Here it is. The big one. Are you excited? I'm excited. Ever since it became clear that Stanford's ranking would not emerge from the pitiful category before the end of the season, we've all been waiting to see which of the poor souls that bothered to get good scores all year long would suffer the punishment of being placed with Stanford. The winners are Auburn and Michigan. It's funny because the 6-7-18 regional is usually the boring one, the one where the top two teams have more than a fall of margin over anyone else, but this year, it's the one everyone is anticipating the most. Yes, I just decided which regional you're anticipating the most. It's this. The end.
Of course, that means it will end up being super boring. Without a doubt. It always happens. All of the other regionals will be intensely close throughout, and then this one will be decided in the first rotation. You know it.
Competing teams (starting event)
 Auburn (bye before bars)
 Michigan (beam)
 Stanford (floor)
 Eastern Michigan (bye before floor)
 Penn State (bars)
 New Hampshire (vault)
Pittsburgh (Lindsay Offutt – AA; Tracey Pearson – AA; Miya Dotson – UB)
Rutgers (Libby Groden – AA; Nicolette Wilson – VT; Michelle Amoresano – VT)
Bridgeport (Brianna Comport – BB, FX; Christine Liautaud – UB; Randi Cutolo – FX)
West Chester (Majesta Valentine – AA)
Cornell (Kaitlin Green – BB)
The fight – Auburn v. Michigan v. Stanford
No favorites here. There can't be because someone very capable of a 197 will miss out on nationals, and any one of these three teams could be eliminated even with a hit meet.
Still, Stanford must be considered the challenger to the throne rather than the reigning monarch because of a few more clear weaknesses than the others and the lack of consistently competitive scores during the season. In spite of Stanford's definite potential to hit 197 and reputation for suddenly turning great once the elimination meets roll around, there's a reason Stanford is 18th and not 6th or 7th. The scores haven't been there the way they have for Auburn and Michigan, and Stanford really will have to put together a season-best performance to make it out of this competition. Normal won't be good enough. It has to be a Price/Hong 9.950, Rice/McNair 9.850 kind of day to pull out the 197+ score it will take to advance.
Auburn and Michigan are separated by essentially nothing. Auburn is a wisp ahead of Michigan in overall RQS, while Michigan is a wisp ahead of Auburn on each specific-event RQS. That indicates that Michigan has slightly higher peaks on each event but that Auburn has put it all together in the same meet slightly more often. It's all slight. The advantage of being at home may tip the balance to Michigan, which is why (in addition to Michigan's season high being the best in the competition) I see Auburn as more vulnerable than Michigan if both hit their meets. Really, there should only be a tenth or two between them either way.
Ergo...landings, landings, landings. On vault, for instance, Michigan has more difficulty, and the Olivia Karas grand finale has scored higher than the Caitlin Atkinson grand finale, but we have seen multiple meets this year in which Auburn has earned a very competitive vault score because of high-level landing control. Since Michigan's peak scoring potential has been higher this year, those landings are all the more important for Auburn to close any scoring potential gap.
For both teams, the vulnerability is beam. In fact, it has been a vulnerability for Stanford at times as this year well (but will be absolutely critical if Stanford is to stay in this), all of which is made evident by New Hampshire being ranked as the #2 beam team in this regional. Each of these top seeds has the potential for multiple 9.9s. Atkinson, Milliet, Demers, Artz, Chiarelli, Price, Hong. There's no shortage of impressive beamers in this meet, but Auburn has a tendency to throw a 9.7 or two out there early in the lineup, and Michigan has been a sudden fall-fest in the second half of the season. Beam will be the most telling indicator about whether Stanford is in this meet because secure hits from both Michigan and Auburn (in rotations one and three) would take away the primary area in which Stanford is looking to pick up tenths (in rotation five).
Stanford must win bars and beam to have a shot. If Stanford's combined UB+BB score isn't multiple tenths higher than either Auburn's or Michigan's, then qualification is a near impossibility because Auburn and Michigan are deeper and stronger on vault and floor. Stanford really should win beam here. Even though there have been a few nasties this year, the 9.9 potential across the lineup is the best in the meet. It's not just Price and Hong. We've seen Chuang get 9.9s, and Nicki McNair often merits them, even if she doesn't get them in the first spot.
A huge beam score is all the more important if Price keeps getting 9.900ed on vault.
Those "Perfect 10!" posters are basically picket signs at this point. This is the protest movement of our generation.
Because of the rotation order, expect Stanford to trail early on, probably by a hefty margin. Floor and vault aren't the big scores. It's not necessarily a bad order for Stanford because they'll end on the events where they really need huge scores and will hope drunk-judging has set in by then, but there is the potential for things to get out of control early if floor looks a little too 9.700. We've seen that before, and there will be no coming back from it this time. It's in Stanford's hands whether this meet is interesting or not. It really only gets close if Stanford is having one of those meets like at UCLA, where this weird thing happened where the talent of the roster actually manifested in the performance and the scores.
To keep an eye on whether season-best Stanford has shown up, I've taken each team's season-high performance (Michigan's 197.425, Stanford's 197.400, and Auburn's 197.325) and used the event scores from those meets to tell us roughly what kind of pace teams will want to be on rotation-by-rotation if they're going to repeat those season-best performances. It's the marker of where Stanford needs to be with respect to Michigan and Auburn (and vice versa) in order to make this meet a thing.
