CGN Roundtable: On Our Preseason Poll

By now you’ve probably seen our preseason poll where over 10 editors produced what they believe to be the top 36 teams for the 2021 season. Then we did some basic math and came out with our overall ranking. In this week’s roundtable, we’re talking about our decisions—why we put some teams where we did, didn’t include others and any differences we think we may see from what we ranked. Interested in seeing each individual editor’s top 36? Check out their social media!

Did you use any sort of methodology when ranking your top 36?

Elizabeth: I started out by researching the freshmen on the teams I knew less about. I also looked at what each team lost in terms of number of routines from seniors or transfers, as well as gains from those returning from injury. Our Potential Lineups series helped a lot. Finally, I pulled up last year’s final ranking just to make sure I didn’t forget anyone.

Mary Emma: I made a spreadsheet of the top 40 or so teams from 2020, and I listed the routines lost, freshmen gained and injury returners for each team. I then read our potential lineups series to see how well the freshmen would be able to fill the holes and went from there.

Jenna: I created a spreadsheet to analyze the scoring potential of the top 48 teams from 2020. For returners who competed last year, I averaged their top five scores (I didn’t use NQS since we didn’t have a full regular season). I then went through each team and added my best guesstimates for how the freshmen would score, as well as any returners who were not regular contributors last year. It’s not an exact science, but it was a great way to get to know the teams I don’t usually follow closely.

Kalley: I created a spreadsheet to run some data analysis, specifically focusing on team averages and high potential scores from 2020. From there I factored in the impact of losing the scores from the departing senior class, and the potential scores the teams would gain from the incoming freshmen class. Analyzing the freshmen proved to be the most difficult for me, because both elite and J.O. scoring doesn’t necessarily translate how you think it will to NCAA scoring. I also compared my list with how the teams were ranked in 2020 to try to search for any large discrepancies that I might have missed or overlooked.

Emily M: Looking at last year’s final rankings as a rough guide, I grouped teams into chunks: Final Four, likely nationals qualifiers, bubble teams, etc. Once in those chunks I looked at injuries and freshmen, plus anything we’ve seen in training updates, and tried to suss out who would fall where within that grouping.  

Tara: I created a spreadsheet that took the top five NQS scores on each event for each team and added the events up to get a rough idea of where teams were and what holes needed to be filled. From there I referenced our Potential Lineups series quite a bit to research how freshmen and transfers could fit into those holes. If needed, I went out and gathered more information from outside sources to fill any gaps I may have in my analysis. Like many others have stated, I also pulled the top 45 teams from 2020 and double checked that I wasn’t missing any teams. 

Talitha: I did three things. First, I researched each team’s incoming freshmen and compared them with senior and transfer losses. Recent training videos were very helpful in this respect. Second, I took into account new injuries and athletes returning from injury. Finally, I looked at last year’s final rankings to compare numbers and potential.

Now let’s move on to the national champion. There was a general consensus that it’ll probably be either Florida or Oklahoma. Which team did you pick and why?

Elizabeth: I picked Florida to win the national championship this year. If I’m being completely honest though, I will be zero percent surprised if Oklahoma wins; it doesn’t matter what OU loses in a given year, even Maggie Nichols, it still has an ability to pull it out when it counts. However, I had to go with the teams on paper, which is why I chose Florida.

Mary Emma: For me, it was really close between the two. Ultimately, I ended up going with Oklahoma. I’ve learned in the past not to bet against Oklahoma, as KJ Kindler always seems to be able to put together championship-winning lineups no matter how many routines were lost. 

Jenna: My data-based approach actually had Oklahoma slightly edging out Florida for No. 1, but then the news came that Meilin Sullivan would be out for the season. When I removed her projected scores, the teams were tied! I gave the tiebreaker to Florida because while its 2020 senior class was great, it’ll be easier to replace than OU replacing Maggie Nichols’ scores. However, I don’t view my No. 1 ranking as necessarily picking Florida to be national champion—I more view these rankings as how I think things will shake out at the end of the regular season. Anything can happen in postseason, as we’ve seen!

Kalley: I picked Florida for the national championship. The straight up potential on that team is hard to ignore, and while it definitely lost some key routines, when I ran the numbers it still came out on top. Oklahoma is a big question mark for me this season to be honest, not because I think it lacks potential (It’s Oklahoma—it will certainly be a top team and very much in contention for the title), but because I don’t know what that team looks like without Maggie Nichols. Losing Meilin Sullivan was a blow as well.

