The history of recent championships is pretty rosy for Alabama. Save for a couple rough finishes in 2007 and 2008, the Tide have put up a legitimate challenge for the title every year, ultimately succeeding in 2011 and 2012 when they went back-to-back to claim the program's fifth and six national titles overall. Since then, Alabama has remained right in the middle of the championship fight. They placed 3rd in 2013 and 4th at home in 2014, but it's easy to forget that if not for crucial mistakes on beam, Alabama could be the four-time defending champion. In each of the last two Super Sixes, they had it. Counting a 9.625 on beam put them behind Florida in 2013, and last year, they needed just 9.900 from Clark and Jacob in the last two spots to jump ahead of the Florida/Oklahoma tie, which was pretty realistic. It didn't happen.
Now, we enter a new era in Alabama gymnastics. Sarah Patterson is gone, and the identity of the Duckworth reign is yet to be defined. It will be a different Alabama this year. There are always changes when a new coach takes over, even if that coach was with the team already, but the most important contributor to Alabama's 2015 evolution will not be the coaching change but the roster turnover. Kim Jacob, Diandra Milliner, and Sarah DeMeo accounted for 3 routines on vault, beam, and floor, and 2 on bars, many of which were 9.9s and the rest were all-but-guaranteed 9.850s. Without those three, Alabama will be putting up be a lot of new-look lineups, and it's reasonable to expect some drop in quality from last season.
That drop puts Alabama down below the current big three (Florida, Oklahoma, and LSU), the three teams with the clearest, most believable chance to win the championship this year. Still, I kept Alabama at #4 in my rankings, and the coaches did the same, because enough consistent talent, routine options, and supporting 9.875s remain on this team to consider them one of the safer bets to make Super Six. In spite of the lost routines, they still have 7 scores of 9.900+ returning from last year's Super Six performance, which is a very solid foundation that none of the teams ranked below them can match.
Much like Michigan, a team that has also lost a small village worth of routines, Alabama's success will depend on key returning competitors like Lauren Beers and Katie Bailey transitioning from supporting players (mid-lineup, good job getting that 9.850) to lineup leaders who are expected to get 9.9s every time out.
Returning lineup — Lauren Beers (9.930), Kaitlyn Clark (9.890), Katie Bailey (9.860)
When was the last time Alabama competed vault without Diandra Milliner in the anchor position? She held that spot from the very first meet of her freshman year (and got a 9.900), and it will be slightly strange to see the Tide vault without her 1.5 at the end. Yet in spite of losing the scoring potential of that vault, Alabama shouldn't suffer a major hit on this event because, for some reason, I think Kayla Williams will be able to manage a few 9.950s of her own. Just a world vault champion. You know, no big deal. Having Williams back from injury, whether she's vaulting her massive 1.5 or the full we know she can stick like crazy, will play a significant role in maintaining the quality from last year.
Alabama is sort of like a vaulting hydra. Cut off a 1.5 from Milliner and three more grow in its place. Freshmen Mackenzie Brannan and Nickie Guerrero both have 1.5s of competitive quality that can legitimately make the transition to NCAA. They're powerful options who should contribute right away. Really, Williams should go into Milliner's spot, Brannan and Guerrero should go into Jacob and DeMeo's spots, and we call it a day. Done. 49.500s. Beers and Clark both slam down their fulls for regular 9.9s, and Bailey proved clean enough and showed enough distance on her y1/2 last season that she kept pace with the rest of the team while performing a half twist less. This should be a strong event for Alabama, and because there are question marks on other events, it will be that much more important for Alabama to stock up on 49.5s here.
Returning lineup — Kaitlyn Clark (9.910), Amanda Jetter (9.900), Katie Bailey (9.850), Aja Sims (9.760)
Alabama always seems to pull it together on bars. Early in the season, my handstand radar has a conniption fit about everyone and gives them all a 2.300 out of protest (because that's the deduction for three missed handstands in one NCAA routine), but then they start sticking enough landings that the 9.950s suddenly fly all over the place for 49.5s and I'm never really sure how it all happened. Lately, this bars lineup has made its money on the no-doubt-about-it stuck DLO landings from Jacob and DeMeo, so I'm interested to see how it will survive without those routines this year. There are still a few quality routines in there, but not as much depth or proven stickitude. Others need to take up the mantle.
