Even though the start of the college baseball season for Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Southern Miss has been pushed off due to inclement weather across the South, there’s still a ton to look forward to within all three programs.
Ole Miss (2020 record: 16-1)
No doubt about it. Ole Miss was the nation’s hottest team when the 2020 season was called off once the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Riding a 16-game winning streak, their only loss came to a then-No. 2 Louisville, but will the Rebels look the same, or better, when the 2021 season kicks off for them? My prediction is yes, they’ll be better than last year. Pitching-wise, they’re returning all three weekend starters from a year ago in Doug Nikhazy (3-1, 2.35 ERA, 31 SO), Gunnar Hoglund (3-0, 1.16 ERA, 37 SO), and Derek Diamond (2-0, 3.48 ERA, 15 SO). With those three, don’t be surprised if the Rebels have the best rotation in the SEC. On top of that, their bullpen is also loaded with veteran pitchers taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility. Hitting-wise, Head Coach Mike Bianco’s squad did suffer from the losses of Tyler Keenan and Anthony Servideo to the MLB Draft, however, senior third baseman Tyler Elko (.354 AVG, 3 HR, 15 RBI) and freshman shortstop Jacob Gonzalez, who Bianco recently quoted as a “special player” at the team’s media day, seem to be fit for the jobs. Outside of Elko, the Rebels are returning six offensive starters—including power-hitting first baseman Cael Walker—so go ahead and assume that bats will be hot once again in Oxford.
Mississippi State (2020 record: 12-4)
Let’s not forget that Mississippi State hasn’t missed out on the College World Series since 2017. Starting on the offensive side, the Bulldogs suffered huge losses in first-round picks Justin Foscue and Jordan Westbrook. That’s the bad news. The good news, though, is that they’re nevertheless returning some experienced hitters in Josh Hatcher (.311 AVG, 2 HR, 9 RBI), Rowdey Jordan (308 AVG, 20 H, 6 RBI), and Tanner Allen (.240 AVG, 6 H, 5 RBI). The other good news is that they may end up with one of the conference’s best pitching staffs in starters Christian MacLeod (4-0, 0.86 ERA, 35 SO), Eric Cerantola (1-1, 3.18 ERA), and Will Bednar (1.76 ERA, 23 SO), plus a stacked bullpen that features a lot of returners and two key transfers in Parker Stinnett and Stone Simmons. There’s a reason that Mississippi State (No. 7) and Ole Miss (No. 6) both cracked D1Baseball’s Top 10 preseason rankings. Expect to see both hosting regionals and vouching for a spot in Omaha come the summertime.
Southern Miss (2020 record: 12-4)
Here’s a quick moneymaking tip for you. Go ahead and bet on Southern Miss to win the 2021 Conference USA championship. I don’t foresee the Golden Eagles turning out to be a 2016 Coastal Carolina type of team, in which they make an unanticipated Cinderella run to Omaha, yet I do see them winning their second conference title in a row this season. Florida Atlantic should be their biggest competition, but with preseason C-USA Pitcher of the Year in Walker Powell (3-0, 1.24 ERA, 22 SO), Hunter Stanley (2-0, 1.42 ERA, 22 SO), and Gabe Shepard (3.97 ERA, 16 SO) all returning, the rotation looks more than promising. On top of that, Gabe Montenegro (.290 AVG, 11 RBI, 5 SB) will lead an offensive unit that averaged over six runs per game during the shortened 2020 season.
*All stats are from the 2020 season