No. 1 Hogs headed to Auburn riding 13-game winning streak

It would be hard to imagine a better opening weekend of SEC play for the No. 1-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team.

The Hogs moved to 17-2 on the season and 3-0 in the SEC with a dominant sweep of the Missouri Tigers (9-11, 9-3 SEC) to extend their winning streak to 13 games.

The Razorbacks posted a 9-1 victory Sunday after defeating the Tigers 8-0 on Friday and 6-0 on Saturday. A sweep in SEC play is a treasure even if the Tigers turn out to be the worst team in the league. Missouri is the only team in the SEC with an overall losing record at this juncture of the season.

The Hogs were the only West Division squad to sweep their opening series last weekend, but No. 9 Vanderbilt (18-3, 3-0) did bring out the broom against No. 18 Auburn on Sunday, and Kentucky (17-3, 3-0) took three from Georgia (17-4, 0-3) over in the East.

It’s almost too early to concentrate too much on the standings with nine more SEC series left to play. That’s a long season with much stronger programs to face than Arkansas’ league-designated “rival” to the north.

Still, Razorback fans have to be excited about the hot start their Diamond Hogs are enjoying after the disappointing football and basketball seasons they suffered through.

Baseball season hopefully will be the saving grace for the 2023-24 major/revenue sports season. There’s nothing like a run to the College World Series to salve the wounds opened by those unexpected flops.

While Sam Pittman’s football Razorbacks and Eric Musselman’s basketball Hogs need a hard reset, Van Horn’s baseball program just keeps on trucking.

It’s early. The Hogs haven’t faced an major contender yet, but it looks like the Razorbacks have three excellent starting pitchers, backed up by one of the deepest bullpens Van Horn has enjoyed in some time, maybe ever.

Up next for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Auburn
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, March 21
Where: Auburn, Ala.
TV: SEC Network

Next few games:

March 22 – at Auburn, 6 p.m. (SEC+)
March 23 – at Auburn, 2 p.m. (SEC+)
March 26 – Little Rock, 6:30 p.m. (SEC+)

Now, we all know an injury here and there can change an outlook very quickly, but this Razorback squad looks loaded all around the diamond, and the return of Peyton Stovall from a foot injury not only has bolstered Arkansas’ defense, but the Razorbacks are also heating up at the plate since his return.

Now, I could be mistaking Stovall’s return to the diamond as the catalyst for improved hitting when its just so many first-year Hogs and starters getting comfortable in their roles and producing closer to their potential, but I’ll stick to my initial thought because leadership, even with a dugout full of alphas is an almost unquantifiable commodity.

Arkansas lacked that leadership on the gridiron and hardwood this year and when things went south for both squads, it became not just hard to right the ship during the season but impossible.

That’s certainly a harsh assessment, but it’s the only one that makes sense based on what fans and media expected out of both teams and the results that we witnessed.

I’m not naive enough to predict Arkansas is going to win the SEC in baseball this season after one series against a team that is likely the worst team in the league, but Van Horn’s squad is talented and deep. The Hogs are winning, but the competition among teammates is so great that expected starters are being pushed for playing time.

Van Horn could probably platoon two highly competitive starting lineups with very little duplication. As strong as his program has been over the last two decades, I’m not sure he’s ever worked with as much talent up and down the roster. Again a lot of it has to do with having a predominantly healthy squad with the return of Stovall.

We know injuries can become an issue very quickly even for a deep squad like Arkansas’.

Of course, there is also the competition. As great as the SEC has always been in football and as strong as the league is in basketball this season with eight teams in the NCAA Tournament, the league is even more dominant in baseball.

Look at any of the various baseball rankings, and SEC is written all over them.

Take D1 Baseball’s Top 25 — the SEC office’s preferred rankings — from March 10.

The Hogs were No. 1, followed by LSU at No. 2, Texas A&M at No. 4, Tennessee at No. 5, Florida at No. 8, Vanderbilt at No. 9, Alabama at No. 14, Auburn at No. 18, and South Carolina at No. 20. Future SEC member Texas was No. 23.

That’s nine of 14 SEC members ranked. Those numbers will shift as teams begin to beat each other, but baseball ranking voters are discerning. They understand the ups and downs SEC teams face within the season.

After SEC play this weekend, D1 Baseball’s latest rankings are a bit different. Arkansas is still No. 1, but now Vandy is No. 3, LSU is No. 5, Florida No. 6, Texas A&M is No. 7, Tennessee is No. 8, Alabama is No. 11, Mississippi State is No. 21, Auburn is No. 23. South Carolina dropped out. Future member Oklahoma entered the poll at No. 17, while Texas tumbled out.

How big a deal is it for the Hogs to be ranked No. 1 at this juncture in the season?

It’s without a doubt a nice honor, but the nature of the game means the Razorbacks will likely lose the ranking before too long. That’s why the Hogs understated skipper Dave Van Horn hasn’t made a big deal about it. He enjoys watching his team and players excel on the field.

He saw that last weekend at home against Missouri, but now the SEC season begins for real with a road trip to Auburn.

As for the NCAA RPI, the Hogs fell behind Clemson to No. 2 today after being No. 1. The Razorbacks are followed by Texas A&M at No. 8. Kentucky at No. 12, Alabama at No. 18, Tennessee at No. 21, Florida at No. 22, Vanderbilt at No. 23, LSU at No. 29, South Carolina at No. 30, Georgia at No. 31, Ole Miss at No. 36, Auburn at No. 43, Mississippi State at 60, and Missouri at 134.

The RPI, of course, is a tool used by the NCAA to help select and seed the field of the NCAA Baseball Tournament.