Emily M: I picked Florida, but it was tough! KJ Kindler always seems to find a way, doesn’t she? As far as I’m concerned, she’s the best coach in the country. That said, I’m just not sure the roster is prepared to replace Maggie Nichols’ scores. Sure, it’ll be close, but losing those auto-9.975s was always going to be a blow. Meanwhile, Florida lost some very good and reliable routines, but not its end-of-lineup superstar. That’s the big difference to me. I just think the incoming Gators will be more prepared to replicate or improve upon the lost numbers.

Tara: I went with Oklahoma, but it was a tough choice–I definitely went back and forth quite a bit! For me the multitude of freshmen, many of which I could see contributing, helped the Sooners’ cause. Much like Mary Emma, it was very much a “don’t bet against Oklahoma” kind of decision. 

Talitha: I picked Florida, though as others have said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Oklahoma won again this year—KJ Kindler is the best NCAA coach for a reason. Losing Maggie Nichols will be tough on the Sooners, however, and that made the difference to me. Although in the past two years, we saw Oklahoma do fine in the regular season even without its star—Nichols always competed in the all around at nationals, and she made a difference. Florida, on its part, also lost some important routines at the end of last season, but nothing that in my view the talented freshman class can’t replace.

Looking at the top four, which will be the teams in the national final, why did you go with the teams you did and why did you leave out [insert possible team you left out]?

Elizabeth: My top four was Florida, Utah, Oklahoma, Michigan. I know this isn’t probably what’s actually going to happen, but I do have a really good feeling about Utah—better than I’ve had in a long time. And I swear if Michigan doesn’t make the final with the talent it has on that roster… LSU could have easily slotted in instead of one of the teams because it all comes down to what happens on the day, but I’m leaving it on the outside for now. As for UCLA, the team always tends to ebb and flow in terms of success. To me, losing that incredibly talented senior class isn’t going to be easy to bounce back from just yet.

Mary Emma: I had Oklahoma, Florida, Utah and Michigan, respectively, in my top four. Oklahoma and Florida were the obvious choices, and I chose Utah and Michigan based on the potential they have. Both teams only lose a few routines and gain freshmen classes that should make an impact. LSU and UCLA I see as the most likely spoilers for the top four, but ultimately I left both of them out. UCLA just lost a huge senior class, and due to Olympics deferrals will not gain a huge freshmen class to replace it, while LSU is going to have a lot of ground to make up after losing Kennedy Edney and Ruby Harrold.

Jenna: I picked Florida, Oklahoma, Michigan and Utah, and I agree with Elizabeth and Mary Emma that LSU and UCLA will have to rely on freshmen more than the teams in my top four. Watch out for Michigan—its stellar freshman class won’t be under as much pressure to replace routines from graduating seniors, so they’ll be able to adjust to college gym at their own pace.

Kalley: My top four is Florida, Oklahoma, Michigan and Utah. From a numbers standpoint, Michigan has absolutely no reason not to make it to the final four this year. It retained all of its big routines and the freshman class is insanely talented. Utah is also a team that really impressed me last year, and I think it will continue to build on momentum going into this season. The biggest “surprise” of my final four is the lack of UCLA—but similar to my feelings on Oklahoma without Maggie, I just don’t see how this season will be anything shy of a rebuilding year for the Bruins. Needing to replace that senior class—especially Kyla Ross—is a tall order. 

Emily M: My final four is Florida, Oklahoma, UCLA, Michigan. I have regrets! It was hard! The top two feel fairly obvious, in whichever order you personally have them seeded. Utah is definitely also in the mix, as is LSU. I dinged Utah for losing Soza, but in hindsight I think I weighed that too heavily. As everyone else pointed out, UCLA just lost so much; I’d swap Utah in its place if we redid the rankings today. I slid Michigan ahead of LSU purely on preseason training from the Wolverines. They’ve just looked like this is the sparkly, shiny year when the stars will align. They have that X-factor energy. That said, I’m by no means counting LSU out of the picture.

