By DANNY P. SMITH
Here we go again.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs face another ranked opponent in a key Southeastern Conference baseball series this weekend.
Not only are the South Carolina Gamecocks ranked second in the country, but have the added tag of defending national champions on their resume. It's definitely going to be a tough three-game assignment for MSU.
The Bulldogs sure don't get much of a reward for beating rivals in the last two trips to Pearl.
After beating Southern Mississippi on April 5, MSU came home to take on No. 2 ranked Florida. The Bulldogs knocked off Ole Miss on Tuesday and return home to face South Carolina.
The Bulldogs have already seen squads like Vanderbilt, Florida and even Arkansas that are ranked and can be in the hunt for a national championship, mainly because of decent pitching.
MSU baseball coach John Cohen believes playing that type of competition will help his club down the stretch of the season.
The fact remains that the SEC presents some of the toughest challenges a team will face anywhere in the country and the Bulldogs have met some of those challenges.
MSU has played well against ranked opponents at times and did take one game of the series between Florida, Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
"When you are right there with them and you are making these strides week by week, our kids are saying if we can beat teams that have a chance to win a national championship, why can't we be in that mix," Cohen said during a teleconference this week. "After this week, we will have played three of the top five teams in the country and Arkansas is ranked anywhere between 13 and 25. I think our kids are starting to realize that we are one pitch away and are very close to being able to compete with anybody. If you can do that, you have a chance to do some special things in the postseason."
For any SEC team fortunate enough to make postseason play, any regional opponent probably won't provide as big a test as a match-up within the conference would.
Cohen believes his squad has a chance to make a run because of that very reason.
"You are not going to experience anything in the postseason that you haven't experienced in the Southeastern Conference," Cohen said. "That's why our league is so successful in postseason. Right now, we're trying to get into the postseason and that's going to be a fight for our ballclub."
With the first half of league play completed, the Bulldogs have a 6-9 mark and stand fifth in the Western Division standings.
Mississippi State has to find a way to get to Hoover, Ala., and the SEC Tournament first. Once it does that, chances are pretty good that a spot will be reserved for the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament as well.
With series against South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU remaining and nine of those games at Dudy Noble Field, MSU has the set up to have a nice finish.
It's up to the Bulldogs to take advantage of it.
Danny P. Smith is sports editor and columnist for the Starkville Daily News. The opinions in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Daily News or its staff.