Happy New Year, it's Alabama time, ready for a brand new season full of competing for the championship. Early last season, the Tide had just enough problems on bars for low 49s that the RQS never recovered enough to catch what Florida and Oklahoma were putting up (finishing at just some paltry 197.415), but Alabama was always right in the hunt as a realistic winner. When Florida had the beam issues in Super Six, it seemed almost guaranteed that Alabama would pounce on that for a three-peat, but lack of stuck vaults and two beam mistakes combined to dash their dreams and relegate them to the third place status at which they also finished the regular season.
The Crimson Tide looks to occupy a similar place in the hierarchy this year, always a potential title winner hanging on the cusp of being the favorite. The team has lost a number of important seniors from last season, so there's some reason to be wary about how these lineups will shape up, at least in January. However, the 2013 injuries to Gutierrez and Sledge may now end up being beneficial in a way because the absences of those two at the end of last season gave experience to competitors who wouldn't have competed otherwise but will be counted upon this year. There aren't as many unknowns in the Alabama lineups as there might have been otherwise.
The issue this year may not be so much the quantity of lost routines but the significance. Alabama was already a fairly deep team last year, especially on the Alabama-y events, and with a group of freshmen in Amanda Jetter, Katie Bailey, Aja Sims, Dominique Pegg, and company who can all be at least backups on multiple events, the team should have plenty of possible options across the apparatuses. Finding the person who can not only compete in those spots but manage some Ashley Priess 9.925s will be the story of this season.
Oddly, Alabama's vaulting last postseason was just OK. Sure, 49.350 is a great score for most teams, but not for this team. They could have and should have been in the 49.500 conversation, especially at that time of year, but the landings just disappeared into a cloud of smoke after SECs and the absence of Marissa Gutierrez really started to show.
Still, there's rarely reason to worry about Alabama on vault, so even though they're losing some significant quality, they should have a strong look at those big scores once again given the strength of the people who are returning. Diandra Milliner, Kayla Williams, Kaitlyn Clark, and Lauren Beers have all proven 9.9 capable and should score regularly in the 9.875+ realm. Those vaults alone will carry Alabama's scoring past the large majority of teams, though I would like to see Williams graduate to a higher place in the lineup this season.
We will, however, likely see some drop in scoring potential compared to last season's peak because the team will have to concoct a few routines to fill in the other lineup spots, and they won't be at that 9.9 level right away. Katie Bailey has a clean half, Aja Sims should be a prime nominee at some point, Sarah DeMeo can vault, and Kim Jacob and Carley Sims acted as acceptable backups for 9.800 last season. Any of them could make the lineup, really. Alabama won't be lacking for vaults but may not have as many huge options as last year. We'll still see the big numbers, but don't take vault for granted. There will be more pressure on those top, end-of-the-lineup vaulters to deliver every time to get the scores. There's a bit less margin this year.
It's been clear for a while that bars would be the biggest question mark for Alabama in 2014 without Sledge, Priess, and Alexin, and that's still true. There's the most work to be done on this event, but at the same time there's nothing really preventing this team from remaining mostly competitive here. Bars is not some disastrous black hole of options, and we shouldn't expect poor scores. They may experience an early-season meltdown or two because there will be multiple new competitors and probably some lineup experimentation, but I see plenty of potential 9.850s banging around that should make 49.300 a perfectly reasonable score. The problem is that once teams like Florida are trotting out their 9.950s at the back of the lineup, does Alabama have the huge routines to stay within striking distance? When Sloan, Caquatto, and Johnson are going into the stratosphere, can Alabama at least rise above the cloud layer?
The returning group of Jacob, Clark, and Demeo boasts superior dismounting, but the handstand trouble brought down scores for much of last season. DeMeo was the most likely of this group to get a 9.9 but also the most likely to fall on a jaeger. These three will be needed back in the lineup, and of all the freshman routines, the most is expected of Jetter's bars. She must be an asset in making up that lost potential from last season. The other spots look to be filled by more members of the stable of 9.8y backups: Beers, Sims, Milliner, and Bailey to name a few. All can get usable scores, but where are the Priess/Sledge type routines? That will be the biggest adventure for Alabama at the beginning of the season.
The team has lost an exceptionally important routine in Ashley Priess's beam but should have enough strong options to make up for that score. The heir apparent is Kim Jacob, who performs risky elements with such solidity that we would never think of her routine as risky. She's a definite 9.9er (the way she hits that barani alone is worth a 9.9) and should be the starring anchor who occasionally has to save the rotation score after some wobbleburgers. DeMeo is another excellent beamer who doesn't always get the same scores because of the difficulty of landing that double pike, but she will still be influential in the scoring every week. This is also the place where I see Aja Sims making the biggest mark because she had such a strong beam routine in JO. Those three at the back of the lineup can be competitive with any team.
The rest of the lineup is probably going to be rattling around the mid 9.8 territory again, but if Jacob and DeMeo are scoring as they can, there's no problem with that. Returning Milliner, Clark, and Williams from last season makes sense, but if some of the freshmen prove more consistent, they can likely come in for equivalent 9.850s, especially if the occasional Kayla Williams consistency issues rear again.
Even though Alabama had a beam mishap in Super Six last year, the Tide is sill among the teams I have the fewest concerns about being able to hit beam. They'll get it together and will be in for likely 49.3s-49.4s by the end of the season.
It's Alabama. There will be options galore on floor. Surprising no one, this team has recruited another freshman class featuring a whole barrel of people who would name floor as their best event, or at least among the top two. Dominique Pegg was a key floor score for Canada at the Olympics, Aja Sims won her JO division on the event, Katie Bailey has a stellar double arabian, and Jetter looks to have floor as a second-best event behind bars.
If only they even needed that many routines. Alabama is returning five of the six gymnasts that competed floor in Super Six last year, all of whom staked out a strong case to return this season. Jacob and Milliner both have 9.950 potential and should anchor again. DeMeo is learning a piked double arabian that should not be denied, Lauren Beers came in for Gutierrez late last year and earned 9.875-9.900 type scores, and Lora Leigh Frost made great strides with her DLO and scoring consistency last season, coming in for Sledge at Championships and performing some career-best work. This doesn't even include Kayla Williams, who . . . why hasn't she been a fixture of this floor lineup?
Don't you hate it when you have ten excellent options for your floor lineup? Alabama will have room to play around and can outscore any team on floor on the right day. We'll see the 49.5s again come March, or even February.
While none of the coaches ranked Alabama as preseason #1, and most people in general appear to be picking either Florida or Oklahoma to win this season, no one would be remotely surprised if Alabama wins a third title in four years. It's Alabama. They'll be right there as they always are, they'll record plenty of 197s, and they'll be a nuisance to all the other teams, sitting ready to pounce on a victory if someone falters (as long as they can hit beam this time).
The key is certainly bars. The Tide could conceivably give up a tenth to Florida on bars, perhaps a bit more to Oklahoma, and still be fine with the potential to make up the deficit on the other events. Anything more than a tenth, however, is going to start to become a problem. Watch those new routines to see how competitive they are in the handstand department, and sticks are a must. Get those new big bars routines, find two competitive early-lineup vaults, and be the best floor team in the country. That's my assignment for Alabama to win in 2014.