Tara: My top four is Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan and Utah. Oklahoma and Florida were fairly obvious choices, it was just a matter of choosing who went No. 1 and No. 2. Michigan is a team that was on the rise when the 2020 season was cut short, and with the freshmen, it really has no business not being in the top four. The final spot was a tough one, but I ultimately settled on Utah when weighing its gains, returners and losses.

Talitha: This was tough. My final four was Florida, Oklahoma, UCLA and LSU, but I could feel Michigan and Utah staring at me mockingly from a corner of my head. I had three reasons for including UCLA. First, it is a team traditionally resourceful even in the years without big stars. Second, Frida Esparza and Chae Campbell are going to be big stars, just wait and see. Third, the Bruins have very talented gymnasts we saw very little of last year, like Pauline Tratz and Margzetta Frazier. I think they will be fine. As for LSU, I have immense faith in its freshman class—some would say too much. I believe that Elena Arenas and Olivia Dunne can easily fill most of the empty spots left by Kennedi Edney and Ruby Harrold, and for me, Haleigh Bryant can change the world. Michigan obviously has probably its most talented ever roster, but is it enough to make the final? As for Utah, I love the current team, but the questions I had last year about floor and vault have not gone away.

Let’s expand it one more time and look at the top eight. Which teams made yours and why, which didn’t you include that you could easily see making it and which might be a surprise?

Elizabeth: Besides the teams I already mentioned, California and Denver round out my top eight. I think Cal has LOADS of potential, but I’m still waiting to see the best possible lineups actually make an appearance in competition. Minnesota is my No. 9 team, but it could have easily swapped positions with Denver, which lost Maddie Karr and needs to replace some filler routines from the lineups last year.

Mary Emma: The remaining teams in my top eight were UCLA, LSU, Denver and Cal. Like I said above, UCLA and LSU are the teams I see as the most likely spoilers for the top four. Denver is another team that’s gaining more than it’s losing, and Cal has so much potential as always. I could also see Alabama or Minnesota making the top eight, but for me there were more question marks for those teams than the ones mentioned previously.

Jenna: After my top four, my next four teams were LSU, Alabama, UCLA and Cal. I think I placed Alabama higher than anybody else at CGN, and a large part of that was because of Shania Adams. I think she’ll be a fabulous all arounder for the tide. In addition, I’m hopeful we’ll see increased contributions from sophomores Makarri Doggette and Luisa Blanco. LSU, UCLA and Cal all have fantastic freshman classes, with Cal potentially having the best in the nation. As for a team that could end up here, I would say Denver, whom I ranked No. 10. Its freshmen class is outstanding and should add a lot of needed depth. Denver’s success depends on how quickly those freshmen can adjust to college gymnastics and potentially replace Maddie Karr’s scores.

Kalley: The remaining four teams in my top eight are Cal, LSU, UCLA and Minnesota. Both LSU and UCLA are the obvious options when it comes to spoilers for the top four, but I strongly discourage you from underestimating Cal or Minnesota. Both teams had exceptional seasons, and Cal might have the top freshman class in the country. Mya Hooten has the potential to be a game changer for Minnesota as well, and I am really excited to see what that team looks like this year. 

Emily M: My other four nationals teams are LSU, California, Utah and Minnesota. I talked about LSU and Utah above. Cal just has so much talent walking in the door. Similar to Michigan, it feels like the year. As far as Minnesota, I think it’ll be a tight contest to snag that last nationals spot, and I think Denver will be knocking on the door. The difference is depth, which might be very important considering COVID this year, so I gave the Gophers the edge. They are flirting with a “do you have a seventh routine?” situation on bars, though, so it’s razor thin.

Tara: Rounding out my top eight is Cal, LSU, Denver and UCLA. Cal is a team with loads of potential. In fact, in my analysis, the returners’ NQS totaled 197.200, the highest of any team. The question for Cal is if and when it optimizes lineups. Combined with the stellar freshman class, Cal has no business not being in the top eight this season. LSU also has a good freshman class and should fare well. I went back and forth on Denver and UCLA. Looking back, maybe I weighed UCLA’s losses a little too heavily, but it’s a lot of routines you’re asking a relatively small class to replace. With Denver, while Maddie Karr is certainly a big loss, I saw returning Lynnzee Brown and Mia Sundstrom from injury combined with the addition of a strong freshman class as a plus for the Pioneers. The added depth will certainly help them, and hopefully we’ll never have to see some of those backup routines again.

