Heads up. The conference championships are tomorrow, and things get started earlier than normal with the first session of Big Tens beginning at 11:30 ET. I'll be popping in and out blogging throughout the day, paying special attention to the evening sessions from Pac-12s and SECs. Can you believe we actually get to watch the SEC Championship? Live. With our eyes. It's a brand new world.
So let's get right to what we'll be looking at tomorrow using our eye holes. As with the Pac-12, I'll break the competition down by session because that's an organizing principle that helps make things less rambling (allegedly), but keep in mind as I talk about the top-ranked teams that Georgia is also a team. Even though they're in the day session, they're right in this thing for a good score and a competitive finish. Adhering to the seedings and finishing 5th would be a disappointing result, but the title race is likely to come down to the top three seeds, Florida, LSU, and Alabama. Although wouldn't it be the highlight of your life if Auburn won?
EVENING SESSION: Florida, LSU, Alabama, Auburn
Florida enters as the top-ranked team and the easiest pick to win, but LSU does have a victory over Florida this year and is pretty much on par with the Gators in most areas, and probably stronger in a couple. The Sloan and Courville factors will be fascinating to watch. Courville has missed some serious time lately, but LSU needs her badly—especially on bars. Sloan is just trying to get back into the AA at the perfect time, but she still has some rust on beam and hasn't done floor yet. The fight will be to see which AA star is able to contribute more championship-caliber routines. That could be decisive given how evenly matched these teams are in so many areas. If you're suddenly missing a crucial 9.950 that you usually rely on, that's everything. Alabama should be able to put the pressure on both these teams and place well, but to actually win this thing, they'll have to step up the quality to a level we haven't seen yet. The capability is there, but winning may very well take a 197.900 or more, which Alabama hasn't brought this year, even at home. Let's get to it.
Rotation 1 (Florida vault, LSU bars, Alabama beam, Auburn floor)
As the top-ranked team, Florida gets the benefit of the best rotation order and should be able to take advantage of that for an early lead. If the Gators aren't winning after the first rotation, something will have gone wrong and we'll all be tittering with the excitement of things not going to plan. I love when things don't go to plan as long as they don't involve me. Florida has broken 49.500 in four of the last five meets, and that's the minimum level of scoring I expect in this meet from a lineup that has clearly improved over last year and ends with Baker, Sloan, Hunter, and McMurtry. Hunter and McMurtry have to do poor vaults to go as low as 9.900, and while Florida does occasionally have a case of the bounce-a-thons (though mostly earlier in the season), they're also the team most likely to get a good vault score even without sitcking because those final four vaulters give away nothing in form, distance, amplitude etc. That's a tough group to match.
Alabama has the unfortunate task of starting on beam, not just because beam is a horror but because it's the hardest event to get a huge score on. That means even if they have a good rotation, they'll probably be starting from a hole. I really do enjoy this beam lineup and was pleased to see things finally come together in the most recent meet after too many consistency problems early in the year. If you haven't seen Keely McNeer do beam in a while, she's lovely and sets up the lineup perfectly for the dance-element clinic named Aja Sims and the classic bam-bam Bama routines from Williams, Beers, and Clark. Depending on how well they stick the parade of 1.5 dismounts, 49.4 is realistic. Overall, this beam rotation will give us a good sense of whether it's an Alabama day. If they get the scores on beam, they should be able to hang right with Florida and LSU for the next couple rotations on vault and floor and make a legitimate run at the title. But up until last weekend, Alabama had three consecutive meets of 49.225, and the competition here is too strong to get away with that kind of score. Suddenly you're three tenths behind and trying to make up ground against Bridget Sloan's bars and Jessie Jordan's beam, which is sort of a lost cause.
Like Alabama, LSU is in a major pressure situation in the first rotation because bars remains the big question-mark event. The performance in the most recent meet against Centenary was uncommonly rough and sorely lacked a dose of Courville, but it does highlight the fact that this rotation has the fewest likely 9.9s of all the LSU events. They'll need to use at least two of Gnat, Hambrick, and Savona, all of whom have made tremendous strides as bars workers in the last year or so, but bars is still not the ideal event for any of them. The lineup sometimes ends up being Courville and a lot of supporting 9.850s, which is good for a 49.3 but not the 49.450-49.500 that pretty much every rotation is going to need to score To get that big score, LSU needs to bring back those suck-it-because-we're-better-on-bars-than-you-think-we-are resentment sticks that so impressed everyone in the first meet of the season. For people like Jordan and Zamardi, that can turn their 9.850s into vital 9.900s. They need to do some anger bars.
