Alabama and Auburn. Reunited and it feels like we just did this twice. In the first meeting this season, at Alabama, the Tide won by 0.500. In the second meeting, at a neutral-ish site in Birmingham, the Tide won by 0.125. Auburn is getting closer. So, third time's the charm? Or something? It doesn't really matter as long as both finish in the top two, but winning this regional would be a big old deal for Auburn, especially since Alabama is coming off that SEC title.
Competing teams (starting event)
 Alabama (bars)
 Auburn (bye before bars)
 Minnesota (beam)
 Iowa (bye before floor)
 Maryland (vault)
 George Washington (floor)
Competing individuals are from North Carolina (Morgan Lane - AA; Haley Watts - AA; Kaitlynn Hedelund - bars), William & Mary (Brittany Stover - AA; Larson Lasek - AA; Maggie Lundeen - floor), and Towson (Tyra McKellar - AA; Katie Sassa - vault; Lauren Ross - beam).
Alabama and Auburn
It should be Alabama and Auburn. We've got some quality Big Ten challenges in this regional, but Auburn being the host just reinforces that edge over the other teams and makes it more difficult for anyone else to break in. Even at SECs, Auburn was just OK until a strong beam performance in the last rotation, but the team total was still a 196.925, which is higher than the season high of any of the other four teams in this regional. When I did the regional scoring comparison, Alabama and Auburn finished in the top two of every single category. They certainly have the inside track.
Alabama erased some question marks by winning SECs and managed to remind us all that this is not a team to relegate to afterthought, maybe-next-year status. They executed a comfortable and consistent meet, recording ten scores of 9.9+ and establishing themselves as the team that's going to hit when everything else is going wrong. But at the same time, everything else going wrong is what gave Alabama the title. Florida hits beam, and that meet isn't close, which should still be cause for concern for every other team. At this point, Alabama seems an extremely easy choice to make it through this regional (right now looking among the least likely teams to have a sudden meltdown—I know, kiss of death) and a logical, sane pick to qualify to Super Six as well. But do I see Alabama as a national title contender? Not yet.
It's not about one big area to work on for Alabama, though I do think the lack of big scores in the bars lineup will be an obstacle (and makes getting a hit routine from Kaitlyn Clark much more important because she can be that big score). It's about getting 9.950s out of every single person who is capable of them. Alabama just does not have as many possible 9.950s as the other top contenders, so the ones that do potentially exist (for instance, Clark, Williams, Beers on vault, Sims and Beers on floor), have to be huge scores every single time. Right now, I have the sense that Alabama could go into Super Six, hit a completely solid meet with no significant errors, and finish four tenths behind the winner, simply from getting stuck in the good 9.875s instead of the great 9.950s.
As for Auburn, this is your chance. You need to take it. Auburn hasn't been to nationals since 2003, but this year's group has a good argument as the best team Auburn has ever produced (Auburn did finish 5th in 1993, but the amount I could tell you about that team is encapsulated by this ellipsis...). Plus, this is a home regional. You're not getting a better opportunity. You need to make nationals. The home scores this year are cause for comfort for Auburn fans, or just interested onlookers who think it would be nice if Auburn finally made it back to nationals. Auburn has gone over 197 in four of the five home meets this year, featuring that program-high 197.750 against Georgia.
Usually, when evaluating a team's chance to get upset, I look to beam. Because beam is where the problems happen. But I feel pretty good about Auburn's beam this year. That is a talented rotation and, after getting through those first two garbage meets, has been among the more reliable ones in the top 20. They even managed to score 48.700 that time they did count a fall, which is not that bad. They could survive a 48.700. In fact, if this meet becomes more about who wins this regional than who advances out of it, beam is probably Auburn's best opportunity to eat away at any Alabama lead. At the halfway point, both Auburn and Alabama will have done beam, so we should have a good sense of whether Auburn can win the competition then. They'll need a lead at that point.
But more importantly, Auburn just needs to be safe and erase the ghost of regionals last year and that bars meltdown for a mid 47. Bars has been Auburn's questionable event this year (not 47 questionable, more like 49.1 questionable) and will also be their first event, so keep an eye on whether there's any kind of sluggish start, which one of the Big Ten teams might hope to take advantage of with their rabid 196-ishness.
