Braden Keith, Karl Ortegon, and Robert Gibbs contributed to this report.
As in previous years, SwimSwam’s Power Rankings are somewhere between the CSCAA-style dual meet rankings and a pure prediction of NCAA finish order. SwimSwam’s rankings take into account how a team looks at the moment, while keeping the end of the season in mind through things like a team’s previous trajectory and NCAA scoring potential. These rankings are by nature subjective, and a jumping-off point for discussion. If you disagree with any team’s ranking, feel free to make your case in our comments section.
It’s our last round of power rankings before conference meet season – and we’ve got a theme of this month’s ranks: One big question for each team heading into conference championships.
Of course, there’s one big question that every team has in common with the specter of the coronavirus pandemic still looming large. In lieu of asking that same question 25 times below, we’ll lead with it up top:
One big question for every team: Less than a year removed from a canceled NCAA Championships, will teams approach conference meets differently?
Some teams may opt to really gear up for conference meets rather than risking two consecutive years of saving a taper only to lose the payoff meet. Other might be forced into a more full conference meet taper, with limited regular-season competitions to lock in early NCAA invite times. Plenty of teams will feel the relay heat, needing even their stars at full strength to make sure all five relays are NCAA-eligible.
Others might go old-school, seeing a year of missed training and less time to build that all-important aerobic base that swim coaches are so in love with. That might lead to more training-through for conference meets – at least for teams and individuals who can still make the NCAA meet.
Without further ado, here are our women’s NCAA power rankings, with changes from our previous ranks noted in red or green. Unranked teams joining the top 25 are listed with just a plus sign.
Honorable mention: Duke, Florida State
#25: UCLA Bruins (+)
How well can the Bruins hold up their current Swimulator projection of 34 relay points? That includes the nation’s 8th-ranked 400 free relay – but it’s very difficult to project how much the current relay rankings will be shaken up after a pandemic season with limited competition opportunities. Breaststroker Claire Grover probably booked an NCAA invite with a 59.91 breaststroke last month, faster than she went in all of 2020.
#24: Auburn Tigers (-)
What will the relays look like? Between graduations, AJ Kutsch leaving, and Abbey Webb not competing, Auburn’s sprint free relays (which swept SEC titles last year) will have to be rebuilt from the ground up.
#23: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (-1)
What will Notre Dame get from bounce-back backstroker Bayley Stewart, who has already been a lifetime-best 1:53.46 in the 200 back this year? Stewart was a freshman NCAA qualifier who missed the cut by a hair last year. She’s returned with a vengeance, though, cutting six tenths of a second from her career-best – and that’s before we’ve even seen her swim ACCs.
#22: Arkansas Razorbacks (-2)
What do LCM-to-SCY conversions really mean for Emily Barclay? The British sprint star has been good already for Arkansas, sitting 9th in the NCAA in the 50 free. Her 100 free (48.7) has already outpaced the rough conversions of her long course times (49.2), but her 50 free (22.2) still appears to have room to improve towards a 21.7 conversion that would put her solidly in the top 8.
#21: Wisconsin Badgers (-)
Just how much of Phoebe Bacon‘s best have we seen? The freshman backstroker is ranked in the top 8 nationwide in both the 100 and 200 back – but with the Big Ten competition season very limited so far, she hasn’t even come close to her best times. The Big Ten is pretty thin in women’s backstroke, so Bacon has a chance to get into clean water and throw down some massive swims, potentially carrying Wisconsin’s medley relays into scoring range in her best Beata Nelson impression.
#20: UNC Tar Heels (-2)
What does the UNC post-season strategy look like? We’ve never seen this team swim through ACCs and NCAAs yet in the Mark Gangloff era. The Tar Heels have been very fast already this year, with Sophie Lindner hitting lifetime-bests in the 100/200 back and Grace Countie close in the 100 back. Is that a sign of a program that swims fast in-season with moderate taper drops? Or is that evidence of a major step up across the program, with even bigger taper drops to come?
#19: USC Trojans (+4)
Will Marta Ciesla get back to her best times in sprint free? Ciesla was a few tenths off career-bests last year, and that was without an NCAA meet. The Pac-12 is probably the biggest mystery of any conference right now, because they’ve had so few meets to show their stuff. We know the breaststrokes are in good hands with Kaitlyn Dobler and Isabella Odgers, but USC needs their kingpin sprinter to pull the relays together.
#18: Texas A&M Aggies (-1)
The Aggies, already with a depleted sprint group, have now lost Emma Carlton to a transfer. Chloe Stepanek is Steve Bultman’s latest diamond-in-the-rough project, but who can he get creative with to fill out the Aggie relays?
#17: Louisville Cardinals (-2)
It’s not a huge surprise, but ACC psych sheets confirmed that top freestyler Arina Openysheva and top breaststroker Maria Astashkina are both not competing this NCAA season. That’s a bit of a hit, even though Gabi Albiero and Alena Kraus should have solid postseason drops. Can the freshmen take over the relay roles of those vacant stars?
