March 7, 2018 11:05:54 AM
A non-conference softball game in March rarely becomes a "make-or-break" situation for a Southeastern Conference team.
That being said, Mississippi State (16-3) will play host to Boston College (6-9) at 6 tonight at Nusz Park in a big game.
MSU has been ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 in each of the past two weeks. After going 4-0 last week, the Bulldogs moved up two spots in Tuesday's ranking. MSU remains just outside the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Top 25.
In the ESPN/USA Today rankings, 11 of 13 SEC schools are ranked. That is why non-conference games like the one tonight are critical for Vann Stuedeman's squad. A non-conference home game against a Power 5 opponent will help the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) figure and will give the Bulldogs separation in May when the field for the NCAA tournament is selected.
Any notion Boston College would fly under the radar for tonight's matchup went out the window Tuesday night. Boston College began a Southeastern road swing with an 8-2 victory against No. 19 Ole Miss in Oxford. The Eagles will continue to play in our area this weekend with five games in Alabama's Crimson Classic.
If MSU would like to bring a first regional to Nusz Park, now is the time to make a move. The Bulldogs play five home games this week. After Boston College, MSU will play two games against Illinois and Massachusetts-Lowell at Nusz Park before beginning SEC play next weekend at Missouri.
Illinois is 8-6, while UMass-Lowell is 2-8. Looking even further ahead, Missouri one of the two unranked conference teams. The Tigers, who went through a coaching change to start the season, are 16-7.
MSU has a chance to pass Ole Miss in the national rankings and send a statement to the NCAA Committee that it might be time to bring a regional to Starkville. Ole Miss hosted a regional last season and parlayed home-field success into a first super regional.
MSU already has set itself up nicely for a sixth regional berth in seven seasons under Stuedeman. To qualify for a regional, a team needs a better than .500 regular-season record. MSU should be well on its way to the necessary 28 wins when this homestand ends.
The Bulldogs also own a couple of nice wins against ranked opponents Nebraska and Oklahoma State in Palm Springs, California.
MSU's non-conference schedule won't overwhelm you, but it has been proven before that playing in this league will provide enough RPI points that a lot of tough non-conference games aren't necessary.
In the preseason, Stuedeman said her team's success could hinge on the mental toughness of senior pitchers Holly Ward and Cassady Knudsen.
So far, so good. Through 19 games, the Bulldogs are fourth best in the nation with an earned run average of 0.72. The Bulldogs are hitting .322, which is significantly higher than each of the last two regional-bound squads from Starkville.
The Bulldogs have done this with three members of a highly touted recruiting class sidelined by injury.
Stuedeman wasn't evasive when answering questions in the preseason. She simply didn't know what she would get from her team offensively.
A guess from this corner is the offense has been a pleasant surprise, the pitching has been a marginal surprise, and the defense remains a cause for concern. The Bulldog have made 28 errors in 19 games, including five in a loss at Cal State Fullerton.
If the offense continues to produce, the margin for error in the circle and the field increases. With limited offensive production in each of the last two seasons, the Bulldogs hurt themselves when they didn't cash in on each and every opportunity.
Around the SEC, eight teams being league play this weekend. MSU will continue to whack away at its non-conference schedule. A 5-0 week could go a long way toward getting MSU into the NFCA poll and help it move up on the regional host pecking order.
From here, the challenges will grow taller. If you look carefully at the SEC standings, it's OK to be depressed. The league is 226-35 overall. That's a winning percentage of .865.
We will soon know if MSU -- picked last in the preseason poll for the conference -- belongs in the upper echelon.
For MSU to get there, tonight's a big game, even if it is March 7.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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