Mississippi State finished last season ranked dead last in the SEC and 132 nationally in RPI, according to WarrenNolan.com. Although that was mostly due to the team's 24-30 record and abysmal performance within the conference, a large contributor was the weak schedule that the diamond dogs played -- like every year it seems -- compared to the rest of the league.
MSU's overall strength of schedule was No. 39, but only because of the strong competition that comes with SEC baseball. When you look at the team's non-conference strength of schedule, it dropped down to 216.
Before the season, it looked like games against Arizona, Samford, and Western Kentucky would boost the Bulldogs' RPI if they could come away with a few wins. They finished 5-1 against the three but there were two problems: they were all home games and each of those teams ended up producing average to below average seasons.
Despite the fact that road games improve RPI dramatically even sometimes with a loss, John Cohen opted to keep his team at home the first 26 games of the season. It didn't hit the road until March 20 to take on Kentucky. MSU only played two road out-of-conference games all season. The diamond dogs were thrown to the wolves in SEC games because they hadn't been truly tested.
That won't be the case in 2016.
Although MSU will only play three games away from Dudy Noble field before SEC play, it's a competitive three games against No. 11 UCLA, USC, and Oklahoma in LA for the Dodger Stadium Classic. Additionally, home games against Florida Atlantic to open the season -- they won 42 games last year and finished with an RPI of 17 -- and Oregon March 11-13 will quickly tell us if MSU is for real. Oregon finished 38-25 and start this season ranked No. 14 by D1Baseball.
Credit Cohen for recognizing that a weak schedule hurt his team's RPI in the past and taking steps to correct it. Yeah, it's all a moot point if MSU doesn't fare well in those games. But the point remains, it's better to throw your team in the fire early before taking on the most daunting conference in college baseball. If you come out with a few losses at the end, so what, you have a battle-tested team with an RPI that can still be salvaged the rest of the season.
The Bulldogs also battle South Alabama, Oral Roberts, and Memphis at home. All three of those teams are coming off 37-win seasons or better and are capable of coming into Dudy Noble and stealing a win.
There's no doubt it's the beefiest schedule we've seen the diamond dogs play under Cohen.
As if the non-conference and SEC-West schedule wasn't enough, the Bulldogs draw No. 3 Vanderbilt and No. 1 Florida out of the east -- both of which are road games.
Three SEC West opponents are also ranked by D1Baseball. Texas A&M and LSU are top-10 teams while Arkansas is ranked No. 25. Although not ranked by D1Baseball, Ole Miss is a top-25 team according to some publications.
The experts are pegging this the year MSU bounces back. Some predict them as high as third in the west, which would indicate a potential regional host. That's a bold move given the schedule that lies ahead. It will quickly reveal whether this team is a pretender or a contender. If it's the latter and MSU is on the verge of those top 16 teams, you'll be thankful Cohen substantially improved the strength of schedule when tournament selection time rolls around.