Diamond Hogs face top remaining seed Stanford in CWS opener with Texas looming

Photo: University of Arkansas Athletics

Somehow the Texas Longhorns have been elevated by oddsmakers to the favorite’s role in the College World series which opens Friday at Schwab Field in Omaha, Neb.

Get used to it again Hog fans, and for that matter, SEC patrons from the 13 other schools should, too. That’s how the national media rolls when it concerns the Steers.

Knowing that the Longhorns will be bringing their tea-sipping swagger to the SEC — possibly as soon as 2023 — might be an underlying reason why Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher and Aggie athletic director Russ Bjork have been so touchy lately over Alabama football coach Nick Saban basically speaking the truth about Aggie recruiting?

I mean it is Aggie fans who have been bragging about their multi-million dollar NIL war chest. Ol’ Nick was just repeating what Aggie fans have basically been slapping high fives over since signing the nation’s highest-rated and rumored best-paid recruiting class of the year. There is nothing the Aggies want less than big brother Texas and Oklahoma harshing their mellow.

But, I digress.

This column is supposed to be about baseball, but even with the season more than two months away, football is what makes the SEC world go around.

As I was saying, for whatever reason, the Longhorns are given the benefit of the doubt, and even though Texas winds up being more hat than beef at times, the Longhorns do have a penchant for winning.

As a longtime follower of the Razorbacks, there’s nothing I’d like better than for the Longhorns to win their side of the CWS first-round bracket, and the Hogs to do the same on their side.

A Razorback-Longhorns showdown series for a national title would be a dream come true for me and other longtime Razorback fans who know and understand that there is nothing sweeter than beating Texas in athletic competition, particularly if a national championship is on the line.

Why is it so sweet?

To give credit where credit is due, the Longhorns usually are good enough to inspire a little or a lot of envy on the behalf of their opponents and rivals. Right, Aggie fans?

Razorbacks in the College World Series

Who: Arkansas vs. Stanford
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, June 18
Where: Omaha, Neb.
Watch: ESPN

The frustration of playing second or actually third fiddle to Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 is exactly what drove Texas A&M to the SEC almost a decade ago, and it must rub the Aggies a little raw to see the SEC welcome the Longhorns and the Sooners to the conference with open arms. Not so raw that the Aggies don’t want the bump in revenue that bringing the Big 12’s top two draws into the SEC means, but still an irritation none the less.

There I go again, veering off topic.

Now isn’t the time for the Hogs to worry about Texas, anyway. The College World Series is a long affair.

The eight-team field is split in half. Basically the first week of play consists of two double-elimination tournaments. The survivors then face each other in a best two-out-of-three game series to crown the national champion.

The Hogs (43-19) face the top remaining seed in the tournament, the Stanford Cardinal (47-16), at 1 p.m. Saturday with Tennessee took a tumble last weekend after being ranked No. 1 most of the season.

In fact, Arkansas has played five of the eight participants in the CWS, going 4-5 (0-1 vs. Stanford, 1-2 vs. Texas A&M, 2-1 vs. Ole Miss, 2-1 vs. Auburn).

Tennessee’s defeat in Super Regional play last week brings up bad memories of the Razorbacks bowing out at the same level last year after having a similar season.

Baseball is tough and can be an unkind mistress, particularly in postseason play when there is no tomorrow.

Many of the Hogs remember the feeling of the abrupt end to last season, and it has fueled their revival after limping to the end of the season when they watched their three-game SEC Western Division lead waste away to a second-place finish and an 0-2 exit from the SEC Tournament.

All of that is in the rearview mirror, now. The Hogs whipped back-to-back top-seven seeds in Oklahoma State and North Carolina away from the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium to earn their way into the CWS.

Interestingly enough, like Stanford, Arkansas’ mascot was the Cardinal until coach Hugo Bezdek quipped that his undefeated 1909 Arkansas football team played with the ferocity of a band of wild razorback hogs. The moniker stuck.

If you don’t remember, Arkansas lost to Stanford, 5-0, in the Karbach Round Rock Classic back on Feb. 27. The game was so long ago, that it doesn’t have a ton of bearing on Saturday’s game, but both squads are familiar with the other.

As of this writing, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, who has guided the Razorbacks to nine appearances in the College World Series since taking over the program from Norm DeBriyn in 2003 along with two other trips previously at Nebraska, has not named a starter, but one guesses senior righty Connor Noland (7-5, 3.86 ERA) will get the nod.

Stanford head coach David Esquer, whose squad has only faced one team in the field, Arkansas, will likely go with right-handed pitcher Alex Williams (8-3, 2.88 ERA).

Stanford won their home regional, beating Binghamton 20-7, lost 5-2 to Texas State, beat UC Santa Barbara 8-4, beat Texas State 8-4, and 4-3. The Cardinal also won its home Super Regional after losing 13-12 to Connecticut, in the first game, but retaliating to whip Connecticut 8-2, and 10-5 to advance to Omaha.

Maybe Stanford will lose its opener this week, too?

Winning the first game usually makes for an easier path to advancing from the first round.

Stanford, though, is riding a hot streak, winning 22 of their last 24 games. The Cardinal are among three teams in tournament history to score at least eight runs in all three of their super regional games. They’ve smashed a tournament-leading 22 homers in eight games. Lefty Quinn Mathews (9-1, 2.62 ERA with 9 saves) has recorded two straight nine-out saves.

Stanford is a tough opening matchup for sure, but Hog fans have to be excited how well their resilient Razorbacks have played since the beginning of regional play.

The Hogs shook off the residue of their ugly end to the regular season and their short stay in Hoover for the SEC Tournament, and frankly have looked like a revitalized squad.

Maybe this time next week, Arkansas fans will be getting revved up for a clash with the Longhorns and a national title at stake?