Ole Miss Athletics photo / Tennessee's Drew Gilbert celebrates one of his two RBI doubles during the 10-3 win at Ole Miss on March 27. The Volunteers swept the Rebels by a combined score of 26-7 and entered the NCAA tournament as the top overall seed, but they missed out on a journey to a College World Series that contains Ole Miss and three other SEC West programs — Arkansas, Auburn and Texas A&M.

Imagine a College World Series in which the last NCAA tournament at-large selection qualified for the coveted eight-team field and the top overall seed didn't.

Welcome to this weekend.

The Ole Miss Rebels will open CWS play Saturday night in a Southeastern Conference Western Division showdown against Auburn. Omaha, Nebraska, was the last locale Ole Miss was expected to frequent when the Rebels were 7-14 in SEC play, while a Tennessee trip seemed a mere formality after the Volunteers raced through the league with a 25-5 record and marched through the conference tournament in Hoover, Alabama.

Yet the Vols are not in the Cornhusker State, their season having been snuffed sooner than expected by Notre Dame in last weekend's super regional in Knoxville.

"They had one of the greatest years in college baseball," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said in a CWS news conference. "People will try to shy away from that because they're not here, but I've done this for a long time, and I don't know how many teams that I can think of that were that dominant for that many weeks.

"They really were a team that didn't have a flaw. They had a tremendous rotation and a great bullpen. They could really swing it. They could defend it, and they played with a ton of confidence."

Bianco's Rebels hosted Tennessee in March and were outscored 26-7 during a three-game sweep. The Vols set an SEC record with 53 victories entering the NCAA tournament and led the nation in both home runs and earned run average, but they became the latest top overall seed to wind up disappointed.

The 1999 Miami Hurricanes remain the last NCAA No. 1 seed to win the national title.

"I watched them over and over dominate our conference," Bianco said, "but the reason they're not here is because this game is really hard. People sometimes don't understand that the best team doesn't always win. It's the team that plays the best.

"Am I surprised? In a way, yeah, but it happened a year ago to the University of Arkansas, where they had a tremendous year and had a tough weekend at the wrong time. So it happens."

While the next several days will crown a deserving college baseball national champion, it just won't be a champion for the ages. Not with the Vols absent from the field.

"They were certainly not just the best team through the, whatever that is, 16 weeks," Bianco said, "but they were as good a team as I've seen maybe ever."

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