First Thoughts: Conference Weekend (Men)

A top two spot in the South Region is now up for grabs

After news broke that Alabama's Vincent Kiprop and Gilbert Kigen would be sidelined for the rest of the season, it became clear that the Crimson Tide were not going to be able to qualify for Nationals this year.

As for Middle Tennessee State, their newest roster additions have been extremely underwhelming in terms of performances. With Jacob Choge and Kigen Chemadi not competing this season (most likely redshirting), the Blue Raiders will almost certainly not be in the discussion to qualify for NCAA's.

That leaves Ole Miss as a near lock to earn a top two spot and a trip to Nationals...but who will earn the other automatic qualifier?

Tennessee is a very real possibility. They've had a solid 2018 season which has been better than I think most people realize. The Vols have a great low-stick in Zach Long and are supported by Karl Thiessen and Alex Crigger. However, Tennessee showed that they were vulnerable at SEC's after Long struggled to a 22nd place finish. Kentucky edged out the Volunteers for 3rd, 122 to 132. Still, if Long is healthy and running at his best, Tennessee could be one of the top two teams in the South region.

What about Belmont? The Bruins have the firepower to make things interesting thanks to the McLeod brothers (Jacob and Kaleb). They haven't had any monumental finishes, but they have quietly put together some solid performances throughout the season. Belmont just placed five men in the top 20 at an underrated OVC meet which features one of the best teams in the country (Eastern Kentucky). Don't sleep on this squad as a potential South region qualifier.

Even Florida State could make things interesting. Caleb Pottorff and Steven Cross are two strong talents who can lead this team into national qualifying contention. They'll need some serious help at the backend of their lineup if that's going to happen, but it is a possibility.

Notre Dame is BACK.

"I knew Notre Dame had potential on the track, but I wasn't sure about cross country."

"I knew Notre Dame was going to be better in 2018, but I didn't think they would be this good."

"I knew Notre Dame was going to be a national contender, but I didn't think they would win ACC's...much less upset Syracuse."

Those were my thoughts as I walked to lunch on Friday. Notre Dame has not only beaten my expectations, they have shattered them. Wyoming may be the best breakout team, but the Fighting Irish have had the best turnaround in just one year. Coach Carlson and Coach Sparks have a lot to be proud of.

Some people may be quick to assume that Notre Dame's 2018 success is centered around their elite recruiting class. That, however, would be incorrect. Danny Kilrea has been the only scorer from their most recent recruiting class to enter ND's top five while Zach Kreft has yet finish as a scorer. The other recruits have either been redshirted or put into non-varsity races.

Yared Nuguse has proven that he is a legitimate low-stick after finishing 13th in the Pre-Nats White race and now 3rd at ACC's. To have Anthony Williams and Danny Kilrea also crack the top 10 is super impressive. Andrew Alexander has established himself as a stable supporting scorer while Kevin Salvano has been consistent in the fifth scoring spot (which is an extremely overlooked aspect of the final scoring position).

Oh, and by the way?

All five of these scorers from ACC's return in 2019.

The Mountain West is incredibly confusing

The win by Boise State was (for the most part) expected by many. But did anyone think that they would be led by Ahmed Muhumed? Who was then followed by Addison DeHaven and Elijah Armstrong? The Broncos lineup was essentially flipped this past weekend after Uchikoshi and Haller fell back a bit more than expected. Consistency is clearly still an issue for Boise State, but unlike most years, they have the depth to make up for that vulnerability.

At the Nuttycombe Invite, Colorado State beat Air Force. At Pre-Nats, Wyoming beat Colorado State. This weekend? None of that mattered.

Air Force was the 2nd place team thanks to a huge clutch race by Nathan Thomas who placed 7th overall. Trevor Siniscalchi rounded out their top three with a 10th place finish. With their final two scorers finishing 18th and 23rd, it's easy to understand why this team was so difficult to beat.

13 points behind Air Force was Colorado State who secured 3rd, beating Wyoming by a mere four points. Wyoming had defeated the Rams by only three points at Pre-Nats two weeks ago. In a way, this may be the universe's way of correcting itself. Keep in mind that Cole Rockhold struggled, falling to 16th overall. If he wins the title like we thought he could, then Colorado State edges Air Force and has (easily) the best top three of the meet.

Regardless of what "could have been", these results are just a great way of showing us how close these three teams are to each other.

Was Iowa State rusty or is Oklahoma State better than we thought they were?

As expected, the Iowa State men got the job done by taking both the individual and team titles. Edwin Kurgat secured the individual title and was followed by Jordan, Curts, Greder, and Johnson who took spots 5-6-9-11. Overall, it was a solid performance, but I expected a bit more out of Jordan who was soundly beaten by an Oklahoma State trio that went 2-3-4.

It wasn't until this weekend that I realized how much firepower the Cowboys have. Isai Rodriguez, Ashenafi Hatte, and Luis Martinez are three men who are probably Top 50 runners (or at least super close to it). They had a surprisingly good day on Iowa State's home course and have suddenly put Oklahoma State back into the Top 25 conversation.

In a season where I assumed Iowa State would rely on their front-runners, it was the backend of their lineup that saved them from an upset. Admittedly, Oklahoma State was still eight points away from winning the title, but in a larger race, that gap can instantly vanish.

SEC's was a lot

The winner was Gilbert Boit (Arkansas) in a time of 22:20...which is an average of 4:29 for five miles. Say what you will, but there is no way that 35 individuals broke 24 minutes for 8000 meters. In a race that should've been a full minute slower, you can calculate that the race was roughly 400 meters short.

If you're the meet organizer, I'm not sure how you miss nearly 400 meters of racing distance and not do anything about it. That's roughly 4% shorter than what these athletes are used to racing. Even a difference that small can have massive implications on the team and individual finishes.

Not a great look for Auburn who was hosting the meet.