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|
|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|
|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|
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.
|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.
|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||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|
|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|
|31||University of Nevada||1||1||0|
|33||University of Denver||1||0||1|