SEC Championship Preview

Saturday 3/19
Afternoon session 2:00 ET/11:00 PT
Evening session 6:00 ET/3:00 PT

It’s tomorrow! Everything starts very early, with Jesolo getting underway even before the first session of Big Tens. It’ll be a huge day of live blogging and gymnastics watching, so we’ll have to pace ourselves early. Don’t waste your energy before the big-girl sessions begin.

Finally. After years of watching poky live score spreadsheet templates that didn’t even update, followed by the recent generous bestowing of an internet stream, the SEC Championship will at last be broadcast live on actual televisions this year. Happy 1968, everyone!

In an attempt to make up for doing such a terrible job at this for so long, the SEC Network is whipping out all the bells and whistles this season, with a TV broadcast accompanied by each individual event streaming online, meaning we can make sure to watch all of Georgia’s beam routines from behind our fingers while still getting the competition done in a cool two hours. I’m on board. The SEC Network is also really talking up the hip new quad-meet scoring interface it will debut (to the point where it better physically shoot candy and cheeseburgers out of the TV to live up to this), so I’m eager to see what that looks like. The SEC Net has done a very good job of displaying the scores and running totals in an unobtrusive manner so far, so there’s reason for optimism.

NBC really needs to take notes on what the SEC Network does with live scoring heading into the Olympics. With an easy way to update live scores at the bottom of the screen, you don’t need to watch Gabby do her grips for 25 minutes while waiting for the score. You can move on to other routines, and then display the score and real-time rankings as they come in. You know, actual development and innovation, not just MEANINGLESS TRIANGLES.

Florida, LSU, Alabama, Auburn

While we all roll our eyes every time an SEC coach says that winning the SEC Championship is harder than winning the national championship (it objectively isn’t to anyone who thinks about it for literally one second), this is still a hell of a competition with a solid five teams realistically capable of a hearty 197. Given the scores we’ve seen this season, however, winning this title really should take a high 197, which probably precludes Auburn and Georgia unless it’s a splatfest and they slide on through. Once again, we’re looking at Florida, LSU, and Alabama.

Alabama won last season, taking advantage of a beam catastrophe from Florida and beam foreshadowing wobbles from LSU to dance to the top spot with a 197.5, and Alabama’s totals so far this year indicate the need for something similar. Alabama has peaked at 197.5s while LSU has gone into the 197.9s and Florida into the 198s. But, if we correct for some silly scoring and for Alabama’s epic depth exploration in every meet, there’s probably not actually a whole fall worth of difference between these teams. While it will be tough for Alabama to match an ideal meet from LSU or Florida based on what we’ve seen, I’m not willing to write off the Tide quite yet. But between Florida and LSU? Take your pick. It will be close. Let’s get into it.

Rotation 1: Florida vault, LSU bars, Alabama beam, Auburn floor  

Event RQS for rotation 1
Auburn 49.435
Florida 49.390
LSU 49.370
Alabama 49.300

You’ll notice something a bit unexpected in those RQSs in that they tell us Auburn should be leading after the first rotation. It could happen because of floor reasons, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Although for Auburn, it’s absolutely necessary if a title challenge is in play. While Atkinson’s is a definite 9.9+ routine (along with occasionally Rott, Demers, and Hlawek), the high floor RQSs across the conference and country reflect loose end-of-meet scoring rather than significant supremacy over the quality of other teams on other events. It will be tough to replicate in this context, and Auburn taking a first-rotation lead would also require a couple other teams under-performing early.

This first event is also critical for LSU to establish a high-scoring pace since bars is their weakest event (the RQS is lower on beam, but beam). Finnegan is obviously a star, and the return of Priessman ups the scoring potential, but a couple 9.800s with form breaks and lower amplitude at the beginning of the lineup put LSU’s bars behind those of Florida. If LSU can get Zamardi, Finnegan, Priessman, Wyrick, and Hambrick all in the lineup at the same time, however, that should minimize counting any low scores and bolster what could be a flat event, but those five have not actually been in the same lineup yet this season. Judging by a high 197 standard, LSU must go into the 49.4s on bars to avoid falling off the pace.

