Measure Elite NCAA Programs by NCAA Relay Qualifying (WOMEN)

There are many metrics by which to determine the elite programs in the NCAA. Which you choose to acknowledge probably depends in part on your philosophy, and sometimes perhaps also on which definition best propels your particular rooting interest into the top tier of teams.

In college football, the “elite” programs can be defined by conference champions or BCS teams. In college basketball, that line can be cut first at NCAA tournament qualifiers, and then again at teams that advance to the sweet 16.

The line isn’t so clean-cut in swimming, because conference championship meets aren’t always given the same level of importance by every team, though there is still a similar level or prestige to earning a spot by any swimmer or diver at the NCAA Championships. The number of teams invited to the NCAA swimming & diving championships, after all, is similar to the number invited to the NCAA tournament, albeit with fewer total programs to select from.

The most basic manner is by NCAA team standings. But we’re interested in digging deeper for better rubrics by which to define “elite” in NCAA Swimming & Diving. Team scores can be skewed by a disqualification or a run of illness, given its basis on a single meet.

The number of individual swimmers qualified is another good measure of a team’s success, but it’s not always clear where to draw the lines of eliteness. Teams with 10-or-more individual qualifiers is one measure, but the number 10 is rather arbitrary outside of its role as the basis for the modern counting system. The jump between 9 and 10 individual qualifiers is not that significant.

We’ve come up with one more measure for eliteness in NCAA programs, and one that, while still possessing some weaknesses, winds up capturing some of that which is missing in other measures. Specifically, we feel that examining the qualifying of NCAA relays shows depth of a team, leaves obvious delineations, and with the number of last chance and time trial swims available, also helps control for disqualifications at mid-season taper meets or conference championship meets.

After this year’s NCAA Championship meets, we’ll combine these three measures, along with any others that we think are worthy, to come up with an overall final power rankings for the season. While the final NCAA championship scoring will be the one that goes into the record books, we hope that our final stat-based power ranking can help smooth-out the data to try and eliminate outlier data or anomalies to give a better view of the overall NCAA season.


Teams in this category qualified all 5 of their relays for the NCAA under the NCAA Automatic Qualifying Standard. These teams took no shortcuts on depth or provisional entries, and even without having to, were still good enough to earn automatic entries to NCAAs for all 5 relays.

12 teams fall into this category for the 2016 women’s NCAA Championships:

University of Southern California
University of Georgia
University of California, Berkeley
University of Virginia
University of Texas at Austin
North Carolina State University
Stanford University
Texas A&M University, College Station
University of Louisville
University of Arizona
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Give Them a Lane

There are 3 more teams who also qualified 5 NCAA relays, but didn’t qualify them all with automatic entry times. We feel that this is the one spot where it’s important to distinguish between the two, because while still challenging, NCAA provisional standards do provide more leeway. Still, these teams have a lane and a chance to score in all 5 relays, which is important.

Among these three teams, Auburn and Michigan needed to use only one provisional standard for NCAAs, while Missouri used three.

University of Michigan
Auburn University
University of Missouri, Columbia

4 Relays Entered

Teams in this group, which includes 8 different schools, have qualified to swim 4 relays at the NCAA Championships. This year, included among these teams are some programs that are perennial top 10 teams that are having down years.

Minnesota, for example, didn’t earn an invite in the 800 free relay after scoring at NCAAs last year and a 12th-place team finish. Florida, who took 9th at NCAAs last year, was hit hard by injuries, transfers, and retirements, and that impacted their depth this season. That’s reflected by the fact that their 200 medley relay didn’t earn an invite.

There’s also a few teams, like LSU and Boise State, who have been building their depth for the last several seasons and while not traditionally superpower programs, have done enough work to belong in discussions among the best teams in the NCAA. Boise State is one of only 4 teams from outside of power 5 conferences (Akron, Denver, Nevada) to earn CNAA relay invites this season.

