At the season’s outset, the SEC looked to be a clear two-team race, so we have the improved refinement of Georgia and cleanliness of LSU to thank for this becoming a more competitive event than it appeared it would. While a Georgia or LSU victory would still be a surprise since each team has at least one weak event, their 197 potential will surely keep the action broadly focused on all four teams through the last rotation. That would be the case, at least, if anyone actually got to see the competition, but alas no. The SEC can’t manage such a thing. Might we hope that the newly live Pac-12 Championship would put a little pressure on ESPN to do the same thing for the SEC, at least online? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Florida has been the favorite at this competition since the day that Bridget Sloan committed, and that remains the case. The Gators come in as the #1 team in the country, and the lack of clear weaknesses and the expectation (not just potential, but expectation) of double-digit 9.9s should put them ahead of Alabama. If the Tide is to win the title, landings will be to thank. Florida is too 198-capable when sticking, but if the Gators are stepping, Alabama can erode a lead .05 by .05 with sticks.
Even if Georgia and LSU hit perfectly, they’re going to need some help to win. If not a counting fall, getting them in the title picture would have require at least a couple counting 9.7s. I don’t see both Alabama and Florida succumbing to that, which is why the others remain on the outside. Georgia has a bit more potential to win because, on an ideal day when beam is in order and the floor landings look like they did last weekend, the mid-high 197s is a legitimate goal. LSU will be just a bit too glad to get through beam and will likely lose too much ground there to make it up on floor and vault against equally powerful teams. LSU will also be starting on vault and floor, so the team may be susceptible to stunted early scores in places where it needs huge ones.
The rotation order is as follows:
Session 1: Auburn – VT; Arkansas – UB; Kentucky – BB; Missouri – FX
Session 2: Florida – VT; Alabama – UB; Georgia – BB; LSU – FX
Each of the four teams in the final session is capable of scoring a 49.500 on vault, so if any team gains an advantage here, it will be because of sticks. For most of the season, Alabama has lagged behind in the landing department, but last week the Tide got several crucial sticks while Florida, LSU, and to a lesser extent Georgia all gave away tenths. If that can be used as evidence, Alabama should be starting to find the 49.600 form that we always knew existed.
However, if the Gators are not as bouncy as they have been too many times on the road this season, they can certainly snatch this event. Hunter is the strongest vaulter in the conference, King is obviously stellar, and Sloan and Dickerson can go well above 9.900 for sticks. They will record a big score regardless, but they must control the landings to outpace Alabama. If Alabama is still forced to use Jacob or Sims, that could also tip things toward the Gators.
Georgia’s freshman Yurchenko 1.5s have saved this team on an event where it looked like they would give up some ground after last year, but the landings for both Jay and Rogers have been rather hit and miss these last few weeks. When they stick, they go 9.950, but when they hop forward, they go 9.850. The Gymdogs don’t have to win vault (and probably won’t), but they certainly can’t be fighting against 9.850s from top performers. A stick from Davis for 9.900 in the leadoff position usually does wonders for the rest of the scores, so watch for that.
Of these four teams, LSU is the most reliant on a successful vault rotation. While the others can make up for OK vaults on other events, the Tigers know they will be losing tenths on bars and beam no matter what, so an average rotation, even to the tune of 49.300, could take them out of the running. Therefore, LSU sticks will be the most important sticks. If they don’t get them, they at least better hope for that same vault judge as last year.
In the first session, Auburn should pick up some ground here with Guy’s power and Atkinson’s clean 1.5. Arkansas will be looking to get through a depleted event with something over 49, and Kentucky will be looking to the back four for solid 9.850s to try to keep pace.
This is where Florida outstrips the rest. Alaina Johnson is still a maybe-but-possible to return on bars, and the triumvirate of Sloan, Johnson, and M Caquatto could earn a 49.400 solely on their own merits. The clear 9.9 potential from Dancose-Giambattisto, Hunter, and King is just icing. I would be very surprised if the Gators aren’t leading after the first two rotations.
The rest of the teams will be simply hoping to lose minimal ground on the event. Georgia has some very nice qualities, especially from Davis and Rogers, who can both go boldly into the 9.9s. If Shayla can get through her dismount and Cheek, Tanella, and Jay can go cleanly for their 9.850-9.875 scores, this should be a strong rotation.
