Could this be the team that finally hangs MSU's first national title banner ... ever?
It’s like they say. The 126th time is the charm.
This is the 126th year in which Mississippi State is competing in collegiate athletics. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll yield the school’s first national title in a team sport.
That’s on the broad shoulders of the MSU baseball team, which kicked off another trip to Omaha with a dazzling, strikeout-fueled win against powerhouse Texas. The Bulldogs set the College World Series single-game record with 21 strikeouts, 15 of which came from the right arm of Will Bednar.
National championship drought notwithstanding, it’s not that MSU hasn’t been here before. Specific to Omaha, this is the third consecutive College World Series in which MSU began by winning a 1-run game. In 2013, MSU’s runner-up finish in Omaha also began with a 1-run victory in the opener, but it ended by getting swept in the championship by UCLA, which then-MSU baseball coach and current MSU athletic director John Cohen said back in 2018 “still haunts him.”
The question now is obvious — is MSU about to hang its first national title banner?
Remember that this is only referring to team sports. That includes MSU women’s basketball, which lost in the title game in 2017 and 2018. That 2018 loss came in an especially brutal fashion. Up 5 with a minute and a half left against a Notre Dame team that hadn’t hit a 3-pointer all game, the Irish finished the game on an 8-0 run, including a buzzer-beater 3-pointer from Arike Ogunbowale.
(Sorry, MSU fans. You didn’t need to see that again.)
Prior to that game, MSU coach Vic Schaefer said “it would be the first one we’ve ever won in any sport. I think that’s enough said.”
MSU is the lone SEC program without any national titles in any of the 3 big revenue sports (men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and football). The football program’s best 21st century accomplishment was being ranked No. 1 in the first Playoff poll in 2014, though that still ended up being a 3-loss season. The men’s basketball team only made it past the Sweet 16 once, though that 1996 run ended with an 8-point loss to Syracuse in the Final Four.
Like women’s basketball, MSU baseball has also been knocking on the door. MSU is the only program in America that can boast of winning 5 consecutive Regional titles. Perhaps that partially why this could finally be setting up for a national title banner in Starkville.
In terms of College World Series experience, MSU doesn’t have a ton of it, but it has about as much as any team could ask for considering that the pandemic wiped out the 2020 NCAA Tournament. Leading hitters Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan were key contributors for the 2018 and 2019 runs to Omaha. Against Texas on Sunday night, Brad Cumbest drove in Luke Hancock for a key insurance run on an RBI triple, and both of those guys were in lesser roles on that 2019 team.
That’s perhaps the other key ingredient worth noting. MSU has found a variety of ways to win this postseason to get to the winners’ side of the CWS bracket. They’ll hope to stay there Tuesday night against Virginia (7 p.m., ESPN2).
Sunday was the first time MSU won when it scored 2 runs or less. It just happened to be on the biggest stage on which Bednar had ever pitched, and it turned out to be an all-time great performance.
The Bulldogs got some home cooking in the Regional and Super Regional, but they did already have the win-or-go-home experience on that Monday afternoon against Notre Dame. They responded to that by racing to a 7-1 lead and chasing the Irish starter in the second inning.
MSU even had to do the challenging thing of getting off to a dominant start in the Regional, only to be told it wouldn’t get to play a series-clinching game because of inclement weather. And then the Bulldogs turned around and held off Campbell for a 6-5 win.
Here are some other numbers that favor the belief that MSU can win in a variety of ways:
- 33-1 when leading after 5 innings
- 29-12 when hitting 0 or 1 home runs
- 10-3 in 1-run games
- 39-2 when opponent scores 5 or fewer runs
Obviously, MSU looks like a team that’s at its best when the bats are going like they were in the Regional. But that success holding leads late and winning 1-run games seem like immensely important traits for a title contender. MSU’s 2013 runner-up team was 34-1 when leading after 5 innings and it went 15-3 in 1-run games.
The Bulldogs aren’t just trying to repeat that success. They’re trying to one-up it.
And nobody needs to tell MSU about the importance of not getting too confident after 1 game in Omaha. The last 2 trips included a 1-4 record after those Game 1 wins.
Coach Chris Lemonis is in his second College World Series, but with the moves he made against Texas, he certainly didn’t look like he was caught in the moment of Bednar’s gem. Lemonis said after the game that they recognized Bednar’s velocity had dipped a touch and they knew they’d have Landon Sims available for a 9-out save on plenty of rest. Despite Bednar’s request to stay in and build on his 15 strikeouts, Lemonis stuck to his guns, and it proved to be the exact right move.
If he’s aware of the national title drought for MSU athletics, he didn’t show it.
Lemonis was so loose that he said afterward that he jokingly gave Allen a hard time about a rough day at the plate before his final at-bat. Allen laughed it off and MSU executed down the stretch to pull out that all-important Game 1 win.
It takes all the pieces aligning to win a national championship. For whatever reason, those pieces have never quite lined up for MSU in a team sport. That task is far from over in Omaha. On Tuesday night, MSU will have to get past a Virginia team that silenced a red-hot Tennessee squad with a 6-0 victory.
Nobody asked Lemonis to look beyond Virginia or to break down what it would mean to give MSU that first national title in school history. If he and his squad continue to take care of business, there’ll be plenty of time for that conversation.
Until then, we’ll wait and wonder if the 126th time is the charm.