Disclaimer: We stole the idea for this article from The Ringer, a sports and pop-culture website which we attempt to emulate every now and then. Go check them out.
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We only just entered the month of October, but it's hard not to think about the future. Most of the top teams in the country have already made their season debuts, giving us a glimpse into their potential strengths and weaknesses. Despite season-defining meets like Nuttycombe and Pre-Nats still on the schedule, most of us have a pretty decent idea as to who the top teams will be in November...we think.
With so many talented groups gearing up for an exciting regular season, the door is wide open to a collection of teams to earn a top four finish at NCAA's or even a national title. Any team within TSR’s Top 10 probably believes that they will be on the podium at the end of the season and this optimism isn’t misplaced.
Let’s take a look at why each team will (or will not) end their season on the podium.
The Case For: Entering the season, it looked like the Razorbacks had the best top four in the country as they all seemed to be All-American candidates. Taylor Werner entered the fall of 2019 as a challenger for the individual title (and she still is) while Katrina Robinson, Lauren Gregory, and Carina Viljoen were expected to be the star scorers behind her.
However, the story of the season for Arkansas hasn't necessarily focused on those four women. Instead, the emergence of Katie Izzo and Devin Clark has been the biggest and best reason for Arkansas’ national championship and podium hopes. The impact of Izzo and Clark cannot be understated as they give the Razorbacks reliable depth and scoring potency while also providing the originally projected top four a "safety net" of sorts if they sustain any injuries or have an off-day at Nationals.
With Gregory running unattached at Chili Pepper and earning a 9th place finish, it seems like she is healthy enough to be a contributor on this team. That fact could be huge as Arkansas will need every veteran scorer they can get with Katrina Robinson's status still up in the air.
All of that said, we can’t forget about Werner. She seems to be the top challenger to Weini Kelati this season as she has won each of her races in convincing fashion so far this fall.
Arkansas followed Werner's lead and was dominant in their last performance at the Chili Pepper Cross Country Festival (even without Robinson and Gregory in the official scoring). The group of Werner, Izzo, Clark, and Viljoen swept the top four spots of the meet.
In that same race, Abby Gray was the Razorbacks' #5 runner finishing in 17th place, so Arkansas will certainly need either Robinson or Gregory to come back by NCAA's if they want to strengthen their national title hopes.
There is a lot to like about this team. They have numerous elite front-runners who can earn All-American honors as well as strong supporting pieces (in Izzo and Clark) who can replace the scoring potency that Gregory and Robinson have yet to fill. All things considered, this team is in a pretty great position.
The Case Against: As mentioned before, Arkansas is missing half of their fantastic four. Thankfully, Izzo and Clark have filled those roles adequately, but without Gregory and Robinson, the Razorbacks' ceiling is much lower than we originally thought. I would expect to see Gregory run for Arkansas during their next time out, but the fact that we still haven't seen her yet this season leaves us a little worried.
Even if Izzo and Clark fill those roles, Arkansas will still need some better performances from their final scorer to put themselves in the best possible position for the national title. With Katrina Robinson possibly out for the rest of the season, the #5 runner on this team needs to provide strong scoring stability. Unless Abby Gray or Maddy Reed can improve on their current results, Arkansas might not have enough to win the title.
Uncertainty regarding the health of their two top scorers, a lack of stability at the final scoring position, and the memory of last year's national meet doesn't exactly scream podium squad. On paper, they have too much firepower to overcome, but if enough goes wrong, they could be left off the podium once again...
The Case For: The top three of Whittni Orton, Erica Birk, and Courtney Wayment has been dominant so far. These three BYU Cougars stole the show at the Bill Dellinger Invitational, finishing 1-2-4. With Olivia Hoj and Aubrey Frentheway finishing 12th and 18th, BYU ran away with the win, easily beating Boise State.
The case for BYU landing on the podium is pretty self-explanatory: keep the gap between their top three and bottom two as low as possible. The Cougars have one of the most lethal scoring trios in the country, maybe only behind New Mexico. This should easily put them in the podium conversation.
Based off of their last race, Hoj and Frentheway seem to strong enough to put this BYU team inside the top four. Plus, Sara Musselman and Anna Camp give BYU additional options to fill out the rest of their varsity lineup. When looking at their top seven as a whole, BYU looks to have the perfect combination of low-sticks and depth...which should land them on the podium.
The Case Against: It is hard to bet against this BYU team because of their veteran top three. Birk and Wayment were All-Americans last year while Orton has experience running on the national stage. Additionally, Hoj is a senior who also has championship experience.
However, the gap between their top three and bottom two isn't perfect. Despite the Dellinger Invite being one of the top meets in the country, the field was still relatively small. In a larger field like Nationals, the gap we saw from BYU could lead to a handful of unwanted points.
Hoj and Frentheway are capable of finishing inside the top 60 or 70, but if they have some bad races and finish closer to 100th, then the team will have a hard time reaching the podium.