The bars score is my primary hesitation in predicting LSU to win this championship. I'm worried the rotation will be a little flat. But if they do bring the sticks and shed those average scores, then I'm confident enough in the next three events to consider this meet completely even. At that point, it could just as easily go to LSU or Florida, and we'd be in for a real treat for three more rotations. Let's hope we get it. Question: if you're putting together that LSU bars lineup, do you go with Gnat or Hambrick?
Auburn is playing with the big girls now, so while Auburn has been amazing this season, we have to evaluate this team not just on the scale of their own improvement or capabilities but in comparison to the best teams in the conference. Auburn's floor is good. It can be a real asset, especially when Caitlin Atkinson is in the lineup and getting her 9.9s. I particularly appreciate the commitment to difficulty through most of the lineup coupled with the pragmatism to downgrade some of those piked full-ins to tucked in order to give away less in chest position and landing control. But at the same time, most of these floor routines are more 9.850 than 9.900, which becomes a consideration in a meet where 197.9 is the expectation and everyone will be shooting rainbows of 9.9s out of every orifice. It's a strange world where 9.850 is a score that can take you out of contention, but that's where we are. Floor 9.850s could keep them in the respectable low 197s instead of the rarefied high 197s. If Auburn is going to stay in the picture and not be the afterthought of the late session, that will require a couple 9.9s in the opening rotation.
Rotation 2 (Auburn vault, Florida bars, LSU beam, Alabama floor)
If the LSU Tigers (I have to specify because Auburn is also the Tigers, which is no help to anyone) do start out with a clear deficit after the first rotation, it becomes even more important that they take advantage of the huge scoring potential and wealth of 9.9s they have on beam. LSU is ranked third in the country on beam right now, having lost a little ground in the weeks that Courville has been out of the lineup, but there's still a good argument for LSU as the top beam team. Oklahoma has a very good argument too, as does the second half of the UCLA lineup, but I'd take LSU in a beam fight any day. Jordan, Courville, Macadaeg, Gnat. All possible 9.950s. The one concern in LSU's beam lineup is the consistency of the freshmen. Both Macadaeg and Hambrick can get a little tight and wobbly for 9.750, and you cannot count a 9.750 in this meet. It's like getting a 2. Those Macadaeg and Hambrick beam routines are among the most critical of the meet for LSU. Hit those two, and things get good, especially because LSU is finishing on the LSU events, floor and vault. If they do have a lead halfway through, or even are within two tenths, I say it's advantage LSU from then on out.
Alabama has managed a season of fairly consistent 49.450s on floor, which is a solid number and around the kind of score they'll need in this meet. Maybe a bit more. A fluffy 49.5+ on floor would not be amiss in providing a little comfort because, unlike LSU, Alabama isn't ending on a strength and needs to take advantage of bigger scores in the earlier rotations. Alabama probably needs to beat least in second after floor to have a real shot. I do still have some questions about this Alabama floor lineup, though. (The first of which is, who exactly is in this lineup?). Lauren Beers can bust out a comfortable 9.950, but other than her, this team is relying on a lot of people who were borderline lineup members/definite bench members in past seasons and who can be great for 9.9, as in the case of Carley Sims, but who also have some tendency to throw in an awkward landing for 9.825. It has to be a good day for Clark and Sims. If it is, don't worry about Alabama's floor.
Even as recently as a few weeks ago, bars looked like Florida's primary vulnerability, but the return of Bridget Sloan has changed the identity of that lineup dramatically. Suddenly, she's popping up with a casual 10, replacing what was often a 9.825 without her, and as a result, Florida hasn't gone under 49.450 on bars since her return. That's going to make it very tough for anyone else to push back during this rotation. Although, the rest of the lineup has been known to throw some regular-season Stanford landings out there and bounce for 9.850, so keep an eye on that. We're in stick season now, and this meet is too close to have five 9.850s leading up to Sloan. That would open the door for an LSU beam special.
