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Bama starting to appear on bubble watches (Updated with latest ESPN projection)

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I've tried to temper postseason expectations for as long as I could. I've said multiple times on this blog that getting an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament simply wouldn't be realistic. Knowing that it would take something like a 13-3 conference record, I said it wasn't even worth discussing as a realistic possibility after going only 8-6 in non-conference play.

Nothing has changed as to what Bama needs to do. We likely still need an incredible, previously unthinkable SEC record in the neighborhood of 13-3, or possibly 12-4 (or maybe even 11-5, but only if accompanied by a couple of quality wins in the SEC Tournament). The only thing that has changed is that our 7-1 start to league play has suddenly made such an outstanding SEC record actually attainable, though still very, very far from a certainty given that the back half of the schedule will be a bit tougher than the front half.

Seeing as how the Tide's rise to the top of the SEC is now generating a good deal of discussion in the national media--including being a key topic of conversation on both the morning and evening editions of ESPN's College Gameday on Saturday--ignoring the building talk of the Tide's tourney hopes is no longer an option.

Here are a few samples of what we're seeing from some key parts of the national sports media:

The Tide is now rolling in the SEC, off to a league-best 7-1 start. Alabama will be a good test case for the selection committee. The team has nothing to show for itself in the nonconference, losing also to Seton Hall and Iowa in St. Thomas, as well as Oklahoma State, Providence and Purdue. But if the Tide can roll to at least 11 or 12 wins in the SEC, then it would be hard to keep out a team on that hot of a streak in a major conference. This is an example where the body of work may be judged by how much Bama improved from November to March. Regardless, barring a collapse, Grant can clear space for an SEC coach of the year trophy.

ESPN: Andy Katz

Key to note: Katz, while a prominent ESPN college basketball analyst, is not a bracket expert. He also says at least 11 or 12 conference wins would be hard to ignore.

There’s at least one other thing we know about the SEC: Alabama is making a legitimate run at an at-large tournament berth. [...] Depending on what the Tide do the rest of the way, they could very well earn themselves a way into the NCAA tournament on the strength of their conference performance alone. How many wins will that take? We’re about to find out.

ESPN: Eamonn Brennan

Brennan here is expressing what we're hearing from a lot of bracket experts--there is a lot of confusion and disagreement about how the selection committee will judge a strange case like Alabama. Even if we were to close fairly strong with, say, a 12-4 league record, our overall numbers still wouldn't look good, such as our record against RPI top 100 teams for example. The question would then become, how much more weight does the committee put on recent performance in conference, and how much are they willing to forgive transgressions from back in November? That's a question that's difficult to answer for even the bracket experts.

Jerry Palm explains further:

To me, the very poor non-conference SOS alone kills this team. The committee hates that. And then to be barely above .500 against those teams? Yikes. Also, it isn't even above .500 against the top 200 teams in the RPI -- which, as I wrote before, is one of the key negative indicator stats. It's obviously in an OK conference, but not a great one.

[...] Alabama fans have been going along feeling certain a 12-4 record in the SEC West is good enough to get them an at-large berth. That feeling should be long gone by now.

CBS: Jerry Palm

If we do finish with a 12-4 or so record and are right on the bubble, let's hope the committee doesn't take a raw-numbers, start-to-finish approach like Palm, and rather notes how strongly the team came together and played in the last two thirds of the season.

Seth Davis seems to prefer this approach:

The last thing I expected was to consider ranking a team from the SEC West, but it's hard not to notice Alabama's five-game winning streak, which includes a victory at home over Kentucky and a win at Tennessee in Knoxville over the weekend. I couldn't just brush aside the Crimson Tide's nonconference record, but this team has won 10 of its last 11, and if it wins two more (the Tide are at Vanderbilt and at home against Ole Miss this week), I will strongly consider ranking them next week. Go figure.

The bottom line is we don't have a clear picture of what Bama needs to do. I'd say the consensus is probably that we need to go at minimum 5-3 over our last 8 regular season games. Even with that, we'd need a win or two in Atlanta to feel safe. Anything over 5-3 should have us feeling pretty good, as that would put us at 13-3 and would likely result in our winning the SEC Championship (not that that alone means anything to the committee, but still). Anything less than 4-4 (11-5 SEC record or worse) would likely leave us needing to at minimum beat two quality opponents in Atlanta, at which point we might as well just be hoping to win the whole thing and get an automatic berth.

Whatever the case may be, the key is that we must keep winning. We're now in the discussion, but our non-conference results leave us skating on thin ice. Other bubble teams can afford a let-down or two. We can't. One thing is for sure, though. We're being taken seriously right now. Let the discussions begin....

UPDATE: Bama is officially IN as an at-large team in ESPN's latest bracketology projection, updated just minutes ago. We are projected as a #11 seed. Bracket expert Joe Lunardi goes on to say that our game on Thursday night at Vanderbilt is "the biggest opportunity for Alabama in a long, long time."