When considering the quality of the top four teams and the competitive Super Six they are likely to produce for us this year, I am reminded of the words of the great Jean-Ralphio Saperstein: "That snizz is straight-up deloycious."
Florida, Oklahoma, LSU, and Alabama have all reached the 198s this season and can all make at least a moderately convincing argument as a challenger for the ultimate crown, having consistently traded off recording the top score in the country all season. If these four teams do end up making Super Six, it will be a fantastically exciting competition. Be sure to have your anxiety medication, your therapy dog, and an entire birthday cake close to you once Super Six begins because you will need all three at various points.
This year, we don't have a team occupying the same coveted favorite position that Florida did last year as the clear #1 team to end the regular season that won SECs, dominated a home regional, and came into nationals as the presumptive winner barring disaster (or not even barring disaster as it turned out). This year, Florida finished the season as the clear #1 once again, but they lost at SECs and put in a moderately severe stinker at regionals. There are similar complications to the route to a title for Oklahoma, Alabama, and LSU. They have all scored well, but no one is a clear dominant force going into nationals. But someone will emerge.
A caveat: These teams are not far enough removed from the rest of the competition that their qualifications to Super Six should be taken as a given. They're close enough to the rest of the pack that they shouldn't be able to get away with a mental catastrophe in semifinals, at least with all other things being hit. Should they put in clean rotations, however, they'll all advance to Saturday, so in addressing these teams, I'm looking at what they need to do to win the title, not simply to advance to Super Six. Let's begin, shall we?
We were all beset by flashbacks of Super Six 2013 after Florida counted a fall on beam at regionals last week, recalling their way-too-dramatic run to the title last season. Of course, it could just as easily have reminded us of the Great Beam Horror of 2011 or several others in their line of previous setbacks, but winning a national title changes the narrative. We don't think of Florida as the team that almost succeeds anymore, we think of Florida as a team impervious to mistakes, that wins championships even when kind of falling apart. After that beam fall at regionals, they seemed guaranteed to come back and get another 49.abillion on floor in the next rotation, but they didn't, which was interesting. They had some strong routines, but also a fall and a counting 9.7. The mistakes festered for multiple rotations instead of being instantly erased.
That regionals showing is enough to make you wonder about beam, isn't it? Florida has succumbed to errors a few times this season on that four inch temptress, not a huge amount but enough that they've felt the need to shift things around to be safer. Kytra has gone to the end of the lineup, and her front tuck mount is gone, which is disappointing but understandable. She doesn't need it for her bonus and was conceding .050 to .100 on it fairly regularly. Regardless of how they arrange it, the talent is there. It just all seemed a little unsettled at regionals, with two falls compounded by the fact that they came from the two big scores and necessary 9.9s, Sloan and Caquatto. Florida doesn't have as many likely 9.9s on beam as on the other events, but that is true for most teams so isn't in itself a handicap. It simply means that Sloan and Caquatto must have steadied themselves for Florida to get close to 49.500 on beam, which is about the average standard I'm looking for from these teams on each event. Sloan has had a couple mistakes this year (two
falls and a hand-beam) while this is Caquatto's first. It doesn't
exactly amount to an epidemic, but it is more mistakes than I would have expected from
Bridget Sloan - even though she's the #1 beamer in the country.
I'm not prepared to say definitively that it will take straight 49.500s for a 198 to win the championship (only one team has ever scored a 198 at Super Six - UCLA in 2004) because I do hope that scoring is stricter at nationals. If we do see routines held to a higher standard this weekend, these expected scores will be a bit lower. But, since these teams have shown the capability for 198s and 49.500s across the board throughout the regular season, it makes a solid reference point to see where they are succeeding or falling behind.
The 49.500 is a much more comfortable standard for Florida on bars and floor given that they've reached that level in nearly half the meets so far this season. The Gators look to be the only team besides Georgia that is capable of getting a 9.900 in every spot in the bars rotation, which provides them significant scoring security in addition to astronomical scoring potential. (For the sake of bars finals, I'm glad Florida and Georgia are in opposite semis - otherwise it would be a bloodbath.) At regionals, they were easily able to absorb the fall from Hunter because they are not relying particularly heavily on any one score to make the rotation. They all get 9.9s. We've seen a couple consistency aberrations on floor at the last few meets, but I do expect that to be eradicated for nationals. It's the Kytra Hunter show, sure, but she has several supporting 9.9s to make the leap to 49.500 very realistic, even away from the O'10nnell Center. One of the biggest accomplishments for Florida this season has been maintaining the scoring potential on floor without King and Dickerson. We still have to see how that plays out at nationals, but I expect it to be a non-issue.
