Previewing this weekend's NCAA Super Regional game between Mississippi State (37-23) and Florida (48-16) at McKethan Stadium. Today's game, the first in a best-of-three series, begins at 11 a.m. Central time and can be watched on ESPN2 and ESPN3.com.
GAINESVILLE | The question I pose in today's MSU-Florida advance is this: Was the Bulldogs' run through the NCAA Atlanta Regional indicative of a program on the rise, or was it simply a good weekend?
We should find the answer to that over the next two to three days. Not that it would taking winning this series for MSU to prove it's made huge strides, because this is the No. 2 national seed we're talking about. State has played Florida tough in three of the four meetings this season, with one win, and there is the expectation among the Bulldogs that they'll give the Gators all they could want.
"We're obviously kind of underdogs coming in," pitcher Nick Routt said, "but right now we feel we can compete with anybody and beat anyone in the country."
That confidence should not be overlooked. The recent success State's had only bolsters that confidence as the players see all that hard work starting to pay off. It's not just talk: MSU truly believes it can win twice and reach the ninth College World Series in program history.
"Us putting up a lot of runs in the first inning (in Atlanta), it showed a lot of progress," said outfielder Jaron Shepherd. "I think we became closer as a team, and it gave us a lot of confidence to take with us down here to Florida."
MSU played well in all phases last weekend, but the biggest key against Florida will be starting pitching. It was great in Atlanta, but the struggles prior to that make you wonder if the success can be sustained.
Freshman Evan Mitchell (6-1, 3.47 ERA) will take the mound today for MSU. He tossed five innings of two-hit ball against Florida in the SEC Tournament. The Gators will counter with sophomore Hudson Randall (9-3, 2.38), who gave up six runs on nine hits in 2 1/3 innings against MSU on April 8 (a 7-5 Bulldog win).
So what you have is a young MSU pitcher who's seen this lineup and should be comfortable facing it, and you've got a State offense that knows it can hit Randall, who's a fine pitcher.
Speaking of MSU's hitters, let's look at who did well in the four previous meetings with UF:
• C.T. Bradford: 6-18, 4 runs, 2 RBIs
• Cody Freeman: 7-17, 2B, HR, 2 runs, 2 RBIs
• Nick Vickerson: 4-10, 3B, HR, run, 3 RBIs
Vickerson did most of his damage in the tournament game, going 2 of 4 with a triple, home run and three RBIs. And he's been on a tear lately, going 7 of 17 with five runs and nine RBIs over the last six games.
Concerning this series in particular, here's another question to consider: Does either team gain an advantage from the previous meetings? Or is it a push?
"I think it's going to be interesting to see the adjustments everybody makes," Vickerson said. "That's going to be the biggest thing, if you can make an adjustment. If they're getting you out one way last time you played them, you've got to make the adjustment this time."
Florida is, on paper, the better team. There's more depth of talent, and the pitching rotation is among the best in the SEC, as well in the country. If there is any advantage that can be drawn from the previous four meetings, though, it might belong to MSU. We know Florida has the confidence to believe it can pull it out this weekend – the Bulldogs have the same confidence in equal measure.
"Florida's very good – they're as good as any team in the country – but I think our kids have a lot of confidence in the fact that you know if you can beat Florida one time," MSU coach John Cohen said, "you probably can beat them again."
• The broadcast info is mentioned above, but since it's an early game on a Friday, you're probably stuck at work and can't get to a TV. No worries: You've got my Twitter feed, and MSU is hosting a live chat during the game.
So you can ask questions or make observations, and I might even drop in and participate. Just go to mstateathletics.com to join up at game time.
• From the Florida side, DH/starting pitcher Brian Johnson should be back in action this weekend, but first baseman/closer Austin Maddox might not be.
• The Gainesville Sun has a story on Cohen, who was once an assistant coach at UF.