If the Gators beat the Vols Saturday in Gainesville, improving to 9-2 and dropping the Vols to 5-5 - a full 3 1/2 games back with six games remaining - that climb would qualify as insurmountable.
Should the Vols win at Florida, however, they would be right back in the thick of the division race. At 6-4, they would trail the first-place Gators (8-3) by just one game in the loss column. Moreover, Tennessee plays four of its last six SEC games at home, whereas the Gators must play three of their last five on the road.
In a typical year Florida would be heavily favored to beat Tennessee at the O'Connell Center on Saturday evening. This is not a typical year in SEC basketball, however. The Vols have done better on the road (3-2) than at home (2-2). Bruce Pearl is only mildly surprised by this.
"We're actually built a little bit better to be able to compete on the road ... to hang in there on the road," the Vols' head man said.
Pearl's previous Tennessee teams were smaller and quicker. They played a quick tempo that was aided significantly by the energy of the home crowd. Because the 2010-11 Vols are bigger and slower, they play a more deliberate pace that is less reliant on crowd energy and, as a result, holds up better in rival arenas.
Pearl said it this way:
"We're not playing a style of play where the home floor will make as big a difference. We're playing a little more conservatively - not pressing as much, not turning people over as much and creating more possessions."
Twenty-five years ago, as a sports writer for The Knoxville Journal, I invented something I call the Home/Road Factor. Based on the premise that teams generally win at home and generally lose on the road, it awards a team 2 points for each road win and deducts 2 for each home loss. This produces a projection of how the team will finish in relation to .500. A rating of plus-2 means the team is headed for a 9-7 record. A rating of plus-4 means the team is headed for a 10-6 record. Conversely, a minus-4 rating means the team is headed for a 6-10 record.
Example: Tennessee has six points added for its three road wins but has four points deducted for its two home losses, leaving the Vols at plus-2. That means the Vols are on pace to finish 2 games above .500 - or 9-7 - if they win their remaining home games and lose their remaining road games.
Conversely, Florida is cruising along at plus-6, with four road wins and just one home loss. That means the Gators are on pace to finish 11-5 if they win their remaining home games and lose their remaining road games.
If Tennessee can spring the upset Saturday in Gainesville, the Vols will improve to plus-4 and the Gators will drop to plus-4, meaning both teams are on pace to finish 10-6 if they win their remaining home games and lose their remaining road games.
Here's a look at the projected finish of each SEC team, based on its current record and the Home/Road Factor:
Florida 4-1 home 4-1 road ... +6 ... 11-5
Tennessee 2-2 home 3-2 road ... +2 ... 9-7
Kentucky 4-0 home 1-4 road ... +2 ... 9-7
Georgia 3-2 home 2-2 road ... 0 ... 8-8
Vanderbilt 3-1 home 1-3 road ... 0 ... 8-8
S.Carolina 2-3 home 2-2 road ... -2 ... 7-9
Alabama 4-0 home 3-1 road ... +6 ... 11-5
Miss. State 3-2 home 2-2 road ... 0 ... 8-8
Ole Miss 2-3 home 2-2 road ... -2 ... 7-9
Arkansas 3-2 home 1-4 road ... -2 ... 7-9
LSU 1-3 home 1-4 road ... -4 ... 6-10
Auburn 0-4 home 1-4 road ... -6 ... 5-11