It’s late April, the postseason race in baseball is heating up and the headline today is SEC football. Naturally.
We’ll cover a lot in this edition of The Notebook, but it leads off with news about the new (and old) scheduling rules for SEC football.
Most importantly for Mississippi State, it keeps Kentucky as its permanent Eastern Division crossover as the 6-1-1 format remains intact, each school playing the other six teams in its division, one permanent opponent in the other division and one rotating opponent from the other division.
So, as usual, seven of MSU’s SEC games are known no matter what, with only one wild card from year to year.
The interesting part of this deal is the change to the non-conference portion where, beginning in 2016, every school must play at least one opponent from one of the other Power 5 conferences – the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12.
Last year’s season-opener against Oklahoma State by MSU, for example, would count for the new rule and nearly every SEC team played one of those schools in 2013 anyway (including several rivalry games). Home-and-homes with West Virginia (2006-07) and Georgia Tech (2008-09) are more examples of recent Bulldog opponents who would qualify under the new rules.
The idea is to make sure SEC teams have a solid strength of schedule, as that will be a bigger factor going forward with the coming playoffs. It hasn’t been an issue for the most part of the last decade, but the conference doesn’t want one of its members to miss on an opportunity because of poor out of conference scheduling.
One part of this to note is the association of those Power 5 conferences, as they’re called. With the uncertain future of the NCAA and collegiate athletics, particularly many of the rules and enforcements, these leagues are strengthening their ties.
Second, this change doesn’t mean schools will get MORE games on television. The SEC Network/ESPN deal was ensuring that would happen anyway. What this new rule does is get BETTER games on national television.
Now, this doesn’t mean MSU will be playing titles contenders or top-five teams every year starting in 2016.
Some years they may, certainly, but with four conferences from which to find a dance partner, Scott Stricklin, Dan Mullen and the athletic department will make sure they find an appropriate opponent from year to year.
In 1990, Minnesota Twins area scout Mike Ruth had seen several Mississippi State games where, among others, a fifth-year and All-SEC senior named John Cohen had caught his eye. When draft time came, Ruth convinced those in charge to take a chance on the graduated Bulldog, and they did, picking Cohen in the 22nd round that year.
By the end of the next season, Cohen had signed, arrived, played and ultimately gotten cut.
“I felt bad for him,” Ruth said Friday, with a hint of a smile.
Now the scouting director for the Twins, Ruth made a rare trip back to Starkville to get another look at MSU, this time with the guy he drafted nearly 25 years ago having risen form fringe prospect to head coach of the program.
And it was all thanks to Ruth, at least in the beginning, that Cohen is here now.
In the late 1980s, just two years prior to scouting MSU that season, Ruth had been a coach himself at the University of Missouri. Then, just two days after Cohen was cut, Ruth happened to hear from one of the Mizzou coaches that they were looking for a new GA, someone young and eager to get into coaching baseball.
“Well,” Ruth told him, “I think I might know a guy.”
He got the Tiger coaches in touch with Cohen and after just over a year of professional baseball Cohen took his first coaching gig, the initial step in a long but successful road that eventually brought him back to Mississippi State, the same place he’d been found by Ruth to begin with.
“He went through a lot of jobs and a lot of long days and nights to get here,” Ruth said Friday as he watched warm-ups. “I’d say it’s worked out for him.”
One the other diamond, Vann Stuedeman’s softball team is continuing its hot streak, having just won their third-straight SEC series, run-ruling Arkansas in back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday’s contest was particularly entertaining, as MSU ran out to a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the first, only to see the Razorbacks knock through six runs in the top of the second, after which MSU followed up with a 10-run bottom of the second. Entire games have gone faster than the first two innings of that game, in which 20 total runs were scored, including a grand slam by senior Sam Lenahan for the Bulldogs, the first of two in the game.
It was the second grand slam by Mackenzie Toler in the bottom of the fifth that gave MSU the walk-off, run-rule 18-7 victory.
MSU’s final series of the season is this weekend at LSU, after which the postseason begins.
Likely a two-seed somewhere, the Bulldogs are in good shape to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. Between the hot bats lately and the emergence of freshman Alexis Silkwood as a top-notch No. 2 pitcher behind senior Alison Owen, MSU has the pieces to make a run.
Owen, by the way, officially set the career record for strikeouts, when she tallied No. 452 against Arkansas Friday. an impressive feat, considering she’s done it in less than two season.
Senior Chad Ramey was the star of the weekend, finishing fourth in the conference tournament, leading MSU to a ninth place finish overall. His six-under-par final round was one of the best performances in Bulldog history in the tourney.
The NCAA selection show will air May 4 at 9 a.m. as MSU waits to see where it will end up.
MSU’s women’s golf team will find out their postseason destination tonight when the Golf Channel airs the NCAA Tournament selection show from 5-6, though the weather in the area cancelled the team’s plans for a watch party at Beef O’ Brady’s.
Ginger Brown-Lemm’s Bulldogs had a breakout season last year, becoming the first team from Mississippi, men’s or women’s, to make the National Championships. They are certainly eager to build on that this postseason
Elsewhere, MSU’s track and field teams had stellar weekends, split between the Penn Relays and the Golden Eagle Classic.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Friday, MSU had one of its more outstanding individual performances as Ebony Brinker won the college women’s triple jump with a leap of 41-06.00.
Steve Dudley’s program hosts its only home meet of the year on Saturday in the Jace Lacoste Invitational, with Alabama, Florida State, Missouri State, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech coming to town.