Hogs Should Rejoice Tony Vitello’s Vols Can’t Get Out of Their Own Way

Gabe Gaeckle, Tony Vitello, Arkansas baseball, Tennessee baseball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Tennessee Athletics

College baseball is a sport that’s all about getting hot at the right time, and Arkansas baseball is approaching that crucial point in the year as they head to College Station to take on No. 5 Texas A&M this weekend.

It’s a series with massive stakes at hand, as both the SEC West and overall crown could be on the line at Blue Bell Park – as well as SEC Tournament and national seeding. Read Andrew Hutchinson’s piece for a full look at what’s on the line this weekend.

The race at the top of the conference is extremely tight, with four teams vying for the title that are all ranked in the top five nationally. It’s been a merry-go-round between SEC heavyweights at the top of the polls for most of the season, with either the Arkansas, Texas A&M or Tennessee baseball programs occupying the top spot for the entirety of spring.

Heavy is the Head…

The Razorbacks had a five-week stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking before they fell to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, after which the Aggies took over as the new kingpin. They held that spot for two weeks, picking up series wins against two ranked opponents in Alabama and Georgia before losing to LSU and slipping off of their perch. Following another series defeat to Ole Miss this weekend, A&M dropped to No. 5 in the rankings.

After the Aggies fell, Tennessee picked up the mantle as top dog after building up an impressive resume over the past two months. After falling to Alabama on the first weekend of SEC play, the Volunteers have won eight consecutive conference series – including victories over Kentucky and Georgia. As the hottest team in the country, the Vols are certainly deserving of that spot.

The top three is pretty straightforward for the poll voters. Tennessee beat Kentucky, and Kentucky beat Arkansas. There’s your top three, in that order. None of these heavyweights have been able to hold onto the No. 1 spot for very long, so it will be interesting to see how the Volunteers perform in their regular season finale against South Carolina.

TeamSEC RecordLast Series
1. Kentucky20-7vs. Vanderbilt
t-2. Arkansas19-8at Texas A&M
t-2. Tennessee19-8vs. South Carolina
4. Texas A&M17-10vs. Arkansas
5. Georgia16-11vs. Florida
6. Mississippi State15-12vs. Missouri
7. South Carolina13-14at Tennessee
Top half of the SEC standings, as of May 14.

Arkansas Avoiding the Curse

What you won’t find amidst all this rankings reshuffling is any Arkansas fans clamoring that the Hogs should be on top. It is, after all, crunch time. Just three regular season games and the SEC Tournament stand between now and Selection Sunday, and very recent history has informed Razorback fans of exactly where they don’t want to be when the postseason begins.

As most everyone knows, Arkansas has its fair share of experience with the No. 1 ranking from the 2021 season, when it won every single SEC series en route to the regular-season title – in addition to taking home the trophy in Hoover. The Razorbacks were the undisputed top dog – or Hog, in this case – heading into the postseason. After winning its regional, however, Arkansas fell frustratingly short, just one game away from Omaha, losing to NC State in the Fayetteville Super Regional.

But the Hogs are far from alone in their heartbreak here. As most college baseball fans are well aware, not a single No. 1 seed has won the national title since Miami did so in 1999. That’s 25 years worth of fans going into the postseason thinking, “No way anybody’s going to beat this team,” only for them to fall short.

It’s led to a collective belief in the college baseball world that the No. 1 seed is cursed. Nobody knows how it came about, or why these top-ranked teams always eventually get knocked off, but it happens – and in the most superstitious sport in America, that’s enough.

Fortunately, Arkansas seems to be in the perfect sweet spot this season with its current positioning. Thanks to Texas A&M being a top-five opponent and the series being on the road, it’s unlikely that the polls would punish the Hogs too much, even if they’re defeated in College Station.

After that is the SEC Tournament, a competition where Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn is historically indifferent to how his team does. The selection committee, too, usually places a lot more weight on the regular season than the conference tournaments.

If all goes according to plan, the Razorbacks will remain in the top eight and earn the right to host all the way up until Omaha – while also leaving the burden of the No. 1 spot with one of their SEC foes.

Tennessee a Familiar Foe for Arkansas

The current top dog of the rankings world also knows the curse of the 1 seed all too well, as the Volunteers put together a historic regular season in 2022. Tennessee finished with an eye-popping 52-9 record, but was knocked off by Notre Dame in the Knoxville Super Regional.

After all the smack that was talked by Tennessee fans after the Kevin Kopps-led Razorbacks came up short in 2021, it was certainly vindicating for Arkansas fans to see the Vols suffer the same fate the following year.

Given his history with Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello, Van Horn, too, was likely watching the Fighting Irish’s dogpile at Lindsey Nelson Stadium with a smirk on his face.

Once revered in Fayetteville for his time as an assistant coach under Van Horn, Vitello has become the most villainous figure in college baseball for Razorback fans after he moved to Knoxville to run his own program.

While the Vols had some successes in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the program had been a bit of a bottom feeder in the 15 years before Vitello took over. Now in his seventh season as the head coach, he has engineered a complete transformation and turned Tennessee into a consistent contender with two SEC titles, an SEC tournament triumph and two Omaha appearances to his name.

That success has led to the Volunteers having some high-stakes matchups with Van Horn and Arkansas. Facing off against his former boss and a much more established national name, Vitello has entered these games with his tempers running hot. The same can be said for the Head Hog, who certainly had plenty of extra motivation to win to protect his personal and program reputation against his apprentice.

The pair got into a pretty nasty postgame dust-up in 2021 after the Razorbacks got the better of Tennessee in a series in Knoxville. Vitello’s buoyant personality and his team’s penchant for over-the-top celebrations have drawn the ire of both Van Horn and the Razorback fanbase.

Just two old friends saying, “Good game,” and talking about the weather, clearly.

The rocky relationship between Vitello, Arkansas and Arkansas baseball fans will surely come back into the fold whenever it comes time to find a successor for Van Horn. At 63 years old, he’s approaching retirement age for many coaches – but that’s a conversation for another day.

Both fanbases will likely be hoping for the opportunity to see the Hogs and Vols square off in Hoover. Who knows what will unfold before Selection Monday. Tennessee and Arkansas have both had their fair share of heartbreak as the No. 1 team. 

Maybe it’s only fair for it to be Kentucky’s turn to bear the curse of the top seed this time around.


Vitello discusses the postgame dust-up back in 2021.

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Rubber match highlights from Arkansas vs. Mississippi State this past weekend.

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More coverage of Arkansas baseball and the Tony Vitello beef from BoAS…

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