The LSU Tigers will have the luxury of staying at home for their regional for the first time since 2008, though this year they would be the favorite in any location. There were some other years in there when they really could have used the home advantage. LSU and their faithful will be playing host to another of our close contests for the second advancing spot, with Stanford and Auburn coming to town with significant work to do. The meet begins at 5 ET/2 PT.
Competing teams (starting event)
 LSU (bye before bars)
 Stanford (bye before floor)
 Auburn (vault)
 Arizona (floor)
 Kent State (bars)
 Iowa State (beam)
Individual competitors are from Michigan State (Alina Cartwright, Lisa Burt, Elena Logoski - floor), Bowling Green (Alyssa Nocella, Gina Locigno, Megan Harrison), Western Michigan (Jessi Buis - vault, Shelby MacDonald - bars), and Eastern Michigan (Anna Willette - beam).
Even though LSU is the clear favorite to advance and should have no trouble winning this home regional, I'm a bit more interested in exactly how LSU fares than I am for some of the other locks because I think the performance (not so much the score, but the performance) will tell us a lot about whether LSU will head to nationals as a true contender for the title on the same level as the Florida and Alabama crowd, or if they will be taking on more of the identity of the prime spoiler who lurks in that position of fourth favorite, ready to pounce on a team making mistakes - sort of the identity Oklahoma has had for the last several seasons.
This 2014 LSU team has the credentials to make a weighty argument as a true contender: ranked in the top 3 all season, spent some time at #1, is the only team never to drop below 197, has defeated Alabama and Oklahoma already - that's legitimate. At the same time, we saw a team at SECs that looked perfectly good but also a clear notch behind Alabama and Florida. Regionals will be an opportunity to learn what our expectations should be. Right now, I think LSU is the fourth-best team in the nation, and on the one hand, finishing fourth would be a tremendous accomplishment and the best for the program since 1988 (they've never finished higher than fourth), but at the same time, they've been in the top three all season, so that result would still be sort of a letdown.
It should come as no surprise that the main dictator in this true contender vs. spoiler issue will be how well LSU performs on bars and beam. As it has always been. We didn't get to see all that many of the LSU routines during the broadcast of SECs, but while we saw some exceptional vaults (Jessie Jordan's vault is such an asset because the other contenders can't match that early 9.950) and Hall's hit floor, most of the bars and beam routines that we saw looked middle-of-the-pack, with enough deductions to justify 9.850s. LSU had two 9.9s on bars and beam, compared to Alabama's eight and Florida's six. Tremendous strides have been made on beam, but the fall from Jordan meant they had to count Dickson's 9.725, which exposed that beam is still a tenuous experience where one error can knock them out of contention. At regionals, let's watch for those stuck bars landings and a few more early-rotation beam routines where the competitors don't looked utterly, completely, just-left-the-DMV relieved to stay on the beam.
The Baton Rouge Regional is yet another contest with close #2 and #3 seeds (just the way we like it), with Stanford and Auburn having posted similar scores throughout much of the season. However, I don't see this one as quite as close as the Penn State and Minnesota Regionals. Maybe if Auburn were hosting the way Penn State and Minnesota are, it would be a different story, but even though the upset potential is certainly there - this is far from a lock - I give the edge to Stanford, especially based on recent performance. Stanford appears to be getting better, as they usually do as frustratingly late as possible, while Auburn hasn't been the same without Bri Guy. Four of Auburn's top five team scores were recorded before Guy's injury, and it's very rare for a team to have the majority of its best scores in January and February.
Still, both teams can get a 197, so Auburn will believe they are in with a serious chance, and that serious chance's name is Floor Exercise. Stanford outranks Auburn on three events (vault is very close and essentially a wash), but doesn't come close to doing so on floor, so if Auburn is going to pull off the upset, we will see the evidence in the floor scores. These are two teams with very different identities on floor, which should make for a fascinating contrast. Auburn is all about the difficulty. This team has eleven thousand pike full ins and really goes for the big elements side of floor - even without Guy's strong DLO anchoring. They do open themselves up to form deductions here and there, but they have shown the ability for 49.3s and 49.4s, which will be essential at regionals.