The Case For: Mark Wetmore is their coach and they have multiple All-American returners. This seems like a simple enough recipe for me. Sage Hurta and Tabor Scholl were 10th and 12th at the Joe Piane Invitational and will likely run even better at the end of the year (since that's when Colorado usually peaks). Annie Hill and Rachel McArthur also had solid performances of their own, finishing in 20th and 21st respectively. Although the team fell victim to a surprise upset by Utah, it's important to note that they didn’t run Emily Venters or Emily Covert. Both of those women could have helped the Buffaloes significantly, especially since Colorado’s #5 runner fell back to 53rd place overall.
Between Colorado’s history of success and the amount of talent on their roster, it seems like a foregone conclusion that they will at least make it back onto the podium. History is on their side and they still have a few weapons that they haven't debuted yet.
I mean, c'mon. It's Colorado. They'll definitely be in the top four...right?
The Case Against: Behind Hurta and Scholl, Colorado is relying on a few unproven runners in their top five. McArthur is clearly talented, but she has never run well at the national meet. Hill is running in her first cross country season for the Buffaloes and lacks experience. Emily Venters is a proven stud, but we have yet to see her don a Colorado singlet so far this season. And star freshman recruit Emily Covert? Well, she is another top name who is still absent from any and all racing.
There is a ton of uncertainty surrounding this squad, and the fact that they have a drop off at their #5 spot (with reinforcements yet to be seen) leaves us concerned about how they'll handle the National Championships.
The Case For: Stanford has yet to race since their runner-up performance at the John McNichol Invite. They didn't have Christina Aragon in that meet, but it was no problem for the Cardinal women who narrowly lost to Arkansas and beat a very good Washington team.
To land on the podium this year, Stanford will likely need Aragon to return in an effort to join Fiona O’Keefe, Ella Donaghu, and Jessica Lawson at the front of their lineup. With Julia Heymach and Jordan Oakes providing additional depth, it seems like Stanford is well positioned to make a charge towards a top four spot at NCAA's later this fall.
Fiona O’Keefe continuing to be an elite low-stick is super important for a team that is light on proven championship scorers. Donaghu, Lawson, and Aragon have the talent to be All-Americans, but they will need to improve on their performances from last year to put themselves in contention. Based on what we've seen from Donaghu and Lawson so far this season, it seems fair to suggest that the ladies from Palo Alto have at least three All-American candidates at the moment.
Even without Aragon, Stanford can put themselves in a top four position at NCAA's as long as the backend of their lineup continues to meet expectations.
The Case Against: Outside of O’Keefe, Stanford doesn't have anyone else who would be considered a "lock" to finish as an All-American this fall. Donaghu and Lawson are on track to compete for a top 40 finish, but they are by no means guaranteed that result.
Without Aragon, Stanford’s overall depth and allowable margin of error becomes thin. Whether she is just waiting to debut later in the season or is coming back from an injury, she will be a big factor in deciding whether or not Stanford makes it onto the podium.
Behind Aragon, the Cardinal are relying on Heymach and Oakes to improve significantly from their NCAA performances last year when they failed to crack the top 90.
Stanford has all of the right pieces to be a podium team, but can they put them together when it matters the most?
New Mexico Lobos
The Case For: The Lady Lobos have the best 1-2 punch in the country with the favorite for the individual title in Weini Kelati and a top 10 contender in Ednah Kurgat. Even though New Mexico finished 7th at Joe Piane, they still have a clear path back to the podium.
The first step on that path is adding Adva Cohen back into their lineup. She just finished competing in the steeplechase at the World Championships in Doha, so her return will likely not be until the postseason. However, had she run at Notre Dame last weekend, the New Mexico women would have been in contention to win the entire meet.
However, it will likely be UNM's #3 and #4 runners (Alondra Negron and Hannah Nuttall) who will determine New Mexico’s ceiling. If they can continue to put together solid performances like they did last weekend, then they give the Lobos a really good chance at making the top four.
With three studs up front, Negron and Nuttall just need to make sure that they stay within shouting distance of Cohen when she returns. As long as that happens, New Mexico will be back on the podium once again while also challenging other top teams for the national title.
The Case Against: There shouldn't be too many worries about Kelati or Kurgat. They are two of the most elite distance runners in the country right now and have proven that they can succeed on the national stage.
As for Cohen, potential burnout after a long season is a serious concern. She should be able to sustain her fitness into November, but don't be surprised if she falters at an intensive, front-heavy national meet come November.
Another issue for New Mexico is their lack of depth behind their top five. Brenda Rosales-Coria and Alexandra Harris were far behind Nuttall at Notre Dame which means that, unless they improve significantly, New Mexico’s top five has no margin for error.
This isn’t an uncommon problem for New Mexico (it was a major pain point for them last year), but it is one that could keep this team from earning a top four finish at the National Championships.