And so we arrive at the top with the defending champions.
In contrast to Florida, which has received an influx of major talent, and UCLA, which has lost so many routines, Alabama should remain the most intact from last season. Geralen Stack-Eaton leaves a void that will need to be filled on each event, but that's just one routine per apparatus. There are plenty of other 9.9s sticking around, and I would not be surprised at all to see the other five workers on each event remain the same. That's a strong group, a championship-winning group, and there's little need to rearrange things and little evidence that there are better options.
The two new freshmen, Lauren Beers and Carley Sims, are both possible contributors. Beers could come in on any event and Sims could compete on vault and floor, but neither will be an automatic replacement for Stack-Eaton in the later positions on all the events. I expect Sims to compete a few routines and potentially make a lineup, and Beers will dabble on most events and make a couple lineups.
Alabama is not suddenly going to be a different team or even a better team than last year, but matching the 2012 performance is possible. The concern for Alabama is that simply staying as good is often not enough to win the title. The championship team from 2011 would not have come close to winning the title in 2012. The team improved, most notably in those first and second spots on most events. Florida is going to be a more formidable opponent, so where does that improvement lie this year?
Surpassing Florida's scoring potential is going to be a rough task, but the landings on vault will be one of the most important areas where Alabama can establish an edge. This team is somewhat more capable of producing a lineup that sticks every time, and those will be valuable .05s come the postseason.
I see very little danger of an Alabama vaulting team that scores below 49.400. There are too many powerful Yurchenkos in this group so that even those who don't land precisely can still score 9.850. Even when Diandra Milliner vaults poorly by her standards, her only deductions are .050 for bent knees and .100 for the landing. She should anchor again, supported by Gutierrez who has my favorite full on the team now and who will also only very rarely go below 9.900.
There will be options for the rest of the spots, but Kayla Williams needs to be deep in that lineup. I'd love to see the 1.5 manifest in competition, but regardless of which vault she performs, she is too talented and powerful to be settling for a perfectly fine vault that maxes out at 9.900 in the leadoff spot. Someone who has done this should be contending for 10s.
Ashley Sledge is a good bet for one of the earlier spots, but she does have a bit more trouble controlling her vault and ventures down to 9.850 more often than the others, so keep an eye on that. Depending on her sturdiness at this point, Priess should also be vaulting with a proven 9.875. The team does have enough depth that, if it becomes necessary to save Priess for bars and beam, they can do so without losing much. Kaitlyn Clark is another option, but keep an eye on both Beers and Sims for spots in this lineup. Beers has a 1.5, and both have strong potential for 9.9s. They will contend fiercely for spots, likely over some of the supporting 9.850 sisters. I expect multiple scores over 49.500 this year, both at home and away.