National Championship Preview Part 3: You’re All Super to Me, Except for Five of You

Without knowing how the semifinals will play out, previewing Super Six is like looking for shadows in a blindfold factory. Still, performances so far this season have provided a pretty good indication of which teams are in serious contention to win the title and which teams are simply looking to make Super Six/snatch a respectable finish if one of the top teams falters. Surprise, surprise, the four most likely title contenders are also the four top-ranked teams.

Those rankings exist for a reason. The ultimate champion has not come from outside the top three since the beginning of the Georgia dynasty in 2005, when Georgia entered the postseason in 5th, and for each of the last three seasons, the regular-season top three has also finished Super Six in the top three places. So while a weird upset or two in the semifinals could help the chances for a cusp team like Utah to get into the rarefied territory of podium-land, the four teams that should be challenging for the title of Superest of the Super Six, because you’re all just super, are Oklahoma, Florida, LSU, and Alabama. The only other team that spent any time in the top three this season was Michigan, and that ship has sailed.

A rotation-by-rotation team comparison as to the pace they’ll need to set won’t be possible until we have the rotation order, although this is the draw for Super Six for quick reference once we know how the semifinals finish.

The winner of the second semi gets Olympic order, and the winner of the first semi gets to start on beam. Fun. The third-place teams are the ones who will end on byes, as by design.

Of course, to win Super Six, you have to be good on all the things, but rather than just go through the teams and say, “It would be nice if Florida got a good score on bars, and also beam, and floor, and vault. That would make it easier to win” (duh), I’ve assigned each of these four teams a critical event, not necessarily a “must-win” event because that’s hyperbolic (and I never, ever, ever write hyperbolically), but one that should be a massive strength, can’t be a massive weakness, or is generally the best indicator for that team as to whether a title chase is really on.

Vault – LSU

LSU’s ability on vault and concerted use of Gnat Power has made the Tigers the only non-Oklahoma team to occupy the top spot on any event to end the season. If circumstances play out the way they have during the regular season, vault appears to be the juiciest opportunity for the other teams to strike a blow to the Sooners since Oklahoma’s RQS is just a pitiful 49.415 here. (Like, are you even trying?) LSU is the best poised to do that.

Difficulty has become the watchword on vault this year, though it has not exclusively dictated success. Among these four teams, Alabama shows the most 10.0 SVs with three 1.5s and an Omelianchik but is ranked the lowest of the four, while LSU and Oklahoma each show three 10.0 SVs and Florida shows two. In spite of performing the least difficulty in the group, Florida is ranked second on vault, largely by virtue of having the two best fulls in NCAA as well, but LSU has displayed the best balance of difficulty and stickitude to make this event the place where the Tigers can shake off underdog status and and put pressure on the more-favored teams with a 49.5.

The most significant contributor to LSU’s vault success this season has, of course, been Gnat’s DTY, which has spent most of the season in automatic 9.950 for a hop/10 for a stick, Zamarripa territory. It has been judged in an entirely different galaxy from Price’s DTY, so one of the more interesting aspects of semifinal day will be seeing how Gnat’s and Price’s DTYs are evaluated by the same panel of judges in the same session of the same meet for the first time (Price wasn’t yet performing the DTY when the two teams met earlier this season at Metroplex). Stanford vaults in rotation five of the semifinal, and LSU vaults in rotation six. The judges will not be able to justify evaluating them with different lenses, so does Gnat’s score come down to what Price’s has been, or does Price’s score go to up what Gnat’s has been?

LSU need the latter to be true in this meet and relies on that gigantic number for Gnat’s DTY to get the vault advantage over the other teams. Another significant factor in LSU’s vault score is Savona, who has returned from injury to perform her 1.5 again, though the landing control has not been there so far and her score has been dropped a few times. With one sometimes-9.750y vault in the lineup from Finnegan/Cannamela/Macadaeg, LSU can’t afford to be forced to drop Savona’s score in a Super Six context.

Who’s lunging on a 1.5 for 9.850? That’s the major question for all of these teams on vault because we’ve seen nearly everyone who has upgraded to a 1.5 in NCAA this year have moments of bounding forward out of it and making the team drop her critical score. The landing control for Jackson and Scaman accounts for the variation in Oklahoma’s vault results and has created this opening for other teams that wouldn’t necessarily have been there last year, as does Alabama’s reliance on Beers’ 1.5 in particular. She basically decides if the vault score is going to be competitive. Florida has the safety net of the Sloan and McMurtry fulls which can still get 9.900 and show less unpredictability in landing, but it’s the Boren and Baker 1.5s that dictate whether it’s a good vaulting day or a title-winning vaulting day.

Every time one of these teams throws up a 1.5, there is a legitimate one-tenth swing in the scores hanging on that landing, which is a dramatic margin in Super Six. These vaults I mentioned are going to be a real treat for us in Super Six because every stick is a gold star and every shoulder-width lunge is a kick in the stomach to title hopes. You can’t get 9.850 on a critical, late-lineup vault in Super Six and expect to win. I anticipate a lot of “should she really have been doing a 1.5?” second-guessing once the results of Super Six are in. I anticipate it mostly because I will 100% be doing it.