Amanda Jetter's biggest asset for this team is her bars routine. She's part of the new MLT tradition of bars workers who are almost good enough to compete bars for the US but never will. Jetter maintains solid rhythm and amplitude throughout her routine, and expect 9.9s depending on how much control she maintains on her double front dismount (see, stickitude is the watchword). Kaitlyn Clark also emerged as a strong anchor last season for frequent 9.9s, including the above SEC title performance for 9.975. Jetter and Clark will be a competitive duo at the back of the lineup, but they'll need to find a couple more top scores to keep pace with Florida/Oklahoma and avoid the possibility of 9.825 syndrome, which is a realistic concern this year. Is it all going to be a little 49.200? Brannan could ensure that doesn't happen. I like what I've seen from her in the handstand department. Katie Bailey's routine is very Christa Tanella senior year, and like Tanella, she will be good for consistent 9.850s as a supporting option.
Beyond them, Aja Sims will probably be back. She has some admirable qualities and big skills, but last season her leg form was all over the place to the point where some of her higher scores seemed downright crazy. That routine still needs to be cleaned up to become another 9.9. Carley Sims and Lauren Beers are usually sniffing around the lineup as well, but keep an eye out for Keely McNeer. No one really knew what to expect when she arrived at Alabama because she had recently disappeared into thin air, but McNeer exhibitioned a few times on bars last year and looked pretty close to making the lineup. Also, if freshman Kiana Winston doesn't end up being out for too long as she continues to rehab past injuries, she could be a significant addition on this event without putting too much pounding pressure on herself.
Returning lineup — Aja Sims (9.895), Katie Bailey (9.865), Kaitlyn Clark (9.850)
It's funny. Despite two consecutive years of beam issues in Super Six taking a possible title away from Alabama, I don't consider this Alabama team shaky on beam. Maybe that's just the power of preconceived narrative, but it's also because they don't have nearly the problems throughout the season that other schools do. They're one of the solidest teams. Lately, that simply hasn't carried over to the moment it really counts.
This year, I expect Aja Sims to be the major star on beam. While I have concerns about her form on bars, I have no such concerns about beam where she has the strongest dance elements on the team. Alabama is in the middle of a 9.9 exodus after spending so many seasons relying on Stack-Eaton, then Priess, then Jacob to get their huge scores. This year, someone else needs to come in and replace that potential, and Sims seems the most likely option. She'll be supported by the triumphant return of Kayla Williams, the clean elegance of Katie Bailey, and the solidity of Kaitlyn Clark (note the random 10 last season). That's a very good four. They're pretty consistent as far as beam goes and should keep the team in contention for 49.3s-49.4s. There are some truly excellent beam squads knocking around NCAA this year, and while Alabama lacks the same GASP 9.975 THE BEAUTY! routines that some of those excellent beam squads have, they'll still hit for competitive scores once they find two more reliable routines. I vote for the freshmen Brannan and Guerrero at least to get a chance since it's always exciting to see new blood, but it will be a hit-off among many options to see who can earn it. With regular hit routines, they will slide right past the beautiful disasters. The Alabama way.
Returning lineup — Lauren Beers (9.885), Katie Bailey (9.840), Lora Leigh Frost (no RQS)
Alabama is not usually lacking for floor options. While some teams struggle to scrape together E passes, the Tide often have gymnasts with major difficulty sitting down in 10th or 11th on the depth chart. This year, once again, they will have many gymnasts who can give them a competitive routine for an acceptable score. There are a ton of 9.850s on this team. The issue will be finding a way to maintain the scores from last season now that the 9.9+ star routines from Milliner, Jacob, and DeMeo are no more. The back half of the lineup is a wasteland now. Who is going to fill in for 9.950s? 9.950s are what Alabama expects on floor and what Alabama will need in order to stay a member of the top four teams.
As on vault, Lauren Beers lands with such security that she never gives the judges an opportunity to deduct for lack of control. That's why she's the one returning floor star and the one member of this team who has already proven the ability to get consistent 9.9s. Her routine is absolutely essential this season. The rest need to take note and keep up. Mackenzie Brannan has a great double arabian that can fit in well, and many of the other contenders who did not make the lineup last season should see their chances improve greatly this year. Jetter and Aja Sims ended up just on the outside of the 6 last year, but they both scored in the high 9.8s and seem legitimate contenders to compete alongside Bailey with her Milliner-esque double arabian and Lora Leigh Frost with her DLO. It's a solid enough group, but it's not at the same level as last season.
I also haven't mentioned Dominique Pegg yet since we saw so very little from her last season, but she shouldn't just be making up the numbers on this team. She needs to be contributing vital scores because she's talented enough to do so. Floor seems as good an option for her as any since it was her signature event as an elite.
I know not to underestimate Alabama on floor because it's Alabama on floor. Tumbling is what they do, but don't expect a continuation of the Jacob/Milliner back-to-back 9.950/49.500 parade right away this year. There will be an adjustment period. New huge scores need to be found.