Chris Lemonis knows what everyone is talking about this weekend.
After all, what else could it be?
When Mississippi State and Ole Miss face off in pretty much any sport, tensions are high across the Magnolia State. Throw in two top-10 baseball teams, a canceled matchup in 2020 and Super Bulldog Weekend taking place in Starkville, and this weekend’s series at Dudy Noble Field will be played with the highest of stakes.
And Lemonis knows exactly what kind of pressure that will put on his team.
“It’s fun and exciting to be part of it,” the Mississippi State coach told reporters Thursday, “but we’ve got to come out here and play good ball.”
The Bulldogs (25-7, 8-4) are ranked No. 4 in the country and are riding an eight-game winning streak. But the sixth-ranked Rebels (25-8, 8-4) have all but matched their pace so far in a highly competitive Southeastern Conference. The two schools are tied for second place in the SEC West, trailing No. 1 Arkansas by one game in conference play.
“We knew the level of play in our league was so much higher than normal,” Lemonis said. “You’re seeing some weird weekends. Especially in our division, you knew there would be a couple of us stuck there at the top.”
And perhaps it’s only fitting that through four SEC series, the Bulldogs and Rebels are deadlocked. But that won’t be the case by Sunday afternoon after the weekend’s three contests in Starkville.
The last time the two schools met — from May 10-12 in Oxford — Mississippi State earned a series sweep. But Lemonis said with so many new players in both dugouts,
“It’s a lot of players before us,” he said. “There’s not too many guys who have played each other in this whole matchup. Baseball is one of those games where you’re playing at the right time, being hot, and matching up the right way.”
That said, Lemonis said his team’s experience should offer the Bulldogs a reason for hope this weekend. Mississippi State fields two starters — Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan — who were in the lineup for that May 2019 series against the Rebels, while Ole Miss has just one in junior Kevin Graham. Plenty of talented players, though, have departed.
“I wish I had Jake Mangum, but I don’t,” Lemonis said. “He won enough of these games. Those guys have moved on. It’s time for a new group of guys.”
That new faction of Bulldogs includes newcomers like Brayland Skinner, Kamren James and Lane Forsythe, all of whom have come on strong in recent weeks. With Allen, Jordan, Logan Tanner, Luke Hancock, Josh Hatcher and others producing of late, MSU’s bats have caught fire. The Dawgs have scored 37 runs in their past two games.
“We’re excited our offense has really gotten going the last couple of weeks,” Lemonis said. “We feel like we’re getting healthy there.”
It’s a promising development for a Mississippi State team that prides itself — perhaps rightfully so — on its pitching depth. Against an Ole Miss offense that is second in the SEC with a .302 average, that profundity will be tested.
“They’re always a super aggressive team, especially to the fastball,” Lemonis said. “If you make a mistake, they’ll make you pay for it. They’ve always been that way.”
Even after star Tim Elko tore his ACL, Ole Miss still put up 30 runs in three games in a series loss to the top-ranked Razorbacks. The Rebels won’t be an easy task for Mississippi State starters Christian MacLeod, Will Bednar and Jackson Fristoe.
“It looks like everybody has picked up the slack and played better,” Lemonis said. “That’s what good teams do. It will be a big piece of the weekend for us trying to slow down their offense.”
Gunnar Hoglund, Doug Nikhazy and Derek Diamond started for Ole Miss against Arkansas and figure to take the ball this weekend at Dudy Noble. Friday’s game begins at 6 p.m., Saturday’s game is a 2 p.m. start, and the series wraps up with a 1 p.m. Sunday first pitch.
Lemonis said the Rebels’ pitching staff is often overlooked in the face of their hitting, but the Bulldogs won’t make that mistake their weekend.
“As good as their offense is, they have two of the better starters in the country, and some other really good arms,” he said. “It’ll be pitching and defense and really good offense.”
Although the two teams appear to be evenly matched, Lemonis noted there’s always a “Dude Effect” for the Bulldogs’ home games. Raucous Mississippi State supporters have been known to be loud enough to rile up a pitcher or bait a defender into an error, and Lemonis said he hopes for similar events from the team’s “10th man” this weekend.
Even if not, though, the Dawgs and Rebels will be playing in front of a sure-to-be-packed Dudy Noble Field. After two years without meeting, that will be enough.
“I’m fired up that we’re playing in front of our fans,” Lemonis said. “It’s gonna be a great weekend here in Starkville.”