When Missouri joined the SEC and the conference championship switched from a one-session, seven-team behemoth to a two-session meet, there was some push back from a few coaches. (I think Jay Clark wanted it to be contested over two days with several rounds, or something wildly unnecessary.) Flash forward two years, and it has worked out splendidly. With four legitimate title contenders for the last two seasons, the second session of SECs has been equivalent to the lamely named "Four on the Floor" that several of the coaches have long advocated instead of Super Six. Florida, Alabama, LSU, and Georgia will be lobbing 9.950s at each other all meet long in what Bart Connor will inevitably call a "four-ring circus," and it's going to take maintaining an exceptional level across all four events to even consider winning this meet. One 49.250 rotation will be enough to bump any team out of it. Having to count a couple 9.825s on bars last year was enough to keep Alabama below Florida, and I have to think that multiple 9.825s will be similarly poisonous this year. "Fine routine" = "Enjoy 4th place."
And believe it or not, in the SEC the top four seeds are actually competing at the end of the competition, after the bottom four seeds. You know, like at a sporting event. At the risk of turning into too much of a Sarah-Patterson-at-Nationals in my SEC praise (if there were a pull-string doll of Sarah Patterson, it would just say, "It's great to be here with all these wonderful SEC teams" over and over again), the Pac 12 can still boast that its event is actually broadcast live on TV, which may be the trump card.
Each of the four teams in the final session can manage a couple 49.500 rotations, so it's going to take at least a very high 197 to win the title, if not a 198. Florida, Alabama, and LSU have all reached 198 this year, and I would actually be mildly surprised if none of the three teams manage it at SECs the way the scoring has been going. If the judges maintain the same standard they have used during the regular season, they will be pushed high on every event right from the start and will have to stay there all meet.
Of the big four, Georgia has the toughest battle for the title because there are still some questions about floor and possibly beam. Questions won't cut it in a session this competitive, and they're probably going to need season highs on both beam and floor to stay with everyone else. Based on what we've seen lately, if Florida nails four events, I think they're the best team in the country, but the margin is small enough that they'll have to nail all four events without any kind of a landing lull. Alabama being in Birmingham may have an influence on the performance (they'll have the crowd certainly), but I'm not expecting some kind of huge or noticeable home-scoring advantage, mostly because all the scores are going to be high for everyone. There's no room for a home boost in this field in a 10-capped system. That said, if Alabama wins would I be surprised? Not even slightly. LSU? A little. Georgia? Yes.
Let's get into it. The rotation order is as follows:
Session 1: Auburn - VT; Arkansas - UB; Kentucky - BB; Missouri - FX
Session 2: Florida - VT; LSU - UB; Alabama - BB; Georgia - FX
Each of the teams in the second group has recorded several fantastic numbers on vault, and vault has probably been the most consistently high-scoring event of the four, which is traditional but also means that we could see rather even scoring here without one team taking a major advantage. I don't anticipate the meet being decided on vault unless one team really forgets to pack its sticks. We should see several 49.5s here that basically keep everyone in sight of each other for the other events.
It's an interesting dynamic on vault because Florida probably has the best final duo in Sloan and Hunter (I'll allow debate on the matter, but that's my assessment), but they have not been the best team on vault this season because they can be beat in the beginning of the lineup. LSU lays claim to being the strongest vaulting team because they can realistically get a 9.9 from every spot in the lineup, while Florida, Alabama, and Georgia are much more likely to start with a couple 9.850s, which makes the difference. For LSU, the lowest score often ends up being for Ashleigh Gnat's gargantuan 1.5 in the fourth position, solely because it's so much harder to stick that one. If LSU is going to win (which is certainly possible but I would still consider it an upset if they did), they'll need to take advantage of the 1-6 depth they possess and get those big scores from Dickson and Jordan right from the start. The first three or four vault scores for each team will be a telling comparison as we go through the meet.
If vault is essential for LSU, it's just as essential for Georgia because if the Gym Dogs are going to pull off the unexpected rise from 4th to 1st, they'll have to vault like monsters and stick at least four. I'm still on the Lindsey Cheek 10 watch, and if they can get controlled landings from Rogers and Jay for 9.925s instead of steps for 9.850s to support her, they'll be competitive. But everyone will have to be on, so that also means a stick from Davis and one of Cat Hires's non-short vaults.
Florida begins the meet on vault, which we tend to think of as advantageous (though I think the advantage of Olympic order is way overstated), but it actually might pose a challenge. Vault is Florida's lowest-ranked event (at 5th), and last year Florida began SECs on vault as well with a somewhat regular performance that they had to recover from on the final three events in order to win. The vaults from Spicer and Bridgey Caquatto must be under control from the start - none of these bounces - so that they're not giving away too much before the final vaulters. The other teams may also appreciate that Florida is starting on vault, because Kytra is most likely to break the 10 barrier there, which makes it more likely that the 10s will also flow for the other teams once they arrive at vault.
