If Auburn loses, it will still be no worse than tied for first place in the West going into Wednesday night's gigantic showdown against Mississippi State at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. If Alabama loses and falls to 3-7 in the SEC, its season will be all but ruined.
I haven't seen enough of Alabama to give a well-informed opinion of how a team ranked No. 1 in the nation could find itself only a game removed from last place in the SEC West. It's obvious that, on the court, a big part of the problem is the Tide simply can't make outside shots. As a result, inside players Erwin Dudley and Kenny Walker find themselves in a crowd every time they touch the ball. But people who should know say it goes deeper than that. It's about that elusive thing called chemistry. Auburn clearly has it. Alabama doesn't.
After winning the SEC championship in 1999, Auburn returned every significant player but Bryant Smith. Even before Chris Porter was suspended late in the season, it was clear that the 2000 Auburn team was not the same as the 1999 team. What was different? Smith's defensive prowess was missed, but the big thing was chemistry. It just wasn't at the same level.
Alabama lost only Rod Grizzard off last season's SEC championship team, but even in watching the Tide play on TV, it's obvious the chemistry that was there last season isn't there this season. Coaches can only do so much to develop chemistry. It has to come from within and usually starts with strong leadership. Auburn coach Cliff Ellis called Smith the best leader he'd ever been around. Last season, Auburn had no real leader and paid the price. This season, seniors Marquis Daniels and Derrick Bird took charge in the offseason.
It could still happen for Alabama, 13-7 overall and 3-6 in the SEC. The Tide has an awful lot of talent, enough to get on a roll and finish strongly enough to get into the NCAA Tournament. But if it doesn't start Saturday, it probably won't start at all.
For all the good things Auburn has done this season, it hasn't earned anything of significance yet, either. The Tigers, 17-5 and 6-3, need at least two more wins, maybe three, to get into the NCAA Tournament. They won't be easy to get. For all its problems, Alabama is still very tough at home. Only Kentucky, perhaps the nation's best team at the moment, has beaten Alabama at Coleman Coliseum. Despite everything, Auburn goes in as a clear underdog.
An 8-8 SEC record would put Auburn on the NCAA bubble. I thought early in the season it would take 9-7, but as often seems to be the case, Auburn's preconference schedule looks better to the computer than it does to the rest of us. As a result, 8-8 might be enough. The Tigers must navigate some shark-infested waters. They play Mississippi State, Florida and Arkansas at home. They play Alabama, Mississippi State, LSU and Ole Miss on the road. They might win one or more of those road games, but they'll be underdogs in all of them. Playing Arkansas at home is about as close to a sure victory as you'll find, but there are no more sure things.
At 3-6, Alabama's road is even more treacherous. The Tide plays Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina at home. It plays Tennessee, Mississippi State and LSU on the road. Even if it wins all its home games, Alabama would have to win one on the road. And going on the road for Alabama normally means a blowout loss. If that trend continues, the Tide will be NIT-bound. Those who believe a 7-9 SEC finish would still be enough are dreaming.
Kentucky, Florida and Georgia are NCAA Tournament locks. Mississippi State probably is, too. With the SEC likely to get six teams in the big show, Auburn and Tennessee are clearly the frontrunners for the other two spots. Alabama has the talent to make it interesting down the stretch. LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and South Carolina are essentially out of it.
Auburn players aren't just aiming for an NCAA Tournament trip anymore. They want to win the West. A win over Alabama would put the Tigers in strong position to do just that, but the biggest game of all could be Wednesday night when Mississippi State comes to town. The Tigers have a chance to do big things, and that's a lot more than most of us would have expected.