Vault is Florida’s lowest-scoring event, though it really shouldn’t be, not with those huge 1.5s from Baker and Boren and supreme fulls from McMurtry and Sloan. It all comes down to landing control. Caquatto and Fassbender can get 9.800ish, and if Baker and Boren are bounding forward out of those 1.5s, those scores can get down to 9.850 in a jiffy. With a good hit, however, Florida should verge on 49.5 and will look to be leading after the first. Scoring down into the 49.3s would constitute a door swinging open.

Alabama has exquisite beam workers in Aja Sims, Guerrero, McNeer, and Winston and with an ideal lineup in place, shouldn’t be ceding ground to any other team in the country based on beam. They’re too talented. That’s why it’s a little surprising that Alabama has hit the 49.3 mark on just three occasions this season, and not since mid-February. Inconsistency has been a burden, with Bailey and Beers struggling to find the security of past seasons, and then there’s the old lineup shuffling. Those four I mentioned at the top of the paragraph haven’t competed on beam together since February 12th, but they’ll absolutely need to be the core at the center of a high-scoring cake. Cakes have cores. What are you saying about? Settling for 49.3s won’t be good enough to get on winning pace, even on beam, and while this rotation order means that Alabama probably won’t be bursting out of the gates, the 9.9 sisters must show up on beam if this is to be an Alabama postseason.

Rotation 2: Auburn vault, Florida bars, LSU beam, Alabama floor

Event RQS through 2 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 2):
Florida 98.855 (49.465)
Alabama 98.715 (49.415)
Auburn 98.685 (49.250)
LSU 98.660 (49.290)

Rotation two is going to be a good one. This rotation is why I’ll be glad for the four-event stream because the scores might seriously fly on every piece. Interestingly, RQS tells us that LSU should be trailing the pack after two events, but that wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Tigers since they’ll end on floor and vault and can make up a ton of ground there. If LSU is within a couple tenths of the lead after two pieces, DD will be shooting animal-print rainbows out of her eyes. Still, LSU shouldn’t actually be trailing after beam and would consider something close to that RQS of 49.290 a disappointing performance. With this lineup and those potential 9.9s throughout the order, we should expect 49.4s. 

It will still be tough for LSU to lead after two because Florida and Alabama both also compete on high-scoring events in the second rotation, but the Tigers just can’t let it get out of hand. Florida is the conference’s best bars team and probably the country’s best bars team (though Oklahoma would disagree), and the Gators will expect to have a solid lead after two events. Sloan and Caquatto should be scoring in the 9.9s each time, BDG often hits that mark as well, and McMurtry…well, we know what happens there. It’s a believable recipe for 49.500 and has looked the closest to postseason-ready among Florida’s events over the last month. If Florida is looking for areas of advantage over LSU, bars is the biggest one.

Alabama has about 68 realistic floor options that could score 9.850, but whom to choose? It won’t be good enough just to hang in the 9.850s during this rotation, not with this level of competition, which is why success or failure in this championship could hinge on who is able to go on floor. The amount Carley Sims has been able to progress since we saw her two weeks ago will be critical. She’s back, but in her floor performances so far she hasn’t looked full Carley Sims. She needs more time to return to her normal level, but if she’s there and is joined by a Winston/Beers/Jetter-type lineup, we can expect at least 49.4, which is the minimum Alabama needs here to challenge. If, however, the Tide is forced to opt for a more Aja Sims/Giancroce-type lineup (both of whom are perfectly solid for 9.850), then challenging the LSU floor machine and staying competitive becomes a serious task.

As we’ve moved toward the end of the season, Auburn has been squeezing every possible tenth out of the vault lineup and staying much more competitive than I would have thought given the available options. At the same time, the limits of lineup depth and difficulty (just one 10.0 start most of the time) put a ceiling on what Auburn will be able to do here, making a big early floor statement all the more critical.