Lost in the discussion of all the problems at regionals was a real bright spot, the performance on vault. The vault landings were my prime area of concern going into the competition for Florida, but they made a big step in getting a 49.550, even without a top vault from Kytra. Much of that scoring improvement was down to the Caquattuses in the first two positions. They hadn't been landing very well the whole season, but like the sisters they are, they both pulled it together at the same time to put the rotation on a much more competitive level from the beginning. If they can replicate those landings at nationals, they'll take the pressure off beam to be a 49.500 event by creating a margin on the other three.
As we'll see, most of these teams are capable of 49.500 on most of the events, but if Florida is to win, the absolute most important thing will be outscoring all of their closest rivals on bars. Bars is where they gain an edge, and the fact that they did not outscore Alabama on bars by any real margin at SECs was instrumental in their losing the title. It meant they didn't have an event where they were clearly superior. Of course they'll have to keep pace on the other apparatuses - no one is winning this thing with some 49.200 anywhere - but bars is most important to their title hopes. Watch that space.
When will it be Oklahoma's year? That's the question we're asking now that Florida finally had its year. Oklahoma is the next heir to the throne, and they have occupied that exact second-in-command position for much of the latter half of the season, alternating with LSU for the 2nd and 3rd spots in the rankings. That's where they have been pretty much every week - 2nd or 3rd best in the nation, right at the top, close to the best. It happened once again at regionals with a 197.725, behind only LSU in the race for the top score. They always have one of the best scores, and we know Oklahoma is one of the best teams. We've known that for five seasons. Now can they be the best? This season presents a huge opportunity because this year they are just as likely as any of the other favorites to win. They're not the spoiler. No one is running clearly out ahead of them. That hasn't always been the case.
The Sooners could have won the title last season but were victimized by a lumpy vault rotation early in Super Six. I wouldn't expect that to happen again based on what we've seen on vault this season, culminating in that massive 49.700 at regionals. I don't anticipate the same kind of score at nationals for an identical performance because the scores did go high at the end of that meet on vault, starting from Oklahoma's first routine, which was a 9.900 for Madison Mooring without a stick. It's fairly rare to see a Yhalf get a 9.900 without being stuck, but Mooring is the most likely nominee for it. They'll have to be perfect in the landings in the first few lineup spots next time to hope for the same kind of huge score, but the power and landings from the end of the lineup mean that Oklahoma is running right with all the other teams on vault and shouldn't face any disadvantage. No one is worried about Oklahoma looking tame on vault when compared to the SEC teams anymore.
By downgrading Haley Scaman's vault to a full, they have turned her into one of the top vaulters in the country who receives regular 9.950s. I don't usually love the decision to downgrade vaults because it often seems like a concession, but something had to change after last season. She was performing a perfectly fine 1.5 in the anchor spot but wasn't sticking and therefore received a lot of 9.850s, which was stunting the scoring potential that had otherwise been building toward the final position. Either she would have to be moved to an earlier place in the lineup to allow someone else to stick for 9.950+ at the end, or she herself would have to downgrade to a higher-scoring full. The decision seems to have worked out. Two or three sticks at the end of the lineup should be enough to get the Sooners to that 49.500 plateau given the foundation they have now.
Oklahoma has matched their massive vault RQS this season on floor, but the jury is still out for me on how well this floor rotation is going to score. I'm fascinated to see how the scoring matches up with LSU, especially with the Sooners going right after the Tigers in semifinals. They're very different rotations, with different strengths and styles, so that should be a telling comparison. Oklahoma still doesn't have the most difficulty among the teams, but I don't see the level of difficulty being a huge factor this year. They have big passes from the last couple gymnasts, and there hasn't been any evidence in the scoring this season that the judges are being more forgiving to routines with bigger difficulty. We've seen 10s for routines where the most difficult pass is a double pike, and a number of those same double pike routines got 9.9s again at regionals. Whether Oklahoma remains competitive on floor with the LSUs and Alabamas will come down to execution more than composition.
But, if we're looking for the place where Oklahoma can earn the title, it's beam - of course it is. Much like Florida on bars, this is the event on which they have to excel in order to win the title. It will be the best benchmark for how competitive they are with the other favorites. The old adage about beam is that you don't win competitions on beam, but you do lose them. Like most adages, it's pretty meaningless and based on nothing. Oklahoma can win a title on beam with this lineup that has no peaks and valleys. They're all peaks and, top to bottom, have the highest scoring potential in the country. I enjoy this beam rotation so much I just want to bring it to a pet store and look at it adoringly through the glass. Beam will be the most challenging event to get a 49.500 on in this competition, so if Oklahoma can do it, they'll have given themselves a significant and clear opening to pick away at the others.