Alabama’s bars have been a saga this year, one that I am not convinced has been adequately addressed. Ashley Sledge is the clear standout, but her routine will be the very first one of the session, and the judges will be wary of scoring it too high. Jacob has come out of the lineup, but the handstand problems in the middle mean that the majority of routines are looking at 9.850s for hits. Priess’s dismount has improved but still looks to be made of little more than spit and hope. She must stick it.
If vault was a must-stick event for LSU, then bars is a must-must-stick. The routines have improved significantly this year, but there are still more built-in issues than the other three teams must endure. Stuck landings can mitigate built-in issues. Depending on who makes the lineup this weekend, the Tigers will see some early 9.7s and must make up for them with late 9.925s.
In the first competition session, no team is likely to stand out too much here. Arkansas’s landings looked superior last week, so they may be able to pick up a few tenths.
Beam is beam, and there’s still the sense that any of the teams could give the meet away here. Through the middle of February, Florida looked more ragged on beam than during last season, almost enough to begin producing 2011 flashbacks, but these last few weeks have been much better. It’s interesting that Florida has come to rely on Hunter, Sloan, and Caquatto for their big beam scores, three elites not exactly known for their beam stability through much of their careers.
Alabama shouldn’t have any problems on this event and looked well on their way to another sturdy beam season before a hiccup last week. I don’t expect that to become a thing, but it’s something to watch. Look for Jacob and Priess to be characteristically solid in those final two positions, but those first-half routines might give a few too many .05s away to Florida unless they are wobble free.
Georgia is just as likely to score 49.400 as 48.400. I commend the team on working through those massive beam problems of the first two months of the season, but nothing about that rotation fills me with confidence. The return of Couch is a major deal, but Persinger and Cheek must hit so that there is no chance of a Shayla situation.
LSU, like most of the teams in the first session, won’t sneeze at a 49.000. Courville performs a challenging routine that can often incur wobbles, but she has by far the high scoring potential on the team. They cannot afford even a medium-severity break. Watch for how the judges evaluate these early performances because there is room to take for flexibility on dance elements in several of the routines. A harsher judging panel will give out several 9.7s.
Like bars, it’s not a strong event for any team in the first group, but watch out for Kentucky. Beam judging at Kentucky has been stricter than expected the couple times I’ve seen it, and I think the team is a bit underranked there, at least when they hit.
Florida, LSU, and Alabama have all received 9.9 parades on floor this year, especially at home. Much like on vault, LSU has huge scoring potential but also a great deal more riding on the event and a larger risk potential. I can’t imagine we will see major breaks in the Florida and Alabama routines, but we might see them in the early LSU lineup. Hall’s floor routine is the most likely 10 in the whole competition, and a third 10 of the season would be a significant boost. That will be a score to watch.
I expect to see Alabama more controlled in the landings than Florida, which could tip the balance, but Florida has more potential 9.9s in the lineup. Alabama will get the big scores from Jacob and Milliner, both of whom can go 9.950, but Florida has Hunter, King, Sloan, and perhaps Dickerson all capable of that score. Floor is going to be a 49.500 parade that, by the end of the night, might turn into a 49.600 parade, so we’ll probably be picking over differences between 9.950s and 9.925s from the two teams.
The Gymdogs are at the back of the pack on floor because they just don’t have the power of the other three teams. Getting the sturdiness of Noel Couch back may be vital because only she and Earls have the magnetic landing security that makes a competitive floor rotation. I’m a bit too concerned about OOBs and low landings from Persinger, Rogers, and Jay to give Georgia particularly high marks on floor at this point.
Arkansas has three good floor routines at the end of the rotation, which will help them contend with Auburn for the bragging rights of winning the first session. While Kentucky might put up a good overall score, the group should come down to Arkansas and Auburn which team has superior 1st-4th performers. Are you throwing up early 9.775s or 9.825s?
I still say this year is Florida’s to lose, both at Championships and at SECs. Alabama can likely stick with Florida through three events and may very well win vault or floor (or both) depending on the security of the landings from both teams, but bars is such a difference that it should be the margin of victory for Florida. If Florida outscores Alabama by four tenths on bars, that should decide the competition. If the margin is within two tenths, Alabama should become quite confident. While beam is a hitting concern for both Georgia and LSU, I’m actually more wary of Georgia’s floor and LSU’s bars. Both teams have received big scores on those events this season, but they may pale in comparison to other top teams now that everyone is in the same room. Even a 49.200 on those events probably takes them out of the title race.