Rotation 3: Alabama vault, Auburn bars, Florida beam, LSU floor

Event RQS through 3 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 3):
Florida 148.260 (49.405)
LSU 148.170 (49.510)
Alabama 148.030 (49.315)
Auburn 147.965 (49.280)

And now we arrive at the portion of the meet during which LSU should be making a move. If we’re truly to believe in the Tigers’ ability to win, they’ll need to jump into the lead after three events. The RQS tells us that LSU should be in second after three, but with Florida ending on floor (even though LSU will be on a strength at the same time, vault), no team can allow Florida to have a lead going to the last rotation. They’ll just Baker everyone into submission. 

One through six, I’d say LSU has the strongest and most even floor lineup in the country, able to warrant 9.9s from Ewing in the first spot right through Gnat in the final spot. There are a couple issues (Wyrick has some leg form and chest position here and there, Kelley can be inconsistent with those landings), but fewer issues than the other teams have. We should expect the 49.5 that RQS tells us LSU will get, which is why the Tigers have the opportunity to gain a couple tenths on a Gator beam rotation.

Florida does score very well on beam, but uncertainty has crept into the lineup recently, assisted by the yet-another-injury to Peyton Ernst that kept her out of last weekend’s meet. The work is not quite as pristine as what LSU and Alabama can boast, with a couple more moments of leg form, short splits, and Ericha Fassbender’s sheep jump. Under normal circumstances, there are still a couple 9.9s in this lineup as long as Bridget Sloan remembers that she’s Bridget Sloan, that’s a side aerial, and COME ON. It’s not exactly a feeble event and has often won meets for Florida, but this is the closest Florida comes to a rotation where the other teams can pounce.

Alabama has the difficulty on vault with three 1.5s from Beers, Brannan, and Guerrero, all of whom have scored well at times this season, but it hasn’t quite come together in the same meet yet, keeping Alabama at respectable but often modest totals. The 49.2s won’t get it done in an SEC Championship. All three of the 1.5s should go at least 9.850 (Guerrero’s is a bit shorter and less laid out than the others, so she’s more likely to stay in the 9.8s, while Beers can go 9.950 for a stick), but the factor bringing the scores down has often been the quality of the fulls. The vaults from Bailey, Bresette, and Armbrecht aren’t consistently competitive in an SEC vaulting context, so Alabama will need to have McNeer and Winston back on vault to put up a number that can keep relative pace with what Florida and LSU do here. 

Meanwhile, in DLOs-that-are-to-die-for news, may I introduce Auburn. It’s somewhat surprising to me that Auburn is down at 8th in the country on bars because a lot of this work is exceptional, particularly the dismounts. There are a few form issues in the beginning of the lineup that can keep the scores in the lower 9.8s, but once we get to Milliet and Atkinson, expect the number to go quite high. Keeping pace throughout the meet will be extremely challenging for Auburn, but this event should merit a respectable score. In the rankings, Auburn is already pretty well set for that normally-coveted 6/7/18 regional (unless that 18 seed ends up being Stanford, in which case this would become the nightmare regional), but a 196.975 in this meet would guarantee dropping no lower than 7th in the rankings.

Rotation 4: LSU vault, Alabama bars, Auburn beam, Florida floor

Event RQS through 4 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 4):
Florida 197.745 (49.485)
LSU 197.615 (49.445)
Alabama 197.400 (49.370)
Auburn 197.140 (49.175)

Note that these are the totals of the four event RQSs, not the teams’ overall ranking RQS.

