Arguably the SEC’s most highly-anticipated college baseball series of the year begins Friday with the last two league overall and tournament champions set to battle.

No. 5 and 2021 SEC regular season and tournament champion Arkansas (26-7, 8-4) will host No. 16 and 2022 champ Tennessee (23-10, 5-7) at Baum-Walker Stadium Friday night at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

All three games will be televised by the SEC Network with Razorback head coach Dave Van Horn and former 2015-2017 Van Horn assistant and current Vols head coach Tony Vitello matching up.

It is expected to draw the largest Baum-Walker crowds so far this season.

“We haven’t really seen an atmosphere this season at this ballpark that we’ve seen in the past,” Van Horn said. “What I mean by that, the weather hasn’t been great. It was pretty good against Alabama, but it wasn’t real loud, honestly. 

“There were some good ballgames, they were tight, but the fans, they can help us when they’re loud. So I’m sure with the weather being where it is, where we are in league play, I have a feeling this place is going to elevate a little bit.”

Arkansas first baseman Brady Slavens expects the place to be packed and loud.

Yeah, I mean I don’t think we’ve had one of those big-time games (at home) yet,” Slavens said. “Weather’s been kind of cold, but I’m expecting the fans to show out like I’ve seen it before in regional play. I mean I expect it to be very similar to a regional game.”

The two teams did not play in 2022 after matching up four times in 2021 with Arkansas winning two of three in Knoxville and then beating Tennessee in the SEC Championship game in Hoover, Ala. 

“Yeah, they were really good games, all four games,” Slavens said. “They come out with a lot of energy. We don’t do that, we’re going to get beat, so we’re going to have to play our best in order to win, and it’s going to be fun. 

“I mean, you see things on Twitter, you see things on social media, and it excites you. It’s the reason you want to come here and play.”

Arkansas, who might be without injured Jared Wegner due to a thud injury, no longer has anyone that Vitello helped recruit on its roster.

“The familiarity of knowing guys as recruits is completely gone so my familiarity is more with the program,” Vitello said. “It is a lively park with the fans and they are going to have as big a fan base as anybody has. They know the game well and they are going to try and make it tough on the opponent. 

“…No place is going to be the same, but fortunately we have kind of looked at what that’s like in Arizona and  Grand Canyon and Baton Rouge.”

Vitello lauded Van Horn Tuesday night after his Vols beat Eastern Kentucky 14-2 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

“The guy is a winner,” Vitello said of his former boss. “He knows how to manage a game and certainly has an approach that he has got with the pitching staff that he’ll use. So those are consistent. 

“…But this year I think they have a bunch of guys that have waited their time. I know they have lost as many guys as we did, as Mississippi did, but it is not like they are filling in with guys that aren’t any good. 

“Couple of portal guys, one from Kansas himself (Tavian Josenberger) and the one from Creighton (Wegner) is a big old strong guy and they have a couple of lefties on the mound that are really good, too.

“…They are consistently one of the best programs in the league for a reason.”

Arkansas was the nation’s top-ranked team for most of the 2021 season as was Tennessee in 2022, but neither of those made the College World Series in those respective years.

Arkansas lead the SEC Western Division  boy a half-game over LSU while Eastern Division favorite Tennessee is in fifth and six games behind Vanderbilt.

The Volunteers return all three weekend starters from last season in Chase Dollander (4-3, 4.19), Chase Burns (2-3, 6.10) and Drew Beam (4-1, 2.52), but  are switching things up this weekend.

Tennessee has plans to start Charlotte transfer Andrew  Lindsey (0-1, 2.01) on Friday night in his first weekend start against Arkansas lefty Hunter Hollan (5-1, 3.00) with Hagen Smith (5-1, 3.03) ready to relieve ion the first game or start a later one.

Lindsey was 6-2 with Charlotte in 2021 and  did not pitch in 2022.

Dollander is expected to pitch Saturday – the game he pitched in last season while Beam would likely start Sunday although officially neither team has announced starters the final two games.

“Well, they’re very talented,” Van Horn said of the Vols. “Their pitching staff is probably as good as anyone in the league. Their numbers are great. They have three really talented starters with big arms, pro guys that are going to pitch in professional baseball for a long time. Good bullpen, good mix out there.”

Blake Burns (.333, 12 HRs, 31 RBIs) and Christian Moore (.314) are back to lead the Vols offensively.

“They’ve got four or five (position) starters back,” Van Horn added. “They’re solid. They’re like every team in the league, they’re just really good.” 

The availability of Wegner – who is hitting .351 with team highs of 12 home runs and 44 RBIs – will be a decision made on Friday per Van Horn.

“He can grip the bat,” Van Horn said. “If you hurt your top hand thumb, it’s going to affect you more than the bottom hand, I would think, the way we swing a bat. 

“It’s more about the pain and him not thinking about that thumb, so if he shows me tomorrow that he can hit a little bit or Friday, we’ll probably go with him. But we won’t know for a day or two.”

The fact that Wegner is 50-50 per Van Horn is a testament to his toughness per Slavens.

“He’s a tough guy,” Slavens said. “To break your thumb and still have a chance to play is crazy. That just tells you everything you need to know about Jared.”

Josenberger, Arkansas’ lead off hitter, did not plan to talk to is teammates about the Razorbacks’ 11-4 loss to Little Rock on Wednesday,  a day after the Razorbacks routed the Trojans 21-5.

“I don’t think there’s addressing that needed to happen,” Josenberger said. “I think we’re going to put it behind us, especially looking forward to Tennessee this weekend. I think everybody has their eyes on this weekend, and we’re going to bounce back.

“…It’s baseball, I mean it happens. Obviously we wouldn’t like it to happen, but errors come, errors go. I think we’re going to bounce back, we’re going to clean it up and we’ll be ready for this weekend.”

Slavens thinks the loss happened because of a lack of focus.

“I just think looking too far ahead to this weekend instead of coming out and being fully focused today,” Slavens said. “That’s on us, so now that the weekend’s here, we have to be ready to play.”

Josenberger and Tennessee shortstop Maui Ahuna were teammates at Kansas.

“Yeah,  one of my best friends,” Josenbeger said. “It’s my brother. Obviously they want to beat us really bad, we want to beat them really bad, so it’s nothing really different, just competing against your friend. I look at it more I’m playing against Tennessee rather than I’m playing against Maui.”

Photo by John D. James