For the Florida Gators gymnastics team, the regular season is over, and the stakes of each competition from now until the Super Six will get progressively higher.
This Saturday’s SEC Championships are just the first step on that journey — and will see the Gators seeking a bit of revenge for ... uh, something that happened in Arizona?
For their entire competitive season, the Gators had remained ranked at the top of the SEC, and they were expected to have no problem holding on to the top seed in the conference as well as their national No. 3 ranking, entering the SEC Championships, not least because they defeated top contenders LSU and Alabama on the road. But last week, with the Gators on a pre-postseason bye, LSU scored a huge 198.175 in their away meet against Arizona.
Due to not having their own meet, the Gators were stuck with the National Qualifying Score (NQS) of 197.675, one that they had solidified the previous week with their great score of 198.025 against Penn State — and so LSU was able to pass the Gators to an NQS of 197.680 and secured the top seed at this weekend’s SEC Championships.
While the extra rest may have been helpful for the Gators to get through the long postseason, Florida ended up only having nine meets to compile scores for NQS purposes, compared to 12 for LSU. Additionally, there has been some conversation about the scores at LSU’s meet against Arizona, which included scores of 9.9+ for several vaults with landing deductions. Judging has been all over the place the season, to the dismay of many, and it isn’t a good idea to place blame on one program or meet, but it was also quite disheartening to see the Tigers get exactly the score that they needed to push ahead with some mistakes.
And because of that, LSU’s path to an SEC title this weekend is slightly easier than Florida’s. The basics of the SEC Gymnastics Championships are that there are two sessions, and each has four of the eight SEC gymnastics teams. The teams are seeded into the championship based on their NQS ranking. (This ranking is determined by taking a teams top six total scores, of which three must be away scores, then removing the top score and averaging the final five scores. LSU’s huge road score was inordinately helpful not just because it was huge, but on the road.)
The first session, which will feature Alabama, Auburn, Missouri, and Arkansas, will begin at 4 p,m, Eastern this Saturday, and be broadcast on the SEC Network. The second session, which will feature LSU, Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky, will begin at 8 p.m. Eastern, and will be broadcast on ESPN2. The broadcasts will feature selected routines from all teams and commentary, but there will also be individual event streams on the WatchESPN app.
But while Florida enters this competition — which is taking place in New Orleans. giving LSU some home-state edge and a friendly crowd — as perhaps the SEC’s best bet to win a national title and as the strongest team in the SEC this season, it is LSU that will have the preferred Olympic rotation (vault, bars, beam, and floor in that order) for this event.
In addition to winning the championship, the Gators will be looking to get a big score — a 198+ — to help their NQS for NCAA Regionals placement. They will need a little help from the Tigers as well to retake their No. 3 ranking, though: Regardless of who wins the SEC Championships, if LSU scores over 197.95, then the Tigers will hold on to the No. 3 spot. (For more, check out the Balance Beam Situation’s excellent breakdown of the NQS possibilities.)
Drama aside, Florida and LSU will almost certainly be the two teams that are fighting for the championship title. While LSU has the edge in the NQS, the Gators have a higher average score across the whole season, 197.589 to 197.279. The Gators have been very consistently scoring 49.4+ on beam, bars, and floor, and definitely have the capability to be 49.5 or even 49.6+ on these events with the right lineups in the championship.
As usual for this season, it may come down to vault, which has been a bit of an Achilles heel for the Gators this season. But they did score a 49.475 on the vault in their last meet against Penn State, so I have faith that they will be up for the challenge this weekend.
And, frankly, if the Gators hit on all four apparatuses, then this championship should be theirs.
LSU has been playing around with lineups a lot this season; with some injuries and inconsistencies, they have been trying out new athletes often. Like the Gators, if the Tigers have a “weak” event, it would be the vault. They have consistently been scoring higher than the Gators on the event, but they only have two 49.4+ scores throughout their season. I truly believe that the tone is going to be set depending on what the Tigers score on vault in the first rotation. If they set a 49.4+ score, it will be up to the Gators to really deliver; if the score is lower than that, the championship should be the Gators’ to lose.
