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Off The Bat: Arkansas, Vanderbilt Separate From The Pack

Arkansas, Vanderbilt Separate From The Pack

Ten weeks into the season, Arkansas and Vanderbilt have made it clear: they are the best two teams in the country.

Both the Razorbacks and Commodores this weekend added marque series to their resumes—Arkansas at South Carolina and Vanderbilt at Mississippi State.

The Razorbacks’ latest triumph away from Baum-Walker Stadium—they are 12-3 in those games, all of which have come against teams currently ranked in the top 20—came and went in a hurry. Their series was scheduled to run Thursday through Saturday, but poor weather Saturday in South Carolina led the teams to move the finale to a Friday doubleheader.

Arkansas (32-7, 13-5) on Friday night wrapped up its series win, while most teams were just getting their weekend started, and got to enjoy a rare weekend off.

“I’m going to mow some,” Van Horn said Friday. “As for the guys, I imagine they’re going to enjoy every minute of this. Hopefully, they’ll get some rest.”

Vanderbilt, meanwhile, fought to the end of the weekend with Mississippi State. Righthander Kumar Rocker on Friday night was excellent, throwing his first complete game of the season in a victory. The Bulldogs bounced back Saturday to beat righthander Jack Leiter, setting up a rubber game Sunday. Mississippi State jumped out to an early 4-0 lead in that game, but Vanderbilt scored seven unanswered runs for a 7-4 victory to clinch the series.

Vanderbilt (31-7, 13-5) has won back-to-back series against Tennessee and Mississippi State, both top-10 teams, after getting upset at home by Georgia. Coach Tim Corbin said sometimes in order to make the necessary developments as a player or team, you have to suffer a setback, as the Commodores did a few weeks ago.

“We’ve got a lot of maturing to do,” he said. “We’re not close to who we think we can be. I know that. I see what I see. The coaches see what they see. The players understand that, too. They know they’re gritty, play tough, compete. Any time you do that, you build some fibers in your team, some personality traits. Sometimes in order to do that you need to lose.”

As well as they’ve played so far this season, neither Arkansas nor Vanderbilt is a finished product. Both teams are still figuring out some roles on the pitching staff and have several players who are just a little more than halfway through their first SEC season.

Yet the Razorbacks and Commodores are leading their respective divisions in the SEC and have already beaten nearly every contender in the league. They are tracking toward the top two overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament, giving them home-field advantage until the College World Series.

Arkansas ranks first in the SEC in scoring (8.18 runs per game) and fielding (.980). Vanderbilt ranks first in the SEC in ERA (2.89). Neither team is lacking for star power. Arkansas’ Matt Goodheart, Kevin Kopps, Brady Slavens, Cayden Wallace and Patrick Wicklander and Vanderbilt’s Enrique Bradfield, Jack Leiter, Dominic Keegan, Kumar Rocker and CJ Rodriguez, to name a few, are all All-American candidates.

While Arkansas undoubtably has the better resume—it hasn’t lost a series and no team has more wins against Top 25 teams—picking the better team or the team most likely to win the national championship may come down to personal preference and philosophy.

Arkansas doesn’t have a dominant rotation but has impressive depth on the mound and in the lineup. Kopps (6-0, 0.97, 5 SV) may be the best reliever in the country, while Wicklander (2-1, 2.20), Peyton Pallette (1-2, 3.98) and Zebulon Vermillion (2-0, 4.11) have worked effectively in a variety of roles. The Razorbacks lead the nation in home runs (74) and everyone in the lineup can run the ball out of the park, while also providing dynamism and athleticism.

Vanderbilt is more classically built with Rocker (9-1, 1.55) and Leiter (7-1, 1.49), co-aces and likely top-five draft picks, leading the pitching staff and a young, exciting offense headlined by Bradfield (.335/.460/.392, 30 SB), the fastest player in the country, and Keegan (.373/.453/.669, 7 HR) and Rodriguez (.326/.488/.500).

There’s a lot of baseball to be played this season and a long way to go before the College World Series. But it would be hard for either Arkansas or Vanderbilt to have played better over the season’s first 10 weeks.

Unfortunately, the Razorbacks and Commodores are not scheduled to play each other during the regular season. As much fun as such a series would be, good things come to those who wait and a showdown in the SEC Tournament or, better yet, the College World Series finals would be spectacular.