Florida has the luxury of coming home on an event that hat scored as high as 49.675 this season. I’m hoping that the introduction of four judges for championship season and the context of an actual title on the line will keep floor scores a little saner than they’ve been this season, but even so, finishing on floor will give Florida the opportunity to make up any small deficit that may have arisen (or just seal the deal). This floor rotation has had some issues this year, spending most of the first few months of the season looking like half a team, but McMurtry joining the fold and Caquatto getting it together lately has beefed up the lineup into something more competitive, relying less on 9.825s from McLaughlin and Fassbender or that backup routine from Hiller. It’s still not the strongest floor in the country, but when Baker and Sloan are hitting, it’s quite difficult to beat. If the Gators are in the vicinity of first place going to the final event, bet on them.

But it really must be the vicinity of first because LSU on vault is LSU on vault. The Tigers may drop a little bit to Florida in this rotation, but not much. If they have managed a lead after floor, they’ll be feeling pretty darn pretty going to vault. While I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as one of the all-time amazing LSU vault lineups, they’ve been able to take advantage of the new rules and superior difficulty to snatch some massive scores. Gnat’s giant DTY has settled into a pattern of going 10.000 when she sticks and 9.950 when she doesn’t, which is such a valuable scoring guarantee. The rest of the lineup would have to put up total stinkers for the score not to be competitive. They don’t usually do that, with useful 1.5s from Ewing and Savona (Savona may still need a little more time to find her landing) and one of the country’s better fulls from Hambrick. The Tigers occasionally lose a little bit in the early part of the lineup when they have to use Macadaeg and Cannamela, whose fulls are fine (and have improved) but not as dynamic as the best vaults. That’s more something to watch compared to Oklahoma when we get to nationals though, because the same remark can be made about Florida and Alabama.

Alabama’s bars terrify me. That’s not to say the score can’t be good. It has been as high as 49.6 this year, and Kiana Winston’s routine is among the best in the country. It also helps that the judges have suddenly decided that Brannan’s bars work is worth 9.925 even though it’s the identical routine she was performing at the beginning of the lineup for 9.800-9.825 early in the season. But then there’s also Jetter’s double front. Yikes. Watch that space. If Alabama is going to win this title, it will take a season-best performance during which things happen that we haven’t seen yet. Bars is the event where Alabama may just pull something out and be suddenly more competitive than we’ve expected as long as Winston, Bailey, and Jetter are all having a good day.

Being the runt of the session, Auburn has to start on floor and end on beam. (Would you rather go in the evening session starting on floor or in the afternoon session starting on vault?) Beam has been an OK event for Auburn this year, retaining some of the glory of last year with Atkinson, Milliet, and Demers uniting for a trio of lovely, but it hasn’t been quite as crisp, consistent, or high-scoring. Megan Walker has absolutely not been replaced. We’ll also have to watch Atkinson in the AA battle. Sloan enters as the favorite because of Sloan, but I’d probably put Atkinson at second-favorite to win, aided by the fact that she anchors every event. If intra-lineup score building is happening, Atkinson could ride that to a major total. There are a number of other contending options, including Baker and Boren for Florida (though they won’t have the bars and beam scores to win if Sloan is nailing the meet), Rogers and Jay for Georgia (beam asterisk), Hambrick for LSU (maybe not the bigness across four events?), and whoever does AA for Alabama this time (I like Winston’s chances if she’s actually able to do four events). But to me Sloan and Atkinson look like the most convincing favorites.

Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky

Sort of like the Pac-12, we do have a vaguely realistic title challenger in the earlier session in Georgia, though I would say Stanford is more likely to win the Pac-12 than Georgia is to win the SEC. Yes? True? With me? Georgia is capable of very high scores, but do we see the 197.8-197.9 it may take to win this thing coming from Georgia? I’m thinking Georgia would be really happy with a 197.4ish score and challenging for 3rd place. That would reflect four strong events with real hits, not just we-avoided-a-fall hits. Those have been too hard to come by this season.

