It’s not too late to fix this, SEC. Just release a statement that you messed up, like you did about a year ago when Tony Vitello and Tennessee were left off the 2023 Arkansas baseball schedule.
We can pretend this never happened. Besides, who’d actually believe that college baseball’s premier conference would pair the Razorbacks — one of its top programs — with its perennial cellar-dweller?
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the SEC has done. When the league expands to 16 teams next summer, its baseball schedule will shift to a division-less format in which each team has two permanent opponents. It was announced Thursday that Ole Miss and Missouri are the conference foes Arkansas will face annually beginning in 2025.
The good news is the SEC got half of that right. Preserving what is typically a fun, competitive and intense series on the diamond in Arkansas vs Ole Miss makes a lot of sense.
The other half, though… Let’s be honest: Missouri doesn’t care about baseball. Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Ty Wilmsmeyer, a Missouri fan from birth and two-year starter for the Tigers who transferred to Arkansas this offseason, told Best of Arkansas Sports over the summer:
“I’m not saying it can’t be done at Missouri, but with the administration not willing to really fund the baseball program and make it a successful, high-level program, it will be a tough job at Missouri, for sure,” Wilmsmeyer said. “Arkansas has invested a lot in their baseball program and has a lot backing that program.”
The State of Missouri Baseball
Sure, Missouri has a national championship in its trophy case — albeit from 1954 — and has produced numerous MLB All-Stars in recent years like Max Scherzer and Ian Kinsler. Still, Wilmsmeyer isn’t wrong.
The Razorbacks drew a record attendance of 34,796 for their three-game series against Ole Miss last year — which was just shy of the Tigers’ 26-game home total of 37,133. When Arkansas visited Columbia, Mo., as a top-5 team in 2022, it played in front of crowds of 852, 907 and 1,127.
That is reflective of the on-field product. Not only has Missouri failed to reach the NCAA Tournament since 2012, its final year in the Big 12, it has finished .500 or better in SEC play just once in 10 seasons — when it went 15-15 in 2015.
The Tigers showed some promise early in 2023 with wins over Texas and TCU at the College Baseball Showdown and even cracked the top 25 after sweeping Tennessee to open SEC play, but they went just 7-20 in the conference the rest of the way and fired head coach Steve Bieser after a one-and-done showing in Hoover.
He was replaced by Kerrick Jackson, a Missouri native who went 29-28 in his lone season at Memphis and also guided Southern to a SWAC title in 2019. Johnson was on the Tigers’ staff as an assistant the last time they made the postseason, but he faces quite a challenge in resurrecting the program in an SEC that’s only going to get stronger with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas.
Not the Same as Arkansas Football, Basketball
To put it bluntly, Missouri baseball is essentially Vanderbilt football.
While the Arkansas football team would gladly accept an annual matchup with the Commodores, the baseball program is in a completely different stratosphere right now.
Dave Van Horn has built the Razorbacks into a juggernaut. They’re consistently competing for SEC titles and trying to knock down the final wall that is a national title. The Arkansas football team is…not.
There’s a feeling among some fans that making Arkansas vs Missouri a permanent baseball series is a continuation of the SEC forcing a so-called “rivalry” on both schools, like when it replaced LSU with Missouri as the Razorbacks’ Black Friday opponent on the gridiron.
At least that series — the Battle Line Rivalry (presented by Shelter Insurance) — has had some spice over the years. Whether or not either side wants to admit it, there is some legitimate animosity between the two fan bases thanks to some close games (with the Tigers usually coming out on top), smack talk and players/coaches swapping sides.
There’s the potential of this year’s game having added meaning, as Arkansas could be fighting for bowl eligibility and Missouri could be vying for a 10-win season and invitation to a New Year’s Six bowl.
Even the basketball series, which is a permanent home-and-home matchup, has more intensity than what’s seen on the baseball diamond. Mike Anderson leaving a decade-plus ago helped with that, as did Eric Musselman turning Trevon Brazile into a bonafide first-round NBA Draft prospect. Missouri signing top in-state recruit Annor Boateng from Little Rock only adds extra sizzle.
Perhaps we can get David Bazzel on the phone and commission a new shiny trophy, but as it stands, there’s nothing to get excited about when it comes to Arkansas vs Missouri in baseball – even if it ultimately helps the Razorbacks in the SEC standings.
Alternatives for Arkansas Baseball
Naturally, the next question is who would be better as a permanent opponent than Missouri. Well, the answer is simple: Anyone.
That includes Kentucky, another northern SEC team that has struggled to find consistent success in baseball, because those series are typically pretty chippy.
Georgia just hired former Arkansas pitching coach — and Arkansas native — Wes Johnson as its head coach and Tennessee of course has Tony Vitello.
Vanderbilt and Florida are always good and in the thick of the SEC title race with Arkansas. South Carolina and Texas A&M are traditionally strong programs. Mississippi State has stunk the last two years, but did win it all in 2021. Alabama has had Arkansas’ number in recent years, while Auburn has made it to Omaha twice since 2019 and Oklahoma finished as runner-up in 2022.
The two opponents that’d make Arkansas baseball fans most happy are Texas and LSU.
The Longhorns have long been a rival of the Razorbacks, dating back to their time together in the Southwest Conference. However, it’s hard to argue with their two permanent foes: Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
That leaves LSU, which has been paired with Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
Despite these Tigers having Dave Van Horn’s number for the majority of his tenure, Arkansas vs LSU has consistently been one of the more entertaining series in the SEC. Even national college baseball writers and LSU media/fans are disappointed to be losing the matchup on an annual basis:
Based on some reaction on social media, it seems as though LSU fans feel the same way about Texas A&M as Arkansas fans feel about Missouri — that it’s the conference office trying to manufacture a rivalry.
In its infinite wisdom, the SEC chose to destroy a real rivalry in an effort to create two that will likely never catch on, especially in baseball, rather than preserve Arkansas vs LSU and rekindle a former Big 12 matchup between Missouri and Texas A&M.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to rectify things.
SEC, make it make sense.
SEC Baseball Permanent Opponents
Beginning with the 2025 season, each baseball team in the SEC will play two permanent opponents and eight rotating opponents in conference play. Here’s a rundown of the permanent foes, as announced Thursday:
- Alabama: Auburn, Tennessee
- Arkansas: Ole Miss, Missouri
- Auburn: Alabama, Georgia
- Florida: Georgia, South Carolina
- Georgia: Florida, Auburn
- Kentucky: South Carolina, Vanderbilt
- LSU: Mississippi State, Texas A&M
- Mississippi State: Ole Miss, LSU
- Missouri: Oklahoma, Arkansas
- Oklahoma: Missouri, Texas
- Ole Miss: Mississippi State, Arkansas
- South Carolina: Kentucky, Florida
- Tennessee: Vanderbilt, Alabama
- Texas: Texas A&M, Oklahoma
- Texas A&M: Texas, LSU
- Vanderbilt: Tennessee, Kentucky
More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…