College Recap: Topsy-Turvydom
Jesse Squire | On 20, Oct 2014
College cross country is still wide open. (Photo: Dane Schubert for Daily Relay)
This last weekend saw the two biggest invitational meets of the year, the Pre-Nationals at Indiana State and the Adidas Invitational at Wisconsin. Virtually every top team and individual competed at one or the other, and for the first time we saw every team go all-out (or very close to it).
In the men’s competition, #1 Colorado put on an impressive display of power at Pre-Nats while #6 Syracuse pulled off a bit of an upset at Wisconsin. For the women, #1 Michigan took a tumble at Pre-Nats while #4 Georgetown won, and #2 Michigan State certainly looked like a #1 team at Wisconsin.
However, the thing about college cross country is that the regular season is mostly just preparation for the championship. The only lasting impact these races have on the rest of the season is in the down-the-line placings, where teams on the bubble of qualifying to the NCAAs earned points for at-large berths. Barring disaster, the very best teams are going to make it to Terre Haute on November 22 no matter what , and whether they won this last weekend is of no real importance.
I’ve said before that the college cross country season is like the NFL season, and let me give you an example. My favorite team, the Detroit Lions, sat offensive stars Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush yesterday due to injury yet still posted a win. Sitting players is rarely an easy decision in the NFL; they might have been able to help the team by playing, but playing would have made it harder for those stars to get back to full strength. In any case, it’s looking increasingly likely that the Lions will make it into the playoffs, at which point a fully healthy Megatron could transform them from a middle-of-the-road playoff squad to one that could go somewhere.
And what if the NFL playoffs featured 31 teams, and there was no seeding (because there were no one-on-one postseason pairings)? And what if roughly half of those 31 teams were supremely confident of making it into the playoffs regardless of what happened during the regular season? Then the games during this part of the season take on a whole other meaning. That the Lions made a furious comeback to beat the Saints yesterday and run their record to 5-2 would be less important than the fact that Matthew Stafford was consistently inaccurate, that the defensive line could mount little to no pressure until the fourth quarter, that the running game was completely ineffective, and that the Lions played three quarters of uninspired football at home. Sure, they kept their heads in the game and gave themselves a chance to win, but they’re also a team that desperately needs Johnson and Bush at full strength.
Last week I analyzed the top teams in terms of four groupings: championship favorites, fighting for the podium, hoping for top ten, and trying to get to the championship. I’m not going to dissect the weekend’s races—Running Times, the USTFCCCA, and Let’s Run have already done that—but instead I’ll go down those groupings again with the new data presented by those races.
The Colorado Buffaloes look close to unbeatable. They dominated the Pre-National Invitational and beat then-#2 Oregon by a score of 35 to 91. The Buffs had six men across the finish line before the Ducks had three in. Nor are they peaking early; every year Colorado won the championship, they also won Pre-Nats. I hesitate to call them unbeatable, because one of the last “unbeatable” teams was the Wisconsin team of ten years ago, and they ended up losing the championship. On the other hand, the team that pulled off the upset was—you guessed it—Colorado. When was the last time one of Mark Wetmore’s teams tanked at a championship?
Fighting For the Podium
The top four teams at the NCAAs earn trophies and a spot on the awards podium, and who I think the contenders are for those honors changed over the weekend.
Last week I wrote this about Syracuse:
They’re ranked #6 in the lastest coaches poll but I did not mention the Orangemen as podium contenders. I don’t know why I’m so meh on them but maybe it’s because last year’s 10th-place finish was the best they’ve ever done.
Hey, when I’m wrong I’m really wrong. The Orangemen came out and won the Adidas Invitational, beat two teams ranked ahead of them, and in my mind they are now the #2 team in the NCAA.
Oregon fought the good fight at Pre-Nats and got trounced by Colorado, but they are still one of the best teams in the country. Lead runners Edward Cheserek and Eric Jenkins finished first and third but Sam Prakel did not run as well as he did three weeks ago at the Battle of Beantown and Matthew Melancon did not run. As a team, I think the Ducks can run better than they did this weekend.
Stanford may have finished back in fifth at the Adidas Invitational, but I still think they’re a podium contender at the NCAAs. Partly this is because a “low stick” helps most in the biggest meet, and they’ve got one in Maksim Korolev. He won the race on Saturday and finished third at last year’s NCAAs, so he’s expected to be at the front at the NCAAs. It’s partly because the Cardinal had very average races out of Garrett Sweatt, Jack Keelan and Michael Atchoo. And it’s partly because 13:37 runner Sean McGorty will be running at the Pac-12 and NCAA meets after recovering from a summer back injury.