One of the interesting developments for the Sooners this year has been bars, where they have recorded excellent scores but also many, many more 49.1s than I ever would have predicted coming into the season. In the last 6 meets, they've had two 49.5s and four 49.1s, which is weird. We rarely see that much scoring variation from week to week without falls being involved. They've had a couple mistakes this year, but mostly the low-scoring meets have seen a ton of 9.8s in spite of the fact that the quality of their handstands should be allowing them to scoring consistently in the 9.9s each week. Landings, landings, landings. They're a must, because a 49.1 is enough to take them out of contention regardless of how strong beam is or how much vault has become an asset. One rotation of 9.850s makes the rest go away. Finishing on bars, as they will in semifinals, is a good rotation order for Oklahoma, so I expect to see the 49.5 team show up, but the 49.1 team making another cameo would be cause for concern - even if they do get out of the session.
Well look at you, LSU. After last season, we all knew that LSU would continue to be a contender. They finished 5th in 2013, lost very few routines, and gained some significant ones, so improvement was to be expected and a return to Super Six has always seemed a likely outcome. Becoming a top top team, however, and scoring right with Florida, Oklahoma, and Alabama every week, has been another step up that I didn't expect to see this soon. I wouldn't classify LSU as the favorite here - it's one thing to get a 198 at home at regionals, and it's another thing to beat all these other top teams at the same time in Birmingham - but I also wouldn't be too surprised by any kind of top-tier finish at this point. It's a big step from being a contender to being truly in it with the best teams, and LSU has made that step almost instantly.
Make no mistake, while much of LSU's newfound contention has been built on rescuing the bars and beam rotations from the land of stress and nightmares, this is still a vault and floor team and will remain so. If LSU is going to pull off the ultimate upset and take the championship, they will do it by winning both vault and floor with something near the 49.6s they receiving at home during regionals and establishing an insurmountable lead that cannot be breached even by the exceptional bars and beam rotations from the elite teams around them.
In the postseason, I talk a lot about asset events - which events can teams not simply score well on but win - because the teams that win Super Six do it by winning at least two events, usually three. LSU can absolutely win vault, mostly because they are the best at it. They have 1216 people in that lineup capable of getting a 9.900, and sticks from Jessie Jordan in the second spot give them the kind of early score that no one else is matching. There was some minor confusion about Kaleigh Dickson pulling out of vault at the last minute at regionals, but that doesn't appear to be a major concern. It's not like they don't have other vaulters who can step in, anyway. But because it is such an important event for LSU, everyone in the lineup must show up with those 9.9s to give them the margin that they need. We usually look at a 49.400 as a good score, but that would be a warning sign for LSU at nationals because they need even more from vault.
Floor can be an asset on the same level as vault. It's probably not as much of a sure thing (e.g., that 49.350 from SECs with a bunch of 9.850s - again a good score but they need more), but with Lloimincia Hall at the back of the lineup, Rheagan Courville who is nearly as strong as her on floor just less buzz-worthy, and oft-overlooked Jessica Savona, the path to 49.500 at minimum is very clear and very likely. There are, however, still some questions about the lineup. Dickson's foot (which sounds like the name of some pioneer town, like the wagon train will make a stop at Dickson's Foot for the night before trying to ford the Snake River) makes her routine less of a sure thing, and while Maliah Mathis has been in the lineup for the end of the season, she hasn't put up consistently good scores since coming back from her Achilles injury. Gnat came back in at regionals (good sign - she's an asset), as did Ranzy, who did a fine job but isn't up to the level of the rest of the lineup these days. She has become a much better bars worker at LSU, but isn't what she used to be on floor. They have enough options for floor that the lineup should be fine regardless, but the revolving door is something to watch there.
We've seen some big scores for LSU on bars this year, and their RQS is huge, but bars also sees significant variation in the scores from week to week. One week it's a 49.2, the next it's a 49.6, then it's a 49.4, all in the evaluation of hit routines. They have a big score to rely on from Morrison and usually a big one from Courville, but getting competitive numbers from the other positions will be harder. We saw at SECs that LSU performed perfectly acceptably on bars for a hit rotation but still struggled to keep pace with the other top SEC teams and ended up giving up three tenths right there, even though they didn't make any mistakes. One of the concerns, and one of the reasons the big vault and floor scores are so important, is that LSU could hit 6-for-6 on bars and still fall in the standings because of 9.850s compared to others' 9.900s. They have to squeeze everything they can out of those routines.
I think I said it from the first week, but it's still true that the single most important routine in LSU's development is Ashleigh Gnat's beam routine because she gives them three national-class routines to end the lineup, all of which can score in the 9.9s. That's exceptionally important progress, and while there have still been a few falls this year, LSU's beam is not simply an event that they pray to the god of temp tattoos just to get through anymore. They can enter it with some degree of confidence. Some degree. The scoring potential at the beginning of the lineup is still lower than what the other top teams have, which we have seen reflected in the road scores several times this year - where LSU hasn't broken 49.325 on beam. That's a little to close to the dreaded 49.2 territory for comfort.
