The arrival of the conference championships marks the beginning of the onset of the opening of the first stage of an NCAA gymnastics season’s march toward maturity, like a disgusting larva transforming into a slightly less disgusting larva.
Results still don’t really matter, but this is the last time results won’t matter. And that’s something. Also blah blah blah, bragging rights. The SEC coaches are always eager to tell us that winning the SEC Championship is harder than winning the national championship, which is just blatantly false and dumb to say, but also…a trophy? Hooray! Winner and losers! Life is happening!
Here, I break down prospects for victory and what I’ll be watching at the SEC Championship for each of the teams.
The championship will be conducted in two sessions, the first at 2:00 ET and featuring Kentucky, Missouri, Auburn, and Arkansas, and the second at 6:00 ET and featuring LSU, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. Teams will compete in seeded order in each session, so LSU and Kentucky begin on vault, Florida and Missouri on bars, Alabama and Auburn on beam, and Georgia and Arkansas on floor.
Session I – Kentucky, Missouri, Auburn, Arkansas
It’s not impossible to get a high score out of the first session. Last season, Georgia totaled 196.850 even with a mild beamtastrophe. Jay, Rogers, Box, and Schick all hit the 9.9 zone on at least one piece, and Jay scored high enough to finish third overall in the AA. So, there is precedent for a useful total.
At the same time, since the SEC went to a two-session format, no team has hit the 197 mark in the first group. With regional seeding and placements riding on how Kentucky and Missouri score in this meet, attempts to hold down the scores in the first session to leave room for the better teams in the second session (reasonable) will have implications for all the teams in the final season standings, not just the teams in this meet.
For Arkansas, the chance to challenge the better half of the SEC went out the window with Amanda Wellick’s injury. Still, having McGlone back to full strength for the postseason does restore the team to five countable scores on each event and the potential for 196, as proved last weekend. Hitting 196 again at SECs would at least set Arkansas up as a possible regional spoiler that, at home, could take advantage of missed meets from the seeded teams. In that regard, Arkansas would like to score within a fall of future #2-#3 seeds Kentucky and Missouri here to position itself as the kind of team that could take advantage of mistakes at regionals.
It has been a season of readjusting expectations when it comes to Auburn. The departure of a major class followed by the loss of Milliet (nearly as significant as losing Wellick was for Arkansas) has Auburn scoring a full point lower this year compared to last year’s totals. I’m still not convinced that’s all we will see from this team, though. Auburn’s current position is not that different from Arkansas’s, in the low-196-spoiler zone heading into the elimination meets, but Auburn really has no business peaking out under 196.5, not with execution like Cerio, Rott, Krippner on beam, and Scaglione on floor. Most of all, I’ll be watching for improvement on that 196.450 season high. That’s a soft number.
This has been a significant season for Missouri, mostly in terms of just…being not-last in the SEC. Doing that without Porter makes the feat even more impressive. Missouri has already locked up a #3 regionals seeding (first time since the famous 2010 season), but there’s still something riding on this performance. A good score could be the difference between heading to regionals needing to beat a Kentucky or Boise State and needing to beat a Michigan or Georgia.
Winning the afternoon session would be a victory here and is an attainable goal. Missouri ranks lower than Kentucky on each event by RQS, which is not auspicious, but does move ahead on both vault and floor when ranked by average. This primarily tells us that Kentucky has higher peak ability than Missouri but has been more prone to dips on certain events (we’ve seen those show up in the random 195s). Steady hits while letting Kentucky have those highs and lows would be Missouri’s route to success.
Kentucky enters as the favorite to win the first session. In fact, UK’s season high of 197.475 would serve as a legitimate challenge to the top group, but that’s unlikely to be replicated here. Instead, Kentucky will focus on winning the afternoon session and being awarded a trophy called “the satisfaction of a job well done,” along with snatching a score high enough to get out of the Nebraska regional of death (though that will depend significantly on what Oregon State and Boise State score as well).
