While the SEC is far more competitive, top to bottom, than in any time in the Calipari era, at this point in the season we have a fairly reasonable idea of who the contenders and pretenders are in the conference. Currently, there are five teams with three conference losses or less, five teams with four conference losses, and four teams with five conference losses or more.
For the sake of argument (and this post), let’s assume the five teams currently at the top of the standings are the main contenders for the regular season title. Could and Arkansas or South Carolina get hot and make a run? I guess, but they are already three games back of Auburn and seem like bubble NCAA teams at best, not conference champion material.
Just look at those top five though, what does the rest of the regular season look like and do the schedules work out for Kentucky to be able to make a run at a 382nd SEC title? Below are the remaining home and away conference schedules for the top five teams in the standings. Games in red are those against other teams in the top five:
Home: LSU, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina
Road: Ole Miss, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Arkansas
Home: Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Kentucky
Road: Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Alabama
Home: Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Ole Miss
Road: Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida
Home: LSU, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia
Road: Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi State
Home: Missouri, Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas, Florida
Road: Florida, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Auburn, Texas A&M
I think you won’t be going out on a limb saying that is seems nearly impossible Alabama will come out of that gauntlet to an SEC title. They clearly have the hardest remaining schedule, with five games against other top contenders and three of those on the road, the most of any of these teams.
Tennessee might have the easiest schedule remaining, playing only three of the top contenders, getting two games against Georgia AND Ole Miss, playing Florida at home and not having Auburn on the remaining schedule. I think of the three loss teams, their schedule sets up the nicest for sure.
Florida also have five games remaining against the top teams but does get three of those at home, including Auburn and Kentucky. They also get two games against Georgia. The games hosting Auburn might decide the conference.
Then there is Auburn. Not only do they currently lead the conference at 6-1, I think you could argue they have the easiest road left too. They do have to play one extra game, but they only have three games left against top teams, two of those are at home, and besides a road game against Florida, the remaining road schedule is manageable as well. Home games against LSU and Vanderbilt are almost surely wins, and they get Texas A&M at home as well. Of their remaining 11 games, I am hard pressed to believe they go worse than 7-4 in those games. That means that 13-5 is probably the minimum record needed to tie for the conference record, in my opinion.
So then there is Kentucky. Home games against Missouri, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and Alabama should be wins. That gives the Cats nine conference wins. They get Tennessee at home as well, a bit of a revenge game. Considering UK was up 8 at the half over the Vols and I feel pretty good about that one. That gives the Cats ten wins. So the question would be could UK win 3 of the 5 remaining road games against Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas, and Florida. That’s a tough ask for sure. If the Cats can pull off the upset at Auburn, then they could probably lose at Florida and still have a shot. If those lose both at Auburn and Florida, then I am not sure that winning the other three would be good enough then.
Here’s the point: dropping the games at South Carolina and home against Florida put the Cats in a really, really tough spot to win the conference title. Florida holds the tiebreaker over the Cats and UK’s only game against Auburn is on their floor. They’ve got to steal two games they won’t be expected to to have a shot. And that is a minimum number. That is why this weekend, albeit not a conference game, is important for the team. Winning and losing is not super important but we have to start seeing a consistent performance that will remain for the rest of conference play and beyond. If we see another sketchy performance from the Cats, I think you can kiss this season’s chance at an SEC title goodbye.