Why Florida gymnastics is No. 3, not No. 1 — and still the national championship favorite

USA TODAY Sports

This deserves more than a footnote, because Florida's gymnastics team deserves more than a footnote.

Florida's got three No. 1 teams at the moment, but the most dominant team on campus this spring is Florida's gymnastics squad, which has churned out 10.0s at an alarming, historical rate in its first season as defending national champions.

But Florida's not the No. 1 team in the latest edition of the national rankings for gymnastics, and might not retake No. 1 until the postseason, if it reclaims that ranking at all. The reasons for that are rooted in the stupidity of how gymnastics rankings are calculated.

Through the first seven meets of the year, teams are ranked based on their average score. This makes plenty of sense, even if penalizes teams like Florida — which currently holds the nation's second- and third-best scores on the season, and has one of the two scores tied for fourth-best — that ease into their years with low scores, as Florida did by putting up a 196.650 in its season-opening meet. Pretty much every elite team in the sport uses early-season meets against overmatched teams to rest their best gymnasts, allow younger gymnasts to compete, or permit their best gymnasts to experiment with variations on their routines, so it's not rare for averages to be anchored by one lower score in a tune-up meet.

Florida still managed to get to No. 1 in the country despite that mediocre start, thanks to its titanic nights against Georgia and Oklahoma, but the Gators used a meeting with Kentucky — currently 25th in the national rankings, and yet to score as well as Florida did in that "mediocre" season opener in any meet this year — to rest many of its performers, won comfortably with a relatively unremarkable 197.175 score — and promptly had its lead on Oklahoma for No. 1 cut in half from the February 3 rankings to the February 10 rankings.

After Oklahoma posted the nation's highest score this year at the 2014 Metroplex Challenge — a night on which Oklahoma and LSU pushed each other, and both teams put up season highs — the Sooners added almost 0.150 to their season average, and took No. 1 back from Florida, which still had a higher score at No. 2 than any other team has had this season.

After the seventh (or so) meet of the year, however, teams are ranked based on Regional Qualifying Score (RQS), which is the average of a team's best six scores of the season, at least three of which must draw from away meets, with the best score dropped. There's reasoning behind that idea, but If that sounds needlessly confusing, it's because it is.

Gymnastics programs tend to score better at home than on the road for a variety of reasons — travel, familiarity, judges familiar with their programs — and requiring three away scores means that programs can't just lard their schedule with home meets and use their killer scores as ballast. That reasoning makes sense.

It's the implementation of RQS that is a migraine waiting to happen.

Florida's two scores of better than 198.000 count toward that Regional Qualifying Score, but only the 198.050 Florida put up against Georgia actually gets averaged into the calculation. Its only three scores in road meets — the 196.650 at UCLA, that foot-off-the-gas 197.175 at Kentucky, and a still-tuning-up 197.075 at Auburn — all count and get averaged in. Florida ends up with a Regional Qualifying Score of 197.365, which is 0.225 higher than No. 4 Alabama's 197.140, but lower than its 197.496 average score.

Florida put up its best score of the season on Friday. But the Gators fell in the rankings — and that score didn't count.

Florida just put up a 198.125 in its win over LSU on Friday, its best score of the year and the second-best score by any team this year, and it doesn't count in the rankings. After that bravura performance, Florida actually dropped one spot, from No. 2 to No. 3 ... behind the LSU team it beat.

Oklahoma and LSU, on the other hand, have taken part in four meets away from home, and thus the Sooners' 196.675 in a tune-up home meet against Iowa State (which scored a 193.050) and LSU's 196.875 at Georgia (in a loss!) don't factor into their Regional Qualifying Scores. Neither team has its Metroplex explosion used in RQS calculation, which hurts both teams a little, but LSU ends up with a 197.470 that is significantly better than its 197.409 average, and Oklahoma with a 197.405 that is very close to its 197.411 average.

If the numbers haven't totally confused you yet, you've probably grasped an issue here: By average, that top three consists of Florida, Oklahoma, and LSU, in that order, but by RQS, the order is reversed, and it's LSU, Oklahoma, and Florida.

