How the Kentucky/Tennessee game could decide the SEC West

Update: Good news and bad news. The good news is that the SEC has abandoned the old ‘eliminate #3 and then go Head-to-head’ method of deciding a 3-way tie. It was a silly method. The bad news is that it renders this completely awesome Kentucky/Tennessee scenario obsolete. The 3-way tie would go to Alabama or Auburn, most likely, under the clarified rules. For more details, see the comment section.

Yes, you read that right.  The annual Kentucky/Tennessee game could decide who wins the SEC West this season.  Seriously.  Here’s how.

A game no one cares about could be a game that has a major impact on the first FBS playoff. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)

With the abolition of the BCS, the SEC had to adopt new 3-team tiebreaker rules for this season.  If a 3-way tie in the SEC West occurs, the tiebreaker could get weird.  Here are two very realistic scenarios:

#1: Auburn beats Ole Miss, Ole Miss beats Mississippi State, and all three win their other games to finish tied at 7-1 in SEC play.

#2: Alabama beats Mississippi State, Mississippi State beats Ole Miss, and all three win their other games to finish tied at 7-1 in SEC play.

In such a scenario, we go to the SEC’s newest tiebreakers:

1. Combined head-to-head record among the tied teams. 

They would be a combined 1-1 against each other.  Next tiebreaker.

2. Record of the tied teams within the division.

All would be 5-1 in the SEC West.  Next tiebreaker.

3. Records against the team within the division with the best overall (divisional and non-divisional) Conference record and proceeding through the division. Multiple ties within the division will be broken from first to last.

I’m not really sure what this rule exists for, except for one scenario – there is some ineligible 1st place team, in which case a win against them would carry weight among 3 teams tied for second place.  Either way, we move on to the next tiebreaker.

4.  Complete record vs. non-division teams.

All tied at 2-0 outside the West, so we continue.

5.  Complete record vs. all common non-divisional teams.

All tied again.  Next.

6. Record vs. common non-divisional team with the best overall Conference (divisional and non-divisional) record and proceeding through other common non-divisional teams based on their order of finish within their division.

3 teams don’t have a common non-divisional opponent. Next.

7. Best cumulative Conference winning percentage of non-divisional opponents.

And this is where the fun starts.

That’s where the old tiebreaker would just eliminate the team with the lowest BCS ranking, and the head to head winner of the other game would advance.  With no BCS rankings, the ‘cumulative Conference winning percentage of non-divisional opponents’ is the likely swing vote in the process.

First off, let’s list the non-divisional opponents for all four teams that could potentially wind up in the 3-way tie:
Alabama: Tennessee & Florida
Auburn: South Carolina & Georgia
Mississippi State: Vanderbilt & Kentucky
Ole Miss: Vanderbilt & Tennessee

Auburn is not going to be eliminated by any such tiebreaker, as they’ve got the best pairing of the four; Georgia and South Carolina are 6-4 in SEC play so far.  Alabama is unlikely to lose, although Tennessee and Florida are currently 2-6.  Tennessee is likely to beat Vanderbilt, as is Florida, and both teams might be able to steal a win against the Gamecocks as well.  Ole Miss and MSU both play Vanderbilt, on the other hand, and Vanderbilt seems to be headed for an 0-8 finish in the SEC this year.  That means the tiebreak could come down to which has the better record, Kentucky or Tennessee.

The Volunteers (0-3) have a clear loss next week against Bama, but after that winnable games are on the schedule.  Going to Columbia, SC is never easy, but the Gamecocks have looked vulnerable this year, and the Vols could come away a winner.  Similarly, they host Missouri, another winnable game.  Tennessee finishes with Vanderbilt, a likely win.  UT, outside of the Kentucky game, looks like 2-5 or 3-4.

Kentucky (2-2) face Mississippi State and Georgia, and those games alone should give them four losses.  Missouri is also ahead, and that could possibly go either way.  Like Tennessee, Kentucky is looking at either 3-4 or 2-5 outside of their matchup November 15 in Knoxville.

If Kentucky @ Tennessee decides which has the better SEC record, which is very likely, it would decide the SEC West in either 3-way tie scenario.  Here are the ways it could play out:

MSU/Ole Miss tied with Auburn, Kentucky wins: Ole Miss eliminated, MSU advances due to H2H win over Auburn.

MSU/Ole Miss tied with Auburn, Tennessee wins: MSU eliminated, Auburn advances due to H2H win over Ole Miss.

MSU/Ole Miss tied with Alabama, Kentucky wins: Ole Miss eliminated, Alabama wins due to H2H win over MSU.

MSU/Ole Miss tied with Alabama, Tennessee wins: MSU eliminated, Ole Miss advances due to H2H win over Alabama.

Yes, there’s a chance the SEC West takes care of itself and something far less interesting works out, like Ole Miss or MSU running the table, or both dropping multiple games, setting us up for an Iron Bowl play-in.  But this scenario is very much on the realistic side, and how much fun it would be if either came to fruition.

With all the focus on the SEC West, the entire divisional race could come down to a November 15th battle in Knoxville.  I, for one, hope it does.

About Brent Blackwell 203 Articles
Brent Blackwell also writes for College Football By The Numbers at


  1. You misread the rules. When you look at the example posted on the SEC website, it’s clear that the team with the best cross-divisional record advances. It’s no longer that the bottom team always drops off and then head-to-head applies. So Auburn or Alabama would go through if they were in a three-way tie with the Mississippi school. Link is in the website field because HTML is hard at this time of night.

    • So they changed it. I had no idea, and the original release of the rules didn’t indicate that. Thanks for the clarification.

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