We’ll be previewing the top 10 men’s and women’s programs from the 2016 NCAA Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 20. Can’t get enough college swimming? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for more team previews and power rankings of every major Division I conference.
Key Losses: Matias Koski (22 NCAA points, 3 NCAA relays), Michael Trice (22.5 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Garrett Powell (SEC finalist distance swimmer), Tynan Stewart (SEC scoring flyer/IMer)
Key Additions: Chase Kalisz (redshirt), Javier Acevedo (Canada – back/fly/IM/sprints), Walker Higgins (TN – free/fly), Clayton Forde (KY – IM/fly)
Even with American record-holder Chase Kalisz sitting the year out in an Olympic redshirt, Georgia managed to improve its NCAA finish by two places, taking 5th overall.
That was both a testament to Georgia improving its strengths and patching over its weaknesses. In the former category, the IM group stepped up to replace Kalisz to the tune of 45 points, and in the latter, senior Michael Trice finally became the true sprinter the team needed with two top-8 finishes in the short free races.
One of the few teams in the nation to score in every single stroke discipline, Georgia racked up 239.5 points to very convincingly lead all but the NCAA’s top-tier teams.
Sprint Free: C
For a number of years now, the knock on Georgia has been the team’s lack of sprinting firepower. Trice’s twin All-America swims appeared to shut up all of that criticism… for about a couple of months, until he wrapped up his college eligibility and left the Bulldogs sprint arsenal once again thin.
Trice wasn’t just the team’s best sprinter; he was really its only one. No one else on the team even sniffed scoring at SECs, and no other pure sprinter was faster than 20.4 or 45.2.
Rangy freestyler Matias Koski is also gone – a former NCAA champ in the mile, Koski was NCAA scoring material down to the 100, but also clears out with graduation.
The team’s best prospect by far is Javier Acevedo, a junior world record-breaking backstroker from the Great White North of Canada. But Acevedo might be most valuable to Georgia as a sprint freestyler, where he projects right around 20-point low in the 50 and 43-mid in the 100.
Freshman Walker Higgins and Clayton Forde also have pretty solid 100s and 200s and could be relay factors as rookies. Luckily for the ‘Dawgs, they’ve managed to fill out their relays better than their thin sprint corps would suggest, using IMers, flyers and backstrokers for serviceable legs on the 400 and 800 free relays.
It’s also worth noting that to this point, Gunnar Bentz has been an IMer who fills in admirably in the free relays. But after making the U.S. Olympic team in the 200 free as part of the 4×200 relay, Bentz could very well see the 200 added to his individual lineup – he did split 1:32.3 at NCAAs last year.
Distance Free: B
The distance corps are solid, returning NCAA scorer Kevin Litherland, one-third of the legendary Litherland triplets heading into their junior seasons with Georgia.
Litherland scored at NCAAs in the 500 and appears right on the cusp of breaking 15 minutes in the mile. Brother Mick is also a pretty good 500 freestyler, but last year split his focus between butterfly and IM as well.
Aidan Burns was the team’s big recruiting get last season, but didn’t see any time improvements in the distance freestyles as a freshman. Still, he’s a returning SEC scorer who has immediate NCAA scoring potential with a return to his high school times.
Higgins joins the program as a new freshman with a lifetime-best of 4:18.4 that should do some damage in the 500, and both he and Forde could knock down a couple SEC points in the mile with some modest improvements.
The IMs are where Georgia thrives. Scoring more IM points (45) than every team in the country but two (Cal – 82, Texas 56) last year at NCAAs, Georgia not only returns all of its points but adds American record-holder and former NCAA champ Chase Kalisz to the mix. Kalisz took last year off of college swimming and won an Olympic silver medal in the 400 IM, and now should return to the NCAA with a renewed focus on short course yards.
Kalisz could very well be the favorite for the NCAA 400 IM title, and will renew an exciting rivalry with Texas’s Will Licon, who upset Kalisz for the title in 2015.