And if that didn't make you scratch your head: Florida has beaten both Oklahoma and LSU in duel meets, LSU beat Oklahoma at Oklahoma, and Oklahoma beat LSU at the Metroplex. Not only does RQS disservice Florida — and Oklahoma! — given their average scores, its current No. 1 team went 1-2 against No. 2 and No. 3, its No. 2 went 1-2 against No. 1 and No. 3, and li'l ol' Florida, stuck in No. 3, went 2-0 against No. 1 and No. 2. The mind boggles.

Now, the good news in all this: It might get "rectified," in a sense, before long, and really shouldn't matter by season's end.

Florida travels to Alabama this Friday, and will assuredly be gunning for a win over the Crimson Tide, the 2012 national champions and the current No. 4 team in the country. (After that meet, Florida will have played four of the other five teams in the nation's current top six; the Gators' RPI is No. 1 in the country, and it isn't close.) The big score Florida's likely to post should push out the 196.650 that is weighting Florida down — the Gators have a colossal 197.638 average in their other six meets — and will likely restore it to No. 1.

With just two road meets left before the SEC Championships, though, Florida's going to carry at least that Kentucky score with it through the final meet of its regular season on March 14 at Missouri. That three away scores stipulation is artificially deflating the Gators' ranking because the Gators hosted the best teams in the country, instead of visiting them.

And it might matter a little at the SEC Championships, if Florida doesn't overtake LSU. The rotational order there is determined by RQS scoring, and the top-ranked team gets "Olympic" rotation — vault, bars, beam, floor — that home teams get all year.

But that artificial deflation probably won't matter at all in NCAA play, however. All RQS scores do is qualify and seed teams for NCAA Regional competition, and Florida is a lock to be among the nation's top six teams, and thus the top seed at some Regional — possibly the Southeast, which will take place in Athens. For a team sitting closer to the outskirts of NCAA Championships contention, at No. 11 or No. 14, perhaps, seeding might matter, as those teams could end up in a rough Regional, tasked with outdoing another very good team to advance.

But Florida is a couple steps up from very good, and excellent enough to move on to the NCAA Championships no matter what teams it competes with in Regional competition. Frankly, there aren't two teams outside the top six nationally that have a realistic chance of beating Florida in a Regional.

Seeding for the NCAA Championships is determined by Regional scores, and seeding for the Super Six is determined by NCAA Championships scores ... but that seeding doesn't really matter. Rotational order — which helped No. 1-seeded Florida come back to win the national championship last year, given the Gators' ridiculous close on floor exercise, and could help Florida again this year, as the Gators may have gotten better on floor — is determined by blind draw.

Furthermore, and finally, having formula-based rankings in a judged sport is a admirable swing at objectivity, but it undercuts subjective judgments, especially in situations like the one Florida's currently in, and sometimes does so dramatically enough to make the rankings little but a joke.

If you gave the coaches of the top 20-30 teams in the country votes in a poll, most of those votes would be cast for Florida this week, and most weeks this year, because the Gators have incredible depth on every rotation, the nation's two best gymnasts in some order in Kytra Hunter and Bridget Sloan, and have demonstrated what they're capable of with three astounding full-bore performances and a torrent of 10.0s. Florida's the national championship favorite because almost the same group of Gators won the national title last year, and that was without 10.0-worthy performances on a consistent basis. The rankings being stupid don't change those consensus opinions; they just obscure them.

All of this boils down to one thing: Gymnastics' ranking system tries to account for variance and produce an objective measure of team performance, but draws from too small a sample size to do so without amusing hiccups like ranking this dynamite Florida team along the way and confusing the hell out of people who want to learn more about the sport without needing a calculator to understand which teams are the best in the country.

It almost defies analogy — it's as if the BCS rankings debuted in about Week 7 of a college football season, but only counted teams' second-biggest blowout win over a cupcake team, and required teams to go on the road three times before the end of October — and it is frustrating that it isn't as close to flawless as the Gators have been this year.

But what could be, really?

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