Mississippi players dogpile after defeating Southern Mississippi in an NCAA college baseball super regional game in Hattiesburg, Miss., Sunday, June 12, 2022. (Hannah Ruhoff/The Sun Herald via AP)

OMAHA — If you’ve read it here once, know you could have read it 50 times or more over the years. Winning baseball championships is all about playing your best when it matters most — getting hot at the right time.

Rick Cleveland

What happened in April matters not in June.

That’s why it says here: Ole Miss has as good a chance as anyone in the College World Series field of winning the whole shebang. Nobody has played better baseball through the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals than the Rebels. What’s more, the Rebels began their championship-quality play in the late regular season.

In sports terms, they have peaked at the right time.

Ole Miss may have been the last team to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They may have squeaked in. They may have entered the tournament with one of the most modest records of anyone in the field at 32-22.

None of that matters now. None of what happened in April and early May matters. The Rebels were ranked No. 1 in the early season for a reason. They have the talent. They just had to put it together.

They have. They have won all five their NCAA Tournament games by a combined score of 46-11. That’s no misprint: 46 to 11. They have 13 of their last 16 games overall. 

Let’s look at how other CWS teams on the Ole Miss side of the bracket have done lately. (We’ll worry about the other side when the time comes — if it comes.) Keep in mind, they’ve all done pretty well or they wouldn’t be there.

Auburn, Ole Miss’ Saturday night opponent, has won five of six games in NCAA play, sweeping through the Auburn Regional and then winning two of three at No. 3 overall seed Oregon State. Of their last 16 games, the Tigers are 11-5. That’s really good — but not quite as good as Ole Miss.

Staying on the Ole Miss side of the bracket, Stanford, the highest seed left in the tournament, has lost twice in NCAA play and holds a 6-2 record. The Cardinal did end its pre-NCAA schedule on a 16-game winning streak, so there’s that. Also, Stanford is the only national seed remaining on that side of the bracket.

Arkansas, Stanford’s opponent Saturday afternoon, is also hot. The Razorbacks have won five of six in the NCAA Tournament. Bur Arkansas wasn’t playing that well coming in to the NCAA Tournament. The Hogs were two-and-out in the SEC Tournament and lost six of their last 10 regular season games before that. 

If you go by what happened all season long, Ole Miss is the long-shot on its side of the bracket. Stanford, Arkansas and Auburn — probably in that order — were better teams over the entire season. 

But if you go by what has happened lately, Ole Miss is the hottest team, a perfect 5-0 in the tournament and 13-3 over the last 16. That’s balling.

Much depends on the first two games, beginning with the Saturday night game against Auburn. Looking at the numbers, it doesn’t appear the Rebels have the pitching depth of the other teams in the bracket. For that reason, it’s critical that Ole Miss remain in the winners’ bracket. Dylan DeLucia and Hunter Elliott, who threw shutouts against Southern Miss in the Super Regional and have been sensational in May and June, need to continue their recent excellence in Omaha.

Win those first two — against Auburn and against the Arkansas-Stanford winner — the Rebels will be in the proverbial catbird’s seat. Lose either and they’ll have to go far deeper into their pitching staff to reach the best-of-three championship series. They would have to win against teams that have deeper pitching staffs, at least on paper.

Bottom line: Tennessee, the best team in the country, is not here. There is no prohibitive favorite. Any of the eight remaining could win it. And, of the eight, nobody has played better baseball lately than Ole Miss.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.