Alabama is the team that sticks. That's how they make their impact on vault, and why it was so surprising last year that the sticks went away at Nationals. A lot of the accountability for Alabama not being able to defeat a fall-counting Florida has gone to the errors on beam, but they were put in that position by failing to stick vaults two rotations before. I don't think this current Alabama vault team is as talented as the ones we have seen the last couple years without Gutierrez, Sledge, and Williams, so the sticks will be that much more important, especially from Beers who can stick for a 9.950 to support Milliner's inevitable high score.
The first session will be a battle between Auburn and Arkansas, and with both teams capable of 197s, we could see one pounce on a top-four team if one of the higher seeds has a trouble day. It's not guaranteed that Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Georgia will finish in the top four, just likely. In the Auburn and Arkansas competition, Auburn has the edge on vault. Arkansas has a couple struggle vaults in that rotation that make it hard for Grable's excellent to bring the score too high, so if Auburn is on point with the landings and gets the big scores from Rott and Atkinson at the end, they can build up a multi-tenth advantage here.
As we rotate to bars, we encounter the must-dominate event for Georgia. This is true not just in the SEC race but looking toward Nationals as well where Georgia will likely be in a fight for the final spot to advance out of one of the semifinals. They'll have to be much better than the competition on bars to win that fight. It's their trump card. There are several dreams in this Georgia bars rotation: Kiera Brown's tkatchev, Brittany Rogers's stalders, all the handstands, Chelsea Davis's everything. But, those are just pleasant little wisps of nothing without the landings to go with them. Those landings disappeared last week against Utah, and they need to reappear immediately. At its best, this is a multi-9.950 rotation and another event where Georgia needs those 9.950s and needs to outscore the competition, not just stay with, but outscore.
Florida is great on bars as well (#2 in the country) but can still get getter, and when we think about Florida's path to a championship repeat, wiping the floor with everyone on bars is a significant part of that path. If this competition is viewed as a Florida-Alabama showdown, which it isn't necessarily, bars is where Florida accumulates its advantage over Alabama, with three to four legitimate 9.950 possibilities. I actually thought, especially given the scoring this season, that we would see a few more meets where Sloan, Macko, and Johnson were straight 9.950s at the end of the lineup, but the landings have taken some time to get under control and there are just a couple breaks here and there–handstands sometimes for Macko, Johnson's DLO, Sloan's bail–that can bring them down especially if the landings aren't there. If the Gators are to win the SEC again, they'll look for something like a two-tenth advantage over Alabama and LSU on bars, and that will come from the promise of the march of the 9.950s finally coming to fruition.
In Sarie Morrison and Rheagan Courville, LSU has the back end of a lineup to compete with the rest of the teams in the SEC on bars, which has so rarely been the case in this program's history. These last two seasons have seen a bars revolution to the point where this team is not giving away all that much. They can get their 9.9s, and Randii Wyrick's coming into form at the end of the year only helps, but I don't see LSU matching the scores that Florida and Georgia will put up on bars in the exact opposite of the situation on vault. Here, LSU is the team that doesn't have the possible 9.9s from the very first position the way that Georgia and Florida do. Low 49.4s would be a very good bars score for LSU and would set them up well, but it would also result in a some disadvantage in the overall title race.
Alabama has done a respectable job at enduring bars this season. Losing Priess, Sledge, and Alexin made it seem at the beginning of the season that they would be starting from scratch on this event, and in some ways that has been the case. Bars a very different dynamic than the rotation had last season, and one of the disadvantages Alabama faces is that they don't have those go-to 9.9 routines that the other three top teams have. A couple of the Alabama bars workers can get 9.9s, but it's not a given that they'll do it and it's usually really exciting for them when it happens. I'm very interested to see what the judges do with some of those Alabama handstands and with Aja Sims' routine, with the leg breaks that haven't really been deducted so far this season. But, broken record alert, this team can stick some DLOs like no one's business. It definitely brings up those scores, and could help erase a potential deficit to Florida, especially if the Gators are stepping out on us.
Discussing beam in the SEC is far less terrifying than discussing beam in the Pac 12. There are still mistakes. There are still fountains of terror just waiting to spurt, but I have a lot more confidence that we will see multiple hit beam rotations, namely from Alabama. Alabama has several strong events, but on vault and floor, I expect other teams to be able to score right with them, which mitigates some of the advantage. On beam, Alabama is capable of putting together a wobble-free rotation that provides some separation between them and other teams. Much like how landings become everything in a year of high scores, on beam, lack of wobbles and a stuck dismount can be a direct route to 9.950s, and we've seen that for the Tide this season. Alabama begins on beam, and I don't expect that to be any kind of an issue. If any team should start on beam, it should be Alabama.
