Playing On

When Mike Bianco signed up to be the Rebels’ head baseball coach in the summer of 2000, the Ole Miss program had some work to do to catch up to where its instate rival had been for a couple of decades.

Although Ole Miss was the most prolific Southeastern Conference College World Series program through the early 1970s when the Rebels had already been four times to Omaha and no other SEC team had been more than once, some had finally caught up.

Mississippi State was one of those. The Bulldogs were a national power from the late 1970s through the 1990s. Even in Bianco’s early years, State had the Rebels’ number. In his first nine SEC games against MSU, the Bulldogs won eight of them.

Then came 2004 and Ole Miss won two of three games in Starkville. Things haven’t been the same since. Following this past weekend’s sweep of State in Oxford, the Rebels have a 24-12 record against MSU in SEC regular season games.

There are several reasons for that. One is longterm stability in Oxford.

MSU has had three head coaches in that 15-year period. Pat McMahon’s last season with the Bulldogs was in 2001; then he took the head coaching job at Florida. Ron Polk came back to MSU after a short but successful tenure at Georgia as head coach. Polk had been the MSU Bulldogs’ head coach from 1976 through 1997.

After Polk’s second tenure ended with the 2008 season, John Cohen was named head coach at MSU for the 2009 season. The Rebels have swept MSU three times in the Bianco era; two of them since Cohen took over. Last weekend in Oxford and in 2010 in Starkville. The 2005 Rebels swept a Polk-coached MSU team at Swayze Field.

The Rebels have now won three SEC series in a row against MSU, and nine of the last 12.

This year both Ole Miss and State desperately needed to win the series to help their postseason chances. Both were hanging in the balance and actually still are to an extent.

The Rebels, by virtue of the sweep, know they are headed to the SEC Tournament to be among the 12 teams (of 14) to play there. MSU still has work to do this weekend at Tennessee to qualify.

Bianco’s record against MSU in Hoover, Ala., has a State flavor. Ole Miss is just 1-3 against the instate rival at the SEC tourney since 2001.

In the non-conference games vs. MSU in Jackson or Pearl the past 15 seasons, Ole Miss holds a 9-6 advantage.

Since 2004 MSU has hosted one NCAA Regional and one Super Regional. Ole Miss has hosted six NCAA Regionals and three Super Regionals during the same time frame. The Rebels went to the College World Series last year. MSU has been twice since 2004 - once under Polk; once under Cohen.

The Rebels have a game at Arkansas State Tuesday night which is important in the big picture. Ole Miss’ RPI is currently 33 and its strength of schedule remains No. 1 among all teams in the country in Division I baseball.

ASU is 23-26 and stands at 113 in the current RPI, so the Rebels don’t need a road setback to the Red Wolves if they can prevent it.

Ole Miss then hosts Texas A&M Thursday through Saturday in Oxford. The Aggies are No. 8 in the latest RPI with a 42-9 overall record and 17-9 league mark after dropping two of three games at home to South Carolina this past weekend.

The Aggies have lost three of their last four SEC weekends – to Arkansas, LSU, and now USC. Two weekends ago they swept Tennessee. Tuesday night while the Rebels are in Jonesboro, Texas A&M plays in Huntsville, Texas, against Sam Houston State.

If the Rebels win at Arkansas State, they’ll finish the non-conference portion of the regular season with a 15-11 mark. If they win the series against the Aggies this weekend, it will be the non-conference games that will haunt them.

With the strength of schedule and the RPI as both have been all season, this team could have headed to Hoover next week with hosting a NCAA Regional on its mind had it posted, say, three or four more non-conference wins.

Not sure what four wins this week - making it eight wins in a row to wind things up - would mean other than a 32-24 mark and a 17-13 SEC log.

For now, the Arkansas State game is all that matters, and the Rebels will focus on that until it’s over Tuesday night.

There’s still a lot of interesting and important baseball to be played between now and Saturday night as the regular season winds down for SEC teams.

As usual, stay tuned.

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