Familiarity breeds respect more so than contempt for the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Ole Miss Rebels who will meet for at least the sixth and seventh and possibly an eighth time this weekend in the Fayetteville Super Regional at Baum-Walker Park.
The first game of the best-of-three series to determine which squad will join the eight-team field at the College World Series on June 15 at Omaha, Neb. is set for 11 a.m. Saturday and will be televised by ESPN. Sunday’s second game is scheduled at 2 p.m. on ESPNU, and if a third game is necessary, first pitch will be at 3 p.m. Monday on ESPN2.
2019 NCAA Fayetteville Super Regional
Who: Arkansas vs. Ole Miss
When: June 8 at 11 a.m. / June 9 at 2 p.m. / June 10 at 3 p.m. (if necessary)
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
Watch: ESPN / ESPNU / ESPN2
The Hogs (44-17) and Rebels (40-25) know each other about as well as any two squads can after playing a three-game series at Baum-Walker Stadium March 29-31, which Ole Miss won by winning back-to-back games 4-3 and 10-5 after the Razorbacks took the opener, 5-3.
Just two weeks ago, they split two games in the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. with Arkansas 5-3 in the winner’s bracket, but Ole Miss taking a 3-1 decision in the loser’s bracket two days later.
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco and Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn know each other and each other’s teams so well that they could probably swap squads and beat most of the teams in the nation.
Yeah, but only a little bit.
There are no secrets between these squads, and it will be hard for one team to surprise the other.
All the analytics and every eye test available informs that this series ought to be fantastic series, and it could turn on a key play or mistake at any point.
However, as a fan, the match-up did not thrill me when the NCAA announced its 64-team bracket back on Memorial Day. Like every fan, I just assumed the nationally fifth-seeded Razorbacks would win the Fayetteville Regional — which the Hogs did in the minimum three games — so I instantly looked to see whom the Hogs would likely be paired against in the Super Regional.
I saw 12th-seeded Ole Miss, and just thought “ugh.”
One of the may reasons baseball fans look forward to the NCAA Tournament is to see how “their team” stacks up against the rest of the nation. I’m no different, and most Hog fans aren’t either. I was really hoping that a Pac-12 or ACC squad would be paired against the Razorbacks, even a Big 12 squad would be interesting. My dream opponent, of course, was Oregon State.
But, another SEC squad, and of all teams, Ole Miss?
Like I said, “ugh.”
Though neither would admit it, I doubt Van Horn or Bianco were jumping for joy either.
So, like every good fan I automatically jumped to the conclusion that the NCAA was out to get the Hogs, the SEC, and even the Rebels.
I just assumed the NCAA pitted the Razorbacks against the Rebels out of spite, and if not that as a plan to thin the SEC herd before getting to the College World Series.
Quickly — and I mean in seconds — I already thought about demographics, market share and such with the two teams being from such sparsely populated states and what that would mean for TV ratings. It made me think how ESPN has too much sway on the NCAA, and TV just ruins everything.
It’s amazing how quickly a conspiratorial mind can snap to a conclusion before even looking at the evidence.
Then I began to scan the bracket to see how many of the seeded SEC teams were bracketed against each other and found that Arkansas and Ole Miss were the only ones.
So, I had to tamp down my righteous anger at the NCAA and ESPN and concede that there was no conspiracy at work here. If thinning the SEC herd was the goal, then as many as four SEC teams would have been bracketed against each other in the Super Regional level instead of just two.
Just as the NCAA representative said on the selection show, such a matchup was just a quirk of the seeding. It’s the same for Big 12 squads Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, who are playing each other in the Lubbock Super Regional.
So thinking more clearly with the fan rage locked away in my mental dungeon, I began to warm up to this matchup and even get excited about it. I mean how can you not be excited about a Super Regional at Baum Stadium? The atmosphere is going to be off the charts.
The series does give the Razorbacks the chance to prove when it’s all on the line that they are better than Ole Miss, and that the Hogs’ unfinished business is just a bit more important than the Rebels’.
Both squads exited postseason play earlier than they wanted last year. Ole Miss didn’t even make it out of their home Regional when home-run belting Tennessee Tech upended the Rebs two games in a row to take the regional.
Of course, the Hogs’ heartbreak was even greater. Three veteran Razorbacks misplayed a pop-up in foul territory last year to let a College World Series title slip through their gloves. Arkansas had other chances in that game and even had another game that they could have secured the title in, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
One of the two programs’ business will continue after this weekend in the College World Series, while the other’s national title hopes will burst.
Both squads have already had fine seasons, but this best-of-three series will go a long way in defining the team that each program had this season.
Ole Miss got the monkey off their backs last week by advancing out of their own Regional, but for the Razorbacks, getting back to the College World Series to take another shot at that oh so elusive national title is the benchmark. Fans feel the same way.
Anything less than a return to the College World Series will be a disappointment.
And Ole Miss is standing right in the way with dreams of their own.
While I would still rather the Razorbacks have a more exotic opponent for this weekend, the truth is if Arkansas does advance to the College World Series over Ole Miss, it will be a grand victory over a program that has had Arkansas’ number recently.
Every Razorback from Van Horn down to Arkansas’ most casual fan would take great satisfaction in an Arkansas victory over the Rebels.
It would be a fine accomplishment that could set the tone for a national title run.