The margin for error is thin.
Just look at last season: if Alabama lost to Auburn on the final week of the regular season, then the Tide wouldn’t have played for the national championship. Thanks to a head-to-head tie-breaker, Ole Miss would have represented the West in the SEC title game, and there’s a chance that no one from the conference would have reached the playoff.
You see, sometimes it comes down to one game.
Predicting that must-win game isn’t easy, but that’s what we’ll attempt to do this week on the SEC Blog, starting with Alabama.
Must-win game: Oct. 15 at Tennessee
Alabama is a double-digit favorite against USC for good reason, and while Ole Miss has been the Tide’s bugaboo the last two seasons, overcoming an early-season loss to a conference foe isn’t the hardest thing in the world to do (see: 2014, 2015).
So when do things get dicey for the Tide? Near the end of a tough four-game stretch, on the road, against a rival that feels like its time has finally come.
That’s right, Tennessee, which has been barely present in the rivalry of the Third Saturday in October, could be one of the biggest roadblocks in Alabama’s quest to repeat.
Logistically, this game presents problems for Nick Saban’s squad. Not only is it on the road, it’s sandwiched between games at Arkansas and at home against Texas A&M (then a bye, then the big one against LSU). Tennessee, on the other hand, can lay it all on the line with an open date the following weekend.
But there are other things than the calendar at play. The Vols have been quietly building in the East for the past few years and now that young core of talent -- quarterback Josh Dobbs, running back Jalen Hurd and defensive end Derek Barnett, just to name a few -- isn’t so young anymore. Tennessee has the star power, the quarterback and the scheme to give Alabama fits.
Lose and you risk emboldening a team that is stocked with talent but short on the confidence that comes with winning big-time games. Win and you not only bolster your own playoff resume with some high-profile road victories, you keep Tennessee in its place and send the message to expect more of the same if you meet again for the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.