Even with so much talent in the White race, teams in the Cardinal field will be just as good, if not better. The entries hold a slew of big-time talent, both on the team and individual sides. With Kolas points up for grabs, you can expect these programs to be at the top of their game.
I suppose it's best to start with the NAU men who are the heavy favorites entering this weekend. With BYU toeing the line in the White race, the chances of a possible upset have diminished. At Nuttycombe, we saw this team dominate top-tier competition, winning by 89 points without Matthew Baxter. With their top ace back in the lineup, it's hard to see any program matching the firepower and depth that the Lumberjacks bring to the table. In fact, with the talent evenly split into two different races, Northern Arizona has a very strong chance of scoring under 25 points this weekend.
If there is any team with the potential to match NAU's firepower, it will surely be the Stanford men who are packed to the brim with young talent. The trio of Fisher, Ostberg, and Fahy will give the Cardinal a nasty 1-2-3 punch which could possibly challenge NAU's top five. Although their depth isn't as strong as NAU's, Stanford could see multiple breakout performances. Thomas Ratcliffe appears to be healthy and racing which is a great sign while Alek Parsons looked strong in his season debut two weeks ago.
The Wisconsin men return to their home course after a phenomenal performance at Nuttycombe. Morgan McDonald has proven that he is a title contender while Hoare and Hacker have become exciting low-sticks themselves. With Ben Eidenschink looking strong at the fourth scoring spot, it's very possible that we could see the Badgers pull off a potential upset over Stanford. However, they'll need to be better at the backend of their lineup if that is going to happen.
Colorado State is such an interesting team to discuss, simply because there are so many unknowns. There is no question that Cole Rockhold is the real deal, but can Eric Hamer replicate his excellent 22nd place finish from Nuttycombe? Hume and Powell were respectable middle scorers, but can they close the gap between them and their top two? What about the final scorer? Can someone step up and close the gap?
With other top teams like BYU, Syracuse, Portland, and Purdue in the White race, the Rams may actually benefit from a (slightly) less intensive field. That way, the gaps in their scoring won't be as pronounced and they will likely be closer to the top teams. If history has told us anything, it's to not doubt CSU's ability to run well in a big race.
After a somewhat underwhelming 8th place finish at Nuttycombe, many people were quick to write off the Colorado Buffaloes and even go as far to say that they weren't even the best team in their state. Of course, those same individuals were quick to ignore the fact that Joe Klecker wasn't in Colorado's lineup. With their top ace returning to their scoring five, Coach Wetmore's team becomes far more dangerous up front. Forsyth is a reliable 4th man, but we are left questioning how effective their final scorer (Ethan Gonzales) can be in a big race.
What should we expect from Oregon? Their ranking (TSR#21) may admittedly be too harsh, but there is reasonable skepticism to be had. How will this team handle their first big challenge without Andy Powell? Without Tanner Anderson? Can Cooper Teare be the low-stick ace that the Ducks so desperately need? Will they have the same pack as last year? There are a lot of uncertainties, but these Oregon men have the most upside out of everyone else in the field. They could surprise a few fans with a handful of breakout performances.
Is Ole Miss a legit contender? That's the main question I'll be asking myself once they toe the line tomorrow morning. I believe the Rebels have a legitimate 1-2 punch in Karimabdul and Suliman. Even Mark Robertson looked like a solid supporting scorer when he finished 14th at Beantown. However, the backend of their lineup is very young. They have plenty of depth, but you have to wonder how they'll handle a big stage like Pre-Nats.
After falling apart in their season debut at Beantown, the Campbell Camels are ready to prove that they are better than what they last showed us. There is no denying the talent of Kemboi and Kipkoech. They will be crucial low-stick scorers who I expect to be at the front of this race. Meshak Kipruto and Kelvin Kirui should be better than what we saw three weeks ago. Their performances in 2017 were encouraging and showed us that they can be legitimate scoring threats in the Southeast region. Expect a better race from those men.