What Other Teams Have Emerged As Title Contenders?

If it’s Arkansas and Vanderbilt and then everyone else, who is the best of the rest? Which other teams can seriously contend for the national championship?

The next tier of teams is a large one. After Arkansas and Vanderbilt, a case could be made for at least a dozen teams to dogpile in Omaha. We’re going to zero in on 10 here, divided into two groups—the battle tested and the newcomers. While teams without a lot of Omaha experience have had recent success in the CWS—see 2016 Coastal Carolina and 2019 Michigan—it is more common that teams need to walk before they run on college baseball’s biggest stage.

The battle tested

Louisville (23-11, 14-6): The Cardinals are in a familiar position atop the ACC standings, a position they might have been able to further consolidate if not having had four conference games canceled (one at Notre Dame and three against Pittsburgh). They haven’t been fully healthy much of the season and if they’re able to get some of their key pieces back down the stretch, such as Opening Day starter Glenn Albanese, they could take a step or two forward in the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi State (29-10, 11-7): The Bulldogs are 3-6 against current top-15 teams and 26-4 against the rest of their schedule (which does include a series win against No. 17 Mississippi). It's an impressive team with a strong, veteran core in its lineup and a deep, powerful pitching staff. But it'll have to learn how to consistently beat the best in the nation to break through in Omaha.

Texas (33-9, 12-3): The Longhorns are tied for first place in the Big 12 and are 33-6 since their forgettable Opening Weekend performance in the State Farm Showdown in Arlington. They are led by a stout pitching staff and ace Ty Madden. The drawback is a familiar one for Texas: it does not have an elite offense. Even still, this is probably Texas’ best team since 2009, when it lost to Louisiana State in the CWS finals.

Texas Christian (29-10, 12-3): The Horned Frogs aren’t all that different from Mississippi State. They are 2-4 against teams currently ranked in the top 20 (including a win against the Bulldogs) and 27-6 against everyone else. The team has turned over from the last time TCU reached the CWS in 2017, but coach Jim Schlossnagle and his staff know what it takes to get to Omaha. This team can make the trip, but to challenge once it gets there, it'll need to rise to the occasion.

Texas Tech (27-10, 8-7): The Red Raiders certainly know what it takes to get to Omaha—they’ve done that in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments. Whether this team can make that familiar trip will depend on how well it overcomes some key injuries it’s suffered in recent weeks. Texas Tech’s offense can explode at any time, but the Red Raiders are probably a couple pitchers short of a true national title contender this year.

The newcomers

Arizona (27-11, 12-6): The Wildcats stand out for their offense—the most potent in the country. Because they are built to play in the spacious Hi-Corbett Field, that offense should translate to TD Ameritrade Park. The Wildcats last made the NCAA Tournament in 2017, though their whole coaching staff has extensive Omaha experience.

East Carolina (28-7, 10-2): The Pirates are famously trying to break through for the first CWS appearance in program history. They haven’t been tested in the same way the rest of the teams on this list have been—they’ve played just one team currently ranked in the Top 25—but they’ve also done everything asked of them to this point. Still, competing for a national title as an Omaha first timer would be a big challenge.

Notre Dame (20-8, 18-8): While I named the Fighting Irish as my preseason Omaha sleeper, they’ve exceeded even my expectations. They have a deep pitching staff and a lineup that can hurt opponents in multiple ways. Is this the team of destiny or will its lack of postseason experience (it hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2015) eventually cost it?

Oregon (24-9, 10-5): The Ducks have met just about every challenge this season, losing just one series (at Arizona). Oregon stands out on the mound and can pack a punch offensively. But, like Notre Dame, the Ducks haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2015. Will their inexperience catch up to them?

Tennessee (32-9, 12-6): The Volunteers have done just about everything asked of them this season, but this is also a team that’s still growing up. They made regionals in 2019 for the first time since 2005 and this year are learning how to play with greater attention and expectations. How Tennessee handles a stretch run that includes a series against Arkansas and a trip to South Carolina in the final two weeks of the regular season will be telling.

Marcelo Mayer Larrygorenfourseam

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Eight for Omaha

Arizona, Arkansas, Louisville, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Texas, Vanderbilt

I’ve picked this same field for three straight weeks now. I’m not sure, however, that the static nature of this projected College World Series field is representative of where the sport is. Oregon and TCU are certainly on the rise. ECU and South Carolina continue to be in the mix. Florida State, Mississippi and Texas Tech shouldn’t be written off.

