Halfway through another exciting SEC race

Ole Miss stands 7-8 in SEC play, just like it did last season. That's when things got really fun for the Rebels and their fans.

It's the halfway point of the conference baseball season. This morning, the e-mail came from the SEC office.

"The Southeastern Conference is now accepting media credential requests through its Online Credentialing System for the 2006 SEC Baseball Tournament."

Every outlet that covers SEC baseball got it. We've all still got some time to think about it. Deadline is not until May 17, which is one week before the start of the tourney.

Every team still has some games to win to qualify. None are a cinch yet, although South Carolina (11 SEC wins), Alabama (10), and Vanderbilt (10) appear well on their way.

The Rebels are right where they were last year at this time. With two upcoming home series (LSU this weekend and Tennessee the following weekend) and with three of their last five series at home, Ole Miss at 7-8 is actually in good shape to make the eight-team field, which Coach Mike Bianco has always said should basically be a given for this program.

He said that's the way it was down at LSU when he played and coached there, that there was never any thought given to making, or better yet not making, the SEC Tournament.

But since then the league's toughened up from top to bottom, and the race has grown tighter each season than a decade ago. It's really even hard now to find a gap between top programs and bottom programs in this conference; maybe that's because there don't appear to actually be so-called top programs or bottom dwellers anymore. There's just so much balance and even some inconsistencies as teams' personnels change from year to year.

Last year's national runnerup Florida and College World Series participant Tennessee are at the bottom of the SEC East currently, both with only five league victories. Mississippi State blazed to an 18-0 start this season but has found the going tougher in league play and has seven conference wins.

Check the standings at the end of last season, look at them at the halfway point this season, and check again in say three weeks and again at season's end this year and the juggling act will continue.

The talent, the coaching, the importance and prominence placed on baseball at every SEC school has made this sport a fight from start to finish every year.

The Rebels rolled through the second half of league play last season with an 11-4 mark, the same record USC has now to lead the entire conference to this point. The Rebels have an opportunity to kickstart the second half of league play against LSU this weekend. There won't be a better place to be if you're an Ole Miss fan than Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field as the Rebels and the Tigers go at it three times.

If the weather's good, the crowds will be huge, the intensity at fever pitch, and the players and coaches will be at the top of their games.

LSU comes in at 6-9 in the SEC but won two of three against Alabama in Baton Rouge over the weekend. Seems like the Tigers always have a way of picking it up right before they play the Rebels.

Yes, Alabama beat them 17-6 Sunday, but the SEC West-leading Crimson Tide had fallen in its first two games Friday and Saturday.

Ole Miss actually lost two of three to LSU last year in Baton Rouge to move to that 7-8 mark at the halfway point. As strong a finish as the Rebels had, it took two dramatic, late-inning wins the very next weekend in Oxford over Georgia just to keep things headed toward what later was a Regional and Super Regional hosting situation.

Ole Miss was 9-9 after 18 conference games last season and will be trying to match or better that in the upcoming series with the Tigers.

Winning a series against LSU hasn't been easy for Ole Miss in a while. Only once in Bianco's first five seasons has Ole Miss won at least two games and that ironically was in 2002, the only season in Bianco's five so far that Ole Miss failed to make the SEC Tournament.

So is it time for the Spirit to request those media credentials to Hoover for Memorial Day weekend? The opportunity is there since we got that e-mail this morning.

But I'll probably wait a week or two. Not to see if the Rebels win some games, but because I normally put things like that off for a while, given the fact that they give us a month to apply.

But I have to believe the Rebels, currently in seventh place in the overall SEC race, will make it. I like the fact that the schedule is home heavy the rest of the way. I like the way the starting pitching has unfolded with Rodriguez, Bukvich, and Lynn, certainly so the last two weekends. I know this team can hit and field. I know they understand what it takes to reach goals like NCAA Tournaments and hosting.

And even what it takes to make the SEC Tournament field, which is no longer a given for any program in this league as it was for some only a few years ago.

Ole Miss baseball is now more than just about being one of the eight teams to qualify for the SEC Tournament each year. But certainly it doesn't hurt to keep up with the standings, know what's going on around you in the league, and consider the postseason conference tourney an accomplishment to be proud of.

Especially now that the NCAA does not award NCAA Regional host sites until the Sunday of the SEC Tournament.

Because of that, the significance of making Hoover is greater than it was only a decade ago.

After only making the SEC Tournament field in Hoover once (1999) in the five seasons before Bianco and company arrived, it's now been only once (2002) that the Rebels have failed to make it in the five opportunities since they've been leading the program.

I have a good feeling I'll be filling out that request form before long. In the meantime, while not forgetting two important non-conference games this week in Oxford against Southeastern Louisiana, the focus moves to first pitch against LSU in Oxford Friday night.

Truthfully, I can't wait.

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