Not that long ago, the Ole Miss Rebels took the field at Swayze to take on a top-15 Texas A&M team with a ton of pressure on its shoulders and a lot at stake after a home series loss to Kentucky and a road series to Auburn. The Rebels preceded to walk it off on Thursday, dominate on Friday, and win a tight contest on Saturday to sweep and get things headed in the right direction.
Then, after a tough road loss to Southern Miss, they flipped everything on its head and back-ended a series in Baton Rouge for the first time in 37 years(!!). The Rebels were square in the hunt for a back door regional host, and if they could hold serve against Mississippi State at home, they could solidify not only a home regional, but a top-four seed in Hoover at the SEC Tournament.
The top-five Bulldogs came into Oxford-University Stadium and dominated the Rebels (32-20, 15-12) in three games, erasing most likely any chance of a regional in Oxford, Miss. And honestly, outside of a few bleak chances here and there on Saturday, it was never close. In fact, it was the first time the good guys have been swept at home since State did it two years ago. So now what?
Ole Miss is now fifth in the overall standings in the SEC and is set to play an elimination game on Tuesday at the Hoover Met. Mike Bianco’s club plummeted in Warren Nolan’s RPI rankings, falling from inside the top 18 to 28 after the sweep this weekend. But, this weekend magnified something bigger than 2019 and the potential postseason possibilities. Familiar errors and tightness in big spots were there all weekend and one team looked confident and oozed swagger while the other looked hopeless and nervous.
The killer instinct is non-existent.
A lot is made about how Mississippi State treats this series like it’s bigger than a regular season tilt. Well, in my opinion, that mindset has leaked over into the other regular season games and they have played with an edge for some time now.
Unfortunately, plain and simple, Ole Miss does not. I don’t know what it is but Bianco teams always appear to be either nervous, tight, or both. And not just in the Magnolia Rivalry, in most big spots. But in this rivalry alone, which let’s be real this weekend put a lot of things into perspective, Ole Miss lost for the 11th time in the last 12 games against MSU and for the 14th time in 16 games dating back to 2016.
Hell, per Chase Parham of Rebel Grove, the Rebels haven’t lost six-in-a-row in Oxford to Mississippi State since 1950.
Yes, I know they beat LSU in Baton Rouge for the first time since 1982, but this wasn’t your grandfather’s or dad’s Bayou Bengals - it took a rather unconventional extra inning win on Sunday to get it done. The Rebels MUST find an attitude, an edge, a swagger to get themselves going or this is going to be the norm. Obviously, it could very well be something else I can’t see because I’m not in the dugout but they looked shook from the first pitch on Friday.
Horseshoes and hand grenades and stuff.
I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way. The guy has taken Ole Miss baseball to heights that were never imagined when he took over the baseball program years ago. He is top-five in SEC wins and essentially built the Rebel program from the ground up and given us a newer, sparkly Swayze Field. He is responsible for ticket sales booming, the atmosphere, and the popularity of Ole Miss baseball nationwide. FULL STOP. No argument on those facts.
With that said, he has had 18 chances to get the Rebels to Omaha and despite being one win away several times, he has only gotten them there once. The Rebels under Bianco have hosted several regionals and three super regionals, but frankly, he has failed to push them over the edge into the College World Series 17 times. And despite the success and what he has built this program into, it has become a burden for him and a dark shadow is now looming over Oxford because of the lack of postseason success.
Since 2001, when Ole Miss is not in the friendly confines of Swayze Field in the first round of the postseason, they’re just 8-14 and have only played two games in a winner-take-all scenario for a super regional berth and, you guessed it, they lost them both to TCU in 2012.
The fans are already restless and the crowds are beginning to thin on SEC weekends because people, despite the wins still coming, are left wanting more in June. Yes, the Rebels finally knocked the door down in 2014, winning a road super regional in Lafayette, La. and finishing third overall in the College World Series. But, that’s been it for Bianco. Outside of close calls in 2005, 2006, and 2009, Omaha has never been a tangible thing for Ole Miss.
And it certainly doesn’t help when your rival down the road is consistently winning in the postseason and enjoying trips to Nebraska without you.
It’s time to take the next step, with or without him.
Mike Bianco was up to his same old tricks over the weekend.
There was a big spot over the weekend when the Rebels had two on and no outs late in the game. The same game that had a 45-minute fog delay that chased Ethan Small from the game and gave you a legitimate chance to score some runs and make it a ballgame.
Well, Bianco chose to try and sacrifice bunt with freshman Justin Bench who, mind you, is just now back in the lineup after recovering from a broken hand. Bunting, in my opinion, is a thing of the past and I think you should just take your chances and let guys hit away. Bianco didn’t think so in this spot.
