Fifth-Ranked Rebs Offer Major Test For Tigers

Auburn looks to get back in the hunt in the SEC West when the Tigers take on the Ole Miss Rebels this weekend.

Auburn, Ala.--The road doesn't get any easier for the 14th-ranked Auburn Tigers this weekend when they travel to Oxford, Miss., to face the fifth-ranked Ole Miss Rebels in a SEC Western Division showdown.

The Rebels (25-4, 7-2) have won six of their last seven games, including two of three at Mississippi State last weekend. Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe said this will be a tough challenge for the Tigers because of the talent and experience of the Rebels.

"We're looking forward to going to Ole Miss and playing what we think is probably the best team in the league," Renfroe said. "Everybody I've talked to agrees. Even LSU thinks that's the team they'll have to beat. People think it's one of the top two or three teams in the country. They have a lot of all-star players and they are rolling. We're looking forward to going there and playing another top five team."

The Tigers (22-9, 4-5) should be well prepared to face the Rebels this weekend as a tough schedule to this point has given them plenty of experience against top teams. Following the Ole Miss series Auburn will have played 16 of its last 24 games against ranked teams. The Tigers are currently 9-4 against ranked opponents with three of the losses coming by two runs or less.

Josh Bell will be a key for the Tigers both on the mound and at the plate.

Ole Miss comes into the weekend series a hot team at the plate and on the mound, and no player is a better example of that than talented Stephen Head. The big lefty leads the team in hitting with a .429 average, 10 home runs and 43 runs batted in. He also has a record of 4-0 with an ERA of just 2.92 in five starts this season.

"You have All-American Stephen Head on both sides," Renfroe said. "It's kind of like having Tim Hudson. A guy like that just makes everybody better. It makes your offense better, but your defense is better, your bullpen is better. He's going to go seven, eight or nine innings. He just makes the whole team better because of everything he does."

The Rebels will have some adversity to overcome this weekend as six players have been suspended by Coach Mike Bianco for the Auburn series. Among them is top starter Brae Wright. On the season Wright is 5-1 with a 2.19 ERA in seven appearances this season.

Also suspended are pitchers Taylor Fowler, Chris Hollomon and Chris Thompson in addition to position players Drew Robinson and Justin Donovan.

Offensively, the Rebels are hitting .322 as a team and Barry Gunther is one of the player Auburn will have to pay special attention to. Hitting .429 with one home run and 18 runs batted in, Gunther has struck out just nine times in 70 at-bats this season. Shortstop Matt Tolbert is also a dangerous offensive player, hitting .345 with one home run and 23 RBI.

Auburn will try to slow that offensive firepower with the rotation of Mike Felix, Arnold Hughey and Josh Bell on the mound. The true freshman Felix is 2-1 with a 3.75 ERA in eight starts. He has given up just 29 hits in 36 innings while striking out 35.

Auburn's most experienced starter, Hughey is 4-1 with a 4.67 ERA this season in nine starts. He has given up 61 hits in 52 innings, but has struck out 44 while walking just 10. Bell has been a pleasant surprise on the mound this season with a 2-0 record and an ERA of just 1.19 in 22 2/3 innings pitched. Bell has given up just 11 hits this season, but has walked 17.

Offensively, the Tigers will be looking to break out of a season-long slump that has seen them struggle to score runs. Auburn has scored more than seven runs just once in the last 13 games and has been held under seven in 10 of those games. One thing that has come on is the power as the Tigers have homered in six straight SEC games for the first time since the 1998 season.

Game times for the weekend are 6:30 p.m. on Friday, 4 on Saturday and 1:30 on Sunday. There is no television for the weekend series.

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