The two semifinals could not set up more differently in concept. We have that tangled mess of a first semifinal where anything and everything could and will happen, and then we have this one, which seems almost upsetting in its straightforwardness. Picking Oklahoma, LSU, and Alabama to advance over Auburn, Nebraska, and Oregon State is just way too obvious. So it can't actually happen, right? In a year where the top twelve seeds all advanced from regionals, I think college gymnastics owes it to us to make this semifinal more exciting than I think it's going to be.
But, considering the results and scoring potential of the top three teams, I do think it's going to take a major mistake to make any of them vulnerable. In terms of their qualification fights, the most fall-likely areas (ahem, beam) should be the biggest focus, but when it comes to a potential rematch the next day in Super Six, all of these teams have concerns of vague-to-severe magnitude. So let's get into it.
Among the many assets Oklahoma can boast, one of the most important is stability. This team doesn't really fall. Of all the twelve schools going to nationals, it would be the most surprising to see the Sooners count a fall, which is why I would count them as the safest bet to make Super Six. They don't have to be excellent in the semifinal to make it through, just the normal level of solid. Like all of the other top teams, Oklahoma was good-not-great at regionals, but they did still manage to record the best score in the country. A repeat of that performance would be more than enough.
As for Super Six, Oklahoma is a solid bet to win, but I don't think either Oklahoma or Florida can claim to be the favorite going in. It's not that kind of year. Both have issues that still need to be addressed, and neither has put together what I would consider an unstoppable performance yet. Oklahoma has not had major issues in the same way Florida did on beam at SECs or LSU has lately on bars. The Oklahoma problems are less "I'm afraid you're going to get a 9.6" and more "I'm afraid you're going to get a 9.825." But in Super Six, those problems take on the same importance. If a major player gets a 9.825, she might as well be getting a 9.6. Or a 1.
Oklahoma's biggest trouble spot has been bars. Over the last five consecutive meets, Oklahoma's lowest score has come on bars each time. I didn't necessarily see that coming before the season. With the addition of Dowell to replace Spears, and the rest of the lineup staying identical, I thought it would be a smooth transition on bars this season. But, there is some risk in the Dowell routine with the DLO 1/1 dismount (it's really easy not to stick that thing and suddenly be at 9.875-9.900 while the rest of the bars anchors in the competition are at 9.950), and there have been enough small issues throughout the lineup with landings and angles to allow the scores to fall down to 9.850 for people who should be getting 9.900. Everyone in that bars lineup is capable of 9.900, so having zero 9.9s at regionals is a problem, even with the relatively tight bars scoring at that meet. I suppose this shouldn't be as surprising as I think it is because the exact same thing happened last season. Oklahoma was suddenly getting weird 49.1s on bars and didn't really work out the problem until Super Six, when the bars sticks finally showed up again. They'll hope for an identical development this year. Maybe a day earlier this time?
The beam lineup is not a problem. It's extremely reliable both for hits and for huge scores (though my one criticism is too many gainer full dismounts, which you know I hate because it makes great routines end with a whimper and seem pedestrian). I was also pleased to see Ali Jackson nail her 1.5 on vault at regionals because that's a stick they'll desperately need if they're going to keep pace with the Florida vaulters, who keep getting 9.950s for non-stuck vaults. Those Oklahoma 1.5s have to be at least at the same level. Most teams have been in the "we're not really sticking yet" phase on vault, so for the teams who look like easy qualification bets, the stick fight on vault may be the most interesting part of the semifinal. We don't really know who will have the edge there going into Super Six yet.
But now I'm going to say something controversial. It almost hurts to say it, but it may be time to take Chayse Capps out of the floor lineup. OK, I got it out. Now we can work through it as a group. Obviously, the performance is wonderful. That's not in doubt, but the tumbling and the scores have not followed. Another 9.775 at regionals. That lineup can seriously get close to a 49.6 and be a real asset in Super Six, but if they have an opening 9.775-9.800, that means everyone else has to have the perfect routine. It's a conundrum.
LSU has let off the gas a little bit as the season wears down. For almost the entire year, LSU looked like an equal third challenger with Oklahoma and Florida in the fight for the title, scoring 198s and coming up with big wins over Florida and Alabama. But lately, the performances haven't been quite as convincing. LSU finished 2nd at SECs after it appeared Florida handed them the competition on a platter, and then they went into regionals and recorded a 197.175 with a clinic on tightness on bars and beam. LSU still has the quality to win the title, but recent showings have seemed a clear and significant step below championship level.
The Tigers do come into the semifinal as a very comfortable pick to make Super Six, but if there's a competition as to which of the three top seeds seems the most likely to be upset, LSU has suddenly moved to the top of that list. At regionals, they finished just 0.225 ahead of a Nebraska team that likewise didn't have anything resembling an all-time best performance, and that margin should be bigger. It's way too close for comfort heading to Friday.