All that said, I feel comfortable with this group. If Arizona gets a top-eight seed (and its No. 9 RPI and current first-place standing in the Pac-12 sure make that seem likely right now), it will be an incredibly difficult out. Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have proven themselves on a weekly basis in the SEC. Texas has been consistently excellent since its disappointing Opening Weekend. Notre Dame is the #OmaIrish and has yet to lose a series this season. Louisville may have a confoundingly low RPI, but no one should question its talent or Dan McDonnell’s NCAA Tournament record.

If I had to lock these in as my official Omaha predictions for the rest of the season, I’d happily do it. Fortunately, however, I get to keep making weekly changes from now until regionals begin. We’ll see what kind of twists and turns the final month of the season has in store.

Weekend standouts

Baylor: The Bears this weekend became the first team to win a series against Texas Tech in Lubbock since Texas, led by Kody Clemens, did so in May 2018. They also earned their first road series win against a top-10 team since 2005. Baylor (26-13, 7-8) won in routs both Friday (12-4) and Sunday (13-3), sandwiched around a 4-1 loss. The Bears are now firmly on track for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Dallas Baptist: Facing then-No. 24 Indiana State in a matchup of the top two teams in the Missouri Valley Conference, DBU (22-10, 7-1) won the first three games of a critical four-game series. With Saturday’s doubleheader sweep, the Patriots got off to a 7-0 start in MVC play for the first time ever and have now won eight of their last 11 games against the Sycamores. Even after losing Sunday’s finale, DBU finished the weekend in first place and got a crucial boost to their NCAA Tournament resume.

Illinois: Riley Gowens, Ryan O’Hara and Cole Kirschsieper combined Sunday to throw a no-hitter in a 1-0 victory against Purdue. Gowens threw the first seven innings, striking out six and walking four, before O’Hara and Kirschsieper threw an inning each to complete the 11th no-hitter in program history. Illinois swept Purdue with the victory, but didn’t score the winning run until a squeeze bunt in the ninth inning.

Arlo Marynczak, RHP, Siena: Making his first career start Saturday against St. Peter’s, Marynczak threw a no-hitter in a 14-1 victory, seven-inning victory. He struck out 10 batters, walked one and held the Peacocks to just an unearned run. Marynczak’s gem was just part of an outstanding weekend on the mound for the Saints. Siena held St. Peter’s to two runs (one earned) on 11 hits and 10 walks in 30 innings, while striking out 47 batters.

Rutgers: After losing Friday’s opener in Ann Arbor, the Scarlet Knights bounced back to win the next two games to win a series against Michigan for the first time since joining the Big Ten. Rutgers (14-13) also handed the Wolverines their first series loss of the season. Its reward is a series at No. 24 Nebraska, which leads the Big Ten.

Looking ahead

No. 2 Vanderbilt travels to No. 16 Florida for its latest marquee series. After winning series at Tennessee and against Mississippi State the last two weeks, the Commodores (31-7, 13-5) now take on the Gators (28-12, 11-7), their SEC East rival. It’s a critical weekend for Florida, which needs a series win to bolster its resume to host regionals. The Gators are also trying to stay in the race for the division title and, again, need a series win to do so. The good news for Florida is that it’s 23-5 at home this season, but Vanderbilt will be its toughest challenge yet.

No. 3 Texas hosts No. 13 Texas Tech in another Big 12 showdown. After winning a series at Oklahoma State, Texas (33-9, 12-3) returns home for a top-15 clash. Admittedly, some of the juice was taken out of this series this weekend when Baylor beat Texas Tech. The Big 12 title race has effectively come down to Texas and TCU, who meet in two weeks in Fort Worth. But this weekend still has implications on the hosting race—Tech (27-10, 8-7) could really use a series win to boost its resume—and for Texas it is important to remain in the driver’s seat going into its series at TCU.

No. 19 Charlotte and Old Dominion move their eight-game, home-and-home series to Norfolk. After the 49ers (29-11, 17-3) this weekend took three out of four games at home against the Monarchs (28-10, 14-6), the series now flips locations. The stakes are still the same—first place in Conference USA’s East Division and potentially a chance to host regionals—it’ll just be in a new venue.

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