Matt Ryerson-US PRESSWIRE
After an up-and-down regular season, Arkansas pitched its way into contention for the national championship in 2012. This year brings another chance to seal the deal
Last Year: Arkansas rang up a 20-2 record over the first month of the season, including a sweep of Alabama to kick off the year in the SEC. Then, things got a little more uneven; the Razorbacks would go 26-20 starting with the March 23 loss at Mississippi State and finish just two games above .500 in the SEC before going two-and-out in the conference tournament. But the Hogs had better look in the NCAA tournament, getting all the way to Omaha and winning their first two games there before the, um, controversial losses to South Carolina that ended the season.
What's Changed: The offense. Three of the four members of the lineup to start more than 50 games in 2012 are gone, including Matt Reynolds (.323/.427/.498), Tim Carver (.299/.341/.379) and Bo Bigham (.269/.318/,329). The pitching staff that helped Arkansas get as far as it did last year largely remains intact, though D.J. Baxendale, who started a team-high 20 games and threw a team-high 107 innings in 2012, is gone.
What's the Same: Almost anyone who took the mound last year. Ryne Stanek leads the way; he started more games (17) and pitched more innings (92.2) than anyone outside of Baxendale in 2012. Arkansas loses only one pitcher except for Baxendale who threw more than eight innings (Nolan Sanburn, 40.2 innings, 2.43 ERA). The question will be whether the pitching staff can stay as hot as it was during the NCAA tournament, when it gave up more than three runs in just three of its 10 games, threw two shutouts and held the opponent to one run three more times.
The Schedule: Arkansas faces New Mexico twcie and Oklahoma once during the regular season; both are ranked preseason by Baseball America. There's also a two-game set with Nebraska and a couple of contests against Arizona State. The cross-division draw is pretty tough, with trips to South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky alongside the one relatively easy series (home against Tennessee). But the flipside of that is that the division runs through Fayetteville, with both Mississippi teams, LSU and Texas A&M all facing Arkansas in Baum Stadium. The only SEC West teams that will host Arkansas are Alabama and Auburn.
Prognosis: I'm not quite sure I'm ready to buy this team as the No. 1 team in the country just yet, but Arkansas should be very good and a contender for the regular-season crown in the SEC. (Anything can and usually does happen once the conference tournament comes around.) The issue for the Hogs is going to be the draw against the SEC East, but it could have been worse -- there's no Florida -- and if they can hold serve there and use the homefield advantage in the SEC West, it could be a special year for Arkansas. Just how special remains to be seen.