While I never thought I would say this, the biggest hole LSU feels this year is the lack of Britney Ranzy on bars. She had become a very useful bars worker toward the end of her career, but without her routine this year (and with bars being the weak event for both freshman stars), LSU has been forced to throw Savona and Gnat into the lineup, both of whom would also count bars as their weak event. The team has been able to get by as a whole, but mistakes are a more likely outcome for LSU on bars than they are for any of the other top teams. Ashleigh Gnat's routine is a hold-your-breath moment. The Tigers ended up having to count a 9.675 at regionals, which is the kind of score that would give Auburn and Nebraska a beam of inspiring hope in the semifinals, and is the kind of score that would take them entirely out of the running in Super Six. The other issue on bars is the overall scoring potential, even when everyone hits well. Since the first of March, LSU has recorded three total 9.9s on bars (which is not enough) and all three of them have belonged to Courville (which is not enough names). LSU's performance on bars in rotation three is the most important of the meet both for making sure that LSU is indeed going to advance to Super Six and for evaluating how competitive they might be when they get there. More 9.9s, please.
Sadly, beam has also been disappointingly normal at recent meets. Before the season, I was touting this beam lineup as perhaps the best in the country, and with the talent level, it really should be. At least top three. At least. But in the postseason, this lineup has been wobblesville and has not lived up to that best-in-the-country potential in the slightest. The beamers must show up in the semifinal for LSU to jump back into the coalition of first-tier title contenders. The bars and beam total needs to be a good 98.700, not the 98.350 it was at SECs or the 98.250 it was at regionals. Those scores will not be competitive enough in Super Six and put too much pressure on vault and floor to be perfect.
Now, unlike the beam lineup, the floor lineup both can and has been the best in the country. Especially when Courville is competing. With Savona as the most impressive floor leadoff in the country, and continuing right through to Hall's possible 10, 49.500 on floor is an extremely attainable, if not slightly soft, number. Last year in Super Six, the 49.6s were flying, and right now LSU looks like the most likely team to go 49.6+ on floor this year. It's going to take that for them to win, but it won't mean anything if bars and beam don't live up to the potential we saw in January and February.
Alabama's win at SECs and second-in-the-nation score of 197.575 at regionals have both confirmed that Alabama is right in the fight at nationals and that they have experienced only a minor dip in quality from last year, the result of losing such a strong senior class. Alabama has endured the coaching transition well and the team betrays basically no difference between the Alabama of this year and the Alabama of years past. Although, I do want to point out one thing that I have noticed and enjoyed this year, which is the full turn work on beam. All the gymnasts move into and out of their full turns fluidly and show a lovely finishing position. Refined is not always a quality that gets associated with Alabama's gymnastics (It's usually more about "I'm pretending the beam is your face, AND BYE NOW"), but those full turns are drowning in refined.
When it comes to this competition, Alabama has emerged in the second half of the season to show enough quality and consistency, along with an acceptable level of depth (which was a question going into the year), to be an easy pick to get through this semifinal. Unlike LSU and Florida, who have spent the last couple meets revealing cracks that need to be resolved, Alabama has been solid, secure, and dependably mid-197 without exposing any major weaknesses.
At the same time, I would still put Alabama in that second tier of likely winners, the one that LSU is currently trying to get out of. If Alabama does end up winning the title, it would take a day very much like the one we saw all across the nation during regionals. A day when everyone is in good-not-great territory, no one pulls away with a crazy 198, and a bunch of teams end up being right in it. If that's what happens in Super Six, and the winning scores is around the 197.5-197.8 area, then Alabama shoots right up the list, but if one of the 198 teams does put together something slightly resembling a perfect day, Alabama will struggle to keep up. That's because of the same issue I mentioned in the regional preview, that Alabama doesn't have those reliably huge 9.950s at the end of the lineup on which 198s are built. At regionals, Alabama did manage to get three 9.925s (including a welcome and unexpected one from Brannan on vault), but no 9.950+ scores. You need those 9.950s.
Alabama is ranked 5th as a team, as well as 5th on every event except floor, where they're 4th. That really tells the story. Every event can be strong, every event can be a big score, but is there that one area where Alabama will show up and dominate teams like Florida, LSU, and Oklahoma in Super Six? We haven't seen that yet. Really, the vault lineup should be able to put up something magical, but I think Alabama's best option to run away and take an advantage would be beam. That lineup is fun to watch, and Alabama did manage to put up the second-best beam score across all the regionals, losing out to only UCLA. They have six people honestly capable of 9.900 there, which is quite the asset.
Auburn is at nationals! It's easy to forget that this is such a new thing because Auburn has been right on the cusp of nationals for a few seasons now, but this is a pretty big deal. It's always important to have new teams contending, making it just a little bit harder for the same-old, same-olds to keep making nationals every year. Now we just need a couple more Auburns so that we stop having regional days where all top 12 seeds advance. It will be down to the Cals of the world to join the club to make that happen.
