Voodoo Surrounding No. 1 Ranking Definitely Takes Sting from Poll’s Snub of Hogs

Dave Van Horn, Travis Bazzana, Arkansas baseball, Oregon State baseball, Arkansas vs Oregon State
photo credit: Crant Osborne / OSU Athletics

Arkansas baseball has once again found itself ranked No. 1 in almost every major poll this week. The Diamond Hogs had garnered substantial preseason hype in the polls and have won 10 straight games. Coupled with previous top dog Wake Forest dropping a series to No. 12 Duke, the door was open for Arkansas to slide in as the new kingpin.

The key word in that first sentence is almost. While the Razorbacks hold the top spot in the D1Baseball, Baseball America, Perfect Game and USA Today Coaches polls, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) is the black sheep of the group – slotting the Hogs at No. 2. Not too shabby, right?

The No. 1 team in the NCBWA poll is the Oregon State Beavers, who have shot out of the gate with a 15-1 record led by a blazing offense that’s scoring 9.8 runs per game (21st in the nation). OSU has swept all of its mid-major opponents and posted impressive wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in Arlington. 

On paper, the Beavers and Razorbacks both have the looks of championship contenders. If only there were a way in which America’s prestigious baseball writers’ guild could tell which squad has the edge this early in the season? Oh wait…

Arkansas and Oregon State faced off at Globe Life Field just over two weeks ago, and the Razorbacks came out on top by a score of 5-4 thanks to the brilliance of Hagen Smith. With a number of MLB scouts watching, the lefty ace tied the Arkansas school record for single-game strikeouts with 17 in six innings of shutout work against the Beavers’ loud bats.

Polls in college sports notoriously draw the ire of fans all across the country, especially early in the season when teams don’t have a full body of work to examine. This problem is worsened by the unique nature of college baseball’s ranking system, which has five major services rather than one unanimous Top 25 – as college football and basketball do with the AP Poll.

But the NCBWA’s outlier ranking this week appears to be a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. Unless the Beavers were to have significant advantages in other categories?

Attempting to Play Devil’s Advocate

Perhaps there’s something we’re missing here that suggests Oregon State might actually be the better squad – despite losing to Arkansas. Here’s a quick statistical comparison of the Beavers and Razorbacks:

StatArkansas BaseballOregon State Baseball
Earned run average2.79 (3rd)3.65 (23rd)
Strikeouts per nine innings14.1 (1st)9.5 (95th)
Hits allowed per nine innings6.19 (3rd)7.57 (T-30th)
Runs per game8.1 (75th)9.8 (21st)
On-base percentage.416 (63rd).455 (16th)
Slugging percentage.461 (90th).590 (13th)
NOTE: These stats do not reflect games played Tuesday night.

Oregon State is clearly the better offensive team than Arkansas at this point in the season, but any advantages in that department are offset by the Diamond Hogs’ excellence on the mound. These stats are really just an indicator of two excellent teams with different identities, although the Beaver bats may have had enough of a wow factor to sway the NCBWA voters.

But the college baseball world saw what happened when the unstoppable force of Oregon State’s offense met the immovable object of Arkansas’ pitching. Just ask Beavers second baseman Travis Bazzana, the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2024 MLB Draft who struck out three times against Hagen Smith.

Battle-Tested Arkansas Boasts Impressive Resume

The most obvious difference between the two sides at this point in the season is their resumes. Arkansas has the best RPI rating in the country, while Oregon State ranks No. 4 in that metric. Thanks to some smart scheduling by head coach Dave Van Horn, the Razorbacks have already played 11 “Quad 1” (top-50 opponent) matchups – and they’ve won 10 of them.

All three of Arkansas’ mid-major weekend opponents so far – James Madison, Murray State and McNeese State – have been Quad 1 opponents, coming in at No. 15, No. 24 and No. 34, respectively. This rigorous schedule will certainly come in handy for the Hogs when it comes to national seeding for the postseason.

The Beavers, by contrast, have played in just two Quad 1 games – beating Texas Tech, but losing to Arkansas. The Razorbacks also own the toughest strength of schedule in the country, while Oregon State’s SOS ranking is just 47th. Perhaps the Beavers have been the beneficiaries of a bit of a kind schedule so far.

That’s not to take anything away from the Oregon State baseball program, which clearly has the makings of an excellent team that is deserving of being near the top of the rankings. But there’s really no justification for putting the Beavers over the Hogs when Arkansas won the head-to-head matchup and has a far more impressive resume.

Curiously, the Razorbacks (No. 4) were ranked ahead of the Beavers (No. 5) in last week’s NCBWA poll. So what changed? It’s hard to believe Oregon State’s sweep of Cal State Northridge did enough to warrant a jump, especially when Arkansas swept a McNeese State team nearly 50 spots ahead of CSUN in the RPI.

The Curse of No. 1

Setting aside the NCBWA gaffe for a moment to discuss the majority opinion, it’s worth discussing whether Arkansas should even want the No. 1 ranking next to its name. While it’s certainly a flex for fans and players to hold the top spot, it also puts a target on your back heading into conference play.

Another element, particularly for fans, is the voodoo surrounding the No. 1 spot in college baseball. The No. 1 team in the country entering the postseason has not won a national championship since Miami in 1999. Arkansas fans are well aware of this stat after the 2021 season, which saw the Razorbacks go 50-13 (10-0 in SEC series) and earn the No. 1 national seed before a heartbreaking Super Regional loss to North Carolina State.

Fan reactions to Arkansas baseball entering the danger zone for the kingpin’s curse were split, with some taking the top spot with pride and many others wanting to stay away from the bad juju associated with it:

In order to maximize their crystal-ball hopes, perhaps the Diamond Hogs should take the route of LSU last year. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 for a long stretch of the regular season before back-to-back series losses knocked them off. The Bayou Bengals ended up with the No. 5 national seed, and went all the way to hoist their fifth national title in program history.

But the last person on Earth worried about any No. 1-seed curse is Dave Van Horn. The veteran skipper is just going to keep trying to win ball games, and let the chips fall where they may. While you can question his motivation to win in Hoover, it’s safe to say that there won’t be any regular season tanking going on as the Razorbacks will be hungry to secure another SEC title.

No. 1 vs. No. 1 Looming for Arkansas Baseball?

Speaking of LSU, the defending national champions’ current form sets up a potential heavyweight clash in Baum-Walker Stadium on the last weekend of March. The Tigers are ranked either 2nd or 3rd in every major poll, and will have an argument for the top spot if they are able to win their series against Florida in a couple weeks in what will be a rematch of last year’s College World Series Finals.

If the Razorbacks hold serve against Missouri and Auburn, they will certainly find themselves occupying the No. 1 or No. 2 spot heading into the LSU series. If all goes to plan, the stage is set for a 1 vs. 2 matchup in Fayetteville – or, if the rankings split just right, a monumental bout between two No. 1 teams.

That would be the first twin-billing No.1 matchup since Arkansas faced off against Arizona State for two midweek games in April of 2009. At that point, the Razorbacks only held the top spot in the Collegiate Baseball poll, and was ranked as low as No. 12 in others. The Sun Devils were certainly the more unanimous pick for the No. 1 spot, but Arkansas defended its home ground and won both games.

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