Those (plus Colorado) are the three teams I expect to walk away with trophies at the NCAAs, but there are a couple of real wild cards. One is Oklahoma State, a team that has won a trophy in six of the last seven years (championship trophies for three of them) but they skipped the big meets this weekend and have not raced against any team of note.
Another wild card is Villanova. The Wildcats also skipped the two major meets this weekend and haven’t yet run their full squad all together in one meet. They have three great track stars in Patrick Tiernan, Jordan Williamsz and Sam McEntee. The latter two are intentionally getting a later start on the season due to summer track commitments, so what they’re capable of is still an unknown quantity.
Teams that I think could get into the top four if Syracuse, Oregon or Stanford leaves the door open include Iona and Northern Arizona. The Gaels ran their first big meet of the year at the Adidas Invitational and finished second, indicating that they have a lot of firepower. They sat out their top runner from last year, Kieran Clements, but when that’s done this late in the game it’s usually due to injury.
The Lumberjacks finished a well-beaten sixth at the Adidas meet after being highly touted all season. They’ve got a great trio of runners but their fourth and fifth are killing them right now. The runners in those positions have been very good in the past—Northern Arizona took the runner-up trophy at last year’s championship—so a recovery is possible, and even relatively small improvements by fourth and fifth runners typically pay off big.
Hoping for Top Ten
Probably the best team not yet mentioned is Wisconsin, who took third at their own Adidas Invitational. They had all the advantages of competing at home but third at that meet is still a major accomplishment. They look ready to begin new Big Ten and Great Lakes region win streaks, both of which were broken last year. If the Badgers get their top ten finish at the NCAAs, it would make a remarkable nineteen times in a row.
Michigan looked good while winning the Notre Dame Invitational two weeks ago but came back to earth with a tie for ninth at the Adidas meet. A top-ten finish is possible but it looks like a stretch right now.
Portland finished a solid fourth at the Adidas meet but it’s our only real data point right now, since the Pilots haven’t run any other major meets. It’s hard to know exactly how good they can be, but top ten appears to be a safe bet.
I think UCLA’s seventh-place finish at the Adidas Invitational was an underperformance. Lane Werley did not run well at all and that cost the Bruins thirty points or more. If he ran like he did two weeks ago at the Washington Invitational, then they finish fourth. Like I said before, if they can get into the top ten then it will be just the second time a SoCal men’s team to do so in two decades.
Three other teams I think could get into the top ten are Providence, Washington and New Mexico. Georgetown finished third at the Pre-Nationals but I don’t think that means a lot because the depth of competition was weak.
Trying to Get to the Championship
Some bubble teams…
Southern Utah will probably get in on the strength of winning the Roy Griak Invitational. Colorado State may have collected enough scalps at the same meet to get into the championship, but their sixth-place finish at Pre-Nats won’t help them.
Indiana was 8th at last year’s NCAA, broke Wisconsin’ long win streak at the Big Ten Championships, and brought back six of their varsity seven, but have done themselves no favors this year. They had another bad run at the Adidas Invitational and finished fourteenth. Unless they have a turnaround at the Big Ten Championships, they’re only going to get in on a push at the Great Lakes Regional.
Furman’s fourth-place finish at Pre-Nats looks good on paper but the Paladins didn’t beat many teams that can help them. And I don’t see them as any better than fourth in their region.
If non-Division I teams could compete, Guelph (Ontario) would have a chance but I think Adams State (Colorado) would be just out of it.
Oregon’s Edward Cheserek has barely ever lost as a college runner and is undefeated so far this year. He remains the king of the hill until someone knocks him off.
For my money, though, the single most impressive run of the season so far is Patrick Tiernan’s huge win at the Washington Invitational. He left the field some 20 seconds in arrears, including Northern Arizona’s Futsum Zienasellassie, who was runner-up at the Adidas Invitational by only four seconds.
If I were to pick an NCAA top ten right now, I’d go with those two and add in Maksim Korolev (Stanford), the Adidas Invitational champion; Blake Theroux (Colorado), runner-up at Pre-Nats; the above-mentioned Futsum Zienasellassie; Eric Jenkins (Oregon), third at Pre-Nats; Aaron Nelson (Washington), third at Adidas; Nate Jewkes (Southern Utah), the Griak Invitational champion; Scott Fauble (Portland), fourth at Adidas; and Abbabiya Simbassa (Oklahoma), third at Washington.
After the dust settled from the weekend, one thing was clear: Michigan State is the best team in the NCAA right now. After that, everything is about as clear as mud.
Michigan State won the Adidas Invitational with a score that was less than half of runner-up Arkansas’ score. They similarly decimated the competition three weeks ago at the Roy Griak Invitational. They put five runners in the top 32 while no other team had more than three. Note who that fifth runner was: Sara Kroll, the 2012 Big Ten champ, who has finished 51st and 53rd at the NCAA Championships (both time in the top 40 for scoring purposes). So the Spartans deserve every bit of their favorite status.