As Missouri looks to take advantage of Kentucky low points, Kentucky’s mission will be to eliminate those little breaks that have crept into every meet for the past month. In Maryland, it was bars falls. Against Illinois, it was flopping around for 9.7s on floor. Against Arkansas, it was vault landings and beam checks. Against Missouri, it was beam checks once again for 9.8s in the final rotation that sent Kentucky to a narrow loss. Eliminating those little blips—most importantly on beam since those final routines from Dukes and Hyland continue to stand as Kentucky’s most impressive gymnastics—is how Kentucky sails to first-session victory because, all teams hitting to potential, Kentucky should come out with the highest score.
SESSION II – LSU, Florida, Alabama, Georgia
Here’s where it gets real. The evening session. Last year it was Florida by .025. The year before it was Alabama by .075. The year before that it was Alabama by .175. Always close and always bunched into the high 197s with 49.450 rotation scores flowing like a chocolate river.
Like Missouri and Kentucky, Georgia hasn’t managed 197 on the road yet this year, so the first goal for SECs will be to hit that total. Georgia may fancy itself a Super Six spoiler this year, but a team cannot realistically be in that bunch without being able to go 197 at SECs, scoring that tends to be looser than it is at nationals.
The score is the bigger focus than the title since this thing would have to be total garbage soup for Georgia to come out on top. The higher-ranked teams would have to miss, which is always possible, but nothing about Florida and LSU this year would lead to assuming multiple falls in a rotation at SECs. Georgia is a strong team, but one that sits a tenth or two tenths behind the other schools in this session on each apparatus. The rotation order also does Georgia no favors, beginning on floor (UGA’s highest-scoring event) and therefore not able to take as much advantage of the hallowed and traditional End of Meet Floor Crack.
I will be looking most of all at the bars rotation, which has some 9.7 execution in the first half of the lineup that may be Georgia’s undoing this season. Raising the handstand precision and competitiveness of those first bars routines must be a focus because, as it stands right now, that’s an area of scoring weakness compared to other borderline Super Six contenders.
Also, beam. Beam hasn’t been as nerve-wracking as last season to be sure, but it’s still not a non-scary prospect.
Alabama Crimson Tide
This is an interesting one because Alabama has scored competitively this season, hit the high 197s, and consistently ranked in the top 6, but at the same time remaining a step behind LSU and Florida throughout. These last few years, SECs has seemed a fairly even match-up of Florida, LSU, and Alabama, and while the title could absolutely go to any of the three again this year with an Alabama victory not counting as a surprise (just like it didn’t count as a surprise in 2015), I’d put Alabama as the definite #3 heading in, not a co-#1 or co-#2.
Some of that is due to having fewer 10.0 starts on vault, but another concern may be that several of the replacement routines for the spots that would normally be occupied by Brannan and McNeer are…acceptable but not really winning-SECs level: the beam routine from Armbrecht (lovely but scary), the bars routines from Sims and Childers. Brannan came back on bars last week but also looked like she needed more time to return to her usual level. It’s hard to see lineups with a high proportion of those replacement routines winning SECs, so their presence/absence will guide Alabama’s fate.
The issue of “home” is a fraught one when it comes to SECs because the competition is technically held at a neutral venue (and counts as a road score for all) but a venue relatively adjacent to a school that then becomes the de facto “home” team. This year’s competition in Jacksonville renders Florida the home team in everything but name. Four times in the last decade has the SEC Championship been held with a legitimate title contender as the “home-not-home” team, Birmingham in 2011 and 2014, Jacksonville in 2010, and Duluth in 2008. Alabama won in 2011 and 2014, Florida won in 2010, and Georgia won in 2008. It’s not definitive, but not insignificant.
Of note, no judges from Florida or Alabama have been assigned to this meet. One judge from Louisiana who typically does LSU home meets will be on bars, and one judge from Georgia who has done a couple Georgia meets this year will be on beam.
Kennedy Baker’s and Alex McMurtry’s statuses are essential to Florida’s hopes. Right now, LSU has the edge on vault and floor, but Baker’s 1.5 on vault would close the 10.0-start gap and ensure that victory on vault comes down to landings more than difficulty. On floor, Florida has a little more depth this year than last year, but those McLaughlin and Gowey routines are too 9.800. It’s hard to see Florida challenging LSU there without Hundley, Slocum, McMurtry, Boren, and Baker all going and all at full strength.
