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Diamond Hogs Notebook: SEC schedule, preseason rankings, more

Christian Franklin and the Razorbacks are once again a preseason top-25 team in 2021.
Christian Franklin and the Razorbacks are once again a preseason top-25 team in 2021. (Arkansas Athletics)

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The SEC is reportedly expected to stick with a normal schedule for the 2021 baseball season.

After rumblings of changing the format, the conference is going with the status quo: 10 conference weekends of three-game series with a normal non-conference slate, according to Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill.

The plan is still pending approval by the SEC’s athletics directors, per Cahill, but it would end an offseason of speculation that included potentially adding conference weekends, playing four-game series and eliminating midweek non-conference games.

As recently as last week, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said the SEC was leaning toward playing four-game series with regular 9-inning games on Friday and Sunday sandwiched around a 7-inning doubleheader on Saturday. That would mean playing 40 SEC games and 16 non-conference games.

Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn seemed to think it was heading that way when he met with the media back in November.

“We want to probably control our schedule a little bit,” Van Horn said. “If we knew that we were going to play and people weren’t going to cancel games or were going to be able to afford to test their student-athletes before they came to our campus, I’d feel like we’d play the schedule that we already have in place.

“But if we don’t feel confident with that, I think you might see where we’re playing more conference games where we can control what’s up.”

Playing a regular schedule with three-game series and 26 out-of-conference games is likely ideal for the Razorbacks and the rest of the SEC, although getting in non-conference matchups could prove difficult while adhering to COVID-19 protocols, as seen in college basketball.

With the season just over a month away, only a handful of games on Arkansas’ schedule are currently known.

Opening Day is scheduled for Feb. 19 and Van Horn previously announced the Razorbacks would begin the season in a tournament played at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

It will essentially be a Big 12/SEC Challenge, with Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss set to face TCU, Texas and Texas Tech. No details have been released for the tournament, but it would appear to still be on the table because the Big 12 plans to allow non-conference games, according to D1Baseball’s Kendall Rogers.

The only other known games on Arkansas’ schedule are a midweek home game against Abilene Christian on March 10 and three-game road series at Louisiana Tech from March 12-14. They were revealed in schedule releases by those respective schools.

Van Horn has also said he expects the Razorbacks to play the same SEC opponents that were on their 2020 schedule, but not necessarily in the same order as it was originally laid out. That includes home series against Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M, Auburn and Georgia, and road series against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Preseason Rankings

HawgBeat still plans to compile its usual Composite Poll - which combines all of the major polls into one ranking - this season, but it is still waiting on several of them to release their preseason top 25.

A couple of them have come out, though. Arkansas is No. 20 in Perfect Game’s preseason rankings and No. 22 by Collegiate Baseball.

Those are relatively low compared to recent seasons. The Razorbacks were tied for sixth in last year’s preseason Composite Poll, 16th before the 2019 season and fifth before the 2018 season.

Baseball America is one of the publications that has yet to release its preseason poll, but it did publish a “Never Too Early” top 25 last summer that featured Arkansas at No. 10.

The SEC is once again loaded, with Perfect Game and Collegiate Baseball each featuring eight teams from the conference inside their top 25. Florida is No. 1 in both polls, while Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, LSU, Mississippi State and Georgia are also consensus top-25 teams.

The eighth SEC team in Perfect Game’s poll is Auburn, while Collegiate Baseball included South Carolina.

The other polls that will be included in HawgBeat’s Composite Poll are the USA Today Coaches Poll, D1Baseball, Baseball America and NCBWA.

Franklin Tabbed Preseason All-American

In addition to releasing its preseason top-25 poll this week, Perfect Game also revealed its preseason All-America teams.

Arkansas outfielder Christian Franklin was one of seven SEC players tabbed to the first team. He is coming off a shorted 2020 season in which he hit .381/.467/.619 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in 16 games.

He is joined on the first team by Florida outfielder Jud Fabian, Kentucky designated hitter TJ Collett, a trio of starting pitchers in Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker, Alabama’s Connor Prielipp and Ole Miss’ Doug Nikhazy, and LSU reliever Jaden Hill.

Collegiate Baseball did not include Franklin on any of its three preseason All-America teams, but it did illustrate how deep the SEC’s pitching will be in 2021 by having five of its six preseason All-American pitchers from the conference: Rocker, Prielipp, Hill, Florida’s Tommy Mace and Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter.

Pro Hogs Update

Ryne Stanek is on the move once again. The former Arkansas standout signed with the Houston Astros on Thursday, agreeing to a one-year deal worth $1.1 million, according to MLB.com.

It will be Stanek’s third team in as many years. After a successful stint with the Tampa Bay Rays, the team that made him a first-round pick in 2013, he was traded to the Miami Marlins during the 2019 season.

COVID-19 limited him to only 10 innings across nine appearances for the Marlins during the shortened 2020 season, after which he entered free agency.

Another former Arkansas great changed teams through free agency last month, as catcher James McCann signed with the New York Mets. He agreed to a four-year deal worth $40.6 million.