The Tuscaloosa Puzzle

Last summer, Alabama announced that they had signed two transfers to their squad. One of those transfers was Gilbert Kigen, the JUCO superstar who racked up countless national titles in his first two years of NCAA eligibility. The other name was Vincent Kiprop, the long distance stud who had dominated the longer distances at the Division 2 level while also collecting multiple national titles. The two new additions would join Alfred Chelanga to create one of the most lethal top trios in the NCAA.

In last year's Top 25 preseason team rankings, we positioned Alabama in the 11th spot. The incredible 1-2-3 punch obviously held immense value that could carry nearly any team to success...up until a certain point. What was clearly overlooked was the impact that their final two scorers held.

The first legitimate performance we saw from last year's Crimson Tide squad was at the Notre Dame Invite. As expected by some, the Alabama trio swept the race with a perfect 1-2-3 score. However, it was the 4th and 5th scorers who showed why Alabama was a vulnerable group. In the team scoring, Josh Short placed 73rd while Garrett Bull finished 121st. Those two runners alone accounted for 97% of Alabama's 200 points, a score that would push Alabama into 8th in the team standings.

Finishing 8th at Notre Dame was a wake-up call, both for Alabama and fans around the country. The Crimson Tide, quite literally, couldn't have a better top three. The success of this squad was going to rely on their final two men.

The Crimson Classic was an opportunity to gain a potential Kolas point with Middle Tennessee State being the primary focus. Yet, as fate would have it, MTSU and Alabama tied. The tie breaker? It was awarded to Middle Tennessee State, leaving one less (potential) Kolas point for the Crimson Tide who desperately needed to keep their qualifying hopes alive.

The SEC Championships was the last opportunity for Alabama to sweeten their chances of making it out of the South region. Defeating either Arkansas or Mississippi would (likely) give them a crucial Kolas point.

Once again, Alabama pulled off a perfect 1-2-3 finish. Their 4th and 5th men (Garrett Bull and Andrew Bull) placed 36th and 39th in the team scoring to give Alabama 81 points. Although that score was nowhere close to Arkansas' 41 points, it was enough to barely edge out Ole Miss who finished 3rd with 82 points. The close finish was an exciting precursor to the South Region Championships where Ole Miss and Alabama would find themselves in a heated rematch.

As Alabama entered the regional championships, the narrative was that they needed to finish in the top two of their region if they wanted to ensure that they would qualify for Nationals. In fact, we even wrote an in-depth Digits article explaining the probability of Alabama finishing in the top two in their region.

Simply put, finishing 3rd would not guarantee a spot to the Big Dance. Instead, you'd be left at the mercy of the Kolas qualifying system, a nerve wracking process that no one truly understands until all nine regional championships are completed.

When the dust settled and the scores were tallied, Alabama had totaled 95 points. Middle Tennessee and Ole Miss earned 71 and 75 points, respectively. The Crimson Tide had put together another formidable finish from their top three, but their 4th and 5th men fell to 39th and 49th in the team scoring.

Alabama's 3rd place finish looked bleak from a Kolas point of view. Their only guaranteed point came from SEC's where they defeated Ole Miss. In most years, the last team in would need two or three points to qualify.

So how on Earth did the men from Tuscaloosa find themselves as the last team in for the 2017 National Championships? How did they find the extra Kolas points needed to qualify?

As it turns out, Alabama's 8th place finish at Notre Dame wasn't for nothing. By defeating NC State and Washington State, they were able to earn another two Kolas points after those two programs had qualified. With the 11th At-Large qualifying spot going to NC State and the 12th At-Large spot going to Virginia, Alabama was given their 3rd point. That 3rd point was enough to separate them from other programs such as San Francisco, Army, California, and Wisconsin.

The Crimson Tide would make the most out of their trip to NCAA's. Their top three finished 4th, 7th, and 30th in the team scoring while their final two scorers were 188th and 191st. That, however, was enough for Alabama to finish 14th overall. In a larger race like Nationals, Alabama's top three held a far greater impact on the overall team score than it would in a smaller race.

So where does Alabama go from here? The Crimson Tide return their top three runners from last year, but graduated their 4th, 5th, and 6th runners from last year's National Championships. Essentially, Alabama is back at square one: a phenomenal trio of All-Americans with a shaky supporting cast.

Could we see Coach Waters add another top-tier transfer to his program this summer? Maybe two? It's tough to say what the scholarship distribution at Alabama is like right now, especially with how impressive Kigen, Kiprop, and Chelanga have been. It's not like Waters needs another home-run recruit, either. The 4th and 5th men just need to be good enough to not make up over 80 to 90% of the team's points.

Would Alabama consider racing at the Wisconsin Invite or Pre-Nats this season? They showed at Nationals that their lineup works best in larger meets. If they want to earn more Kolas points, they may want to shy away from a meet like the Crimson Classic. Of course, that would be a difficult decision for Coach Waters to make when you consider that the Crimson Classic is a home meet that (we assume) drives revenue from entry fees.

There is so much to talk about with Alabama because there is so much uncertainty to be had. No one has seen a team structure like this in quite some time and we certainly haven't seen it for two consecutive seasons. In a season with so much uncertainty and constant change, it is the Crimson Tide who will remain as the biggest question mark.

Can they remedy the gaps in their scoring? Will they decide to race at different venues? Will there be any new transfers? Or will they stick with a similar lineup? All of these questions (and more) will be answered in just a few months...