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FAYETTEVILLE — A two-game lead in the SEC West and unanimously top-five ranking in the polls with two weeks left in the regular season is usually enough to be safely considered a top-eight seed.
Arkansas is currently projected in that range by Baseball America and D1Baseball, but its position is far from secure — greatly thanks to its No. 19 RPI ranking. That is equal to Tulane’s RPI in 2001, when it was the lowest-ranked team to earn a top-eight seed in the current NCAA Tournament format.
Over the past decade, the worst team to land in the top eight in terms of the RPI was Texas Tech in 2016, which was the 5 seed despite being No. 14 in the RPI.
While fans, bracketologists and media pour over those historical data points, head coach Dave Van Horn said he wasn’t too worried about it ahead of this weekend’s series against Vanderbilt.
“I can’t do anything about it, so I’m not super concerned about it,” Van Horn said. “I know we’re going to play in a regional. If we play here, that’s awesome. If we don’t, we’ll go play where they tell us to play.”
The reason the Razorbacks find themselves in this position is significantly due to its schedule. They are 36-12 overall and 16-8 in SEC play, which isn’t far off from their 37-9 and 17-7 marks when they were No. 1 in the RPI at this point last season, but the schedule has been far from equal.
Arkansas has the 67th-toughest schedule in the country, but its non-conference slate is No. 247 in strength of schedule. Last year, it was No. 1 in overall strength of schedule and 66th in non-conference strength of schedule.
Just one of the Razorbacks’ non-conference foes has a top-50 RPI (Stanford, No. 21), with only two others — Louisiana-Lafayette (No. 55) and Missouri State (No. 92) — being in the top 100. They went 1-2 against those opponents.
Stanford and Louisiana-Lafayette are the only non-conference opponents on Arkansas’ schedule this year that currently have a winning overall record.
“It’s interesting, there was a couple of RPI games that we didn’t win, probably Stanford was one of them, but some of the teams we played, they haven’t won enough games,” Van Horn said. “We thought Illinois State was going to have a really good year and so did they — it’s just been okay.
“Now, we’ve got a couple other teams we’ve played and beaten that are right around .500. If they can get over .500, that’s going to push our RPI up.”
In the RPI, which factors in the strength of your opponents and isn’t based solely on your own wins and losses, beating up on bad teams can actually have a worse impact on your ranking than losses to high-quality opponents.
Texas A&M actually just a midweek matchup with Incarnate Word solely because the Cardinals are No. 192 in the RPI and the Aggies are viing for a top-16 seed.
Arkansas has played 10 games against opponents outside of the top 200 in the RPI and had two others canceled because of bad weather. That includes two matchups apiece with the four in-state schools, with one of the Little Rock games being canceled.
Van Horn had long been in favor of loosening the UA’s long-standing policy against playing the likes of Little Rock, Arkansas State, Central Arkansas and Arkansas-Pine Bluff because of the ease at which they can be scheduled, but this year might lead to him adjusting his scheduling philosophy in the future.
“Going forward, as far as scheduling, we’re still going to play certain teams, but maybe we don’t play them twice in a year,” Van Horn said. “You’ve got to find some people to come play you in April here, or you have to go on the road between SEC games, which is tough. Most teams in our league don’t travel too much in April.”
The Razorbacks also haven’t been helped by their SEC schedule. They the top two teams in the East — Tennessee and Georgia — while getting to open the year against Missouri and Kentucky. Usual SEC West powers Ole Miss and Mississippi State have quarreled this year, as well.
“The schedule is what it is,” Van Horn said. “Last year, we didn’t play those guys. We played all the first place teams and we beat them all, so it’s just the way it is. Whoever they put in front of you is who you’ve got to beat that weekend. That’s the way I look at it.
“As a team or coaches, if you start looking at your opponent by the number it says by their name or in the standings, you’re going to get beat. I truly believe that.”
Lucky for Arkansas, it still has several opportunities to boost its RPI into a more comfortable range to secure a top-eight seed and potential home field advantage all the way to the College World Series.
The Commodores come to Fayetteville this weekend with a No. 5 ranking in the RPI. Next week, the Razorbacks will end the regular season with a road series at Alabama, which is No. 50, before heading to the SEC Tournament.
Van Horn said he’s stressing to his team the importance of just focusing on the game at hand and the fact that the RPI and seeding will take care of itself if they keep winning — but there’s still things at stake in these two final series.
“I told the team we still have a lot of work to do,” Van Horn said. “I told them yesterday that this should be the fun time of year. You’re finished up with finals, you can really concentrate on just playing baseball and you’ve won enough games to take a little pressure off everybody, but there’s still a lot to play for. It starts Friday night.”
First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 pm CT Friday and the game will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.