Ole Miss, Mississippi State Must Buck History After 0-6 SEC Starts

Image credit: Mike Bianco (Photo by Austin McAfee/Getty Images)

The SEC season has gotten off to a surprisingly lopsided start around the conference. Eight of the 14 conference series played in the first two weeks of the season have resulted in sweeps. South Carolina and Vanderbilt have not lost an SEC game, while four teams in the conference have one or zero SEC wins.

For teams at the top of the standings, the implications of the first two weekends are clear. They’ve already banked some important conference wins as they chase NCAA Tournament bids and hosting spots. But what about for the teams at the bottom of the standings? How deep are the holes they’ve dug already?

For these purposes, I’m focusing on four teams: Georgia and Texas A&M, which are 1-5, and Mississippi and Mississippi State, which are 0-6. Alabama and Auburn are also under .500 through two weekends at 2-4, but teams rebound from that kind of start relatively often.

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999, 11 SEC teams have started conference play 1-5 and gone on to make regionals. It’s happened more often in recent years, as eight of the occurrences have occurred in the last seven NCAA Tournaments, including twice in 2021 (Alabama and Louisiana State).

So, the Aggies and Bulldogs can take heart that their slow starts are reversible. A&M has to look no further than its own team in 2017 for inspiration, when the Aggies started 1-5 and finished the season in Omaha. They went 16-14 in SEC play.

But what about 0-6 Mississippi and Mississippi State? The two Magnolia State programs have made ignominious history this season, as they are both 0-6 to start SEC play for the first time ever. Is there any historical precedent for them to take strength from as they try to push ahead and keep the NCAA Tournament in their sights?

In the 23 seasons since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, an SEC team has started 0-6 and went on to reach regionals just twice—and both occurrences were in 2001. That year, Florida was swept by Tennessee and LSU to begin SEC play. The Gators, coached by Andy Lopez, ran off a 14-game winning streak after the LSU sweep and finished 16-14 in SEC play. They were the No. 2 seed in the Coral Gables Regional.

Auburn’s story that same season was even more incredible, however. The Tigers started the season 15-1 and were ranked No. 7 in the Top 25 when SEC play began March 9. Auburn was swept that weekend on the road by unranked Mississippi State. The Tigers returned home, where they were swept by unranked Ole Miss, losing the three games by a total of four runs. They then traveled to No. 22 Georgia and were swept again. Finally, after starting SEC play 0-9, Auburn was able to turn things around. It finished conference play at 15-15 and was the No. 2 seed in the Tallahassee Regional, where it lost to host Florida State in the regional final.

In the more than 20 years since, however, no SEC team that has started 0-6 in conference play has gone on to reach regionals. And while there is sometimes an overemphasis on how teams start a season or conference play, it’s rare even for a team to be swept on consecutive SEC weekends and go on to play in the NCAA Tournament. That’s happened seven times (counting 2001 Florida and 2001 Auburn), most recently to 2021 LSU, which started 1-8 and was swept in the second and third week of conference play. Even as bad as things got in the middle of the season for Ole Miss a year ago, it never was swept on consecutive weekends.

History, then, is not with Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The Rebels (15-9) have banked some solid non-conference wins that should help their RPI. Their sweeps also came at the hands of Florida and Vanderbilt, two top-five teams that have the potential to make a lot of teams look bad. Mississippi State (14-11) has more bad losses on its resume, but its series win against Arizona State (16-8) has aged well.

The bottom line for both the Rebels and Bulldogs is that they simply must win SEC games. In 2021, Alabama and LSU both made the NCAA Tournament with 17 conference losses. Every year is different for the selection committee but going 12-18 in the SEC is not going to be good enough without a deep run in Hoover. So, minimally, Ole Miss and Mississippi State need to go 13-11 the rest of the way in conference play and even picking up one additional win would be much better.

Ole Miss and Mississippi State have not both missed the NCAA Tournament in the same year since 2002. If that streak is to continue, the next eight weeks are critical. For Ole Miss, it starts this weekend at Texas A&M (15-9, 1-5). Mississippi State, meanwhile, welcomes No. 10 South Carolina (23-2, 6-0) to Starkville.

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