MSU-Florida Pregame: Why the Bulldogs Have a Shot

HOOVER | It’s hardly unreasonable to say that Mississippi State has a good shot at beating Florida today when the teams meet in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Sure, the Gators (41-15, 22-8) are deeper, more talented and are ranked No. 3 in the country for a reason.

And No. 6 seed MSU (34-21, 14-16) has had bad stretches at the plate, is known to get blown out on occasion, and has gotten little more than spotty starting pitching on the whole. So, certainly the third-seeded Gators have the advantage.

This is not a three-game series, however, and as any coach would tell you, all you have to do is be the better team for one day. And looking at this particular matchup, that could happen for MSU.

As I wrote in today’s Journal, the Bulldogs are pumped about being back in Hoover, and having beaten Florida – among other elite teams – gives them a shot of confidence this week. Coach John Cohen said he’s treating the SEC Tournament “with the utmost importance.” Is Florida?

UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan isn’t sending any of his weekend starters to the mound today, going instead with Tommy Toledo, who has eight career SEC starts and none this year. He’s made two starts this season – against Florida State and UCF – and he’s not had an outing last longer than 2 2/3 innings.

Early word was that perhaps mid-week starter Alex Panteliodis, who was a regular weekend starter last season, would get the nod. But no, O’Sullivan seems to be saving his pitching; perhaps he was thinking about last year.

The weekend before the 2010 SEC Tournament, O’Sullivan gave Brian Johnson only one inning of work so he’d be able to pitch the opener against eighth-seeded LSU. Didn’t work out so well.

(MSU isn’t using a weekend starter, either, but the rotation has been in flux all season anyway, and Evan Mitchell is probably as good a choice as anybody. Plus, Friday starter Luis Pollorena might well return to a bullpen role today, which means Cohen might not need a lot of innings from Mitchell.)

Florida wound up reaching the semifinals last year, but it’s not had a great history in Hoover recently, going 3-6 here under O’Sullivan the previous three seasons. Does Florida actually need to do well here? No, because you can bet it’ll be hosting an NCAA Regional next week regardless of what happens, and will be a national seed, too.

“We’re going to go out there and do our best and try to win this thing,” O’Sullivan said Monday. “You certainly don’t want to play poorly going into the regional. With that being said, South Carolina, they played two games last year in the SEC Tournament and wound up winning the whole thing.

“I don’t think this weekend’s going to determine how we play in the regional, but going into this thing we want to play well and we want to try and win it.”

Question is, who will be more motivated? That could be enough to make the difference.

Notes: The winner of this game plays the winner of No. 2 seed Arkansas vs. No. 7 Alabama at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. Same goes for the losers, at 9:30 a.m. … If MSU wins today, Cohen’s overall record at MSU will be 83-83. … The last time MSU and Florida met in the SEC Tournament was 2002, with UF winning 5-0 to knock the Bulldogs out. The teams have met 12 times in this event, with each winning six times. … MSU’s 34 wins are one more than it had at the end of the 2007 regular season, when it reached the College World Series. … All of today’s games are on CSS and ESPN3.com.