Auburn is almost there on vault. It truly is a whole lineup of possible 9.9s, but it hasn't really come together all at the same time to get that LSU, Florida, Utah-type vault score. Still, Atkinson has an exceptional 1.5, and Rott and Demers can both stick some seriously clean fulls when Demers is at full strength. Bri Guy hasn't quite been the same vaulter since her injury, but her vault remains impressive. For Auburn, this meet is about keeping pace as much as possible and then pouncing on potential mistakes if they're to finish any higher than fourth. If all those vaults arrive at the same time (with stronger landings than they have shown in most meets so far), a 49.400 is doable, which would make it much easier to keep pace. If Auburn has a surprise event up its sleeve, it's vault.
Rotation 3 (Alabama vault, Auburn bars, Florida beam, LSU floor)
There's a good chance this competition will be decided in rotation three as Florida goes to its lowest-scoring event while LSU heads to its highest-scoring event. There won't be a better opportunity for LSU to put a mark on the meet. After this, the Gators go to floor, and if they have a lead, I certainly see them keeping it. Can you imagine Florida handing things off to Baker and Hunter on floor and having them fall apart? I can't. That's why it's so critical for Florida to get through beam (not with one-balance-check 9.850s but with 9.9s that come close to matching what LSU is going to get on floor). It didn't happen when Florida visited LSU earlier this year, ultimately deciding the meet.
Now, Florida's beam rotation has scored very well this season. The Gators are #2 in the country on beam, and ahead of LSU, so I probably have no reason to see beam as a vulnerable event for them, but I do wonder about it. I think it's because, when Sloan wasn't around, they didn't have that true "you're definitely getting a 9.950" routine. Everyone seemed likely to slide through with a 9.875 to secure a good team score without anyone asserting herself as a major beam worker, which made the rotation seem flatter than those that feature beam stars. Kytra was thrust into the position of being the big beam worker, but her routine can be a little too balance checky to take on that responsibility. That said, the last few weeks have been good. Sloan is back. Boyce is back. The 49.4s are flying again. This rotation should be solid enough to survive. But, beam being beam and floor being floor, Florida can put up a solid hit on beam and still drop as much as a couple tenths to LSU's floor rotation, and that's exactly what LSU is hoping for.
LSU is #1 in the country on floor, surprising no one. Starting with Savona's nailed passes, right through Jordan's clean, pretty work, and Gnat, who has figured out how to tumble like an NCAA beast for 9.9s, up to Hall's 9.950-10, this lineup is starting to look more and more impervious with each passing week. It's the kind of lineup where 49.500 would be just an OK score and much more should be expected. It's the chance for LSU. If they don't take control on floor in the third rotation, it's not going to happen.
It's important not to overlook Alabama in this rotation as well, heading to vault and also in a position to make up some serious tenths by hitting to potential. Perhaps not to the same level as LSU, but there's more than enough quality in Alabama's vault rotation to rely on it for a big score. It needs to be. Alabama heads to bars in the final rotation and is likely to give back some ground, so any hope for the big win will rest on establishing a lead during vault. The Tide made some good progress with their vaulting last week, getting Brannan's 1.5 into the lineup while making the smart call to downgrade Beers back to the full to be assured of the score she needs. Alabama should dominate vault. It's vault. But my concern remains the landings. They need more control. Kayla Williams and Kaitlyn Clark have amazing, event-final worthy vaults, but both had meh landings last week for 9.825, which is far below their talent level. This has happened to Williams a bunch of times this season. I would hate to see her continue getting stuck with those 9.825s, even though she's Kayla Williams and should not have to suffer the indignity of having to look at something so common and ratty as a 9.825.
Auburn's bars. It's the least predictable of the Auburn events (49.100 or 49.400? Let's spin the wheel and find out!) and also the biggest difference between a good Auburn meet and a bad Auburn meet. Unlike the other teams in this session, they are more likely to suffer from a nasty case of the 9.775s. These aren't weak routines, just occasionally ragged. We won't see a lot of scores descending down into the 9.7s in this session, and having a rash of them on bars again would be the kiss of death. To avoid being "and also competing in this session, Auburn," everyone has to have a perfect meet, and that will mean sticks for 9.850s before handing things off to the excellence of Atkinson and Walker for 9.9s.