Bench was unable to execute the bunt and then right after him, Jacob Adams grounded into a double play and the threat was erased. So in a game where State’s All-American, Golden Spikes Award Finalist starter shoved it up your ass for five innings, striking out 10, and making your lineup look like a little league team without a clue, you chose to try and bunt to move runners over instead of letting it ride, with no outs mind you, and let your guys hit their reliever who had just been tagged for two consecutive hits?
Then, in Saturday’s game, Ole Miss went to the bullpen and turned things over to Austin Miller, one of their more reliable bullpen arms all season long. Well, not on this day. He was erratic at best and was eventually tagged for a few extra-base hits. And despite not being able to find the strike zone whatsoever and giving up hard-hit balls, Bianco stuck to his guns and left him in. The result? Miller gave up four earned runs, three hits, and one walk, flipping the script and erasing Ole Miss’ 4-2 lead in the 7th.
Lastly, it appears the game is passing him by a bit at times. Chris Lemonis’ club played defense in a shift for most of the weekend, effectively neutralizing the Ole Miss offense. Some might call this “new age” and some might say it’s not “real baseball”. Well, whatever you call it, it worked and it worked several times. Nary an adjustment was made by Bianco and his team’s offensive approach, outside of ONE hit-and-run, and it killed several big innings and opportunistic situations. Hell, at one point, Ole Miss hit into their shift on consecutive pitches.
We all know the head guy likes his match-up decisions, his “old school baseball tactics”, and he is a sucker for a long leash on a pitcher who has proven his worth in an Ole Miss uniform, but it’s starting to catch up with him over and over again.
The door is open for change.
It seems apparent a lot of people have grown stale of Ole Miss baseball and have begun advocating for change. It happened with basketball after a long-time successful coach like Andy Kennedy built up a program yet could not get said program “over the hump” more times than he failed. It’s no indictment on them as a leader or a coach, you can be successful and not win championships. But, the Rebel baseball program is a respected one and is one that can be a powerful one with the right leadership.
Is that Mike Bianco or is it time for some new blood? That’s obviously no disrespect to Bianco, but maybe it is time for something new. Add on top of that, a rival to the south is winning despite change four different times, a fanbase clearly willing to come and enjoy the sport of baseball, and an athletic department itching for more success, and this is a delicate situation to say the least.
Could the answer be a new coach? Well, look no further than one former assistant who is making quite a name for himself 813 miles away in North Carolina in the American Athletic Conference. Former Ole Miss assistant now head coach at East Carolina, Cliff Godwin, would be first on my list of replacements for Mike. He left Oxford in 2014 after the College World Series run to take the head job at his alma mater and he’s done wonders there since being given the keys.
The North Carolina native is known to be a tenacious recruiter and an even more vicious leader. He has the mindset that, in my opinion, Ole Miss baseball has been missing. He is a relentless competitor and his approach seeps out of his proverbial pores and rubs off on his players. He would be a welcomed change to Oxford and would almost certainly bring a new brand of baseball to the Velvet Ditch.
In four full seasons, he has won 154 games, won two conference tournament titles, made two regional appearances, one super regional appearance, and was named AAC Coach of the Year in his first season in Greenville. In 2019, the Pirates are 39-12, 18-3 in the AAC, regular season champs, and owners of the No. 5 RPI, per Warren Nolan. They are expected to be a recipient of a national seed and will almost certainly be a factor in the race for eight in Omaha.
Would he accept the job at Ole Miss and leave his alma mater? Maybe, maybe not, but, who is to say for sure? Coaches sometimes love their alma mater and want to take them to the “promised land”. And it’s certainly possible that could happen this year at ECU. And it’s certainly possible that Godwin could consider leaving after he has done just that for a return to Oxford to take the Rebels back to Omaha in the most difficult and competitive league in college baseball.
After all, he was a big reason the Rebels got their five years ago. Coaches love a challenge and that would certainly be quite the task.
Bianco has done wonders for the Rebel program and he could save this season and get the Rebels to Omaha with a wondrous turn of events. In fact, just last season, MSU took a mediocre season, got hot in the Tallahassee regional, and next thing you know they are in Omaha.
But, we’ve been here before, time and time again. Can the Rebels turn this around with three regular season games and the postseason ahead? Will Bianco make changes at this point in the season?
We will see how 2019 unfolds, postseason be damned. After all, the season is far from over and things can always turn around and prove me wrong.
But, if I’m speaking for all of us, I am ready for something new. Until then, I’m afraid the love is gone.