#16: Virginia Tech H2Okies (+3)
Just how good can Emma Atkinson be? A very underrated name in the best class of high school backstrokers we’ve ever seen, Atkinson has already cut a full second in her 200 back (to go 1:52.7) and almost a second in her 100 back (to go 52.0). Now fully established as a really, really good swimmer, Atkinson could take a jump to the level of great with a solid taper.
#15: Indiana Hoosiers (+1)
It’s still very early in the season for the Big Ten, but IU’s medley relays aren’t even close to NCAA B cuts. They’ve got breaststrokers in spades, led by Emily Weiss and Noelle Peplowski. But who will swim backstroke for an IU team that has no backstrokers under 55 so far this year?
#14: Ohio State Buckeyes (-)
How does this undeniably strong team function in the NCAA format? Ohio State crushed the Big Ten last year, but still entered the canceled NCAA meet with big question marks about how much their conference-level depth would show through in the crowded NCAA scoring race. That makes Ohio State very tough to predict again this year – though a Big Ten explosion feels a near certainty.
#13: Florida Gators (-)
The Gators have three legs to a top-8 NCAA medley relay. Who’s going to step up to fill that other leg (either fly or back, because of Talia Bates‘ versatlility)?
#12: Missouri Tigers (-1)
Sarah Thompson has been building throughout her college career. With the top 4 sprinters from SEC Championships last season all graduating, is this the year where Thompson breaks through and earns national name recognition?
#11: Northwestern Wildcats (+1)
Can the combo of Selen Ozbilen and Maddie Smith pull the free relays into scoring range? Right now, the Swimulator has the 200 and 400 free relays just outside of the top 16. But getting those relays to score along with their highly-ranked medley relays would be a huge boost to NU’s top-10 hopes.
#10: Kentucky Wildcats (-)
Can the Wildcats drum up one or two more sprinters to support Riley Gaines on the relays? Freshman Megan Drumm has been a pleasant surprise so far. Kentucky just has to develop one or two more relay legs.
#9: Alabama Crimson Tide (-)
Will Cora Dupre regain her freshman phenom form from Indiana, giving the Alabama relays a huge boost?
#8: Texas Longhorns (-)
Can the Texas women be as good in the post-season as they have been in the regular season? (Note: this big question copy/pasted from every power rankings in the past decade).
#7: Stanford Cardinal (-1)
Who from Stanford is going to show up? We haven’t seen, for example, Lucie Nordmann at all this season. With a brief intermission in their parade of stars (Neal, Manuel, Ledecky, Ruck, Smith), Stanford is going to have to rely on its incredible depth more than ever.
#6: Georgia Bulldogs (+1)
How game-changing can Zoie Hartman be? Obscured behind the eye-popping swims and versatilty of #1-ranked recruit Kate Douglass last year, #2 Hartman was a do-everything star in her own right. Did you know Hartman went 58.2/2:06.2 in the breaststrokes and 1:53.0 in the IM at SECs last year, but also split 22.2/47.4/1:42.2 on free relays? Just how much better would she have been by NCAAs?
#5: Michigan Wolverines (-)
How many points will the relays score? Michigan is currently 16th in the Swimulator, but with zero projected relay points. For reference, the Wolverines were projected for 104 relay points last year and scored 156 relay points in 2019.
#4: Tennessee Volunteers (-)
We know Mona McSharry is a legitimate NCAA title contender in breaststroke. But how good can she be as a sprint freestyler on Tennessee’s fully-reloaded relays? McSharry has been 22.3 and 49.4 so far this year, helping to ease the loss of Erika Brown to graduation.
#3: NC State Wolfpack (-)
As a freshman, highly-touted backstroker Katharine Berkoff didn’t hit personal bests in the 100 or 200 back, suggesting she might have been saving a full taper for an NCAA meet that never happened. With Berkoff already hitting her career-best 100 back and near a career-best 200 back this year, the question is whether we’re about to see an explosion of two years speed – and if so, exactly how fast could Berkoff (50.4/1:50.1) go?
#2: Cal Golden Bears (-)
The Pac-12 has had limited competition opportunties, but Cal has pretty much answered any questions with a deluge of fast swims over the past month. Izzy Ivey‘s event lineup remains an intriguing question. She went 200 IM/100 fly/100 back last year, but is also the #2-ranked 100 freestyler in the nation this year. Does she try to avoid Maggie MacNeil in the fly and chase an event title elsewhere? If the team battle is at all tight, could Cal try to use Ivey to battle Virginia’s Kate Douglass anywhere – maybe the 100 free or 100 fly? Pac-12s might offer some hints – or it might be purely misdirection.
#1: Virginia Cavaliers (-)
What will the Cavaliers do with Kate Douglass on day 4 of NCAAs? She’s the top 100 freestyler and 200 breaststroker in the nation, and both by a wide margin. But UVA is already deep in the 200 breast. Do they chase a headline-grabbing event with 5 potential A finalists in the 200 breast (Douglass, Walsh, Nelson, Keating, Wenger), but risk their own swimmers bumping each other into the B final? Or do they spread out their talent, using Douglass to counter Cal’s strong 100 free crowd?