Afternoon session – 2:00pm CT
Evening session – 6:00pm CT
For the win
One of the bigger surprises of the 2018 season: Florida not establishing itself as a true power. Now, Florida has been strong and fine and good and remains among the select few title contenders given the sheer talent potential on this roster, but Florida heading into SECs having broken 197.000 on the road just once all season? Never would have picked it.
As a result, for the first time in several seasons we come into the SEC Championship with a single solidly established favorite—LSU. LSU leads Florida by more than five tenths in the RQS standings and leads the conference rankings on three events (we’ll get to vault in a minute). Ergo, LSU is supposed to win this thing.
At the same time, when you compare the the lineups of the two teams routine-by-routine, there are really only minor differences that point in LSU’s favor, rather than FIVE TENTHS worth of clear advantage. It’s the superior landings on LSU’s early-vault fulls, the Macadaeg and Hambrick beam scores, Florida desperately missing that Baker floor 9.950. Important factors all, but also the kinds of things that can be overcome on any given day and could point to a closer fight than the rankings do.
If Florida really shows up—for the first time this season away from home—a close fight is what we should have, though one that still favors LSU on balance.
Let’s talk about bars, because that event has been critical in flipping expectations this season. Florida was supposed to be the stronger bars team this year (McMurtry! Hundley! Gowey! Baker! Baumann! Foberg! Boren!), but not all of that has panned out. Most importantly, though, LSU has been showing more comfortable and reliably stuck dismounts this season while also avoiding what seemed like inevitable depth problems. LSU didn’t have a lot of bars routines coming into the season, which is why the emergence of Sami Durante has been essential. Without her, LSU would have been in trouble coming up with six whole hit bars sets, and the event could have been a very different story. Florida will need to start sticking more than half its dismounts to mitigate the LSU bars advantage that has developed this season.
Weirdly, if LSU looks vulnerable anywhere, it’s on vault and floor. LSU’s last two meets featured tired, B+-lineup floor rotations for 9.825s—the team’s lowest-scoring rotation at both competitions. If the full big-girl lineup (so, including Priessman and Desiderio) has found the proper balance of rest vs. competition numbers, expect LSU to have the floor advantage at SECs. If not, Florida can use its McMurtry lineup to make a stand there, even without Baker’s score.
But to win this thing, Florida will have to be the better of the two on vault, the one event where the Gators have a ranking advantage over an LSU lineup that has experimented more and shown more inconsistency. Which mid-lineup 1.5s is LSU going for? Are they hits? While LSU probably will have the difficulty edge (and could put up six 1.5s but won’t because that’s not the best-scoring lineup), Florida has the best overall vault in McMurtry’s, which can (and usually does) bump up those scores. If Hambrick and Edney are continuing to lunge forward on their vital 1.5s, their scores will be between 9.850 and 9.900, which will allow an opening for Slocum and McMurtry to beat that number.
For the Alabama
What are we doing with Alabama this year? It seems too harsh to relegate Alabama to outright underdog status, but we haven’t seen SEC Championship-winning scoring potential from the Tide this year, hitting 197.5 just once all season. Now, that’s exactly what Alabama scored to win SECs in 2015, but that was with Florida counting a fall on beam. And yes, if Florida and LSU count falls tomorrow, absolutely Alabama is your new favorite, but barring that, it’s hard to see a 197.5 winning the title this year given the scores that have been thrown out all season. That means Alabama would have to step up the quality beyond anything we’ve seen so far this year in order to win.
Each routine would have to go just right, but this team does have more scoring potential than it has shown this year if Guerrero, Winston, and Graber all have big days. A higher 197 is not a ridiculous goal, but Alabama does give away a little ground to the better teams in the conference on every event—not quite the difficulty on vault, a few more “good job for 9.850” routines peppered through the 2-4 spots. That’s why winning would require help, but not a completely inordinate amount of help.
Even if the big finish doesn’t come, this SEC performance will be an opportunity for Alabama to prove that it should not be relegated to a second category within the conference, as I have done just now. That this season isn’t The Big Five And Then Alabama—the story the rankings have told the whole way—but rather The Big Six. Even in a third-place finish, keeping things close and showing better scoring potential would be significant heading into the meets that matter.
Kentucky made the evening session
That’s already the victory. With a peak score this season of 197.100 and general high-196 scoring potential, there’s no expectation that Kentucky will end up higher than 4th (a top-3 finish would be amazing), but Kentucky has finally broken through as more than a secondary player or afterthought in the SEC, which is a huge step.
Of course, the real business will be done at regionals, where Kentucky will hope to get to nationals (finally) and will have a very legitimate shot to do so. Staying at the current #9 ranking would help that project, producing a theoretically cushier regional draw, and scoring high-196 here would help those prospects. Ta da, the other benefit of being in the evening session. If history is anything to go by, once the judges get hammered in between sessions, they should be a lot more likely to give Kentucky the ranking-preserving score it needs.
Rotation 1 – LSU vault, UF bars, Alabama beam, Kentucky floor
1. Florida – 49.455
2. LSU – 49.390
3. Alabama – 49.340
4. Kentucky – 49.315
Florida having the lead after one rotation will be critical in its attempt to pull off the upset because LSU starts on vault, which has been its lowest-scoring event this season. If LSU has a lead even after vault, then it’s going to be much more difficult for the other teams to have a look.
