Strength of Schedule

Mississippi State has faced a tough schedule so far this year. Expectations certainly were that MSU should be able to duplicate last year’s 8-4 record, if not more. Prior to the season there were 6 wins, and 6 swing games – of which most thought State could win at least half. But the Dawgs are 5-0 in those certain wins and 0-5 in the swing games. But could those swing games have been underestimated? Here’s a look at how MSU’s 2011 SEC schedule looks now:

Team                           SEC record                              Overall record

Auburn                             4-3                                               6-4

LSU                                 6-0                                              10-0

Georgia                            6-1                                               8-2

South Carolina                   6-2                                               8-2

Kentucky                         1-5                                                4-6

Alabama                          6-1                                                9-1

Total                             29-12                                            45-15

Here’s how that SEC schedule ranks within the conference…

Toughest SEC schedules          Opponent’s Record         Winning Percentage

1. Tennessee                               32-10                                   .762
2. Mississippi State                          29-12                                           .707
3. Ole Miss                                   24-16                                   .600
4. Auburn                                    27-20                                   .5744
5. Florida                                     31-23                                   .5740
6. Vanderbilt                                27-21                                   .551
7. Kentucky                                 18-23                                   .439
7. Arkansas                                  18-23                                   .439
9. South Carolina                          22-31                                   .415
10. Alabama                                 17-28                                   .377
11. LSU                                       15-25                                   .375
12. Georgia                                  16-32                                   .333

Sure, MSU has played a tough schedule and lost against the better teams. But how close have the Dawgs been? Here’s a look at how their average margin against other SEC teams compares to their margins against State…

Team                                         Avg. Margin                        vs. MSU

Auburn                                            -13                                    +7
LSU                                               +25.4                                 +13
Georgia                                          +11                                    +14
South Carolina                                 +9.9                                   +2
Kentucky                                        -26                                     -12
Alabama                                         +26.5                                 +17

Total                                              +5.6                                  +6.8

State’s five losses this year are to teams currently ranked #1, #3, #12, #14, and #24 in the BCS Standings. Next up: #6 Arkansas.

The schedule has been tough, but it always is in the SEC.  Is State at least improving by playing the elite teams more competitively?  Since Dan Mullen has been hired to bring MSU back to the glory days of 1997-2000, let’s take a look at how this season compares with seasons from 2001-2010 vs. ranked teams.

Average margin from ’01 – ’10 vs. ranked teams:   -18

Average margin in 2011 vs. ranked teams:            -10.7

Average margin vs. ranked teams before Mullen:  -20.9

Average margin vs. ranked teams under Mullen :  -9.1

State was 4-28 (.125) vs. ranked teams from 2001-2008 (before Mullen).  The wins were: #20 Florida in 2004, #14 Kentucky in 2007, #21 Alabama in 2007, and #13 Vanderbilt in 2008.

State is 2-11 (.154) vs. ranked teams under Mullen (’09-present).  The wins were: #20 Ole Miss in 2009 and #22 Florida in 2010.

How good of a job is Dan Mullen doing?  If you are looking long term, you might be pleased that he has brought MSU up to a level of competitiveness within the SEC that wasn’t there prior to his arrival.  He has also made non-conference games and games against teams like Kentucky and Ole Miss into almost assured wins.  If you are looking short term, then no, Mullen has not been able to bring many victories against the top half of the SEC.

If State is able to continue to incrementally improve in the coming years how good could they be?  Will it ever be possible to win in the SEC West?  I think so.  For one, many people become ‘prisoner of the moment’ and are trapped by how good the West has been the past two years.  And that certainly includes the amnesia Alabama fans have for the time period prior to Nick Saban.  Here’s a look at the past 10 years for each team in the SEC West.

Team                Average W-L record from 2001 – 2010

LSU:                             10.2 – 2.9

Auburn:                         9.3 – 3.5

Alabama:                       8.6 – 4.3

Arkansas:                      7.5 – 5.1

Ole Miss:                       6.0 – 6.1

MSU:                            4.3 – 7.6

LSU has been the most consistent team over this stretch.  But they still have had two 8-5 seasons in which the West could be taken from them.  Surely State can do better than 4-5 wins per year, right?  Arkansas won the West twice during this period of time (’02, ’06) and their average record is certainly attainable for MSU.  And the West won’t always be as difficult as it seems right now.  Tennessee has fallen off considerably, and that is no longer a difficult game for Alabama, but they will be back.  Florida has also dropped off since Tim Tebow left, but they will soon be back for LSU to contend with every year.  Dan Mullen is bringing State into a position to be successful, slowly but surely.  And with Ole Miss’ downturn, the future is bright for MSU.