Fresh off their first trip to Omaha in 42 years, the Ole Miss Rebels are 22 days away from the first pitch of the 2015 college baseball season. The Rebels come into the season replacing many of the players that carried them in 2014, but still garnered a preseason No. 18 ranking by D1 Baseball. The 56-game schedule will not do them any favors as the Rebels will play 20 games against ranked teams, including 11 against teams in the top 11 of the poll.
In order to ingratiate themselves to the selection committee, the Rebels will need to play well against the meat of their schedule.
5. Florida (40-23), March 20-22, Oxford
The Gators are riding the wave of an excellent 2014 season that saw them earn the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament to a preseason No. 2 ranking. Despite their regional ending in a dud 0-2 exit, Florida returns a plethora of young stars off last year’s squad. Juniors Harrison Bader (.337/2/24) and Richie Martin (27 walks and 18 stolen bases) should lead a Gator offense that will only have to do so much to win games. That is because the Gators return their top three starting pitchers in Logan Shore (7-4 with a 2.16 ERA), Danny Young (5-0 with a 2.23 ERA) and Aaron Rhodes (5-2 with a 2.48 ERA).
It will mark the first home conference series for the Rebels so the young guys will need to progress quickly if they are to match up with the boys from Gainesville. Luckily the series will provide an RPI boost regardless of what happens and will allow a nice early opportunity for some quality wins come resume time.
4. Mississippi State (39-24), May 7-9, Oxford
Mississippi State came in unranked in the preseason poll due in large part to five of their top seven hitters from last year. Redshirt senior slugger Wes Rea is back and looks to improve upon his .245 average, five home runs and 41 RBI now that the new baseballs are in play. Also returning is super sophomore catcher Gavin Collins who .304 in his first season in Starkville.
If replacing a lot of offense wasn’t bad enough, the Bulldogs will be without Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder. The anchors of the bullpen are now playing professionally and leave behind an inexperienced bullpen. There is good news for State fans however, all three weekend starters are returning and each posted an ERA of 3.00 or below last year.
Given the strong possibility that Mississippi State will be ranked by this time, this will provide Ole Miss with a late showcase series to present themselves before the SEC Tournament in Hoover.
3. Louisville (50-17), March 10-11, Louisville, Kentucky
Under former Ole Miss assistant coach Dan McDonnell, Louisville advanced to the College World Series for the second-consecutive season in 2014. Prior to his arrival in 2007, Louisville had never been to Omaha. Since he has arrived, the Cardinals have amassed a record of 359-159 with three trips to college baseball’s promise land.
The Cardinals are ranked No. 11 in the poll and provide Ole Miss with their best chance at earning quality out-of-conference victories. The two-game set will also mark just the fifth and sixth road games of the year. Not only will they be tested in the midweek, the Rebels will need to gear up for a massive series that same weekend against rival LSU.
2. LSU (46-16), March 13-15, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Did I mention LSU? The Bayou Bengals are No. 9 in the poll and figure to be an offensive juggernaut. Coming off an impressive 41 home runs, LSU returns Alex Bregman, Conner Hale, Kade Scivicque and Jake Fraley who combined for 20 home runs between them. Kyle Bouman and Jared Poche return from the rotation, but the team will be without All-American pitcher Aaron Nola. The seventh-overall pick by the Philadelphia Phillies, Nola will be sorely missed after posting an 11-1 record with a 1.47 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 2014.
Alex Box Stadium is always a difficult place to play, especially in a rivalry series such as this one. This will prove even more difficult as it is the first conference series for both teams. If the Rebels can steal one or two in the Bayou, it will speak volumes come tournament time.
1. Vanderbilt (51-21), April 9-11, Nashville, Tennessee
Almost a foregone conclusion, the Commodores are an easy choice as not only the most important series of the year, but also the most difficult. The reigning national champions are No. 1 in the preseason poll and are more than poised for a return to Omaha this time around. Vanderbilt returns last season’s leader in batting average (Bryan Reynolds), home runs (Zander Wiel), RBI (Reynolds) and stolen bases (Dansby Swanson). Not only are they loaded on offense, they also return their top three starters and two of their three leading bullpen pitchers.
Ole Miss, like every other team that plays the Commodores this year, will not be given much of a chance by the media in this series. Often times, the best thing for a young team is to give them an opportunity with nothing to lose. If they are swept or lose two of three, no one will bat an eye as the Dores figure to be dominant once again. But if the Rebels come out and win the series or come out with a sweep on the road, Ole Miss will establish itself as one of the nation’s elite right in the heart of SEC play.
Michael Quirk is a HottyToddy.com staff reporter and can be reached at email@example.com.