Rotation 2 – Kentucky vault, LSU bars, UF beam, Alabama floor
1. LSU – 98.970
2. Florida – 98.820
3. Alabama – 98.640
4. Kentucky – 98.490
By contrast, having the lead after two is essential for LSU because it would indicate that LSU’s bars advantage discussed above has come through. Also, if Alabama allows a deficit any larger than this to emerge at this point—after Alabama has done floor but before LSU and Florida have—that would seem excruciatingly difficult to overcome.
Rotation 3 – Alabama vault, Kentucky bars, LSU beam, UF floor
1. LSU – 148.445
2. Florida – 148.240
3. Alabama – 147.915
4. Kentucky – 147.730
It’s hard to see Florida closing a multi-tenth deficit on LSU while LSU finishes on floor, so reversing the RQS margins at this point after three rotations is essential for the Gators.
Rotation 4 – UF vault, Alabama bars, Kentucky beam, LSU floor
1. LSU – 197.985
2. Florida – 197.655
3. Alabama – 197.330
4. Kentucky – 197.025
The total of the event RQSs gives Florida a better chance than the overall RQS does. Overall RQS puts LSU’s advantage over five tenths, while here it’s down to about three tenths. This basically means that BEST DAY FLORIDA is closer to BEST DAY LSU than normal-hit Florida is closer to normal-hit LSU. Florida’s overall RQS underestimates its best-day ability more than it does for most teams because Florida has hit that best-day ability less often.
No one has ever scored a 197 out of the first session since the SEC Championship went to this two-session format, which is something to keep in mind when watching the scores. We could see that 197 mark broken this time around, but none of these four teams have a road 197 this year, so also maybe not.
If it’s difficult for Kentucky to act as a spoiler here, then it’s going to be even more difficult for the teams in the first session. The primary goal for these teams, then, will be getting scores that preserve the most comfortable possible regional draw (though placing in the top four even from the first session is always a point of pride).
For Arkansas, it’s about getting through vault in the first rotation—the team’s weakness and a quite depleted event—with something close to a 49. That would allow the other events to boost the total score toward Arkansas’s goals of 196.600, the score needed to retain a #2 regionals seed, or 196.750, the score needed to move ahead of Kentucky in the rankings regardless of what Kentucky does later on. That’s for conference bragging rights but also for desperately snatching a better regionals draw somehow.
Arkansas has broken the school record twice this season but is still fighting against a perception that those home scores were built on event 49.5s that aren’t realistic in a postseason context, so it will be incumbent upon Arkansas to prove those record numbers were in the vicinity of real-life scoring heading into regionals.
Watch out for Auburn here. Auburn is probably the deepest of the teams competing in the first session—where “having to put up five” has been a little bit of a theme—showing more difficulty on vault (three 1.5s) and having some seriously impressive 9.9s at the end of most lineups. Holding Auburn back this season has been falling all over the place constantly. Oh, that old chestnut. Auburn has definitely been voted Most Likely To Count A Fall this season, but if it’s a hit day, winning the early session is a very realistic goal.
The number to watch for Auburn here is 196.525. That’s the score needed to remain in the seeded spots while also staying out of that presumed Alabama/Michigan group of death.
Missouri enters the competition ranked last in the conference, in the unenviable position of just trying to avoid finishing at the bottom. Missouri has also struggled to get out of the 9.7s this year in road meets, which has stunted the team’s scoring potential and—for the moment—is keeping Missouri out of the seeded spots. There’s a chance Missouri can move into the top 18 with a good score here, but that will be very dependent on several other teams across several conferences.
Beyond that, it’ll be worth examining whether Missouri should be treated as a looming regionals upset threat based on this performance. We know that MU can score 196s on the road and has done so this season, which is already the kind of score that could make life difficult for a #2 seed having a bad day. So just doing that again here, even if it ends up placing 8th, would help make the argument for Missouri as a dangerous geographically placed team. (That geographical placement is still uncertain because Missouri is equivalently close to a few different host locations, potentially something to watch out for on selection day).
The Georgia problem
Is it the team, or is it the name? Is Georgia a threat in this session, a threat in the rankings, a threat at regionals, because of what the team is doing this season or because we hear the name Georgia?
Besides Florida, Georgia is the team with the most to prove at SECs, having been (depending on your measurement) the least impressive road team in the conference this season with no score higher than 196.350. And yet, Georgia is still very much alive when it comes to getting a seeded spot at regionals and acting as a legitimate upset threat. Much of that will depend on whether Georgia can be home-impressive even here at SECs, particularly on floor where Georgia has been unable to get quality scores away all season long.
That floor rotation score will be a fascinating test because it is not in any way a big rotation, with big tumbling and big E passes. It’s a double-pike rotation. Of course, you don’t need E passes to start from a 10.0 and you don’t need E passes get huge scores, but the conventional wisdom states that, once teams enter the postseason, double-pike routines suddenly don’t get the scores and will pale in comparison to the other teams with bigger tumbling. That’s the major reason teams try to upgrade floor routines even when they already start from a 10 and have scored 9.950 at points during the season. “But in the postseason…” they say. We’ll see that conventional wisdom tested by Georgia’s rotation.
If they hit, that is. Or have six whole people. It’s not a given.
If Georgia gets the floor score, combined with scores on the team’s actual strengths—bars and beam—that should be enough to offset a vault rotation that will have to count 9.7s. And if that happens, Georgia can absolutely go into the high 196s, a score that can win the session, likely preserve a seeded spot at regionals, and make Georgia a real upset threat that big teams will want to avoid like the plague at elimination meets. If not…was it just the name?