To call Arkansas the evil nemesis of the South Carolina baseball team might be a bit of an understatement.
The Gamecocks lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in 14 innings the first time the two teams ever played, which occurred in the 1985 College World Series. The programs entered the SEC at the same time, and since that beginning in 1992, the Razorbacks have won 28 of the 47 meetings, the best record against USC by an SEC opponent.
In recent history, Arkansas has won eight of the past nine dating back to the final game of the 2005 series, a stretch that includes a sweep of USC at Baum Stadium in 2008.
So when the Gamecocks return for a three-game set starting tonight with the SEC regular-season title still on the line, they're going to have to battle history along with the Razorbacks.
Junior pitcher and designated hitter Parker Bangs understands the difficulties the Gamecocks have experienced at Baum Stadium, which seats 11,000 pig-calling Arkansas fans, better than anyone. He surrendered a two-out, walk-off grand slam in a 12-11 loss to the Razorbacks in the opening game of that 2008 series.
"There's going to a lot of people. It's kind of a circus down there," Bangs said. "But if we can stay focused, then hopefully we can come away with some wins."
He believes the makeup of this USC team, a veteran group with many different contributors, will help it cope in any tough situations.
"If we're down by 10 or up by 15, we're loose all the time," he said. "And that's great because it's tough to play when you're tight. It makes the game more fun when everybody plays loose. I think we'll be able to handle the situation there."
The conference situation is this: Eighth-ranked USC (38-11, 17-7 SEC) is tied with No. 4 Florida (34-12, 17-7) for the Eastern Division and overall lead, while No. 12 Arkansas (38-11, 16-8), which leads the SEC West, is one game back.
After the trip to Fayetteville, USC returns home to play host next weekend to Florida, which has a home series with last-place Georgia this week. USC coach Ray Tanner realizes his team has a tough assignment, but he wouldn't have it any other way. He doesn't care that others view Florida and Arkansas as the favorites in the chase for the title.
"You get a chance to make a run at it if you can play well enough. If we don't, it's our fault. I like it that way," Tanner said. "We know how good they are. I've had a lot of coaches tell me that Arkansas is very, very good. Then they play Florida, and they go, 'Florida is very, very good.' Nobody has told me, 'You're very, very good.' You just go play. It's baseball. You never know what's going to happen."
The players aren't daunted by what's in front of them either. Senior first baseman Nick Ebert, who hit home runs against Wofford and Charleston Southern in midweek games, likes where the Gamecocks sit.
"We're in great position. What we do the next two weekends is in our hands. We can control what happens in the SEC," he said.
The Razorbacks sport big-name stars like Zack Cox (.446 BA, eight HRs, 46 RBIs), Brett Eibner (.333, 17 HRs, 58 RBIs) and Drew Smyly (8-0, 2.26 ERA), while the Gamecocks counter with Whit Merrifield (.327, 10 HRs, 30 RBIs), Jackie Bradley (.352, eight HRs, 36 RBIs), and Blake Cooper (9-0, 3.05 ERA).
"They're good every year. They've got some good arms, good bats. We're up for the challenge," Ebert said. "We've got good arms and good bats, too, so it's going to be a heck of a series for us."
Tanner said there have been variables when it comes to USC's struggles at Baum Stadium. Some years the weather played a factor, as did the old turf field the ballpark used to have. But there has been one constant.
"They're very good. That has a lot more to do with it than everything else," he said.
Despite losing their first SEC series last weekend at Kentucky, the Gamecocks remain confident about the quality of a team that won its first seven conference series, including road wins against Auburn and Vanderbilt.
"We already know how good this team is, and hopefully we can carry that on deep into the playoffs," Bangs said.
Tanner isn't quite ready, however, to start looking at things like conference championships, national seeds and the NCAA tournament. He would prefer to stay focused on the task at hand.
"I've thought about it, but then you get ahead of yourself," he said. "We're just going to try to figure out how to win from inning to inning on Friday night."
Against the longtime nemesis, he knows it will not be easy.