Then there’s Jay Litherland, who is coming off of an Olympic appearance for Team USA as well as a 3rd-place NCAA finish; plus Gunnar Bentz, yet another U.S. Olympian who was 4th at NCAAs in the 400 IM last year.
The freshman Forde is good here and so is Acevedo (though he’s unlikely to swim it much), giving Georgia an embarrassment of riches in the individual medleys.
Another great event, this one buoyed by the rise of senior Pace Clark. Clark has upped his pace dramatically over the past few years and had an outstanding Olympic Trials push for the U.S. team. He was 4th in the 200 fly last year at NCAAs and just two tenths out of 1:39-territory. He was also an All-American with an 8th-place finish in the 100 fly (45.6 in prelims) and gives Georgia massive relay splits on both medleys.
The depth fills in great with versatile IM types. Bentz has almost become more of a butterflyer than an IMer, and is only about a second behind Clark in the 200 fly. Mick Litherland is solid in the 200, backstroker Taylor Dale is an SEC scorer in the 100, and that’s not even mentioning Kalisz, who can swim down to about Bentz’s level or better in the 200 fly.
Plus there’s Acevedo, who is once again a bit of a lineup mystery, but could certainly contribute in the 100 fly at the conference level.
Taylor Dale managed a breakthrough swim in the NCAA B final last year, going 45.13. That was good for 9th place, but would have actually made him the NCAA runner-up in the championship final. Dale wasn’t at his best in the 200 back throughout the postseason, but isn’t far out of NCAA scoring range in that event either.
But Dale will have to fight tooth and nail just to hang onto the top spot on Georgia’s depth chart. That’s because Acevedo comes to town after a blowup summer season that saw him set a junior world record at 53.67 in the 100 back. Though that record has already been clipped by Russia’s Kliment Kolesnikov, Acevedo is one of the best young backstrokers on the planet, and one of the NCAA’s top incoming prospects.
As mentioned in almost every section above, Acevedo could fit in a multitude of places in the Bulldog lineup, but the 100 back feels like his bread and butter at this point, even if Georgia elects to use Dale as the backstroker and Acevedo as the freestyler on its medley relays.
Beyond Dale, IMer Jay Litherland scored at NCAAs last year in the 200 back, and butterflyer Pace Clark is also very solid in that race.
Georgia still hasn’t found its replacement for Nick Fink, but the roster isn’t terrible here. James Guest had a pretty solid freshman year and is trending up, with a decent shot at NCAA scoring in the 200 breast.
Bentz is a great breaststroker, but is so busy elsewhere in the lineup he doesn’t get the swim the stroke much anymore. Bentz did hold down the 400 medley relay leg last year, though he’s not really a significant upgrade from Guest.
Colin Monaghan also had a solid freshman year, but he and Guest aren’t much more than bit players at this point. The youth is there for Georgia, but the ‘Dawgs have some serious development to do in order to hold their own in this discipline nationally.
Georgia’s greatest weapon is somewhat of a double-edged sword. The Bulldogs are beyond loaded with versatile, rangy talents who can fill many different lineup slots. But that sort of mish-mash lineup means most of UGA’s top swimmers wind up splitting their training focus between several disparate events. The other concern is that the dearth of sprinters requires Georgia’s versatile studs to wear themselves out with all sorts of odd relay entries in the postseason.
Last year, Georgia’s postseason free relay lineups featured two true freestylers (Trice and Koski) mixed in with a horde of IM types (Dale and Clark swam on the 200 free relay, Dale and Bentz on the 400, Litherland, Bentz and Clark on the 800). That’s a tough way to find success, and though Georgia pulled it off extraordinarily well last year, things seem ready to regress back to the mean, especially without Koski and Trice on board.
Kalisz’s return is big, and the crowd of teams behind Georgia in the NCAA standings (Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri) all have tough roads to hold their spots. That’s a saving grace for Georgia, which will probably stick in the top 10 but will need truly transcendent NCAA meets from its IM corps to scratch the top 5 again.