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Tennessee (20-1, 3-0 SEC) has been nearly perfect the five weeks of the season, proving that 2021 was far from a one-hit wonder, climbing back into the nation’s top five by the second week of conference play.
But just how good are these Vols? Are they as good as anybody in the country? With a challenging road slate do they have as good a chance as anyone to win SEC? Should getting back to Omaha be more than a possibility but a probable goal? Or has the weaker schedule and smaller Lindsey Nelson Stadium allowed Tennessee’s offensive numbers to mislead?
We’ll learn in the next 10 days. Tennessee opens up a three-game series at No. 1 Ole Miss tonight and after a brief midweek reprieve the Vols head to the midstate to battle No. 4 Vanderbilt.
It’s the only back-to-back road series on Tennessee’s schedule and it happens to come against two of the nation’s top teams. In the six primary college baseball rankings, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are the only teams ranked No. 1.
There will be nothing easy or given against those two programs. It’s not the beginning of the season, but it’s still March and early in SEC play. The Vols are going straight into the fire.
“I think — and I hope I’m right — the guys like that,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said of the back-to-back road series. “That doesn’t mean they’re cocky or think they’re going to win every game or are looking head, let’s do this or that, but I think they want to be tested and I think they want to be challenged. It doesn’t matter what the brand name of the opponent is or if you’re home or away, you’re going to be challenged. It’s baseball. … It’s a challenge and I think guys on our team look forward to it and like it when the fire is a little hotter. We’ll have a chance to prove that.”
We’ve seen that mindset from the Vols pretty frequently over the past season-and-change, but what do the Vol players say about the two weekend gauntlet.
“Oh, for sure,” said Redmond Walsh on whether he agreed with Vitello’s assessment. “My first couple years maybe we were a little nervous but now, we have the talent. We have the preparation that we’re excited for those games. Those are kind of games we look forward to. Just to see where we are. This is the most talented team that I think I’ve played on since I’ve been here. These guys are ready for the task and ready to go out there and hopefully take the series.”
Walsh is the perfect person to speak on Tennessee’s mindset. He knows what it’s like to be in a dugout when the team doesn’t know if they’re good enough to win. In fact, it’s likely been over 15 years since a Tennessee team traveled to Oxford with complete self belief and confidence that they would get the job done.
Self confidence doesn’t guarantee success especially against this good of a team. The Rebels are 16-4 (2-1 SEC) and bolster a fearsome lineup that puts up numbers rivaling Tennessee’s.
Ole Miss has three starters hitting over .340 and six hitting over .300 and catcher Hayden Durst is the only Rebel with starting experience hitting under .269.
“Experience, strong coaching, tradition in the program, experience in a lot of those at-bats,” Vitello said of Ole Miss. “Mr. (Time) Elko is like two years younger than I am. I’ve run into him a few times and he’s definitely cooler than I am and a better hitter too. But he sits in the middle of the thing and he’s surrounded by guys that are very athletic and guys that have a lot of at-bats underneath they’re belt.”
It can’t guarantee victories, but self belief is a good place to start if you want to win big games. This Tennessee program has that in abundance heading into a rowdy road series.
Both Friday and Saturday’s games at Swayze Field in Oxford are sold out. Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin is throwing out the first pitch Friday night.
“We have a lot of fans that are angry and they want to win some big games and we have a lot of intentions of going in places and at least causing some ruckus,” Tennessee catcher Evan Russell said. “If we go in and play our game, no matter who we’re playing we’ll be fine. As long as we go in and get after some people and make people uncomfortable, we’ll have a lot of success.”
The 10-day gauntlet begins Friday night. If the Vols get out of it .500 they’ll have proved they’re as good as anyone in the country. For the guys in that dugout, the only other possible outcomes include going 4-2, 5-1 or 6-0. They won’t shy away from the big games.