No team has been immune from the beam mistakes this year, but like Alabama, Florida has kept them to a minimum, the struggle against UCLA early in the season and then that mini-meltdown at Alabama come to mind, but mostly they have been able to get those essential nailed routines from Sloan and Macko at the end of the lineup for 9.925s to bring in the big scores. However, there has been enough concern in the Florida beam lineup that Kytra has been moved to the anchor position, so maybe that's reason for a doubt or two to creep in. Kytra's average on beam this year is in the 9.7s, and ever since the Super Six incident, her beam hasn't been a guaranteed hit. Both Kytra and Alaina Johnson will have to get through without a major wobble so that Florida isn't forced to count a couple of those 9.825s that I warned about.
LSU experienced a beam boost in 2013, and another boost in 2014, to become a solidly competitive team on this event. They haven't yet recorded a beam rotation below 49, which is a huge deal for this team. The most important change this season has been the addition of Gnat, who can score right with Courville and Jordan and give the team a dynamic trio. However, like Florida, there is still some concern in this lineup. A couple of the early routines are still questionable, and they've been working against a low score for several meets lately. As great as Courville's routine can be, there is definite risk in that arabian, which means that she might throw in a 9.7 with a big wobble that they certainly don't want to count. That puts more pressure on people like Hall and Ewing to get their hits and not just rely on the back three to save the rotation.
Georgia has had a few more beam struggles this season that the other teams, not necessarily devastating scores (and still good enough to be #5 in the country) but some counting 9.7s and working against early falls. For the last two years, the story for Georgia has been big scores in the first two rotations that fall away in the last two. Georgia doesn't always get the big beam scores that the others get, so aside from having the beginning of the rotation stay on the beam–obviously–they'll need both Cheek and Earls to hit for those 9.9s, otherwise it's hard to imagine this rotation scoring well enough to keep the Gym Dogs on pace. The team's RQS is a 49.240, but they'll need to beat by at least a tenth to stay close.
In the first session, if Arkansas is going to make a move on Auburn, it will happen on beam. Auburn has struggled with consistency this year, counting falls fairly frequently, so even though they have some sublime routines from Walker and Atkinson, Arkansas could use hits from Dillard, Nelson, and Wellick - even just for 9.825 or so - to build up a margin that Grable can bring home with her anchor routine. Auburn should be stronger on vault and floor, so if Arkansas is going to win the session, it will have to be because of beam.
Floor is the prime area where the judges are going to need to be wary of keeping their big scores to themselves like good little children because based on the scoring so far this season, with all these strong teams together in the same place, we could see the scores go so high so early that there would be no room to create any kind of separation between routines. Then, everyone is a 9.950 and there's no advantage to the best routines. Florida, LSU, and Alabama have all scored at least 49.675 this season on floor, which is crazy and means that on any given day, any of them could score a remarkable number here.
These three teams are all very even, but I would say that Kytra gives Florida an edge because she is the most likely 10. Florida also has what I think is the smartest lineup construction of the three teams. Sloan and Hunter have the quality and notoriety to get big scores in any position in the lineup, so putting them at 4th and 5th, rather than the traditional 5th and 6th, allows them to boost the scores for Bridgey Caquatto's pleasant and well-executed (but not Kytra-esque) routine and make it another contender for the 9.925s that it wouldn't necessarily get going before those two. It's a perfect example of difficulty building to cleanliness, which helps bump up the score for the cleanliness.
LSU and Alabama should also be right there for 49.5s or more, and therefore like vault, I don't expect floor to end up telling us that much about who wins this meet. These three teams are too even for us to expect any one of them to move ahead or drop behind by an appreciable margin here. With Jacob and Milliner for Alabama and Courville and Hall for LSU, both teams have the 9.950s to keep up the scoring parade. Hall has been the queen of floor 10s for a while now, but she has since been eclipsed by Kytra and hasn't received a 10 in over a month. What a drought! Her returning to the land of royalty at SECs would be a welcome development for LSU since these last couple weeks they have been throwing in a few 9.6s and 9.7s that we wouldn't expect. All of these teams can get high 9.8s through to 9.9s during their floor rotations, so counting a 9.750 could be devastating by comparison.
As for Georgia, this event is the team's biggest challenge, a challenge that is not helped by the fact that the scores have been going so high on floor, meaning that a struggle rotation is much more dangerous on floor than it is on beam because it results in a larger deficit. Last weekend saw some progress on floor for Georgia in a season-high score, with Jay and Rogers both hitting their routines at the same time and no one giving away some kind of silly OOB error. The problem is that this was Georgia's best floor showing and still resulted in a 49.450, which will probably end up being the fourth-best floor score we see at SECs, so the Gym Dogs are going to need to find even another gear up from last week to avoid giving up too much of a deficit.
It's all happening. All the gymnastics. You should probably get excited.