By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – It has been three years since Mississippi State played a non-conference game against a BCS team in the regular season. That isn’t likely to change any time soon.
In 2012, MSU’s four non-SEC opponents will be Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State. CBSSports.com recently ranked it as the second-softest non-conference schedule in the country, behind only Texas Tech’s.
That isn’t of much concern to third-year MSUathletics director Scott Stricklin.
“We have an incredibly tough conference schedule,” Stricklin said. “Our overall strength of schedule, if you look at the computer rankings, I think is usually pretty high.”
Phil Steele, who publishes a popular preseason football magazine, rates MSU’s entire 2012 schedule as the 38th toughest in the country. Playing in the SEC, particularly in the brutal Western Division, serves as MSU’s justification for filling out its schedule with cupcakes.
“We’ve had 16 straight sellouts and we have a waiting list for tickets, so whatever we’re doing right now seems to be working from a fan perspective,” Stricklin said. “And we’ve been to two straight bowl games, so it’s working from trying to produce a consistent winner perspective.”
From 2006-09, MSU played one non-SEC foe from a major conference each year, going 0-4 in two meetings each with West Virginia and Georgia Tech.
The last time the Bulldogs beat such a team in the regular season was in 1999, when they defeated Oklahoma State, 29-11, at home.
MSU’s schedules for 2013-16 do not include any BCS schools. Stricklin would not rule out someday scheduling tougher competition, “if it makes sense.” He was a bit coy about it.
“When the day comes when strength of schedule is used to determine – I guess it’s kind of used right now in the BCS formula – when we get to the point where that’s a concern for us, we’re going to make sure we take care of that piece of it,” he said.
That could mean that if coach Dan Mullen can make MSU into a consistent winner, then tougher games would be found. He’s off to a good start, having guided State to back-to-back winning seasons that included bowl wins against Michigan and Wake Forest.
Mullen said he wouldn’t be opposed to playing in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, which is played in Atlanta each year and features an SEC school against another prominent program. This fall’s matchups are Auburn versus Clemson and Tennessee versus N.C. State.
“We’re always discussing different options,” said Mullen, who works with Stricklin on scheduling. Stricklin said the two are usually in agreement when putting together a schedule.
MSU has other reasons for scheduling the way it does. Stricklin said he wants to ensure seven home games, and playing four cupcakes make it easier to reach the six wins required for bowl eligibility.
Mullen said reaching the six-win mark isn’t a big factor. He’s more focused on proximity, which is why MSU plays road games against schools like Memphis and Troy. Mullen wants to make travel easier on fans and students.
MSU often works out two-for-one deals, where two games will be played in Starkville and one at the other team’s site. For example, State gets South Alabama at home this year and in 2016 and will travel to Mobile in 2014.
Stricklin said that’s a cost-effective way to assure more home games.
Of course, those cupcakes don’t always go down easy. Last season, it took overtime to dispatch Louisiana Tech, 26-20. UAB has given State trouble the last two years.
MSU also likes to play an in-state foe every year, such as Jackson State this year and Southern Miss in 2014 an ’15.
One could argue that the soft non-league slate doesn’t adequately prepare MSU for the rigors of the SEC. That theory will be tested this year, when all four of MSU’s non-SEC games will have been played by October 20, preceding a closing stretch that includes games against reigning national champion Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
“We practice every day against an SEC team,” Stricklin said. “I’ve never heard that expressed as a concern.”