In college baseball, perhaps no group of teams can boast as much talent and parity as those in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division. No team within this seven-team group has below a .500 record overall, nor have they any SEC records below the .400 mark. Compare that to the SEC's Eastern Division, which has a total of three teams - Tennessee, Missouri, and Georgia - with overall records below .500 and sub-.300 records in conference play.
Six of the seven teams in the SEC West are within just a handful of games of each other, with a handful of these teams - including our Ole Miss Rebels - being essentially interchangeable in terms of talent level and on-field production. Only one of these teams can realistically stand out among the rest as the best in this division, crossing the threshold from a good college baseball team to that of a great or even elite college baseball team.
Unfortunately, that team just so happens to be the team the Rebels will close the season out against this weekend: the LSU Tigers.
LSU is the 2013 Champion of the SEC's Western Division, finishing last weekend with an impressive 45-7 overall record and a 21-6 SEC record. They are the only opponent separating Ole Miss from the SEC Baseball Tournament and the NCAA postseason. Thankfully, Ole Miss has a strong enough resume and the teams ranked below our Rebels have weak enough resumes that it is all but impossible for Mike Bianco's team to miss postseason contention. Still, quality wins against the Tigers in Baton Rouge, as difficult as they may be to come by, could go a long way in terms of postseason seeding, making this weekend series somewhat important for the Rebs in a way that it is not for LSU.
It is unlikely that the Rebels will sweep the Tigers en route to a subsequent SEC Baseball Tournament Championship, so let's take a realistic approach to our expectations of this weekend, its likely outcome, and what that means for this team's postseason chances.
With their spot in the SEC Tournament and as NCAA regional hosts all but guaranteed, LSU has opted to sit ace Aaron Nola, easily one of the best pitchers in all of college baseball, this weekend against the Rebs. If the No. 14-ranked Rebels can take advantage of this behind the arm of our ace, Bobby Wahl, and win just one game against the No. 3-ranked Tigers this weekend, they will finish with a respectable 15-15 record in SEC play and a third or fourth place finish in the SEC West (the Rebs are currently tied for third with the No. 16 Mississippi State Bulldogs, who finish the regular season with a series at the No. 12 South Carolina Gamecocks). As disappointing as that may be for Ole Miss baseball fans to stomach, who have grown accustomed to better than .500 marks in SEC play as of late, it would not at all hurt this team's chances at a two seed in one of the NCAA's 16 postseason regionals.
Projections for experts and armchair pundits alike have the Rebels as such a seed in Charlottesville, Virginia to Eugene, Oregon and seemingly every place in between. In short, the Rebs will have to travel a long way and prove their mettle against a top team outside of the SEC if they are to advance to an NCAA super regional. If that outcome seems unlikely then, well, that's because it is. The Rebels have not succeeded as of late as a visiting team in an NCAA regional, losing in the College Station regional last year and the Charlottesville regional two seasons before that.
This team is good enough to be competitive, but not nearly as deep to take a series from a better team, especially outside of the friendly confines of Swayze Field. The bats are simply not as powerful as we need them to be, especially to overcome the inexperience which characterizes much of the Rebel bullpen. As much as I would like to see otherwise this weekend against LSU and in the following weekends of the NCAA postseason, what we've seen thus far out of this team is likely a pretty good indicator of the immediate things to come.
That said though, the NCAA postseason has shown that any number of improbable things can and do happen. The Stony Brooks and Fresno States of the world - who have in recent years shocked the college baseball elite with their performances in the College World Series - have proven this. Could Ole Miss get hot and streak its way into Omaha? Sure. Is it likely? Not at all, so don't get your hopes up.
And even if we did, we'd so get obliterated by Vanderbilt in the World Series anyway. It's the only thing that would make sense at that point.
Hotty Toddy, go Rebels, beat LSU, and make me eat crow.