Commentary: The day the baseball gods finally shined upon Ole Miss and Mike Bianco

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

Mike Bianco and Ole Miss were overdue for another trip to Omaha, even if the timing was unexpected. 

Graphic courtesy of Ole Miss athletics. 

“That’s an Omaha team.”

No phrase has made a fool of intelligent college baseball fans and commentators more than that one.

Sunday was certainly a reminder of that. 

Tennessee—57-8 coming into Sunday, a team that dominated on the mound and at the plate all year—was an “Omaha team” if I’ve ever seen one. And yet it’s Notre Dame, not the Vols, heading to Nebraska. 

Across the Volunteer State, Vanderbilt has had its share of Omaha teams that weren’t. Its 2007 squad was ranked No. 1 most of the year, yet was ousted by lightly-regarded Michigan. Its 2013 team went 26-3 in the Southeastern Conference and yet fell in a super regional.

Texas A&M’s 1989 team went 58-7 and yet didn’t make it out of a regional.

The list could go on, but the point's been made.

Which brings us to the 2022 Rebels.

Ole Miss wasn’t an “Omaha team” after being throttled by a collective 26-7 by Tennessee in the second weekend of SEC play. It wasn’t an “Omaha team” after losing four-straight SEC series, or going 14-16 and then losing its lone SEC tournament game. The Rebels weren’t even a “regional team” when D1 Baseball—the most reputable outlet covering college baseball—didn’t have Ole Miss even close to being in the NCAA tournament in its final projections two weeks ago. 

Guess who’ll be spending next week in Omaha after a pair of wins at Southern Miss this weekend?

Are the Rebels really "an Omaha team?” Maybe not, but there were signs—the Rebels out-scored SEC teams 212-186 in those 31 games—that they were stealthy-better than people thought, especially considering that star left fielder Kevin Graham missed a month of league play and the fact there were some pitching injuries of note along the way. Still, you’d have had a better chance spotting Bigfoot than finding anyone bullish on the Rebels throughout most of May.

Here’s my take: the Rebels and coach Mike Bianco were owed one of these. And to illustrate that, I’ll spend a few minutes comparing the Rebels with Tim Corbin’s Vanderbilt, which has debatably been the country’s best program over the last decade and a pretty good one the decade before that. 

Putting the teams on roughly the same scale, Ole Miss has won 54.7% of its 569 regular-season Southeastern Conference games, with the Commodores wining 58.7% of 563. That's a difference of about one win per season. Both coaches have been to the NCAA tournament in 17 of those 19 seasons. 

Of course, there’s one huge difference, and that’s what happened in the postseason. Vanderbilt has been to the College World Series five times, won it twice, finished runner-up twice and third once. Ole Miss will make its second trip next week, with its only other trip (2014) resulting in a third-place finish. 

That’s the separator between a coach in Corbin whom some consider the best in the business, and one in Bianco that Ole Miss fans spent the better part of at least the past two years wishing he’d be fired. Of course, that does matter, and just as Corbin deserves credit for having his teams peak in June, it's probably fair to criticize Bianco for the opposite. 

But because of that stark difference in June performance, if you asked the common SEC fan what the difference was between the two in SEC winning percentage, chances are the answer would be greater than 4%. June results have created a partial eclipse over 3 1/2 months of work a year, and that's not fair either. 

Bianco’s problem, of course, mostly isn’t Vanderbilt, it's comparing the Rebels to lesser programs. None of Southeast Missouri State (2003), Fresno State (2008)  Kent State (2013), Stony Brook (2012), Indiana (2013), Coastal Carolina (2016) and Washington (2018) and Michigan (2019) are anywhere in Ole Miss’s class over the last two decades and yet, until Sunday, each owned as many CWS appearances as Bianco. Adding insult to injury, Fresno State and Coastal Carolina won national titles. (Coastal Carolina went 55-18 when it won its championship, so on a single-season basis it's hard to call that one a fluke.)

Play those seasons over for each club, and odds are better not than so that most of those teams doesn’t even make it back to Omaha. 

But in Bianco’s case, none of that mattered. Baseball is a sport of randomness; Bob Melvin hit .452 off Randy Johnson, Abraham Nunez batted .429 off Greg Maddux, and so on. But in the white-hot spotlight of the SEC, perception often dwarfs reality and end-of-season results are everything—something that was only magnified when the Rebels’ in-state rival, Mississippi State, brought home a national title in 2021.

I'd argue it should matter. Play the last two decades over again, and if for no other reason than dumb luck--even if you want to pin a few failures on Bianco--chances are that Ole Miss gets to Omaha more than twice. If you consider 18 SEC wins a benchmark for “an Omaha team,” then Bianco "should" have been there seven times. And that doesn’t even count 2020, when the Rebels started 16-1 before the rest of the season was canceled due to Covid-19.

Are the Rebels one of America’s best eight teams this year? Probably not, but if we’re dealing in hypotheticals, let's involve the transitive property of postseason baseball karma and credit this one the 2005, 2009 or 2018 teams that won the SEC West (isn’t that harder than getting to the College World Series, anyway?) and call it even. Programs don’t have a two-decade run like this by accident and even if the timing was unexpected, one thing is crystal clear: the Rebels were due.