Minnesota and Iowa
Minnesota got a tough draw this year. As if they needed more things to go wrong. Minnesota is one of the most dangerous third seeds and, in a couple of the other regionals, would be a truly serious upset threat. But in this regional, with Auburn as a host, advancing is not going to be solely within their control. It's going to take a fortunate mistake. Still, most importantly, Minnesota has done an excellent job of recovering this year to put together basically the exact same season they always do, when they would have had every excuse to be a disaster. It didn't start great, but now this looks like a legitimately solid 196 team.
As usual, vault is Minnesota's strength. There, they'll look to put up the kind of 49.3 score that can keep them relatively close to what Alabama and Auburn are scoring. More than any other event, vault is where it's not just the Lindsay Mable show. There are several 9.9s from other people. Hooray! On the other three events, particularly bars and beam, I have many more concerns about depth and consistency. Depth and consistency have been the biggest issues holding Minnesota back this year. The last two weeks, Minnesota has had a possible 197 going, but it was falls on beam, and then falls on bars, that took them out of it. On both events, they have a couple really strong routines (Mable, Covers, Tomson on bars; Mable and Nordquist on beam) but haven't shown the full six routines to keep themselves competitive with the other schools in this competition or keep me from being terrified. If they do, somehow, get through both bars and beam on Saturday (both events have scored over 49 at the same meet twice this season), then watch out for the total score because it could be serious. Beam in the very first rotation will tell us a lot.
Look at you, Iowa! You're not in the bottom group of regional contenders! You're in the middle one! One of the most pleasant surprises of the last three weeks has been the sudden emergence of Iowa into the top 25 as a threat for mid 196s. I'm so used to Iowa just getting 195s and being ranked 30th, but this is a step up, especially for a team that missed out on regionals entirely last season. Unlike Minnesota, a team that is falling all over the place and getting mid-196s (leaving that tantalizing hope for a really competitive score), Iowa has achieved its recent mid-196s by being solid and low 49s on every event. That will be Iowa's faint glimmer of hope. Staying steady while the rest of the world implodes around them, using a couple of those potentially high scores like Alie Glover on vault and Mollie Drenth on bars and beam to lift them up toward the 49.1s.
And the rest/Individuals
Maryland put together another season of being solidly around the low 30s in the rankings, taking until the final weekend to officially qualify to regionals, though not cutting it nearly as close as last year when they barely squeaked up into the qualification zone by a hundredth of a point at the last minute. A couple vital 196s at the end of the season made it a bit more comfortable this time around. There are some standouts on this Maryland team. Stephanie Giameo has been the AA leader for several seasons but is limited to beam and floor now, and the Tang sisters can be the real deal on bars. But for this team, this year, with no all-arounders, making regionals was the victory.
Then there's George Washington. We need to talk about this team because if you didn't know, they're one of the best-scoring teams on vault. Like 49.400 at EAGLs good. And now they're at regionals, which is new. I kind of wish they were starting on vault so that after one rotation it would look like they were going to win. The reason GW is suddenly a team you have to know about is an onslaught of super-freshmen who are contributing over half the routines. Jillian Winstanley was a standout JO gymnast, and she always did look like a real get for George Washington when she was placing right alongside all of these Alabama and Utah commits in the standings. A couple years ago, she got a 10.0 at Chicago Style for sticking a 1.5. She has been joined by the similar talent of Cami Drouin-Allaire, who is also nailing vault and getting very welcome 9.825s elsewhere. This is the start of something for George Washington, increasing their RQS from last year by over a point. They're a real 195 team now, not just a team hoping for that on good days.
If things go by the seedings and Alabama and Auburn do advance, then obviously Lindsay Mable needs to be at nationals as an all-arounder. That's a given. If she hits her four events, she's going one way or another. The other spot could get interesting, because who is the next highest ranked AAer in this regional, not including Alabama and Auburn? It's Winstanley. Followed by Drouin-Allaire. It would be great if a GW gymnast made nationals, but also watch out for Sydney Hoerr and Angel Metcalf of Iowa because it could be any one of those four.