Indiana University, Bloomington
Boise State University
University of Florida
Pennsylvania State University
Louisiana State University
The Ohio State University
University of Wisconsin, Madison
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

3 Relays Entered

Only two programs fall under this category this year: Alabama and UCLA. These are two teams that have some momentum thanks to good recent recruiting classes and in the case of Alabama having at least one swimmer, Bridget Blood, on the verge of a spot on the USA Swimming National Team. The key for teams in this category is to make a leap in future seasons – stagnation at the 3 relays level can be an indication of not being able to turn existing success into future recruiting success, and also without being able to train the depth to jump to the higher levels.

University of Alabama
University of California, Los Angeles

2 Relays Entered

Teams in this category are at different levels of their development. For a program like Akron, the ability to send relays to support their star backstroker Ludwika Szynal is huge for her confidence and comfort, even if those relays are a longshort to score points.

For a team like Duke, who didn’t qualify any relays last year, it’s a tangible sign that their new-found glut of scholarships are being put to good use (even if it took a last-minute scratch for them to get these relays in).

5 teams fall under this category

University of Kentucky
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
University of Akron
Duke University

1 Relay Entered

Of the three teams in this category, only one, Purdue, falls under the heading of a “major conference” program. The other two, Nevada and Denver, are very good mid-major programs that are on the hunt to make the leap and do battle with the likes of Boise State above them.

Nevada has a new coach this year, former Florida State lead Neil Harper, and have kept the momentum built under Abby Steketee.

For Denver, while they may not ultimately score as many points as the 33 they did last year at NCAAs (for 28th-place), this relay qualification still represents a huge turning point in the program. That’s because the relay wasn’t automatically qualified. No, the Denver Pioneers actually qualified 4 individual swimmers for NCAAs, and were therefore eligible to swim this relay thanks to their provisional standard in the 400 free relay. As compared to last year, where they qualified 3 relays but only 2 individuals, that’s huge, especially since they graduated the NCAAs second-best sprint butterflier: Sam Corea.

Purdue University
University of Nevada
University of Denver

The Full Rankings

Below, see the team rankings based on number of relays eligible to swim at NCAAs, and then by number of relays with automatic times.

Rank Team Relays Invited QS PS
1 University of Southern California 5 5 0
1 University of Georgia 5 5 0
1 University of California, Berkeley 5 5 0
1 University of Virginia 5 5 0
1 University of Texas at Austin 5 5 0
1 North Carolina State University 5 5 0
1 Stanford University 5 5 0
1 Texas A&M University, College Station 5 5 0
1 University of Louisville 5 5 0
1 University of Arizona 5 5 0
1 University of Tennessee, Knoxville 5 5 0
1 University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 5 5 0
13 University of Michigan 5 4 1
13 Auburn University 5 4 1
15 University of Missouri, Columbia 5 2 3
16 Indiana University, Bloomington 4 3 1
16 Boise State University 4 3 1
18 University of Florida 4 2 2
18 Pennsylvania State University 4 2 2
20 Louisiana State University 4 1 3
20 The Ohio State University 4 1 3
20 University of Wisconsin, Madison 4 1 3
20 University of Minnesota, Twin Cities 4 1 3
24 University of Alabama 3 1 2
25 University of California, Los Angeles 3 0 3
26 University of Kentucky 2 1 1
26 University of Arkansas, Fayetteville 2 1 1
26 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University 2 1 1
26 University of Akron 2 1 1
30 Duke University 2 0 2
31 Purdue University 1 1 0
31 University of Nevada 1 1 0
33 University of Denver 1 0 1

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Instead of counting teams that have at least N individual qualifiers (which would be arbitrary for any N), why not instead just look at total numbers? Total individual swimmers with automatic berths or, even better, total individual events with automatic berths seem like good metrics.

Plus having 12 teams tied for 1st just seems unsatisfying. Where’s the fun if we can’t pick a #1?

Sean Justice

Maybe take a larger sample size than one year, like 4-6.



Hoping you can clear up a question I’ve been pondering. It is my understanding that the NCAA limits the number of total competitors, and that this number is comprised of individual qualifiers based on the methodology you’ve explained previously. What happens if a team obtains and automatic qualifying time for a relay, but only 2 of the 4 swimmers have obtained individual invitations? Does the NCAA pay for the other two relay swimmers to participate at the championship meet?

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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