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Hogs should be happy that Vitello’s volumes can’t get out of the way

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Gabe Gaeckle, Tony Vitello, Arkansas baseball, Tennessee baseball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Tennessee Athletics

College baseball is a sport that’s all about getting hot at the right time, and Arkansas baseball is approaching that pivotal point in the year as they head to College Station to take on No. 5 Texas A&M this weekend.

It’s a series with huge stakes, as both the SEC West and the overall crown could be on the line at Blue Bell Park – as well as the SEC Tournament and national seeding. Read Andrew Hutchinson’s piece for a full overview of what’s at stake this weekend.

The race at the top of the conference is extremely tight, with four teams vying for the title that are all ranked in the top five in the country. For most of the season, it was a merry-go-round between SEC heavyweights at the top of the polls, with the Arkansas, Texas A&M or Tennessee baseball programs in first place all spring.

Heavy is the head…

The Razorbacks had a five-week stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking before falling to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, after which the Aggies took over as the new kingpin. They held that spot for two weeks, posting series wins against two ranked opponents in Alabama and Georgia before losing to LSU and slipping out of their spot. After another series loss to Ole Miss this weekend, A&M fell to No. 5 in the rankings.

After the Aggies fell, Tennessee picked up the mantle as top dog after building an impressive resume over the past two months. After falling to Alabama in the first weekend of SEC play, the Volunteers have won eight straight conference series, including wins over Kentucky and Georgia. As the most popular team in the country, the Vols certainly deserve that spot.

The top three is quite easy for voters. Tennessee defeated Kentucky and Kentucky defeated Arkansas. There are your top three, in that order. None of these heavyweights have been able to hold the No. 1 ranking for very long, so it will be interesting to see how the Volunteers perform in their regular season finale against South Carolina.

Team SEC record Last series
1. Kentucky 20-7 vs. Vanderbilt
t-2. Arkansas 19-8 at Texas A&M
t-2. Tennessee 19-8 vs. South Carolina
4. Texas A&M 17-10 vs. Arkansas
5. Georgia 11/16 vs. Florida
6. Mississippi State 15-12 vs. Missouri
7. South Carolina 13-14 near Tennessee
Top half of the SEC standings, as of May 14.

Arkansas avoids the curse

What you won’t find amid all these ranking reshuffles is Arkansas fans clamoring for the Hogs to be at the top. After all, it’s crunch time. Only three regular season games and the SEC Tournament stand between now and Selection Sunday, and very recent history has informed Razorback fans exactly where they not wants to be when the postseason starts.

As most everyone knows, Arkansas has quite a bit of experience with the No. 1 ranking from the 2021 season, when it won every SEC series en route to the regular-season title — in addition to taking home the trophy in Hoover. The Razorbacks were the undisputed top dog – or Hog, in this case – heading into the postseason. However, after winning the regional, Arkansas fell frustratingly short, just one game shy of Omaha, losing to NC State in the Fayetteville Super Regional.

But the Hogs are far from alone in their heartbreak here. As most college baseball fans know well, no No. 1 seed has won the national title since Miami did so in 1999. That’s 25 years’ worth of fans going into the postseason thinking, ‘Nobody’s going to beat this this team,” causing them to fall short.

It has led to a collective belief in the college baseball world that the No. 1 seed is cursed. No one knows how it came about, or why these top teams always end up getting eliminated, but it happens – and in America’s most superstitious sport, that’s enough.

Fortunately, Arkansas appears to be in the perfect spot this season with its current positioning. Because Texas A&M is a top-five opponent and the series is on the road, it’s unlikely the polls would punish the Hogs too much even if they are defeated in College Station.

Next up is the SEC tournament, a competition in which Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn has historically been indifferent to how his team is doing. The selection committee also generally attaches much more value to the regular season than to the conference tournaments.

If all goes according to plan, the Razorbacks will remain in the top eight and earn the right to play host all the way to Omaha – while also leaving the burden of the No. 1 spot on one of their SEC foes.

Tennessee a known enemy for Arkansas

The current top dog of the rankings world also knows the curse of the 1st seed all too well, as the Volunteers put together a historic regular season in 2022. Tennessee finished with an eye-popping 52-9 record, but was eliminated by Notre Dame in the Knoxville Super Regional.

After all the blowout from Tennessee fans after the Kevin Kopps-led Razorbacks fell short in 2021, it was certainly vindicating for Arkansas fans to see the Vols suffer the same fate the following year.

Given his history with Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello, Van Horn probably also watched the Fighting Irish’s dogpile at Lindsey Nelson Stadium with a grin on his face.

Once revered in Fayetteville for his time as an assistant coach under Van Horn, Vitello has become the most villainous figure in college baseball to Razorback fans after moving to Knoxville to run his own program.

Although the Vols enjoyed some success in the 1990s and early 2000s, the program had been a bit of a bottom feeder in the fifteen years before Vitello took over. Now in his seventh season as head coach, he has engineered a complete transformation and turned Tennessee into a consistent contender with two SEC titles, an SEC tournament triumph and two Omaha appearances under his belt.

That success has led to the Volunteers having a number of high-stakes matchups with Van Horn and Arkansas. Faced with his former boss and a much more established national name, Vitello has entered these matches with emotions running high. The same can be said for the Head Hog, who certainly had enough extra motivation to win to protect his personal and program reputation from his student.

The pair found themselves in a pretty nasty postgame in 2021 after the Razorbacks emerged victorious over Tennessee in a series in Knoxville. Vitello’s cheerful personality and his team’s penchant for over-the-top celebrations have drawn the ire of both Van Horn and the Razorback fanbase.

Just two old friends saying, “Good game,” and obviously talking about the weather.

The rocky relationship between Vitello, Arkansas and Arkansas baseball fans will surely come back when the time comes to find a successor to Van Horn. At 63 years old, he is approaching retirement age for many coaches, but that is a conversation for another day.

Both fan bases are likely hoping for the chance to see the Hogs and Vols face each other in Hoover. Who knows what will happen before Selection Monday. Tennessee and Arkansas have both had their fair share of heartbreak as the No. 1 team.

Perhaps it’s only fair that it’s Kentucky’s turn to bear the curse of the top seed this time.

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Vitello discusses post-game metabolism in 2021.

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Highlights from the Arkansas vs. Mississippi State rubber match last weekend.

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More coverage of Arkansas baseball and BoAS’s Tony Vitello beef…