Stanford, by contrast is sort of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Double Pikes on floor. It's all very "I'm going to tell a story with my eyes and then do a rudi." Stanford's floor work inspires a lot of opinions. I tend to enjoy it simply because they're actually going for something, there's an intent there, and it's not just putting on some techno music and pretending that counts as having a personality. But floor has been at least 75% shambolic this year, scoring under 49.100 in the large majority of meets. Auburn will look to gain a solid .3-.4 here, and that seems fairly realistic given what we have seen. Most of Stanford's routines top out at 9.850 except for Kristina Vaculik and occasionally Taylor Rice (like Oregon State, Stanford doesn't have the big 9.9s that are always 9.9s at the back of the lineup that top 10 teams always seem to have), but there is also almost always a fall or an OOB that they're working against. Starting on floor will be a challenge for this Stanford team, and it's imperative they not dig themselves any significant hole.
But even if they do, all is not lost because they will be ending on bars and beam, their asset events. We have known all season that Stanford has the capability to be one of the top teams in the country on these events, and we saw that for the most part at Pac 12s. Given the competition, and assuming the stuck landings make at least a supporting cameo, Stanford could win both bars and beam at this regional, which is a contrast to some of the other top-team regionals where the most likely outcome is that Florida and Oklahoma will win all the events. LSU won't be troubled by this because they are so far superior on vault and floor that they should pull away comfortably regardless, but Stanford could pick up the scoring pace at the end of the meet. Stanford's bars work has that excellent mixture of precision and showpiece elements, and on beam they combine difficulty, originality, and (usually) security to be one of the top two or three most appealing teams on the event.
The meet will favor Auburn early, starting on vault versus Stanford on floor, so the Tigers will look to build up an early lead and try as hard as possible to hold until they get to floor. I should add that Auburn has strong routines on bars and beam as well (it's not like they're a mess), but there are also a few too many 9.7s that Stanford won't have, which makes the difference. On vault, Auburn isn't quite the team it was with Guy, but if they can get big scores from Caitlin Atkinson and MJ Rott, they can take the necessary advantage. Stanford has some strong vaults at the back of the lineup as well, but they haven't been consistently big scores. It will be interesting to see what they decide to do with Danielle McNair and her 1.5. She wasn't really that close to landing it at Pac 12s, and in NCAA, it isn't worth it to do the 1.5 if there's even the smallest question about the landing.
I'll also be keeping an eye on the individual AA leaders for these teams because they are quite reliant on the big back-of-rotation scores from Vaculik and Atkinson respectively, who can both be exceptional 9.9ers on every event on their day but also have consistency questions. The AA leader who is scoring better can indicate which team is having the better day as we go along (i.e., getting that anchor 9.950 to bump up the rotation score).
Depending on how qualification goes, we should expect either Atkinson or Vaculik to make nationals as an individual. It is especially important that Atkinson make it because she suffered an injury at nationals last year and didn't really get to compete. We may see some other competitive AAers for Stanford/Auburn as well, but I think the second individual spot for the AA is fairly open.
Arizona has Alison Flores doing the AA right now, and she's someone to consider, but so is Arizona as a team. Arizona is one of those fourth seeds that I don't want to discount because they are ranked fairly well and have managed some high 196s this year, but once again they're going to need assistance from the teams above. Most of Arizona's high scores have come at home this year, and they've struggled to find the same scores on the road. The Wildcats will be starting on vault and floor, going just before Stanford on those events, and to stand any chance, they'll need to be multiple tenths up on the Cardinal at the halfway point. It's possible. with Kristin Klarenbach on floor and a couple 9.9ers in Klarenbach and Shelby Edwards on vault, they could manage strong enough score to at least put some pressure on. Edwards nailed it on vault and beam at Pac 12s, so she's one to watch.
In the individual race, if you're looking for a member of one of the outside teams who can crash nationals by taking an AA spot, follow Kent State senior Marie Case. She's the lone competing holdover from the miracle team of 2011, scored a 39.600 earlier this month (senior night disclaimer) and is currently ranked #13 in the country. Because we won't necessarily have two clear AA options from the team that finishes third, I think Case has a decent shot at making it back to nationals in her final season. That will be a fun side story to watch during the meet.
Iowa State is another of those teams that just sneaked into regionals after a big score at its conference championships, obliterating its previous season high. They used a 196.650 at Big 12s to jump past West Virginia, the team hosting the meet. West Virginia has had some home scoring benefit all season long, but it didn't work out this time. We probably shouldn't expect a similar 196 showing at regionals from Iowa State, but they do have a competitive AAer of their own in Caitlin Brown who can put up mid 9.8s for a solid total score.