Now a month into the season, I'm going to track Alabama's RPI along with their opponents and the SEC as a whole. I will be lazy and go off the RPI rankings listed at the ESPN website. According to ESPN: "Joe Lunardi and his team of Bracketologists have replicated the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), used by the NCAA to help pick at-large teams and determine seeds for the NCAA Tournament. Lunardi & Co. update it daily, providing readers with the most comprehensive source of original data on all 347 Division I teams, available only on ESPN.com".
Despite the season getting off to a shaky 4-4 start, the decision to upgrade the non-conference schedule in the summer has proven to be advantageous. Perhaps even more so considering the way things have gone to this point. Entering the South Florida game on Saturday, Alabama had an RPI hovering in the low 100s. As of today, despite the loss to USF, their RPI has actually gone up to 97. Not great by any means, and if the selection committee released a bracket today, Alabama would not be on it. However, if Alabama can find a way to break through in some upcoming high profile games, they may be able to improve their RPI enough that the SEC slate will be more than anti-climatic.
Alabama maintaining a solid RPI despite their struggles is a direct reflection of playing teams with high RPIs: Oklahoma (27), Drexel (32) and Duke (their RPI is currently only 63, but will continue to rise with ACC play on the horizon). South Florida remains a bad RPI loss (the Bulls currently have an RPI of 177), but the hope is that multiple games against the likes of Louisville, Uconn, Memphis, Cincinnati and perhaps SMU will put USF, at worst, in the top 100 by season's end. This shows why non-conference scheduling is so important and why Alabama, and the SEC as a whole, must improve in this aspect. Even if you struggle early, you still leave yourself some wriggle room going into conference play. This would have served Alabama well in 2010-11 and last season when both teams won 12 conference games, yet were dragged down by bad RPI losses in the non-conference.
However, losses, even "good" losses, will not put a team in the tournament. With that in mind, Alabama must make good use of a December schedule that offers several great opportunities, but also pitfalls. First and foremost, they must win games such as Charleston Southern (currently 153 in the RPI) and Robert Morris (currently 257). A loss to either of these teams, especially at home, would be devastating. Secondly, they must find a way to break through with a trio of upcoming games against Wichita State (RPI: 17), Xavier (with an RPI of 96, Alabama needs to find a way at home to beat the Musketeers), and UCLA (RPI: 33). That is two (currently) top 50 RPI and a top 100 school in three games. But that is the future. What is most pressing for this team is to get a victory at home on Saturday against a scrappy Charleston Southern team that has been a top 50 team offensively, but not so great defensively. This Alabama team is better than their current record indicates, but they've got to start turning some of these losses into wins or it's not going to matter.
Once again, the SEC has not gotten off to a great start from a national perspective. SEC teams are just 1-11 (I need to verify that number) against ranked opponents so far this season. Even the bell cows of the conference (Kentucky and Florida) have struggled in their high profile match-ups. In Florida's case, injuries and suspensions have been a valid excuse. Meanwhile, UK fans have quickly forgotten about undefeated seasons and are simply coming to grips with how special the 2011-12 team really was.
Despite the struggles, the SEC currently has three teams (Arkansas, Missouri and Florida) in the top 50 of the RPI with two more (LSU and Ole Miss) on the fringes of the top 50. Alabama will play four of those five teams twice in league play. Rounding out the top 100 from the SEC: South Carolina (82), Kentucky (92) and Vandy (94). Tennessee and Texas A&M currently sit at 114 and 128 respectively. Tennessee needs to do some major work. The Vol fans are expecting NCAA tournament this year, and a 114 RPI isn't going to get it done.
Some teams obviously didn't get the memo about improving their non-conference schedules. Georgia currently sits at 332 in the RPI while Mississippi State (238) and Auburn (254) are not going to do their conference brethren any favors either. Those three currently look like the teams that everyone else will try to avoid losing to in order to avoid an RPI hit. Some of the coaches may not like the SEC office becoming involved in scheduling, but something needs to be done because no power conference school should ever have an RPI in the 200 or 300 range.