Bars – Florida

This was supposed to be Florida’s year to dominate bars, with 5/6 of last year’s lineup intact including three near-guaranteed 9.9s, while Utah lost Dabritz and Oklahoma had to reconstruct its depleted bars lineup using nothing but kindling and double-sided tape. Florida has been extremely strong on bars this season but has not been the very best team. That title goes to Oklahoma for superior handstands and stick frequency. I was concerned about Oklahoma’s bars this year because of what seemed like a dearth of options, but it’s a sign of a top bars school that they have been able to take “don’t even look at the bars” routines from Capps and Jackson and turn them into suddenly serious scores this year, much as Florida was able to do with McMurtry last year. For all of the light-speed eye-rolling we do about McMurtry’s scores, her pre-Florida bars work was never-making-a-lineup-ever level.

Still, Florida shouldn’t be letting this happen. If you were to offer me Sloan, Caquatto, McMurtry, BDG, Boren, and Baker against Wofford, Kmieciak, Scaman, Capps, Lehrmann, and Jackson, I’m taking Florida’s group every time. That should be the NCAA’s best bars team, and while second place is not a slouch position and 49.4s are not slouch scores, that becomes less true when you’re trying to win Super Six. Second is no longer good enough. Florida currently doesn’t have a first-place ranking on any apparatus, but bars is a mighty opportunity to win an event given the talent of this lineup.

It’s little things that have brought Florida “down” on bars lately. Sloan’s DLO used to be an auto-stick, and it isn’t right now. Also, sometimes the judges say, “Stay with me on this one, but maybe McMurtry’s bars routine isn’t perfect…” Plus, Baker, Boren, and BDG can get a little 9.850 with their dismounts, especially because it’s so hard to take only a .05 step on a double front like Baker’s. Usually it’s either a stick or a bound for a tenth. Baker possesses a great talent for minimizing her hops, planting so quickly that even though it seems like she’s starting to bounce a million miles, she suddenly stops much closer to her landing position than it seemed like she would be, forcing the judges to make a decision about how significant her lack of control really was. Still, her score can go down to 9.800-9.850 depending on the dismount in a snap, and Florida can’t tolerate any of these little issues when trying to beat Oklahoma on bars.

Or Alabama for that matter. Florida’s story on bars this season continued at SECs when the Gators recorded a very strong bars score 49.500, but it still wasn’t good enough because Alabama scored a 49.550 and almost snatched the meet out of Florida’s hands because of it. A result of Alabama’s…lineup developments this season, the Tide rank below the other top teams in most categories and will have to either equal or outpace RQS on every event to have a realistic shot, but we’ve seen Alabama use Winston/Bailey/Brannan to go crazy-pants on bars multiple times this season. Conversely, LSU looks to be more on the minimizing-a-deficit side of the spectrum when it comes to bars, showing a couple 9.9s but also a couple routines that will go closer to 9.800 than 9.900, making it less about winning the event and more about getting through cleanly and evenly, keeping pace well enough to let vault and floor do the talking. For that reason, in ranking the most decisive, pivotal routines in this competition, Sarah Finnegan’s bars is very high on the list. LSU needs that score from her.

Beam – Alabama

Aja Sims. Kiana Winston. Nickie Guerrero. Keely McNeer. Dana Duckworth’s regal chin lift. With all those assets, it’s fair to wonder why Alabama isn’t ranked #1 by a thousand miles on beam. Part of the answer is that this is a very, very lovely year for beam in NCAA. Not necessarily a consistent or reassuring one, but when it’s a disaster, at least it’s a good old beautiful disaster. Lots of teams have very refined and precise beam work, and we have not been afflicted with the 135-degree split demon that more-than-occasionally makes its presence known in most years. Alabama has been good, but not the best. Still, looking at these four teams, Alabama should be able to match up with any of them on beam and must do so to make up the current scoring disparity that has seen Alabama peak in the 197.7s while LSU has gone up to 197.9s and Florida and Oklahoma have reached the 198s.

It was a 49.275 beam (well below potential) that most hurt Alabama’s chances to steal an SEC title, and there’s no room for dismounts with that many non-stuck landings at nationals. Alabama does have a tendency toward hopping around. Aja Sims is 4th in the country on beam but would be level with Capps and Francis if she weren’t dismounting with a double back, a vicious little thing to stick that can easily take her score out of the rarefied 9.950s. That commitment to difficulty is commendable, but it means that Alabama can’t always rely on Sims for a hugely huge number. This puts more onus to stick on the rest of the lineup dismounting with those 1.5s because…it’s a 1.5. It’s not even a double back, so stick.

Bailey and Beers do appear to be out of the lineup for consistency reasons, and while Alabama can withstand that because of the nation-best depth we’ve been living through all year, that’s a tough one. Those are two quite realistic 9.9s sitting on the bench, so by not taking the risk to throw them into the lineup and hope for the best, is Alabama compromising its scoring potential and bringing it farther out of championship-winning range? Or are the replacement routines really equivalent scores?