There's pressure on those early beam workers to put up usable scores because the later routines still do have some risk. Gnat had some falling problems in the middle of the season, and while Courville's routine is phenomenal and can contend for a 10, her arabian is still a risky element - not always for a fall but for a major wobble and a score they don't want to count. The early people (sometimes I want to call the early-lineup workers the "peasants," but that seems mean) must provide a buffer so that it's not the end of the world if something happens to the final three, who are not shoo-ins for huge scores.
That beam lineup will be put to the test when LSU finishes there in the semifinal, with will be a learning moment for us all. Especially if the meet is still on the line, we will know for sure whether their beam work is for real or just an illusion after that.
Alabama may be the #4 team in the country going into the postseason, but they are not fourth in likelihood to win the championships. This year's hosts are always sniffing around the title, and 2014 is no exception. For the other teams, I've been going through what the key events are, what they need to win in order to create an advantage over everyone - Florida on bars, Oklahoma on beam, LSU on the power events - but the interesting thing for Alabama is that they don't really have the big event this year, the one that shows them off and where they dominate the other teams and ride off into the sunset on the back of it. It's similar to how they don't have the big star. Everyone, on every event, is at a similar level and the scores come from different places at different meets. At regionals, the big event was vault, at SECs it was bars, the meet before that it was beam, and the meet before that it was floor.
If Alabama wins, it won't be because they destroyed one event and created a huge margin. It will be because they were strong enough on all the events to take advantage of the question-mark apparatuses and potentially sub-par scores I have just detailed for each of the other teams. Alabama is the most likely team to get the same score on every event. At regionals, the Tide had a good meet but not a great meet, and while they did get those equivalent scores on bars, beam, and floor, the equivalent scores were 49.3s, marked by some rather uncharacteristic mistakes, and that won't be enough at nationals. They'll have to step those up to a 49.450ish level at least.
If there's one event where I see Alabama faltering and not living up to the potential of the other events, it remains bars. It was bars even before the season began, and we have come full circle to bars once again. Alabama has recorded some big scores on bars this year - but all at home meets, as long as we're considering SECs a home meet, which it basically was - so they'll hope they get a similar home stimulus at championships since their road high on bars is just a 49.250. That's my concern in that it can be a pretty 9.8ish rotation throughout especially in the handstands department - which lack the crisp precision of a Georgia. Many times before, we have seen Alabama stick the hell out of their DLOs to snatch a bars score that seemed highly unlikely, which is how they can stay competitive on bars at nationals as well. Otherwise, they don't have the stars with 9.950s here, which could be trouble when trying to contend with Florida.
While Alabama did have a few errors on the beam and floor rotations at regionals - with Clark falling on beam and Jacob getting an uncharacteristic 9.775 on floor - those events are both more likely to stay normal and reflect the quality we have seen throughout the season. Alabama's beam rotation has been pretty secure this year, especially in terms of minimizing even small wobbles and ensuring that all deductions taken are for less obvious errors. Jacob is a star there, Clark has a 10, and Aja Sims has been an excellent addition to give them a complete lineup. They have security early in the rotation from Milliner and Bailey - with some nice difficulty from DeMeo thrown in - building to top scores later on. And while the floor lineup isn't quite the Big Bama floor we sometimes see, everyone should get at least a 9.850, and Jacob and Milliner provide clear 9.950 potential at the end. They shouldn't have much trouble keeping pace with their compatriots on those events.
Vault is an interesting topic because it's Alabama on vault. They should always be powering their way through as one of the top vaulting teams and slamming those sticks into the mat, but for a while this season, I thought they had lost a step. Not because of landings - those come in time - but because the vaults weren't as dynamic as I usually expect. Bailey has a perfectly nice - but regular - yhalf, DeMeo has been a borderline vaulter in her college career, and Jacob has some form issues, etc. There were reasons to see this teams as less competitive, but lately they have been finding those Alabama sticks again, and the 49.600 from regionals reflects that. If they can stick enough of those vaults, and land exactly like they didn't at nationals last year, all should be right with the world order and Alabama should be one of the top scoring vault teams again.
As for the subject of Alabama hosting the meet, it could be a factor in terms of the crowd - we know Alabama always performs well in front of the home crowd - but hopefully not in terms of scores. The judges have been pretty good at the last few championships at maintaining professionalism and not giving a noticeable nudge to the home team, so I don't imagine we'll see anything too, too crazy, but you never know. Alabama is a different animal. There will be a controversy regardless, so don't worry about things getting too normal. In a meet where so many different teams are capable of scoring all these 49.5s on all these events, there is guaranteed to be delicious scoring outrage at some point. We wouldn't want it any other way.