Arkansas athletics are unlike any in the country. Only a handful of states in the country have just one school that shines so brightly that it overshadows all the other Division I programs in the state. Nebraska has the Cornhuskers, but Creighton is better in basketball and often baseball. West Virginia has the Mountaineers, but they’re never exactly beating the door down in any of the three major sports. Only Connecticut with the Huskies can claim the status Arkansas has with the Razorbacks.
OK, maybe Maryland and New Jersey, but does the Big Ten really count?
Kidding aside, the state of athletics in the state of Arkansas is all about the Razorbacks. The main difference between the fans of the Hogs (and Huskies up at UConn) and others is the intensity, thanks in large part to the rest of the state offering little in the way of alternatives. That means when things are going well with the big athletic programs, the excitement feels more insane than it should. When things go poorly, the negativity feels harsher than it should be. And in-between, a weird netherworld exists, one where the air of “they don’t respect us” enough always lingers.
A bit of that is happening in 2022 with Arkansas baseball. The Baum-Walker faithful are spoiled – and that’s meant in the best possible way. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament but one since 2002. Six of those years have yielded trips to the College World Series. Success isn’t just expected with Dave Van Horn’s Diamond Hogs – it’s practically a given.
Arkansas Baseball and its Most Recent Rival
It’s part of why this season feels strange. Arkansas is good. Great, even. The Razorbacks are 31-9 and 12-6 in league play. They’re ranked in the top-10 in the country. Hosting a Super Regional isn’t out of the question. But it’s also a down year for the SEC, long the most powerful college baseball conference in the country. And the little annoyances are magnified in a season that sees Tennessee, Arkansas’ newest and most intense rival, emerge as a clear-cut No. 1 team in the country. The Vols have a five-game lead over second-place Arkansas in the conference standings. They’re also coached by former Arkansas baseball assistant Tony Vitello, whose past with the Hogs is, well, interesting.
Arkansas lost two of three over the weekend to Texas A&M, a team that hasn’t spent much time in the Top 25 this season. Now the Aggies are just two games back of the Diamond Hogs with four SEC series to play. The series loss showed Arkansas’ flaws, too:
The Razorbacks are in the bottom-half of the SEC in nearly every major hitting statistical category since SEC play has started. They’re not last in any of them, which is expected given their second-place standing, but the lineup was supposed to be a strength of the team this year and it simply hasn’t panned out. Pitching has carried the year as the Hogs are in the top three in earned-run average, opponents’ batting average and opponents’ slugging percentage.
Even as a top-10 team, though, it seems Arkansas is mentioned less than usual as one of the favorites for the national championship. Being in the conversation every year has created some moderation for the national love – the Hogs are always good, so them being good again isn’t a major story. Much of the national spotlight, however, has shined directly on Rocky Top.
Tennessee Baseball on Historic Tear
Tennessee baseball has never been close to as good as it is this year. The Vols’ best previous season came in 1995 when they went 54-16 and won the SEC. They were the fourth-to-last team eliminated in the College World Series that year. This season has been unreal, almost like Arkansas was in 2021. Tennessee is 37-3 overall and 17-1 in league play. Third baseman Trey Lipscomb is having a season hitting similar to the one Kevin Kopps had pitching for the Hogs last year.
The Vols have spent just about every week since the weather warmed as the No. 1 team in the nation. They are the clear favorites for the title. Arkansas baseball, of course, knows a little something about the weight that comes with such expectations. Coach Dave Van Horn’s 2021 team rolled through the SEC Tournament, 4-0, then went 3-1 in the Regional in Fayetteville. North Carolina State visited Baum-Walker for the Supers, having won the Ruston Regional as a 2-seed. Arkansas’ fervent faithful felt confident.
Then the Wolfpack won two one-run games after dropping the first and broke hearts across the Natural State.
Arkansas doesn’t have that pressure this year. But the Tennessee baseball program does. As much as some in the Razorbacks’ fan camp may want more respect put on the Hogs’ name, perhaps where they are right now – not ignored, but simply on cruise control in the eyes of college baseball nation – is the best place for them.
The Diamond Hogs won’t win the SEC regular-season title. At least, they won’t barring something nutty happening. Tennessee almost certainly will instead. Then the Vols will have the eyes of college baseball on them, watching every move that Vitello and his demonstrative team make. Meanwhile, Arkansas will cruise along with limited pressure, its fans knowing Van Horn will have been there before.
Tennessee can’t say the same.
See Mike Irwin discuss more of Arkansas vs Tennessee baseball at the start of this video:
Below, Tony Vitello makes a ton of friends around the SEC by saying: “In between the lines, there are no rules.” (To be fair, though, he’s an entertaining guy who doesn’t come off as big of a jerk as many fans think he is. Around 20:00, he tells a funny recruiting story about former Razorback Nick Schmidt.)
See our latest on Arkansas baseball here:
See our latest here: