And now the big wars have arrived. It's SEC time.
To be fair, years ago I got in some trouble with a former Ole Miss head coach. Not real trouble, just a phone call.
"I don't agree with you on that, and neither did he," the coach said, the ‘he' being the opposing SEC head coach in town for that weekend's series.
What I'd written was that those early games just didn't really matter. What it was all about was SEC play, and now it was starting with the opening series that particular season.
He was right. They all count.
Or as Mike Bianco taught us when he arrived, and one of the signs in the locker room has displayed it for a decade, "Everything Counts."
And it does.
But you know folks are a little more amped for Alabama than they were Lipscomb. We all know that's the case.
The weather alone may have something to do with that. Sunny and high 70s all weekend? Now that's more like it.
But this Rebel team facing the Crimson Tide also has something to do with it. Ole Miss enters at 14-4 with an RPI of fourth nationally. While early, it's still better to be ranked there than 20 or 30 spots lower and trying to work your way up. That happened to the Rebels last season and they never could get into the mix for an NCAA Regional hosting situation. So this year they have a head start, so to speak.
But there's a lot of work left to do. Thirty SEC games are next and some important non-conference games with teams like MSU, USM, Arkansas State, and Memphis, as well as others. So we focus first on this weekend.
The Tide, 11-6 this season, brings strong pitching to Oxford. Veteran arms. In his last start, senior right-handed pitcher Nathan Kilcrease (2-0) struck out nine, extending his team-leading total to 30. Kilcrease, projected to start tonight, has had at least eight strikeouts in three of his four starts this season. He did not allow an earned run for the second straight start, lowering his ERA to 2.22 for the season.
Junior left-handed pitcher Adam Morgan (2-1), likely the Saturday guy, retired the first 12 Eastern Illinois batters of the game last weekend, before allowing a leadoff double to start the fifth inning. It was the second time this season Morgan carried a no hitter into the fifth.
Sunday starting pitcher right-handed Tucker Hawley (3-1) extended his scoreless inning streak to 17.0, following an 8.0 inning four-hit outing in the series finale against Eastern Illinois.
Alabama lost 2-1 to the Auburn Tigers in the MAX Capital City Classic Tuesday night in Montgomery, Ala. The Crimson Tide scored a run on two hits in the first inning, before being shutout and held to just two hits the rest of the way.
Priot to that game, Alabama lost a 6-3 non-conference game to Georgia at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, Ga. The Tide closed last week with its third three-game series sweep of the season by winning all three games against Eastern Illinois.
Former Ole Miss player David Kindred made his first career appearance at first base when he was in the starting line-up on Tuesday against Auburn. Kindred has recovered from a severe health situation late last season and seems to be doing very well.
Mitch Gaspard is in his second season as head coach of the Crimson Tide. A longtime assistant coach in the SEC and former head coach at Northwestern State, Gaspard was an assistant to former Alabama head coach Jim Wells. In year one, Gaspard led Alabama to a 42-win season in 2010 and a Super Regional appearance.
Ole Miss brings one of the league's best collective ERAs to the weekend as Matt Crouse is at 1.67, David Goforth a 2.42, and Austin Wright a 2.66. Closer Jake Morgan has yet to give up an earned run with his perfect 0.00 ERA in 15 innings. Morgan has a 2-0 record with four saves in six appearances. The Rebels have allowed one run total the past four games.
Brett Huber hasn't been quite what he was last season, and the Rebels will need him to step up as he did last season for them to have success. Huber and relievers Trent Rothlin and Eric Callender are keys to the staff, and certainly so while R.J. Hively and Bobby Wahl continue to work their way back from arm situations.
Offensively, the Rebels need even greater production from their big bats, namely Matt Smith and Matt Snyder. Both have dealt with well-documented arm or shoulder problems the past months and longer, and the Rebels simply need them to stay healthy and produce to make a significant run.
The newer players are making their presence felt. Preston Overbey has played well at third base but hasn't been as productive as he will be at the plate. Austin Anderson seems to be making a move toward more time on the field, especially with his offensive showings to date.
Blake Newalu at shortstop has had a solid season thus far and appears to again give Ole Miss a strong presence at that position. Alex Yarbrough has picked up where he left off last season with only a handful of miscues at second base. At the plate, the Rebels count on him as well.
The outfield has improved since the first weekend when there were struggles. If Matt Smith is out there, the Rebels are better. But if his arm means he is at first base, which is likely with Miles Hamblin behind the plate, then the outfield is still in good shape. Matt Tracy and Zach Kirksey, who both appeared a little uncomfortable the first weekend, have come on stronger. Tanner Mathis and Jordan King have held down center field and done well.
Tracy is one of the early candidates through the first third of the campaign for MVP. At the plate, on the mound, in the outfield, Tracy has been a valuable and versatile player for the Rebels.
And now things get more serious. It's SEC time. Not necessarily way more important than the previous 18 games have been. I learned years ago not to discount the value of the pre-conference games – or I was told that and learned it that way.
No matter how things are to this point, however, there's just a little bit more excitement, a little more spring in the step, and a little different feeling when it's Alabama instead of Austin Peay.
That goes double when the weather's like it's gonna be this weekend.
Play (SEC) ball!