Diamond Hogs meet Aggies with final SEC West title on the line

Historic rivalries clash in decisive series ahead of conference's divisional restructuring

I’m not sure if ironic or appropriate is the better word for what’s at stake in this week’s Arkansas-Texas A&M baseball series at College Station.

From a macro view, the series doesn’t have a ton of consequences.

The No. 3 Razorbacks (42-10, 19-8 SEC) and the No. 5 Aggies (42-10, 17-10 SEC) are almost assuredly going to host NCAA Regionals and likely Super Regionals as one of eight national seeds, based on what they have already accomplished at this juncture of the season.

Winning or losing the series this weekend isn’t going to change that.

In terms of the SEC overall title, Kentucky (37-11, 20-7 SEC) holds a one game lead over the Hogs and a three-game lead over the Aggies going into the Wildcats’ series with Vanderbilt (34-18, 12-15).

For Arkansas to win the overall title, the Hogs would need to win at least two of three from the Aggies, and Vandy would have to sweep Kentucky. An Arkansas sweep and a single win by Kentucky would also net the Razorbacks the overall title.

The best the Aggies could do is tie Kentucky for first if A&M sweeps Arkansas, and Vandy sweeps the Wildcats.

However, if you dig into the Arkansas-A&M series and the histories of the two proud programs, the series becomes more compelling.

Up next for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Texas A&M
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 16
Where: Blue Bell Park, Bryan-College Station

Next games:

May 17 – at Texas A&M, 7 p.m. (SEC Network)
May 18 – at Texas A&M, 2 p.m. (SEC Network)

“It makes it a little more interesting, I guess, that it’s the two teams at the top [of the Western Division] playing each other on the last date,” Arkansas head baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “It’s difficult that we are on the road. We’re playing in a really difficult place to win if you are the visiting team. They proved that again this year with 30-plus wins. I think it’s good for our team.

“I made the comment to our team a little over a week ago that having the opportunity to play Mississippi State and play Texas A&M is good for us in the long run as far as playing great competition and the two hottest teams in our division at this time. There won’t be anything coming down the road that we haven’t seen following this.”

While rain is in the forecast Thursday, the opening game is set for 7 p.m. at Blue Bell Park. The game is scheduled to be televised by ESPN2. Friday’s first pitch is at 7 p.m. with coverage by the SEC Network. Saturday’s finale at 2 p.m. also will be televised on the SEC Network.

End of divisional play

At least for the foreseeable future, this series will decide the final SEC Baseball Western Division Championship.

You see, this is the final year of divisional play in the SEC with Texas and Oklahoma officially joining the conference July 1.

Beginning in 2025, SEC baseball teams will play a three-game series against two permanent opponents and eight other rotating opponents for a total of 30 conference games. Standings will be kept in a single-division format. Arkansas’ permanent baseball opponents are Ole Miss and Missouri going forward.

The move away from divisions has been explained by SEC officials as a means of making sure all SEC teams compete against each other on each campus during a four-year period.


In today’s atmosphere of NIL and almost unrestricted transfers, it’s becoming more and more rare for a student-athlete to start and finish his/her career at the same school, much less stay in one program for four years.

Personally, I think programs competing for divisional titles makes a season more compelling for the fans who tote the note for college athletics through donations, tickets and merchandise purchases. Do student-athletes really care that much whether they play one time in Oxford, Miss., or Fayetteville in their career? I doubt it even crosses most of their minds.

Road trips are so structured and short even in baseball that the only things athletes get to “experience” of the opposing campuses when they visit are the venue they’re playing in, their hotels, and maybe a restaurant or fast-food joint.

Divisional play is going to be missed by the fans, and I doubt the move is going to make that much difference in terms of placing teams in at-large spots in post-season tournaments either. And that’s the real reason divisional play has fallen out of favor among SEC decision-makers.

For whatever reason, it’s believed the SEC can generate more revenue without divisions than with them. Anytime there is a sea-change in the way a conference conducts its business, there is always a money reason behind it.

Van Horn said in his media teleconference Wednesday that he was very vocal in league meetings about his support of divisional play, but he felt the discussions fell on deaf ears.

“I don’t like it going top to bottom,” Van Horn said of next season’s deletion of divisional play. “Baseball is divisions. Look at the big leagues. Seems like we always follow their trends…

“I think there should be divisions. I think it keeps everybody engaged. If you’ve got four divisions or a minimum of two, you’ve got teams that are going to fight to the end… I like divisions. I think it keeps fans interested. Baseball is about divisions.”

Unfortunately, Van Horn said the decision seemed like it was already made before the coaches were invited to the discussion in last year’s league baseball meetings.

“You could just feel where it was going,” Van Horn said. “I guess we kinda had a vote.”

Ironic matchup and future dynamics

So where is the irony in this?

I think it’s at least a little ironic that two former members of the Southwest Conference are squaring off for the final Southeastern Conference West baseball title, just weeks before the Texas Longhorns join the SEC.

When word that Oklahoma and Texas would be joining the SEC first broke several years ago, I was intrigued.

Both could have joined the SEC back in 1992 when Arkansas and South Carolina made the leap, but both saw greener pastures for the time being in a merger between the SWC and the Big Eight to form the Big 12. It was a big-fish, smaller-pond mentality.

Texas and Oklahoma are used to ruling the roost and getting whatever they want in any conference they’ve been a member of. When the announcement was first made that they would be joining the SEC, I thought that would change because of the power dynamics within the SEC.

However, since that move was made, the NCAA has been turned upside down by the transfer portal and NIL. Like in the 1940s and ’50s, the programs with the thickest wallets are becoming juggernauts. The Longhorns are going to be a problem for everyone in the SEC across the board until new regulations or a better structure for what has become another form of professional athletics is introduced.

No one knows this more than the Aggies and old-time Razorbackers, who remember the politics of the old SWC when the Steers always seemed to tilt the game board in their favor.

With the current NIL rules in place, the Longhorns and Sooners are in better position and are better equipped to compete in the SEC than ever in baseball and all other sports. It’s going to be interesting to observe how both programs adapt to the SEC and how the rest of the SEC adapts to them.

But I digress. Back to this weekend’s series.

Series outlook

While Razorback left-handed ace Hagen Smith started a little slow last Friday against Mississippi State, he quickly righted the ship. He will start Thursday. However, with Day 2 and 3 starters Brady Tygart and Mason Molina struggling last week, Gage Wood will get his first SEC start on Friday. Van Horn said Saturday’s starter will be determined later. Molina could get the start.

“He’s got to go out and throw the ball better,” Van Horn said of Molina. “He needs to embrace it and go after it.”

Van Horn said that he might give Tygart some rest this weekend since his velocity was down last week against the Bulldogs.

Van Horn said the Aggies have a formidable batting lineup with tons of power through their top six.

“They are never out of a game,” Van Horn said.

Likewise Van Horn credited their pitching staff for knowing their stock and trade as a crafty crew who coax outs.

While qualifying how good the Aggies are and how difficult it is to garner a victory at Blue Bell Stadium, Van Horn said the Razorbacks are ready for the challenge.

“We just want to play well,” Van Horn said. “If we do, we will have a chance to win. It’s one of the top two hardest places to win in our conference. It’s going to be wild down there.

“We’re going to do everything we can to win each game. I don’t want the players to get all uptight. If we play well, we will have a chance to win. If we don’t, we won’t.”