Three months’ time can change plenty. Just ask Auburn and Ole Miss.
The two SEC West rivals last met during the opening weekend of conference play in mid-March. The Rebels rode into Plainsman Park as the nation’s top-ranked team, while the Tigers — who enjoyed a strong start in nonconference play — were projected to finish last in the SEC West this season.
Now the two division rivals will square off again, this time with much higher stakes, Saturday at 6 p.m. in the opening round of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. While the Rebels took two of three from the Tigers on the Plains in March, no one should expect the matchup at Charles Schwab Field to mirror those past results.
“There’s obviously a little bit of being familiar with them and watching some of the video today, knowing the names, but we’re a different team,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “They’re a different team.”
Auburn is hardly the team many prognosticators picked to finish last in the division entering the year. The Tigers head into the College World Series at 42-20 overall after posting a 16-13 mark in SEC play, sweeping through the regional round after hosting for the first time since 2010 and then going across the country to defeat Oregon State in the Super Regional last weekend.
They boast the SEC Co-Player of the Year in All-America first baseman Sonny DiChiara and another All-American in reliever Blake Burkhalter. DiChiara has set the tone at the plate for the Tigers, while Burkhalter has been nails out of the bullpen, bolstering a solid pitching staff for Auburn.
“I think we’ve just kind of grown, like growing into our team identity,” DiChiara said. “And I mean, those first couple of weeks you’re playing other people when you hit the SEC in conference play, you kind of hit the ground running, you have to figure out who you are real quick. From that weekend on we just figured out who we were going to be and what we were going to do.”
That identity has carried Auburn to its second College World Series appearance in the last three postseasons, returning to Omaha for the sixth time in program history after last making the trip in 2019. Ole Miss, meanwhile, is back in the College World Series for the first time since 2014.
The Rebels were tabbed as contenders entering the season, starting the year ranked in the top-five in the country — even climbing to No. 1 in some polls ahead of SEC play. After the series win at Auburn, though, things began to unravel for Ole Miss.
They were clobbered by Tennessee the following weekend and eventually fell to 7-14 in conference play following a series loss to Arkansas.
“We kind of struggled to figure certain parts out, especially the pitching side of it, and maybe most specifically the starting pitching,” Bianco said.
It wasn’t until last month that the Rebels really got back on track. They won seven of their final nine games to close the regular season, including a series sweep of then-No. 9 LSU on the road. Despite an opening-round loss in the SEC Tournament, Ole Miss earned a postseason bid. The team swept through the Coral Gables Regional at Miami and then swept nationally seeded Southern Miss in the Hattiesburg Super Regional last weekend.
In all, the Rebels have won 12 of their last 15 games entering Saturday’s showdown at Charles Schwab Field.
“(We) didn’t point fingers,” Ole Miss first baseman Tim Elko said. “Didn’t try to do too much. Just really tried to keep believing in ourselves and know that we are one of the best teams in the country. We’ve got to just go out there play better. So, we were able to do that and got on a roll and now we’re here.”
Making Saturday’s opener even more intriguing for the two SEC West foes is the pitching matchup that looms. Auburn will start sophomore right-hander Joseph Gonzalez (7-3, 295 ERA), who did not pitch against Ole Miss during that weekend series three months ago. Junior right-hander Dylan DeLucia (6-2, 4.35 ERA) will take the mound for the Rebels.
He tossed 3 1/3 innings of relief in one appearance against the Tigers in March, allowing two runs on six hits, but has since moved into the starting rotation. In the Regional and Super Regional rounds, DeLucia has tossed a combined 11 2/3 innings while allowing four earned runs and striking out 21 against one walk.
“Since we played them the first time, we’ve kind of hit our stride,” Auburn reliever Carson Skipper said. “That first weekend, SEC weekend, everybody’s jittery and ready to go. But at the same time, not everything is solidified. Not everything’s where you want it to be.
“So, it’s kind of two different teams playing Saturday. It will be fun to see.”