Talitha: My next four were Utah, Michigan, California and Minnesota. I spoke about the first two above. Cal and Minnesota have similar pedigrees for me this year in that they both lost few routines to graduation last year, have big stars on their roster and have welcomed impressive freshmen. With Andrea Li and Gabby Perea, Cal clearly looks like the superior team. Mya Hooten, nevertheless, will help a lot on floor where Minnesota needed it the most last year. In terms of surprises, I think that Alabama could surprise us all this year. I also have immense faith in Shania Adams, and a healthy Makarri Doggette will make a big difference.

Now we’re going all the way down to the regionals bubble teams where probably the most variety occurred across all our ballots. Why did you include the teams you did and not include the ones you didn’t?

Elizabeth: This was so hard. So many teams that I didn’t include probably could have been included and it wouldn’t have been weird at all. In fact, I think I put in too many risks with Western Michigan, North Carolina and Michigan State not being annual regionals qualifiers lately. West Virginia, New Hampshire and George Washington also stand a chance. Plus, there’s UC Davis, which has the talent but just hasn’t been able to put it all together yet.

Mary Emma: For me, the top 34 teams were pretty easy to choose—the order was hard, but picking out the teams was not. That left me with two spots to fill, and I considered four teams for those spots: George Washington, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Central Michigan. First, I went with George Washington because it loses zero routines from 2020, and it really seemed to have found its groove right before season ended. For the other spot I chose Pittsburgh because although it loses a lot of big routines from 2020, it’s easier for me to see where those replacement routines will come from. With North Carolina losing Hislop, Robinson and several other big contributors, it will be hard for the newcomers to make up for those routines—especially on vault and floor. Central Michigan is going to have a lot of ground to make up with Pedrick graduating. I could see the bubble teams going several different ways, but ultimately, I felt like these were the safest options.

Jenna: Since I was using data to do my rankings, I didn’t really “choose” which teams made the cut, but I can tell you the first four out were Rutgers, Ball State, North Carolina and Northern Illinois. Rutgers has a ton of potential, but it’s difficult to know who’s going to make lineups given the enormous roster. Ball State returned almost all of its starters from last year and has several underrated upperclassmen as well as a large freshman class; I think it could definitely challenge for the MAC title. UNC’s success may depend on the health of Hallie Thompson, last year’s star freshman who missed the whole season due to injury, but Tienna Nguyen and Kate Greene highlight a solid freshman class that could make significant contributions as well. Finally, NIU is a bit of a wildcard because its star freshman Alyssa Al-Ashari only competed beam the last two years, but if she’s able to contribute more, she’ll be a gamechanger for the Huskies.

Kalley: The biggest diversion I had in my bubble teams from the overall rankings was when it came to Central Michigan and Western Michigan. The Chippewas are always right on the bubble, and I don’t think this year will be any different. The Broncos, however, had an incredible 2020 season, and when you factor in their freshman class and the return of Payton Murphy, I think they will be serious contenders for a regionals bid as well. I had other MAC teams right on the edge, too, with Northern Illinois being right below the cutoff. 

Emily M: This bit was honestly the hardest part for me! These bubble teams can vary a lot year to year. I have Central Michigan snagging the last spot because the Chippewas always seem to find a way; the Oklahoma of the mid-30s, I suppose. Denelle Pedrick graduating is a loss, but it’s a pretty deep roster. West Virginia and Pittsburgh were my next two. The Panthers have so much potential, and I think Sam Snider is doing a lot of things right, so I feel optimistic there. West Virginia gets forgotten a lot! Just geographically, it’s out of sync with the rest of the Big 12. I went for it because some of the freshmen last year—Abbie Pierson, the Yanceys—had strong seasons, and I think the Mountaineers can build on them with a little more experience under their belts. The No. 35 spot I have them in is a downgrade because of sheer number of routines lost, but I do think it’ll be a solid year. 

Tara: I’ll start by saying this was hard. Like, really hard. In the end I went with Kent State at No. 36 due to the returners combined with what we know of its freshmen. Some of the teams on the bubble for me were, in no particular order: UC Davis, San Jose State, Eastern Michigan, Pittsburgh and North Carolina. UC Davis has a great freshman class (Rebecca will gladly tell you about them any time), but I’m not sure if the freshmen can carry the Aggies that far up in the rankings. San Jose State and Eastern Michigan also have potential, but I couldn’t see a jump in the rankings there either. Pittsburgh is losing a lot and could be in more of a rebuilding mindset, which is why I left it off. Finally, North Carolina also has a lot of potential. I know a lot of others had it in the top 36, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens; the Tar Heels just need to prove it to me. 