Auburn has recorded a couple big home results this year, the 197.750 program-high, the 197.300 against LSU, but it's more likely that we're looking at something in the low 197s for a strong, hit meet from Auburn in the semifinal. A low 197 is within reason for this team, especially since they have scored two straight 196.9s for performances that no one would consider their absolute best. It's the kind of score that can put the pressure on the favorites if there is a juicy, juicy mistake, but the Tigers will not be able to control their own destiny. Both Auburn and Nebraska will be waiting on a mistake to see if they have a chance, and they'll be in a fight together as to which team can emerge as the feistiest challenger. Because LSU, Alabama, and Oklahoma don't go to the treachery of beam until the second half of the meet, we may not know whether Auburn or Nebraska has a real shot until quite late in the meet, but it will be interesting to compare them in the first half to see who is best positioned.
Both Auburn and Nebraska will do beam early, and beam is Auburn's biggest asset over Nebraska. It's a definite strength for Auburn, in spite of the nervous performance at regionals, and contains a couple very believable 9.9s. Because of that, Auburn will look to have a lead on Nebraska at the halfway point. I think that 98.700 benchmark is a tough expectation because bars isn't necessarily a big score for Auburn (98.600 would be good work), but being ahead of Nebraska is the key because Nebraska will go to vault in the second half of the meet.
Between these two teams, the 5th score in each lineup will also be an interesting story to watch. Both have an amazing AAers anchoring lineups, DeZiel for Nebraska and Atkinson for Auburn (Atkinson anchors all four and DeZiel anchors everything but floor). They can both get dramatic scores, so it will come down to which team has the better support scores, which team has extra 9.9s that aren't coming from the big star.
It has been pretty much a usual Nebraska season, hasn't it? Never making a lot of waves, never mentioned among the favorites, but calmly and casually staying in the top 10 and always keeping it close with the very top teams. The very respectable 196.950 at regionals was further evidence of that. Last year, Nebraska came into the national semifinals in the exact same position, the 5th seed who didn't seem to have quite the scoring potential of the higher-ranked contenders (Utah and UCLA in that meet), but then they did something magical and revolutionary. They hit beam, in spite of being fairly weak on that event for most of the season.
Nebraska will need to tell a similar story this year. Beam has once again been a question mark, both in consistency and in number of 9.9s. Not having the reliable brilliance from Emily Wong in the final position has deflated some of the scoring potential and put more pressure on the other routines. While Nebraska has not counted a beam fall that recently, in the last two meets, they have recorded six scores under 9.800 among the ten counting scores and have zero 9.9s to show for it. That's going to make it pretty much impossible to put up a competitive score unless one of the favorites is counting a fall. It's time to pull out the magic semifinal beam wand for a second year.
As mentioned, Nebraska starts on beam, and that performance will be decisive. A comfortable score there (doesn't have to be amazing, but comfortably 49.2 would be fine), and the Huskers will feel quite good about their chances. But at the same time, they're going to need basically a perfect meet to have a shot at challenging one of the top seeds without relying on mistakes, so that's going to require more that just hitting beam. It's going to require recording a couple really strong, Super Six-competitive rotations along the way. The best option for that is vault, a rotation that needs to be brought back to life a little bit. It's seems an eternity ago that Ashley Lambert was getting those 10s and Nebraska was going 49.6-49.7 on vault. It wasn't a particularly shocking development because that's the vault pedigree and block quality that Nebraska possesses. We always expect Nebraska to have stellar vaults, but it's never really a whole-season thing. It comes and goes. Lately, Nebraska has been around the 49.3 portion of the vaulting wave, which is a good score, but not a "We're going to beat Alabama/LSU" kind of vault score, or even a "We're guaranteed to finish ahead of Auburn" kind of vault score. It's going to have to be better because they need something special.
As for Oregon State, the victory was making it to nationals after a two-year absence. Missing three years in a row would have been wildly unacceptable, but a perfectly solid 196.750 at regionals was enough to get them through comfortably. The Beavs would not have been considered a very likely contender to get out of this semifinal anyway, but the loss of Kaytianna McMillan at regionals makes any chance they did have significantly smaller. McMillan's knee went to the bad place during vault in the final rotation, and it's such a shame because she was finally, finally healthy enough to contribute the routines we expect from her. For about three weeks. Now, they'll have to find a replacement in every lineup, some of which are going to score in the 9.7s.
It's reasonable to say that Oregon State is losing 0.300-0.400 tenths in scoring potential without McMillan, which certainly puts them on another tier below Auburn and Nebraska when it comes to who is the most likely contender to challenge the top three. For this team now, if Tang and Gardiner both have good days, a mid 196 would be a strong result. But that means they'll have to bank on a flurry of mistakes from everybody else to have a shot.