By Rick Cleveland
Mississippi State and Ole Miss have won college baseball’s national championship in back-to-back seasons, rampaging through the College World Series at Omaha before crowds that seemed 98% Mississippians.
But take a quick look at the Southeastern Conference current standings and we must ask ourselves: Did the Bulldogs and Rebels make a deal with the devil to win those national crowns? And, is it now time to pay the devil? There are seven teams in the SEC’s Western Division. Mississippi State currently is in sixth place with a 3-9 league record, one game ahead of seventh place Ole Miss, which is 2-10.
Is this a case of, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen?” Or is just a case of two talented teams, off to bad starts, but still with plenty of time to turn it around?
It’s probably somewhere in between. Let’s take a look.
Defending national champ Ole Miss is 18-13 overall. 2021 champ Mississippi State completed the Easter weekend with an overall record of 19-14. Both are five games above .500 and have played inconsistently while displaying the potential to go on a late-season run the way Ole Miss did a year ago.
Remember, the 2022 national champs were 22-17, five games above .500, at an even later juncture last year and turned it around in late April, May and June in one of the most unlikely championship runs in college baseball history. After winning just 22 of their first 39 games, the Rebels won 20 of their last 27.
It can happen.
But it has to start soon.
Neither Ole Miss, nor State, is nearly as destitute as it might have seemed when both began the SEC season by getting swept in their first two series. Ole Miss opened against Vanderbilt and Florida, both ranked among the top six teams in the country. State likewise opened against Kentucky and Vandy. If you’re not at you best against that kind of competition, the result will not be pleasant. And it wasn’t for either. Both started 0-6.
But both have played better since. Ole Miss has lost two of three to both Texas A&M and Arkansas. State lost a tough series to South Carolina, then won the series at Bama.
Both the Rebels and Bulldogs need to play far better still. And just look whom they play in their next weekend series. That would be each other. Ole Miss and State square off for a three-game series at Starkville beginning Friday at 6 p.m. Because of their slow starts, this becomes much more crucial than your normal mid-April series.
Both play mid-week games Tuesday night — State on the road at UAB and Ole Miss at home against Memphis. Then comes the showdown, which State has dominated in recent seasons.
Ole Miss has not won the annual weekend series since 2015. State has won seven of the last 10 games between the two, and 16 off the last 20. State has won six of the last nine games played at Starkville.
Important to remember is that we haven’t quite reached the halfway point of the SEC season. So, this can’t be described as a make-or-break series. State currently sits at No. 29 in RPI ratings, while Ole Miss is No. 38. State has played the nation’s second most difficult schedule, Ole Miss the 10th most difficult. Both have time to turn it around. That said, this weekend would be the optimum time to get headed in the right direction.
Southern Miss coach Scott Berry earned victories Nos. 500 and 501 at the school in a weekend series at Old Dominion as the Golden Eagles took two of three from the Monarchs, who had been tied for first in the Sun Belt.
The Golden Eagles enter the week with at 19-11 overall and 7-5 in the Sun Belt – and with a No. 27 RPI against the nation’s 20th most difficult schedule. The Golden Eagles are two games out of first place with James Madison coming to town for a weekend series.
After a slow start, the Eagles have won seven of their past 10, playing most of those on the road. After 30 games a year ago, the Eagles were 22-8 and then won 25 of their last 34 games.
The schedule sets up well. Southern Miss plays four of its last six conference series at home.
This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.