Here's the good news: after two-plus miserable weeks of frigid cold, Ole Miss will be playing baseball in the mid-to-upper-70s this weekend. Here's the bad news: it won't be at Swayze. The Diamond Rebs hit the road for the first time this season when they travel to Orlando to face an undefeated and nationally-ranked UCF squad in a top-25 tilt.
Ole Miss swept UCF about this time last year, the first two wins coming as part of that ridiculous stretch of four-consecutive walkoffs. John Gatlin foreshadowed his Omaha heroics with a game-winner to end a 13-inning marathon on Friday and Will Allen ended Saturday's contest with a bottom-of-the-ninth homer to dead center.
Expect another dog fight this time around. The Knights have tied a school record with an 8-0 start and Baseball America has them all the way up at No. 15 (nine spots above Ole Miss). This might be the biggest test the Rebs face until SEC play starts (a midweek trip to No. 17 Louisville next month has a strong argument as well), so there are some big questions to be answered this weekend.
1. Is the Ole Miss pitching staff legit?
Rebel pitchers have been shaky at times, and with the season-ending injury to Sean Johnson and Sam Smith's unreliability, there's a major question mark in the weekend rotation. Still, Brady Bramlett's rise from nowhere and the steady bullpen arms of Wyatt Short and Jacob Waguespack have helped keep the staff ERA to a respectable 2.66.
But what happens when they come up against a UCF team that can flat out rake? The Knights are sixth in the country in team batting average, fourth in runs per game, sixth in slugging percentage and have five starters hitting above .400. If the Rebel arms can have their way this weekend, we know they're legit. If not, well ... yea.
2. How many times can Sikes go yard in his homecoming?
Sikes Orvis is from Orlando (as is J.B. Woodman), which means Sikes is gonna know a lot of chicks in attendance, which means Sikes is gonna show out with some long balls. After going dinger-less in the first weekend, he's slapped two out in his last nine trips to the plate. UCF's outfield is 10 feet shorter in the corners than Swayze and six balls have already left the park in four games there this season.
3. Can Tate Blackman hit a baseball?
In fairness, he's hit two this season ... in 19 at-bats. The highly-touted recruit has been solid at second base but has looked lost at the plate, where he started 0 for his first 12. That said, Blackman's a freshman just seven games into his college career, so a slow start certainly isn't unexpected. Increasing his comfort level is hopefully just a matter of more trips to the dish, so we might see him start to put things together in his third weekend series.