Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Biletnikoff Award.
Hogs, Commodores in the thick of SEC race
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn watches from the dugout during the Razorbacks' 17-9 loss to Alabama on March 21, 2014 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas and Vanderbilt enter this weekend with 7-8 records in Southeastern Conference games but both are only three games out of first place in the league.
The SEC standings at the midpoint of the conference season are jumbled. Nine teams have a league winning percentage of .500 or below, but only four games separate first place Alabama from a three-way tie for last place between Missouri, Tennessee and Auburn.
"This year you just have teams with outstanding pitching," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "They're running out Friday night arms on Saturdays and Sundays. I'd have to say this is about as close as I've seen it and to me it's because of the pitching."
Six of college baseball's 13 lowest earned run averages this season belong to SEC teams. Arkansas' pitching has been among the league's most dominant, giving the Razorbacks hope they can make a run over the back half of the SEC schedule that includes nine of 15 games at home.
Arkansas (23-15) is undefeated in home conference series against two of the league's top two teams, Alabama and South Carolina, but lost 2-1 in road series at Florida, Mississippi State and LSU. Those outcomes make this weekend's series against Vanderbilt even more important.
The schedule becomes a little easier on paper beginning next week. Arkansas hosts Auburn and Texas A&M, and travels to Ole Miss and Missouri in the final four weeks of the regular season.
"I think there are a lot of coaches that once they get into the league think if they can just stay around .500 they can make a run and win it," Van Horn said. "There may be more coaches than normal thinking that at this point, just trying to survive and get through the weekends."
The free-for-all at the midpoint is a stark difference from this time a year ago when Vanderbilt was in the midst of compiling a 26-3 conference record en route to the regular season championship. Only one other team, LSU, won more than Arkansas' 18 SEC games last season.
"Last year was just kind of a weird year but this is a normal SEC year," Arkansas outfielder Tyler Spoon said. "It's going to come down to the last weekend or two of the year. You've just got to be ready to play and whoever finishes strong is going to win the league."
With so much parity, Van Horn said he can foresee the SEC getting double-digit teams into the NCAA regionals next month.
"If the league stays this way for the rest of the year and teams just keep beating each other, I think it could be a situation where you might end up having 10 teams from this league get into a regional and maybe even 11," Van Horn said. "They are that good this year."