Rotation 4 (LSU vault, Alabama bars, Auburn beam, Florida floor)
Florida and LSU both head to very strong events in the final rotation, and I think we're all selfishly hoping the meet is still super close by that point so we get something like Courville vault vs. Hunter floor with victorious 9.975s hanging in the balance. That wouldn't be boring. Expect the scores to fly, although I am very interested to see the vault landings for LSU. When LSU underperforms in the postseason, it's often because they suddenly lose the vault sticks and can't rely on vault to be the huge score they need. In 2013 Super Six, it was a 49.175 on vault that pushed LSU down to 5th, and last year, it was a 49.325 on vault that allowed Florida and Oklahoma to pull away. 49.325 tied for the team's lowest event score. Vault should never be LSU's lowest event score. Sticks haven't been that frequent for LSU so far this year (even sometimes when they get 10s), so I'll be watching to see how those landings develop this week.
Florida's floor is a very strong rotation as well, but I do think it needs Baker and Sloan to complement the scores from Hunter and Caquatto to be truly formidable and best-in-the-nation quality. If all four aren't in the lineup, the Gators start having to pull out some 9.850s from the depth chart, which would impede their ability to erase a possible deficit on the last event. But if those four are competing, this rotation is a good bet for some serious end-of-meet 9.950s and a massive total. It's a close race across the nation, but Baker and Hunter are the strongest 1-2 punch on floor and solely on their own merits can give Florida what would basically be an unassailable final rotation score. But, if it's possible, the potential Sloan-ification of floor will be something to follow [seeing now that she's not adding it back until possibly regionals, why I read that as conference championships the first time is just one of those mysteries...]. I would be such a great help to have her up to speed by the time it becomes important to have a 9.925 from her instead of a 9.850 from someone else.
Auburn is sitting in what is normally the no-fun, 4th seed position of finishing on beam, but that's not so much of a worry for this team. Beam has suddenly turned into a pretty strong event, especially because of the lovely work from Demers and Walker leading up to the strength from Atkinson, even when they do force her to perform the watered-down dismount. I love that double pike, and I take it as a personal affront when we don't get to see it. We should expect a 49.3 from this group on beam, as on all the events. While a humongous total seems unlikely, I am expecting Auburn to come up with at least a workable low-mid 197 that keeps them in the meet with a chance to take advantage of a random miss from someone. Anything below 197 will be a sign that they underperformed.
As for Alabama, bars is a fascinating rotation. They have plenty of bars talent, especially when Kaitlyn Clark's massive DLO is in the lineup to round out the new sturdiness from Beers and the exceptional work from Bailey and Winston. At the same time, there's still some uncertainty in this group because of Bailey's continued injury questions and a general lack of the landing stickiness that has defined Alabama's bars rotation for the last few years. I spent so long bemoaning Kim Jacob's missed handstands, but she would stick that DLO every single time and get a 9.925 regardless. So would Sarah DeMeo. Those sure, stuck DLOs have been missing this season, to be replaced by slightly nerve-wracking double fronts from Beers and Jetter (when she was in the lineup) and the general tendency to bounce for a 9.850. Stick, and they won't give away too much to Florida and LSU at the end, but keep bouncing, and they'll get left way behind.
AFTERNOON SESSION: Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri
As much of an ego blow as it is for Georgia to be placed in the training wheels session of SECs, there's a chance it may be a blessing. Georgia is the best team in this session, and compared to the other teams, their routines are going to look really 9.9y. Plus, they're basically at home. If the judges have been nipping on the cooking sherry a little earlier than normal, they might be really excited about Georgia's performance and decide to throw out a huge score. The flip-side of that theory is that the judges may also be so conscious of how many top-level routines are going to be performed in the evening session that they end up being quite stingy about saving the big scores until later, which would not be so great for Georgia.
