March 19, 2010 1:19:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- As Mississippi State coach John Cohen sees it, there''s nothing that compares to league play in the Southeastern Conference.
Coming off a mid-week rout of Mississippi Valley State, the Bulldogs begin SEC play today at Florida.
Cohen is steadfast in his belief that there are no off weekends in the SEC and he''s hopeful last weekend''s games against UCLA, Oklahoma and Texas A&M Corpus Christi in the Whataburger Classic in Corpus Christi, Texas, have given the Bulldogs ample warmup for the three-game series against the Gators.
Mississippi State went 1-4 at the Whataburger Classic, beating Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 4-2 in extra innings on the final day.
Prior to the classic, the Bulldogs had won five straight games after unexpectedly dropping three straight at home to Southeast Louisiana.
That kind of up-and-down non-conference performance was to be expected with a young squad, Cohen said Thursday.
"We just need to hit that tipping point," Cohen said. "Right now, we''re experiencing a lot of things for the first time. Our kids are doing a great job in practice, but we''re experiencing a lot of things for the first time. The game demands repetition and it''s the biggest thing we''re lacking right now."
Though the Bulldogs enter today''s 6 p.m. start in Gainesville with an 11-6 record, Cohen believes the team''s progression is on par with where he thought it would be entering the season. He believes the team''s skill level has improved, but the team''s togetherness, especially in the middle infield where junior college transfers Nick Vickerson and Jonathan Ogden have taken their lumps, has elevated.
As the Bulldogs gain experience by the game, Cohen is hopeful the competitiveness will carry them in league play, where they finished 9-20 last season. That league mark is identical to the Bulldogs'' SEC finish in 2008.
Mississippi State began league competition at South Carolina last season and took two of three from the Gamecocks.
The Gators (13-3), however, won two of three on the road against Miami and went to an NCAA Super Regional last season.
"They''re a top SEC team -- they have upperclassmen sprinkled with young guys who are talented," Cohen said. "They don''t have a glaring weakness. They might not be as strong on the mound after losing a couple of arms, but they are still a strong team."
Florida announced today''s and Saturday''s starters, freshman Alex Panteliodis (4-0, 1.10 ERA) and sophomore Brian Johnson (1-1, 5.52 ERA), to match up with MSU freshmen Kendall Graveman (1-0, 3.78 ERA) and Chris Stratton (2-2, 2.95 ERA).
Mississippi State''s normal Friday starter, sophomore Nick Routt, has been bumped to Sunday after giving up 25 hits in five starts this season. Last season''s bright spot in an otherwise anemic starting rotation, has an ERA over seven and was viewed as this year''s standard for the team''s nine freshman or JUCO arms.
"We''re just rewarding guys for pitching well," Cohen said of the shakeup. "One area of our team we feel is much improved is our bullpen. We have guys we can go to this year and we''ve taken a large portion of our better arms for late in the game. The starting guys are groomed in that way, too.
"We feel like Nick pitched well yesterday (Wednesday versus Mississippi Valley State) to an extent and he''s working to get back to where he was."