LSU, for that matter, also should be better on beam than we’ve seen so far this year. DD said at the beginning of the season that beam should be LSU’s best event, and I agree. It should be. Finnegan, Macadaeg, Hambrick, Gnat? Don’t even speak about it. That’s an insanely rare and glorious collection of specimens, and yet Alabama and LSU are the two lower-ranked beam teams among these four.

By boasting so many strong beam options, LSU has had the luxury of burying Macadaeg and Hambrick at the beginning of the lineup because there’s still Finnegan and Gnat to take advantage of end-of-lineup scores and because Macadaeg’s work is remarkable enough that it can get bigger scores even in the first position. Usually. Macadaeg has three 9.925s and three 9.875s from the leadoff spot this year. But, what about the wobbles? What about the tentativeness? Will it catch up to LSU at nationals? And is putting such impressive beam workers in the first two spots also compromising the scoring potential, even by just a tiny yet critical hair’s breadth?

The 49.5s are hard to come by on beam, but not impossible, and many teams here have the skills to do it. Oklahoma continues being Oklahoma on beam in spite of another lineup reinvention to bring in a somewhat unproven cast of characters, but beam shouldn’t necessarily be conceded to Oklahoma outright. The others have the capability to equal or pass those scores. For Alabama, giving away two tenths on beam will not stand for the quality of this lineup or the quality of title chances.

Floor – Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s floor strategy has worked so far this year. This is not a high-difficulty floor lineup, featuring three double pike mounts, one front double full, and Ali Jackson spending the season on Achilles Watch 2016 and doing a rudi before spending the rest of her air time taking a nap. Scaman still brings the Big E with her DLO, but primarily Oklahoma is relying on going clean and the idea that the judges will apply the rules correctly and treat all 10.0 SVs equally rather than saving scores for the bam-bam-bam DLO queens. Before Oklahoma really became Oklahoma and won a title, there was a concern that the lower-difficulty floor routines were being held down especially in the postseason because they were not as “big” as those of other teams (take that to mean difficulty, or amplitude, or whatever you like).

That hasn’t happened this year with similar-difficulty routines, whether because Oklahoma is more of a name brand now, because floor evaluation in general has loosened considerably since 2011-2012, or because it wasn’t even much of a thing in the first place. A little from all the columns? Perhaps. Oklahoma is concertedly keeping the difficulty down on the landings, and not just for Jackson but also for someone like Capps, who can do a DLO, but it’s a much riskier proposition than the double pike, which still gets her a 10.0 start, is way more convenient, and has been scoring just fine. A number of the big teams are going this lower-difficulty route this season, whether by necessity or by strategy, and it’s working out. None of Oklahoma, Utah, or UCLA show very many E passes, even though the capability for more exists, and they’ve all hit 49.6 this season. Cipra is in the same boat of having a full-in in her pocket but also no incentive for the greater injury/landing-deduction risk of an E pass when she can get 9.950s for a double pike routine.

It has payed off for Oklahoma to this point, but those scores will have to continue through to Super Six for it to matter. The judges must be willing to throw out scores greater than 9.900 for a clean mid-lineup double pike if Oklahoma is to snatch the massive floor number that the SEC schools will expect for their DLOs, full-ins, Dos Santosi, and double arabians. Winning the second semifinal would put Oklahoma on Olympic order, ending the meet on floor, which can only help.

If we contrast Oklahoma’s difficulty to the difficulty of the SEC schools, LSU and Alabama have the capability for six E-pass routines (three DLOs, two full-ins, and a front double full for LSU; three DLOs and three double arabians for Alabama), while Florida shows a few more D-peak routines in addition to Baker’s, Boren’s, and sometimes McMurtry’s (which is partially why floor has been the biggest Gator concern this year), but then there’s also Sloan. These teams wouldn’t mind a little bit of E-pass love in the slightest. That shouldn’t happen because a 10.0 SV is a 10.0 SV, but we’ll see.

Floor scores have continued to be rather insane this year, so this seems like a good time to bring back the graph.

We’re closing in on an average top-team floor RQS two tenths higher than it was in 2011, and it’s not like the floor workers are any better now than they were in 2011. The scores are simply looser and considerably higher than they are on any other event. I fully expect to see a flurry of 49.5s on floor at nationals this year, so teams cannot afford to let that scoring opportunity slip away, even with a 49.3. There’s too much to be gained on floor, and because of that, it becomes the most important event to be good at. It’s how Florida won last year (49.650 to Utah’s 49.425), and it’s how Oklahoma fell out of Super Six because the OOBs from Dowell and Jackson meant the Sooners could not take advantage of the sea of gold pieces ready to be showered upon them on floor.

Oklahoma has been the best team this season, basically since week 3, and should come into nationals expecting to win, but cannot let the opportunity for floor scores pass by again. The others are too ready to pounce and the margin between them is too small.