First thing's first: every year is different on the bubble, and at this point for Tennessee the only guarantee is to win the SEC Tournament. There is no way to project how many teams will steal bids during championship week, and as Ole Miss proved in their loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, there are no certainties in March. So while Tennessee basically held serve despite the loss to Georgia because everyone else suffered more last Saturday, and while the Vols may be "in" depending on who you ask, there's still a lot of work to do and more change will come.
From there we can say a couple things with strong conviction. First, the Vols have to win at Auburn tomorrow night. The Tigers are 227 in RPI, just two spots ahead of the worst team in the league from Starkville. Auburn is 9-20 overall, 3-13 in the SEC. They did beat both LSU and Alabama on The Plains and held Alabama to 37 points in doing so, but have since lost seven in a row, all by 7+ points with an average margin of 17. Losing to Auburn would give Tennessee its worst lost of the year, crush our RPI, and all but assure we had to win the SEC Tournament to get in.
Beating Missouri in Knoxville is also very important. A loss to the Tigers wouldn't be as soul-crushing, but a home loss to a team that isn't ridiculously far ahead of us in RPI (33 as of Tuesday morning) would knock our RPI back into the 60s and, perhaps more importantly, derail our late-season momentum, which right now is Tennessee's best argument. If the Vols win out this week and close with an identical 8-1 run from last year (with far more quality wins this time around), it will be very hard for the committee to say the Vols aren't one of the best 34 at-large teams right now.
Don't look for UT's RPI to leap if we do win out this week; beating Auburn on the road and Missouri at home is essentially a wash. RPIForecast.com, the site we use for all projections, puts the Vols at 54 if we win out, up just two spots. It's not a terrible number, but probably one that needs some additional work in the SEC Tournament.
The Vols would finish 7th in the league if the tournament started today, but thankfully, it does not. We need Missouri to beat Arkansas in Columbia tonight, which should happen with a great home team against a team whose only road win came at Auburn. That would get the Vols back in front of the Razorbacks, who own the tiebreaker via head-to-head. Tennessee could then pass Missouri as well with a win on Saturday. If Missouri wins tonight, winning out puts the Vols no worse than fifth.
Tennessee could also pass the loser of Wednesday's Alabama-Ole Miss game if they lose their season finale (Alabama is home vs Georgia, Ole Miss is at LSU). And the Vols could still pass Kentucky if the Cats lose out (at Georgia, vs Florida). So winning out puts Tennessee anywhere from third to sixth (probably fifth unless Arkansas wins out) in the league; the coveted double-bye in the SEC Tournament is still on the table.
If the Vols do finish fifth and have to play on Thursday, they would get the winner of a Wednesday game between teams 12 & 13 in the standings. There is a clearly defined bottom in this league: Auburn, Mississippi State, and South Carolina are all 3-13, and finishing fifth ensures you play one of those teams on Thursday. This is why you don't want to finish sixth: the 11th place team also plays on Thursday, and right now that's a race between Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M. That's an extra burden I'd rather not carry, and again, if we win out and Arkansas loses one game (at Missouri, Texas A&M), it's off the table for us. Cannot stress this enough: it's very important that Missouri beats Arkansas tonight.
If we do finish fifth or sixth, it will be incredibly important to win that Thursday game. We don't have to look any further than last year for this lesson: an 8-1 finish gets instantly derailed if you lose to a non-tournament team in your first game in the SEC Tournament. Any Thursday action would be us against a lesser opponent; RPI Forecast projects us to have an RPI of 68 with a first round loss. Since the formula changed in 2004-05 to adjust for home/road/neutral games, no team has been selected as an at-large entry with an RPI worse than 67.
If we survive Thursday, it's likely to put us in what many pundits will call a bubble elimination game on Friday against Alabama, Kentucky, or Ole Miss, though Missouri could also be an option again and the Tigers should be in by that point. It doesn't always work that way: a few years ago Alabama beat Georgia in the final week of the regular season, then beat them again in the SEC Tournament, but the committee still took the Dawgs and left the Tide out to dry. But we'd rather just make things easier on ourselves; I for one would love another crack at Ole Miss.
So while there are still no certainties in this thing, if you asked us, "What do you think Tennessee has to do to get in?", the best answer seems to be, "win out, then get to Saturday in Nashville." Winning out and losing on Friday would make us all very nervous, but we'd still be watching on Selection Sunday with extreme interest. Losing to Missouri and then getting to Saturday might create the same dynamic. But our safest bet is, you know, just win. And that has to start with Auburn.
In terms of RPI, here's at the last teams in and the first teams out over the last few years. Last at-large refers to worst RPI, not lowest seed in the tournament:
- Last at-large: Virginia (53)
- Highest left-out: Marshall (44)
- Highest major left out: West Virginia (57)
- Last at-large: USC (67)
- Highest left-out: Harvard (35)
- Highest major left out: Boston College (58)
- Last at-large: Minnesota (62)
- Highest left-out: Rhode Island (40)
- Highest major left out: Mississippi State (55)
- Last at-large: Arizona (62)
- Highest left-out: San Diego State (34)
- Highest major left out: Florida (54)
- Last at-large: Oregon (61)
- Highest left-out: Dayton (30)
- Highest major left out: Ole Miss (39)
- Last at-large: Stanford (67)
- Highest left-out: Air Force (29)
- Highest major left out: Florida State (41)
- Last at-large: Seton Hall (58)
- Highest left-out: Hofstra (22)
- Highest major left out: Cincinnati (40)
- 80.6% make the field with RPI 40-49 (25 of 31); 100% have made the field since expansion to 68
- 46.1% make the field with RPI 50-59 (18 of 39); 77.7% (7 of 9) have made the field since expansion to 68
- 22.2% make the field with RPI 60-69 (6 of 27); 20% (2 of 10) have made the field since expansion to 68