-12 (.556) @ MSU

5. *Arkansas 15-12 (.556) vs. AUB

T6. South Carolina 14-13 (.519) @ VAN

T6. Vanderbilt 14-13 (.519) vs. S.C.

8. LSU 12-15 (.444) @ FLA

9. Mississippi State 11-15 (.423) vs. MISS

10. Tennessee 11-15 (.423) vs. ALA

11. ^Auburn 9-18 (.333) @ ARK

12. ^Florida 8-19 (.296) vs. LSU

*--Clinced SEC Tournament berth. ^--Eliminated from SEC Tournament.

Tiebreaks: #4 MISS is 2-1 vs. ARK. #9 MSU is 2-0 vs. TENN. #6/7 meet this weekend.

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