Georgia’s asset remains vault, a lineup that is solidly top-3 in the conference and should be the primary factor boosting Georgia ahead of the other schools in this session, toward a mark that would be challenging for the evening teams to match. The Gymdogs have the difficulty with three 1.5s, aided by mostly solid fulls from the rest of the group. That, and a floor rotation led by believable 9.9s from Marino, Jay, and Box, is what will lead Georgia into the 197s. Bars has been fine, not the disaster it might have been this season given the lineup exodus. Although, they do need to figure out what’s happening in that second spot, which is now occupied by Johnson who works bars like a vault specialist. They’ll want to drop that score every time, which puts pressure on the others not just to hit but to 9.850+ hit. All of this is a way of dancing around the beam issue. We’ve talked about it enough. The last few meets have been encouraging, but that’s not enough to declare the epidemic over, especially because even if there’s no fall, Georgia is still risking a couple 9.7s, which is pretty much as good as a fall when trying to contend for an SEC title.

In spite of all that’s happened this season, Georgia has a legitimate shot to move into the 6/7 spots if either Auburn or Michigan has a bad day on Saturday. Although since Utah (currently #5) and Michigan (currently #7) are also regionals hosts along with Georgia, we’re looking at some rearranging either way.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of all these contenders has been Arkansas, a team that over-performed expectations early in the season by spending a couple months in the top 10 and has frequently proven capable of snatching 196.7s. Also helping Arkansas is the “neutral site that isn’t a neutral site” thing, making this pretty much a home meet that counts as a road meet. That will allow them to drop a road 196.1 (very doable) and move back up the rankings, potentially as high as #10. As things stand right now, Arkansas would be paired with Oklahoma and Nebraska at regionals, a fate they’d rather avoid.

The Razorbacks have somewhat exceeded what I expected this season, in large part because of vault. I expected the new vault values to destroy a team like Arkansas that doesn’t have 1.5s, but they have shown that a six-yfull strategy is still tenable (disproving the perennial fear that changing the vault values would make teams like Arkansas less able to contend) as long as those fulls are, you know, landed well. Beam has also been considerably un-terrible this season, much better than last year, with every score going over 49 since the first-week disaster. That’s much better consistency than I expected from this group. I normally rail against the strategy of burying the best beam workers at the front of the lineup, as Arkansas has done, because it compromises scoring potential (and I think you can argue that it has because Arkansas gets stuck at 49.1 for hit rotations). It’s often a knee-jerk reaction to falls and in many cases isn’t even necessary. Teams have a couple meets with falls, throw Janie Beamington into the first spot, and later the team starts hitting, believing that they’re hitting because Janie Beamington is in the first spot. When really, the two may not be related. But at that point, because they believe it, the lineup doesn’t get changed to one that would score better in the postseason, and the team has handcuffed itself.

Anyway, Arkansas has done well putting the best beamers at the beginning.

And Missouri has done well not being the weakest team in the conference this season. Hooray! Ever since Missouri joined the SEC, they’ve been the caboose of the conference, but picking it up to 7th out of 8 this year is a big deal. That sounds sarcastic, but it actually is a big deal. It has been too long since Missouri got 196s at all, let alone five of them in the same season. Porter, Ward, Miller, Harris, are Schugel make up a competitive core of high-scoring gymnasts that Missouri didn’t have even back during the glory season of 2010 when it was Sarah Shire and Company, starring Sarah Shire as Sarah Shire. Like Arizona, Missouri has an outside shot of getting into the top-18 and snatching a seed if everything goes just right, but it’s not likely. 

It’s rather unlikely that Missouri or Kentucky will challenge the top 6, though it’s certainly possible if Arkansas is just OK. More likely, they will be fighting each other not to finish in the basement, which is a meaningless distinction but helpful for pride. That’s pretty much what Kentucky is playing for here since little will change in terms of rankings or regionals placement at this point. Which team is more 196ish and more likely to hope for a weird upset bid at a regional, that’s what we’ll need to watch. They’re both in it with a shot. Dukes, Hyland, and Stuart have reinvigorated a Kentucky program that looked like it was headed for a dip this year after the million injuries and routine losses of last season. Keep an eye on next year. Top 18 wouldn’t be surprising. 

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