Fighting for the Podium
So what happened to the previous #1 team, Michigan? They finished third at the Pre-National Invitational, behind then-#4 Georgetown and then-#3 Oregon. Did the Wolverines have a bad day or were they overrated? I think it’s a combination of the two; on a good day I think they would have won at Pre-Nats, but there are a couple of other teams that appear to be better than they are right now.
Those two teams are Arkansas and Iowa State, the second- and third-place teams at the Adidas Invitational. They’re remarkably similar teams in that they both have a great 1-2 punch at the front, but weak fourth and fifth runners keep them from having any real chance at the championship. I could be underestimating the damage their back-end runners could do, but two low scores at the front are powerful tools at an NCAA Championships.
What about Georgetown, the Pre-Nats champ? Saturday was by far their best performance of the season, and they have a legitimate star in Katrina Coogan (third overall). The Hoyas are the mirror image of Arkansas and Iowa State, not as fast at the front of their pack and faster at the back, and math might be more important than running in deciding which team finishes higher at the nationals.
Oregon may have been runners-up at Pre-Nats, but I don’t see the squad they ran as a podium contender. If they run Columbia transfer Waverly Neer and superfrosh Sarah Baxter then it’s a different story, but neither has raced yet this year. When you get this far into the season and haven’t raced, more often than not you end up redshirting the whole year. So until I see otherwise, I presume this is the team they’re going with.
Hoping for Top Ten
Wisconsin ran an impressive fourth at the Adidas Invitational and looks like a top ten squad. The Badgers’ women’s team has done that just once in the 21st century.
Likewise, the other teams I figure as top ten contenders finished fifth through eighth at Adidas: West Virginia, New Mexico, Stanford and Florida State. The latter two were considered possible national title contenders early in the season but now they’ll have to run well just to make the top ten. Florida State’s Hannah Walker did not return for her last year of eligibility and now depth is a major issue for the Seminoles. Stanford lost Aisling Cuffe and Cami Chapus to injury and the Cardinal is in the same boat.
Trying to Get to the Championship
Probably the most interesting battles for qualifying to the NCAAs are going to happen in the Great Lakes, Southeast and West regions.
Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin are virtual locks in the Great Lakes but the next spots are up in the air. My scorecard puts Eastern Michigan, Ohio State and Toledo as the next best teams—and as a MAC alum (Bowling Green) I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to see the biggest of the Big Ten programs struggling to beat decidedly working-class universities—but on the other hand, this might be the best regular season that the Buckeye women have ever had. They have qualified to the NCAAs just once in school history, and that was on a “push” in a huge upset just two weeks after finishing next to last at the Big Ten championships. And an interesting subtext to that battle: Ohio State’s cross country coach is Sara Vergote, a former Toledo runner and assistant coach.
I think it’s a three-way battle for two qualifying spots in the Southeast between North Carolina, Virginia, and North Carolina State. Of course they’ll all do battle at the ACC Championships too. I think the odd team out probably has enough points for an at-large berth but I’m not sure.
In the West it’s likely Oregon and Stanford with the automatic qualifiers, and then it’s a mad rush for the next spots. No one who needs an at-large berth did themselves any favors this week: Washington (13th at Adidas), Arizona State (16th at Adidas), Boise State (17th at Adidas) and Cal (9th at Pre-Nats) missed chances to pick up big points.
If non-Division I teams were allowed to compete, I think Guelph (Ontario) would be in the top ten and Grand Valley State (Michigan) would be close to the best team that didn’t qualify.
Clearly, it’s not clear.
Emma Bates (Boise State) was the early favorite based on last year’s runner-up finish and last spring’s NCAA track title at 10,000 meters. Then she finished sixth at both the Roy Griak Invitational and the Adidas Invitational. Not the favorite any more.
Shelby Houlihan (Arizona State) took the favorite role when she posted a strong win at the Roy Griak Inviational, but she finished third at the Adidas Invitational. Not the favorite any more.
Elise Cranny (Stanford), the freshman superstar who took fourth in the 1500 meters at the World Junior Championships this summer, decimated the competition at the Washington Invitational and was on the short list for national champion. But she finished seventh at the Adidas Invitational and we now know her win in Seattle was against inferior competition. Not a favorite any more.
The current favorite is Crystal Nelson (Iowa State), who won the Wisconsin Invitational over Houlihan…but Nelson was third behind Houlihan at the Griak meet.
Second at that Griak Inviational was Rachel Johnson (Baylor), who won big at the Pre-Nationals on Saturday.