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Tide in the hunt for SEC Championship

NASHVILLE TN - FEBRUARY 10:  Tony Mitchell #5 of the Alabama Crimson Tide drives in for a dunk against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Memorial Gym on February 10 2011 in Nashville Tennessee. Vanderbilt won 81-77. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE TN - FEBRUARY 10: Tony Mitchell #5 of the Alabama Crimson Tide drives in for a dunk against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Memorial Gym on February 10 2011 in Nashville Tennessee. Vanderbilt won 81-77. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Unlike football, which has a championship game, the championship of the SEC in basketball is awarded to the team, or occasionally teams, with the best regular season record in the conference (this was the way football championships were awarded for the first 60 years of the conference as well). There is of course the SEC Tournament at the end of every season, but the SEC Tournament winner is merely awarded the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, not the actual conference championship.

It has been nine years since the Crimson Tide basketball team was last crowned SEC Champions. That 2002 title ended what had previously been a 15-year dry-spell since Wimp Sanderson's last championship team in 1987. It was most memorable, though, because of the dramatic fashion in which the title was clinched. The SEC Championship race had come down to Alabama and Florida, and the two teams met in Coleman Coliseum in the next-to-last weekend of the season. The Tide could clinch with a win, while a win by Florida would give them a chance to clinch later that week. Antoine Pettway's dramatic buzzer-beater that day to clinch the 2002 championship has since gone down in history as one of the greatest moments in the history of Alabama basketball.

Fittingly, the SEC Championship race this season appears likely to come down to a race between the Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators once again. With only three weeks remaining in the season, only a half-game separates the two teams atop the standings, and for the first time in nine years, Bama is in the hunt for an SEC Championship.

Team Record Remaining Games
Florida 9-2 @LSU, UGa, @UK, Ala, @VU
Alabama 8-2 @LSU, Ark, Aub, @UM, @UF, UGa
Vanderbilt 6-4 @UGa, @Aub, UT, @LSU, @UK, UF
Georgia 6-4 VU, @UT, @UF, USC, LSU, @Ala
Kentucky 6-5 USC, @Ark, UF, VU, @UT
Tennessee 5-5 USC, UGa, @VU, MSU, @USC, UK
Mississippi State 5-6 UM, LSU, @UT, @Ark, USC
Arkansas 5-6 @Ala, UK, @Aub, MSU, @UM
South Carolina 4-6 @UT, @UK, UM, @UGa, UT, @MSU
Ole Miss 4-6 Aub, @MSU, @USC, Ala, @Aub, Ark
LSU 2-8 Ala, Fla, @MSU, VU, @UGa, Aub
Auburn 2-8 @UM, VU, @Ala, Ark, UM, @LSU

Mathematically, it is certainly possible that someone besides Alabama or Florida could rally and win the title. Both Vanderbilt and Georgia are 2 games back from the Tide. However, it would likely take perfection, or near perfection, from one of those teams in addition to getting help from both the Tide and Gators to claim a share of the title. Incidentally, the 'Dores and 'Dawgs are set to do battle tonight in Athens on ESPNU at 6:00. The loser is essentially eliminated from championship contention, while the winner can hold on to slim hopes.

In all likelihood, though, this thing is coming down to a race between the Tide and Gators. So what needs to happen for Bama to bring home its first conference title in nine years?

For starters, of course, there's no magic number for Bama because it's all relative to what the Gators do. In terms of our SEC Championship hopes, a Florida loss helps just about as much as a Bama win as long as it remains a two-team race. As long as the Tide stays alive in the title race, Bama fans should be pulling very hard for the Gators to lose some games.

Second, at the risk of stating the obvious, we need to close strong. Bama must go at bare minimum 4-2 over the last six games. Anything less (an 11-5 SEC record or less) and the Tide almost certainly will not match the Gators down the stretch. Even finishing 4-2 (a 12-4 record) would mean that the Gators need to lose at least two games. Looking at their upcoming games--particularly the very scary road trips to Lexington and Nashville--such hopes for a couple of losses would seem realistic, at least. Anything above a 4-2 finish (13-3 SEC record or better) would be very likely to get us at least a share of the title. In other words, if we can win these next three games in which we'll be significant favorites, we have a very good shot to claim the title with a big win or two in the final three games, depending of course on what Florida does in the meantime.

If both teams win the games they should in the next two weeks, the whole thing could come to a head in Gainesville on March 1st, when the two teams will meet one another in the final week of the regular season. There is technically no tiebreaker for the SEC Championship, however, not even head-to-head results, so this game won't give the winner a tiebreaker edge or anything like that. While it seems curious to not have a head-to-head tiebreaker, keep in mind that only twice in the 18 seasons since the SEC expanded to 12 teams has the championship been shared.

Just like with Bama's NCAA Tournament hopes, which we discussed yesterday, all this talk is simply about something that is within reach, but still several wins away. Also just like with our NCAA Tournament hopes, the Tide's SEC Championship dreams are essentially one bad loss away from disappearing completely. If Bama wants to stay in the race with Florida, we absolutely cannot afford to drop games we shouldn't. It will probably require winning tough games as it is, and losing any game we shouldn't will make it nearly impossible to catch the Gators. It is for that reason that the next three games are so crucial. Bama really needs to win all three to remain in strong position, and in fact we must win tomorrow night at LSU (8:00, ESPN) simply to remain tied with Florida, who has the week off, in the loss column. Hope for the best.