Florida’s main opening, however, looks to be on bars. That is LSU’s most questionable piece (especially with Priessman’s status being all Priessman), and while Florida has dropped a level on bars this season without a bunch of last year’s stars, we’ve still seen those big totals from Hundley and McMurtry drop from time to time. Florida begins on bars, and if this is one of those Hundley/McMurtry 9.950+ days, that will signal that the current is moving in Florida’s direction. It probably needs to be one of those days for Florida to guard against what LSU will do on the other pieces.
LSU hasn’t won an SEC Championship since the inaugural competition in 1981. That’s a bit fluky because, especially in recent years, LSU has fielded squads good enough to win but hasn’t broken through. This season, however, marks the best chance of any of those years. LSU enters as the top-ranked team in the SEC, overall and on every single apparatus. Anything less than victory would be a disappointment/missed opportunity.
A highlight for LSU, particularly in recent weeks, has been the unmatched parade of stuck 10.0 starts on vault. If Gnat, Edney, Ewing, and Harrold are all sticking again at SECs, even the relatively equivalent difficulty from Florida won’t match that score. Beam is the other significant area where LSU has an edge that it must take advantage of in order to win. No other team will match the scores Macadaeg and Hambrick can get in the first two spots (9.900s from those two compared to 9.825s from Florida/Alabama in the same positions is essentially the whole margin of victory from the last three SECs), but those two have to deliver and push the scores up for everyone else. In other news, I’d go with Edney over Li for the mystery spot.
If LSU hits a normal meet, that should mean getting the highest score on both vault and beam, which would be a tough margin for anyone else to overcome, even if bars is a little hoppy and 9.800 the way it can be. Ending on floor is also a good deal for LSU since precedent indicates that floor will just be, “you get a 49.500, you get a 49.500, everybody gets a 49.500.” Ending there provides the opportunity to take advantage of the greatest score building and crack-itude.
Rotation 1 – LSU vault, Florida bars, Alabama beam, Georgia floor
1. LSU – 49.500
2. Alabama – 49.400
3. Florida – 49.380
4. Georgia – 49.375
Because Florida needs to take advantage of bars in this meet, third wouldn’t be a good enough start even though bars is a lower-scoring piece.
Rotation 2 – Georgia vault, LSU bars, Florida beam, Alabama floor
1. Alabama – 98.905
2. LSU – 98.895
3. Florida – 98.750
4. Georgia – 98.595
Alabama starts on its best-scoring apparatuses, so if the upset is a-brewin’, it will require Alabama leading at the halfway point.
Rotation 3 – Alabama vault, Georgia bars, LSU beam, Florida floor
1. LSU – 148.390
2. Alabama – 148.205
3. Florida – 148.145
4. Georgia – 147.795
Because LSU ends on floor, the other teams cannot allow LSU to take a lead after beam. If that happens, the competition is pretty much over.
Rotation 4 – Florida vault, Alabama bars, Georgia beam, LSU floor
1. LSU – 197.930
2. Florida – 197.585
3. Alabama – 197.525
4. Georgia – 197.015
Note that the individual event RQSs, as opposed to the overall team RQSs, give LSU a larger margin over Florida and shrink Florida’s advantage over Alabama.
Surprisingly, there isn’t really a runaway AA star in the SEC this year, meaning the individual title is up for grabs among a whole bunch of realistic 39.5 contenders.
Kiana Winston (Alabama), Alicia Boren and Amelia Hundley (Florida), and Myia Hambrick (LSU) are the highest ranked SEC all-arounders and will all make legitimate cases, but they’re not the extent of the argument. LSU may also have Gnat in the AA if Priessman isn’t available on bars, and Edney in the AA if she gets the beam spot, both of whom have won meets with big scores this year and will be in it with a chance. Florida will hope to have Baker and McMurtry doing the all-around as well, and those two may have the highest scoring potential of the whole gang. In fact, McMurtry has the four-event quality, execution, and critical late-lineup positions to become the favorite as long as she’s in the floor lineup.
We shouldn’t forget the very competitive AA quadruplets from Kentucky (Korth, Dukes, Hyland, and Stuart), who are capable of breaking into the 39.5 zone as well. Korth in particular would normally be among the all-around favorites with a hit meet, though Kentucky may be too handicapped by going in the first group, rendering Korth not quite as much of a contender as those equivalently scoring gymnasts in the second group.