The major concern is that Godwin Kimutai struggled and we have yet to see Ronald Cheserek. These two men were expected to fight for a final scoring spot, but they were non-factors in Boston.
Despite the rough start, the Camels should rebound and contend with some of the top programs in the nation.
Southern Utah is the team that everyone will forget about despite a phenomenal performance at Nuttycomeb two weeks ago. Christian Ricketts and Aidan Reed are two men who could be legitimate low-sticks for this squad to lean on. Nate Osterstock proved that he could be a reliable #3 for this team, but the rest of their lineup needs to perform at a higher level if they want to mix it up with the best of the best. Still, all things considered, the Thunderbirds have shattered our expectations for them in 2018.
Michigan is an interesting team to watch after their pleasantly surprising performance at Nuttycombe. Their ability to race together should favor them in a larger field like it did two weeks ago, but their lack of a low-stick may hurt their chances of battling with the top teams.
I'm still unsure of what to think about NC State. They had a respectable top three at Nuttycombe, but a massive gap formed after that and hurt them in the team scoring. They'll need to revert back to the team-racing mentality that Michigan adopted if they want to climb back into our rankings. With the Southeast region as deep as it is, the Wolfpack will want to secure as many Kolas points as they can get.
Utah State is the same category as NC State. They're deep through seven scorers and have respectable talent scattered throughout their lineup. However, you have to wonder how they'll fare in a larger field without an established ace like Dillon Maggard.
As for Furman, if the second half of their lineup doesn't come through, they could be in serious trouble. They had a respectable top three at Joe Piane, but youth and inexperience got the best of them after that. Saturday will be a huge "make or break" meet for the Paladins.
On the individual side, I expect Matthew Baxter to enter the fray we saw two weeks ago between Morgan McDonald and Tyler Day. Those three, along with Grant Fisher and Amon Kemboi, all have realistic shots of walking away as the individual winner. McDonald may be favored on his home course, but the competition will be just as hard (if not harder) as it was two weeks ago.
John Dressel and Joe Klecker will likely be fighting for top 10 finishes along with Cole Rockhold. This trio has been excellent at big meets and it's there's no reason to doubt them for tomorrow morning.
The next tier of finishers will likely include Lawrence Kipkoech (Campbell), Oliver Hoare (Wisconsin), Aaron Templeton (Furman), Alex Ostberg (Stanford), and Steven Fahy (Stanford)...among others. We could even see true freshman James Mwaura (Gonzaga) among these names after he dipped under 24 minutes earlier this season.
1. Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
2. Colorado Buffaloes
3. Stanford Cardinal
4. Wisconsin Badgers
5. Colorado State Rams
6. Oregon Ducks
7. Southern Utah Thunderbirds
8. Campbell Camels
9. Ole Miss Rebels
10. NC State Wolfpack
11. Furman Paladins
12. Michigan Wolverines
13. Utah State Aggies
14. California Golden Bears
15. Gonzaga Bulldogs
1. Matthew Baxter (Northern Arizona)
2. Morgan McDonald (Wisconsin)
3. Amon Kemboi (Campbell)
4. Tyler Day (Northern Arizona)
5. Grant Fisher (Stanford)
6. Joe Klecker (Colorado)
7. Cole Rockhold (Colorado State)
8. Luis Grijalva (Northern Arizona)
9. John Dressel (Colorado)
10. Blaise Ferro (Northern Arizona)
11. Oliver Hoare (Wisconsin)
12. Alex Ostberg (Stanford)
13. Lawrence Kipkoech (Campbell)
14. Peter Lomong (Northern Arizona)
15. Farah Karimabdul (Ole Miss)
16. Steven Fahy (Stanford)
17. Aaron Templeton (Furman)
18. Cooper Teare (Oregon)
19. Eduardo Herrera (Colorado)
20. Geordie Beamish (Northern Arizona)
21. James Mwaura (Gonzaga)
22. Olin Hacker (Wisconsin)
23. Aidan Reed (Southern Utah)
24. Waleed Suliman (Ole Miss)
25. Eric Hamer (Colorado State)