Talitha: This was definitely hard. I surprised myself by ranking Boise State, UC Davis and Michigan State fairly high. They all have impressive freshman classes, which I believe will have an immediate impact on their teams. I cannot wait to see Talia Little for the Broncos and Emma Otsu for the Aggies take the NCAA by storm. At the other end of the spectrum, I felt really guilty about leaving out some teams. North Carolina, for which I have a special attachment, was the most difficult. I think the Tar Heels have a bright future ahead, but next year may just not be the year quite yet. Central Michigan also narrowly missed out—losing Denelle Pedrick to graduation was the decisive factor for me.

Finally, are there any other surprises—whether it’s a big drop or big leap—featured elsewhere in your top 36?

Elizabeth: I guess you could call Georgia at No. 13 a surprise from me. I know injuries were a HUGE issue last year, but so far I’m still waiting for Head Coach Courtney Kupets Carter to produce better results than Danna Durante, which hasn’t happened yet (don’t hurt me Georgia fans, I’m just looking at the facts!). The only other thing I’d say is particularly surprising is Nebraska, but I didn’t put it nearly as low as some of my peers. I wouldn’t go as far as saying the situation is dire, but three transfers and losing some great seniors leaves a lot of questions.

Mary Emma: I had Nebraska several spots lower than its 2020 ranking. With the senior class and transfers, as well as the freshman class being such a question mark, it’s so unknown at this point that I couldn’t put it any higher. On the flip side, I had Ohio State and Boise State ranked several spots higher than their 2020 rankings. I felt that both teams got off to a really slow start in 2020, and both would have ended up ranked higher if the season hadn’t gotten cancelled because more low scores could have been dropped. I think both teams will be able to come back strong in 2021.

Jenna: I think I placed both Washington and Nebraska lower than anyone else, mostly because there are just too many questions about those teams—it feels like it’ll be a rebuilding year for both. As for a big leap, I was surprised to see UC Davis make my top 36. That freshman class is unreal, and if the upperclassmen can be a bit more consistent, the Aggies can definitely be in the regionals discussion.

Kalley: Iowa State ended up higher on my list than I anticipated, and to be honest I wouldn’t be surprised if it finished even higher. I think that is a team to watch this season for sure. I was also surprised by where I ended up putting UCLA because despite all the question marks, it is still a team that should score well—but there were just too many unknowns for me to feel confident ranking it higher. I would love to be proven wrong!

Emily M: I crushed Nebraska; I think I have the Huskers lower than any other editor except Jenna, at No. 26. I just don’t know where the routines will come from! They lost too much, and while the incoming class is big and has some great talent, depth will be a problem all year. I had trouble getting a few lineups to six when writing Nebraska’s Potential Lineups.

Tara: I think Nebraska and Boise State were my biggest jumps, with Nebraska going down to No. 27 and Boise State up to No. 14. Emily M echoed a lot of my thoughts about Nebraska–losing a lot of routines, a lot of freshman unknowns and the whole depth problem. Boise State, on the other hand, I think will see a massive improvement this season. Finishing 2020 at No. 33 doesn’t tell the whole story of that team, one that struggled at the beginning of the season and was starting to improve before everything was cancelled. The Broncos aren’t losing a ton–especially with Courtney McGregor having been out for most of the season–and the freshmen are impressive.  

Talitha: I know that everyone must have thought me crazy when I ranked Stanford 11th despite ending last season at No. 26. The Cardinal disappointed our expectations more than once in the past, but just look at the freshman class; Irina Alexeeva, Isabela Onyshko, Sandra Jessen and Sze En Tan are so talented and could make a huge difference from the start. I may be wrong about Stanford’s ranking placement, but I hope the freshmen’s talent won’t go to waste!

READ THIS NEXT: College Gym News Preseason Poll

Article by Elizabeth Grimsley, Mary Emma Burton, Jenna King, Kalley Leer, Emily Minehart, Tara Graeve, Talitha Ilacqua

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