Over the weekend, the fourth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers played host to the first-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks. While much fanfare surrounded the series against in-state rival Vanderbilt, this series was arguably more important, with potential conference title and seeding ramifications on the line.
After mulling it over, here are my top five takeaways from the Arkansas series.
This team is close
We saw just how competitive Tennessee is. While the series against the Commodores ultimately left something to be desired, this series was full of back-and-forth, quality baseball. Although the series being at home likely gives Tennessee some sort of home-field advantage, taking an Arkansas team to the brink bodes well for the Vols moving forward.
It’s still difficult to project with any certainty which team (of four) will hold out and ultimately win the conference, but it’s still anybody’s game, including Tennessee.
Trouble holding the lead
In all three games, Tennessee found itself with the lead early on. In game one, the Vols scored a quick five runs, thanks mostly to a Jordan Beck home run, but that 5-0 advantage slowly melted away as the game progressed. Tennessee wouldn’t score again and the Razorbacks would chip away until they emerged with a 6-5 victory in Knoxville, scoring runs in the second, third, fifth, and eighth innings.
In game two, Tennessee jumped out to a 3-0 lead by the end of the fourth inning, but again, Arkansas would insert itself back into the picture. Ultimately trailing 7-5 in the ninth inning, the Vols needed Max Ferguson’s heroics to claim a win Saturday afternoon.
As great as that win was for the drama of it all, I’m certain the Vols would like to have the game well in hand a bit earlier, particularly after taking the lead early on. To be competitive with the other top teams in the NCAA Tournament, this is a deficiency the club will need to correct.
In game three, Tennessee scored first in the fifth inning, but the Razorbacks plated runs in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings to secure a victory.
Can’t keep Tennessee down forever
With all that said, Arkansas couldn’t keep Tennessee down. After squandering a lead in both games, the easy thing for a team to do would be give up — not so with this squad. Instead of capitulating to the demands of a talented Razorbacks’ club, the Volunteers rose to the challenge, exacting revenge in game two before moving to the rubber match Sunday afternoon. Despite losing two out of three — by one run, I should add — the fight present in this club is something that’s often been missing around other Tennessee athletics as of late. It’s nice to see a team that has the fans’ backs as much as the other way around.
Home run is king
Through the first two games, there were eight home runs hit by these two teams (it was a four-four split). Arkansas came into the series second in the NCAA for total home runs, while Tennessee came in ranked 11th. The fireworks were fast-and-furious, with the Razorbacks seemingly mounting their comebacks with long balls. Tennessee responded in equal measure, staying toe-to-toe with a powerful Arkansas team.
What this series suggests about the NCAA Tournament
More than anything, this year’s champion is going to be whichever SEC team can fight its way through another SEC team. While quality competition can be found in other conferences, there hasn’t been anything like that of the SEC thus far. Remember how lauded SEC football was for a time, but how that narrative has tapered off slightly in recent years? SEC baseball is what SEC football was a few years ago.
When a conference is this high quality, you sometimes have to wonder if the rigors of their schedules will impede their ability to make it through to the championship. That doesn’t appear to be a problem with any of these clubs, whether it’s Arkansas, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, or Mississippi State.
After all the struggles Tennessee fans have faced in all sports over the years, it’s the baseball team which has an opportunity to do something special. While the football program derailed this past year — and basketball was far from the competitive entity we expected it to be — the baseball team has been getting it done night-in and night-out for the last three months. It should be a wild ride in the tournament.