A lot has been made (by me) about Georgia's struggles on beam and floor. Floor appears to be coming around. Marino has finally introduced the DLO, which makes her routine much stronger, and once Jay is back in the lineup to pair with Box, floor has no excuse to be anything but solid. It's not at the same level 9.9 level as Florida and LSU, but it shouldn't hurt the team's score. Beam still scares the crap out of me, but in this meet, I'm actually most interested in vault and bars. Sure, if they have a beamtastrophe, they're out of it, but if they don't, Georgia's ability to contend for a solid third-place finish will be dictated by the performance on their would-be strengths. I say would-be because vault has been disappointing these last few weeks. The landings have been all over the damn map, and when you have Jay, Rogers, and Davis (and an occasional good one from Broussard as well) in the lineup, 49.1 is not good enough. That needs to be a 49.4.
But really, if the Gym Dogs want to make a real statement at nationals, they need to get a 49.500 on bars. They won't have enough margin on the other events to afford even a 49.300 on bars. It has to be 49.500. With this talent, with three realistic 9.950s from Davis, Rogers, and Brown, I was happily predicting Georgia would be the top team on bars this year, so it's a bit disappointing to see them ranked 4th in the SEC alone. But, things finally appear to be rounding into shape at the right time. Georgia is still capable of winning bars at this competition even from the first session (since the theme of my preview of the evening session was basically "I'm worried about bars"). Showing another 49.500 would go a long way to making the case that they're better than #10 in the country and that they're not a trendy upset pick for regionals after all.
As for Arkansas, the doomsday predictions were in full force this season in the first year PG (Post-Grable, though I shouldn't have to translate that because all your timekeeping should always be done with respect to Katherine Grable, otherwise you're a failure of a gymnastics fan). This year was obviously going to be a disaster, but it turns out, it hasn't been a disaster. It has been sort of the same as always. Wellick and Zaziski have comfortably slotted into Arkansas's traditional two-AAers-who-carry-the-team slots, and Zaziski is a real find. Over the next couple seasons, she should evolve into another of those beloved Arkansas gymnasts who always gets overlooked but is amazing.
Arkansas is less likely than Georgia to break into the higher echelon but should put up some solid 9.850-9.875s for a respectable finish. More importantly, Arkansas is currently in a very precarious position when it comes to finishing in the top 18 and getting a regionals seeding. It may not end up being in their hands, but they need to do everything possible to get a big score and avoid finishing in those 19th and 20th spots. Beam is the biggest obstacle in that quest. It has been a monumental struggle this year with a lot of lineup shuffling. They've hit all six beam routines in just three meets this season and have scored 49 just twice. The beam performance will tell us everything, but if they get through it somehow, a mid-196 is reasonable.
Kentucky is a resilient group. And by resilient, I mean cursed. But I think people who have a positive attitude about life use words like resilient. It started with everyone breaking into several pieces at the same meet and ended with the discovery of Shelby Hilton's brain lesions in her MRI after her bizarre floor fall. So basically every terrible thing has happened to Kentucky this year. These lineups are so depleted now that it will be tough to expect a significant score. Although, they have recorded their two highest scores of the season in their two most recent meets, featuring Shannon Mitchell finally getting the beam scores her routine has merited for four years, so what do I know. Kentucky is in a similar position to Washington in the Pac-12 in that if a few teams are having a nasty on beam, Kentucky can use its quality on that event to make a move into the 196s and outperform that #7 seeding.
Once again, Missouri comes into the conference championship as the lowest-ranked team in the SEC, but the scenario is much different than it has been for the past two years, when Missouri stumbled into SECs having already been eliminated from regionals contention after a fairly poor season. This has been a rebound year, and Missouri is already guaranteed a spot at regionals. The freshmen have reinvented this team. At their healthiest (Shauna Miller is still coming back), the freshmen are contributing a solid 11 of the 24 routines, and a heavy majority of the 9.8s are coming from the AA performances from Miller and Becca Schugel. Miller is a star in the making, especially on vault, peaking at 9.975 this year, so I hope she's ready to come back there. Missouri won't get the kind of score it takes to make an impact at SECs, but this has been an important step and an applause-worthy season. Give these freshmen a little more time, and they can start leading Missouri out of the conference basement.