One of the SEC’s finalists punched its ticket with more of a whimper than a bang after COVID protocols sent Vandy past NC State around 2 a.m. Saturday morning. But then Mississippi State forged its path to the final the old-fashioned way, with a comeback and a 9th inning walk-off. The Bulldogs’ 4-3 victory over Texas sent us to another all-SEC World Series final, the 4th in the event’s history. As we all wrap our heads around a crazy weekend, here are 5 things to know heading into Monday’s Game 1.

1. Same, but very different

Vanderbilt and Mississippi State spent much of the season ranked in the top 5 of various national polls.

Vanderbilt was No. 2 and Mississippi State No. 4 when they met in Nashville for a 3-game series in late April.

The Vandy Boys won 2 of the 3 games, but that series looked different from how the CWS finals will because both pitching staffs were rested and ready in April.

Vandy ace Kumar Rocker dominated the Friday game, pitching a complete-game 3-hitter with 8 strikeouts. Rocker won’t be available for Game 1 or Game 2 of the CWS finals. If it gets to a Game 3, he still would be pitching on short rest. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine him not wanting the ball in that situation.

Game 2 of their regular-season series might not be repeated, either. MSU chased Jack Leiter after just 5 innings and won 7-4. Leiter suffered his first loss of the season after allowing 4 earned runs in 5 innings. That was the 2nd of 3 consecutive rough starts that led to a week off. Since then, Leiter has been dominant, striking out 10 or more in 4 of his past 6 starts while re-establishing himself as the possible No. 1 overall pick in the June draft.

Leiter is scheduled to pitch Game 1 of the CWS finals on Monday.

Mississippi State ace Will Bednar, who outdueled Leiter in their regular-season matchup, pitched Saturday in the decisive bracket final against Texas, so he won’t be available until Game 3, if at all.

2. Battle of the bullpens?

Neither staff is lined up, which means the bullpens could play a bigger role than they did in the regular season.

MSU closer Landon Sims has been dominant all season, and particularly in Omaha. He has made 3 appearances, earning 2 saves and a victory to push the Bulldogs into the finals. He allowed just 1 earned run in 7 innings of work in the process.

He threw 52 pitches in earning a 3-inning save in MSU’s opening game. He came back 2 days later with an easier 15-pitch save. He didn’t appear in MSU’s loss on Friday, but threw 2 2/3 innings of hitless relief of Bednar and earned the win Saturday.

Sims threw 103 pitches last week, including 36 on Saturday. Will fatigue be a factor?

Vandy’s bullpen doesn’t rely on a single arm. Closer Luke Murphy has 9 saves, but Nick Maldonado has 8.

Both followed Rocker in Vandy’s opening game of the CWS. They combined for 5 1/3 innings of work. Vandy won in extra innings.

Both pitched again in an elimination game against Stanford. Maldonado allowed 1 run in 3 innings. Murphy finished the game, earning the victory with 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief.

Murphy then closed out NC State with 2 1/3 scoreless innings in another elimination game on Friday night.

As unfortunate as NC State’s disqualification was, the fact is it saved Vandy’s bullpen.

Murphy threw 118 pitches last week. Maldonado threw 99. An extra day of rest will help.

3. Figure on close games

Why might the bullpens be so critical? MSU and Vandy have worked their way in with plenty of pressure-packed battles. State picked up its 5th 1-run victory of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, as the 4-3 win over Texas followed on the heels of a 6-5 win over Virginia and the opening 2-1 victory over the Longhorns. Vandy has played its own share of close games, winning its NCAA games since their 10-0 opening victory by 4-3, 14-11, 2-0, 4-1. 7-6 and 3-1 counts, as well as their 1-0 loss to NC State.

4. This is the 4th all-SEC finals

In 2003, the CWS shifted to a best-of-3 finals format.

Since then, only 3 times has one conference provided both finalists. The SEC did it all 3 times.

Florida beat LSU in 2017. South Carolina beat Florida in 2011. Now, it’s Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi State for the right to form a dog pile.

This is the 4th time overall that 2 SEC teams will play for the title. In 1997, LSU beat Alabama in a winner-take-all final.

The biggest SEC breakout had to be 2011, when not only did the SEC claim the 1st and 2nd place finishes, but Vanderbilt finished third. The entire All-Tournament team was made up of SEC players that year.

5. Walk-off magic? (Or late-inning rallies?)

State’s walk-off win on Tanner Leggett’s base hit was the 5th MSU walk-off victory of the 2021 campaign. Vandy can’t match that stat, but this is interesting: Vandy has won only 3 games all year when trailing after 6 innings … but all 3 have come in the NCAA Tournament, including the Commodores’ brilliant 6-5 win over Arizona to stave off elimination on Wednesday.

The finals could come down to whether State’s streak of walk-offs can best Vandy’s recent spell of late-inning comebacks.