In another shocking turn of events, Kentucky was able to pass Alabama in the NQS to take the fourth spot in the night session, which is a huge accomplishment for the program. Alabama has been a strong program for a long time, but Kentucky is a rising program and this shows that they can compete with the best. While their NQS is lower, Kentucky appears to be peaking at the right time and may give Georgia a challenge for the third place spot — both teams have the same season-high score, 197.525.
And though scoring the afternoon session can tend to be lower, as judges seem to feel like waiting to give big scores for the night session, Alabama is closely tailing Georgia and Kentucky, and on a good day could end up third as well. So this should be a very interesting championship in the team competition across the board, with a top two likely vying for the title and three more teams competing for third.
Individually these championships will also be extremely exciting. The battle for the all-around title, will probably come down to LSU’s senior star Sarah Finnegan, who has some of the most perfect form in the whole NCAA, and Florida’s freshman breakout star Trinity Thomas, who we all know also has amazing form and performance. Finnegan (season-high: 39.8) and Thomas (season-high: 39.75) rank second and fifth, respectively, in the country. Both will most likely go 9.9+ (and even 9.95+) on all four events, and are capable of popping a perfect score as well. It will most likely come down to who has the better day.
Fighting for third in the all-around will be several athletes. Georgia senior Sydney Snead is currently ranked third in the SEC in the all-around with a NQS of 39.545 and a season-high of 39.6. Florida senior Alicia Boren and LSU junior Kennedi Edney have both scored 39.725 this season, and Kentucky’s junior Mollie Korth has scored at 39.675. There are several other athletes who have scored 39.6 this season, so the all-around chase will be an exciting one.
As for each event, here’s a quick rundown of top contenders.
The top-ranked athletes on vault are: Georgia’s Snead (NQS = 9.935), LSU’s Edney (NQS = 9.910), Georgia freshman Rachel Lukacs (NQS = 9.905), Auburn sophomore Drew Watson (NQS = 9.9), and Kentucky’s Korth and LSU’s Finnegan, tied for the fifth spot (NQS = 9.895). Other possible contenders are Georgia junior Rachel Dickson (season-high 9.975) and Kentucky senior Katie Stuart (season-high 9.975).
The top-ranked athletes on uneven bars are: LSU’s Finnegan and Florida’s Thomas, tied for first (NQS = 9.95), LSU’s senior Lexie Priessman (NQS = 9.935), Florida sophomore Megan Skaggs (NQS = 9.915), and Georgia sophomore Marissa Oakley and Florida junior Amelia Hundley (NQS = 9.905). Auburn junior Gracie Day (season-high 9.975) could also contend for the title.
The top-ranked athletes on balance beam are: LSU’s Finnegan (NQS = 9.935), Georgia junior Sabrina Vega (NQS = 9.925), Florida’s Thomas (NQS = 9.910), LSU sophomore Reagan Campbell (NQS = 9.905), and LSU’s Edney (NQS = 9.9). Florida sophomore Alyssa Baumann (season-high 9.975) could also get into the conversation for the title with a clean routine.
The top-ranked athletes on floor are: Florida’s Thomas (NQS = 9.965), LSU’s Finnegan (NQS = 9.95), Florida’s Boren and Arkansas sophomore Sophia Carter (NQS = 9.935), and Georgia’s Vega and LSU senior McKenna Kelley (NQS = 9.93).
Floor, bars, and beam are probably Florida’s best chances for an individual champion this weekend, and maybe in that order; should any Gator end up contending on vault, that would likely portend a team title.
As you can see, this weekend should be very exciting!
Some non-Gator routines to watch to prepare for the big day are Snead and Edney’s vaults, Finnegan and Priessman’s bars, Finnegan and Vega’s beam, and Finnegan and Carter’s floor.