Beginning on Friday night at 6:30 pm, Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville will be rocking. The fourth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers will be playing host to the first-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks. The three-game weekend set should include a lot of fun and excitement between two of the top teams in college baseball. In the fall, there was talk about how Tennessee was becoming a basketball school. Turns out, it’s a baseball school. Here’s your primer on what to look for this weekend.
Arkansas comes into the series with a 37-9 record overall and a 17-7 in-conference mark, while Tennessee comes in with a 38-11 overall tally and a 17-7 record in-conference. While the race for the conference isn’t contained to these two clubs (Vanderbilt is 16-7, Mississippi State is 16-8), you should expect this series to go a long way in determining who the ultimate victor will be in the SEC. This series could very well decide the fate of the SEC champion.
Tennessee is playing for its best record since 2005 when the club went 46-21 overall (but 18-11 in-conference). Counting potential postseason wins — and assuming the Vols win at least a few games before the regular season ends — Tennessee has an excellent opportunity to eclipse totals from that 2005 season. Moreover, this club has a chance to surpass win totals from the mid-90s. More than that, Tennessee’s conference record stands to chase down those lofty totals of the mid-90s when the Vols were able to win more than 20 conference matchups (24 was the all-time high coming in 1994).
Much was made about Vanderbilt’s starting pitchers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter — and rightfully so — coming into the series against the Commodores earlier in the year, but Kevin Kopps has been an excellent arm out of the Razorbacks’ bullpen this season. While Kopps isn’t gaining much national attention — even being omitted from Keith Law’s Top 100 MLB Draft prospects (probably for his role as reliever) — the fourth year pitcher has posted a 0.73 ERA through 49.2 innings pitched, which is the lowest mark in the nation, racking up seven wins over that time period. He’s also struck out 83 hitters versus only walking 13 adversaries. If the Vols are to have success this weekend, they might need to get to Arkansas pitching before Kopps makes an appearance.
Russell currently leads the Vols in home runs with 12, tying him for 34th in the nation. The senior out of Lexington, Tennessee, is only batting .244 this season, but he’s come in clutch for Tennessee throughout some of their biggest games this year. On March 27, Russell muscled three home runs against LSU in a Tennessee victory. On April 17, Russell connected for three home runs against Vanderbilt, one of which was a grand slam and would be the deciding factor in the game. To get the Vols in the win column, my money’s on Russell sending another ball over the fence this weekend — at least once.
By WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched), Tennessee is the ninth best team in the nation with a 1.19 mark, sandwiched between Indiana and conference foe Mississippi State. From a pitching and defensive standpoint, it’s obviously the case that the fewer opponents that reach base, the better. The Vols have excelled at limiting base runners, both via base hits and walks. Arkansas, however, excels at drawing walks (271), ranked third in the nation in base on ball totals, trailing Tennessee (274). The Razorbacks are going to be tough at the plate and will surely work the count. Tennessee pitching will have its hands full, but overall this matchup, in some ways, benefits the Vols more than the Vanderbilt series.