Rotation 1: Michigan 49.450, Stanford 49.250, Auburn BYE
Rotation 2: Stanford 98.500, Michigan 49.450, Auburn 49.350
Rotation 3: Michigan 98.775, Auburn 98.650, Stanford 98.500
Rotation 4: Michigan 148.075, Stanford 148.025, Auburn 98.650
Rotation 5: Stanford 197.400, Michigan 148.075, Auburn 147.950
Rotation 6: Michigan 197.425, Stanford 197.400, Auburn 197.325
To me, 98.500 is an optimistic estimate for where Stanford will be after vault and floor (RQS tells us more like 98.200), but it will take an optimistic-level meet for Stanford to advance. It's what Stanford does in the postseason, anyway. Note that even with an optimistic score at the halfway point, Stanford still trails Michigan by 0.275 and Auburn by 0.150. They'd be fine with that deficit. That's manageable. More than that is trouble.
Michigan and Auburn don't tend to have the same highs and lows as Stanford, but floor is a big, necessary score for both of them because it's 2016 and it's floor. Michigan will have gone on floor in the first half of the meet and Auburn will not, so Michigan must have a lead after rotation three, and really should unless there's another beam debacle.
And the rest
Most of the attention has to be on the big three in this meet because even if one of them has a meltdown, there are still two other 197-quality teams waiting to take those spots. Quite honestly, it will take two different multi-fall meltdowns from the big teams for any of the others to get into contention.
For Eastern Michigan, even making regionals would have been a tremendous accomplishment, but doing so as a #4 seed and the 24th ranked team, ahead of a much more heralded program like Penn State, is verging on phenomenal. This hasn't been achieved just been by virtue of a weird score or two. Eastern Michigan has managed 196s at home, away, and while dominating the conference championship, because of bars, because of beam, and because of floor. It has been a deep and varied season of strength. This was supposed to be George Washington's upstart season, and Eastern Michigan managed to out-George Washington George Washington.
Eastern Michigan's way into this meet is beam. They're #20 on beam (their highest event ranking), and since there is beam-meltdown potential across the competition, Eastern Michigan could just go, "Hi, 49.250 please" and suddenly make a serious impression with the same bunch of 9.875s that helped them overcome bars mistakes at MACs. Do keep an eye on Kendall Valentin on bars, though. She's in the top 30 and has been a 9.9 machine.
Aside from one strong score at home during that insane Big Five meet, this has not been a positive season for Penn State, featuring a bunch of 195s and a continued commitment to creating enough behind-the-scenes drama to fill three full internets and still not even be done. While other teams have "Get to know the gymnasts!" features, Penn State should have a "Who's quitting the program in tears this week" feature just to keep us updated. It's only considerate.
It was always going to be difficult for Penn State to maintain the relatively competitive level from last season without Welsh and Sanabria-Robles, and the disappearance of Sibson has made finding any semblance of depth all the more difficult. Picking up Kiera Brown post-Georgia has been a helpful addition, and she seems to have regained her beam after losing it in spectacular fashion last season. Still, for the most part the 9.8s have dried up and not really been replaced, hence the dramatic fall from a "could make nationals" 13th last year to an "and the rest" 25th this year.
New Hampshire represent the last of our regionals qualifiers, a team that made a big splash at the beginning of the season by being ranked at near-Oklahoma levels on beam even though it's New Hampshire and that's not supposed to happen. The scores haven't followed from that January success, settling into the mid-195s for hit meets ever since with a vault rotation that's going to score mid 48s sometimes. There is still the potential for a fantastic beam rotation that puts pressure on the others when when Lauter, Aucoin, and Pflieger all hit together, and we can also expect a strong bars number from Mulligan, who has hit 9.9s multiple times this season, to round out some of the individual impressions this team should make.
Someone among Auburn/Michigan/Stanford won't qualify as a team, and since all of those teams boast legitimate contenders for an AA national title, the race for the two AA spots may very well be done before we even address the bottom-three teams. If Stanford doesn't qualify as a team, obviously Elizabeth Price needs to go to nationals, and Taylor Rice would be a compelling option to go with her. Even Ivana Hong is in the mix if Stanford decides to secret-weapon her on floor at regionals, about which there has been some chatter. Of course, if Hong doesn't do the AA, we've all agreed she needs to get a 10 on beam to advance to nationals as a specialist, right? Right?
I was about to say "to do that routine in event finals" until I remembered that's not a thing anymore, making all of this individual-event chatter matter even less because...like we're even going to be paying one teaspoon of attention to the individual event races on semifinal day. Not when there's team qualification and AA to focus on. That's going to be about priority #50.
Artz, Karas, and Atkinson are the three other strongest AAers in this meet aside from Price and, as long as they hit, will all have spots if their teams don't qualify.
Still, there's a fair chance that we'll see mistakes from the team that doesn't go (and Auburn does have the just one AAer right now), so I'd imagine there could be an open spot still available for one of the three bottom teams or individuals. There are quite a few contenders in the mix, but the highest-ranked is Lindsay Offutt of Pitt. She's here without a team, making things a million times more difficult, but I like her chances. If not Offutt, then Tsang of Penn State has gone 49.3s in her NCAA career, and Catie Conrad of Eastern Michigan can reach that mark as well on the back of a big beam score. Jessica Jones? Kiera Brown? Danielle Doolin? Perhaps, but if everything adheres to the seedings, my guess is two Stanford qualifiers, which makes it really tough for everyone else.