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TSR's 2023 Preseason XC Team Rankings Rubric

NOTE: Teams shown on above graphic are not meant to imply anything about that program's status in our upcoming preseason cross country team rankings.


Well friends, it's about that time!

The Stride Report's preseason team rankings are coming this week and will be released throughout the month of August and into early September. We will be releasing our top-25 D1 men's and women's team rankings over the next month or so. Meanwhile, our top-10 D2 and D3 men's and women's team rankings will be coming in early September.

Just like we did with our individual rankings, we wanted to give you all a breakdown of how we analyze, argue about and rank NCAA cross country teams during the preseason. And sure, you'll probably still disagree with how we've ranked a few teams in the coming months, but that's what makes this so much fun.

Let's evaluate the criteria that we use for these rankings, shall we?

Returners: Quantity vs Quality & Lineup Structures

The first set of criteria that we look at when making our preseason cross country team rankings is a fairly obviously one -- returners.

When looking at the top teams from last year, we want to know not just how many men and women are set to return to their programs in the fall, but more specifically, which runners are expected to come back.

In most instances, a team that loses five of their top-seven varsity runners from last fall is going to have a hard time earning a top ranking this year unless they put in majorly successful recruiting efforts or had tremendous results on the track.

Of course, the science isn't always that simple.

Sure, a team could only lose just one or two runners from last year's cross country lineup, but understanding the structure of that lineup is something to keep in mind.

For instance, a team may only lose one or two runners, but if those athletes were often a significant source of point scoring while the rest of their team was much further back, then that's going to negatively affect a team's ranking going into this fall.

But if a team proved to be super deep last fall and often had a close pack of runners, then the departures of top names shouldn't be quite as devastating as it would be in the first scenario.

Projected Growth & Improvement

There are plenty of instances where a team from last fall featured numerous underclassmen, mainly freshmen and sophomores, in their lineup. And as long as most of that group comes back, we would expect those runners to naturally progress with their fitness and make a jump.

And while a team full of returning veterans can make plenty of improvements of their own, the ceiling for those elder returners isn't always quite as high.

We also have to consider the improvements that someone made on the track during the winter and spring months. In many instances, those athletes can often translate their successes from the oval to cross country, although there's no way to know how that athlete will handle a very different style of racing compared to a bunch of left turns.

Transfers & High School Recruits

If you're a reader of The Stride Report, then you know that transfers are something that we cover with great detail. And naturally, most incoming transfers are going to have an impact on how we talk about certain cross country teams going into this fall.

Of course, the lineup structure of a team also factors into the potential impact that an incoming transfer could have on their new program. Don't understand what that means? Allow me to explain.

If a cross country team is super deep and has a close pack of scorers, then adding someone of a similar talent to those runners, while nice to have, isn't going to make a dramatic impact on that team's overall scoring.

But if there is a team that has one or two low-stick stars coming into this fall and then a massive gap to the rest of their lineup, then a new addition could result in a significant change. Someone who can bridge the scoring void in the middle of that group's scoring five could end up being massively valuable and alter their team's score in a dramatic way for the better.

We also have to analyze incoming freshmen, something that has often been a challenge for The Stride Report when making our preseason team and individual rankings.

In many instances, freshmen don't play major roles for their new collegiate teams during their very first season of competition -- but there are always a few who do.

Some rookies are put in a position where their team simply needs their scoring potential, whether they're ready or not. Other first-year talents may be ahead of schedule fitness-wise and be implemented into their team's lineup after making faster-than-expected improvements.

Perfectly projecting the impact that former high school stars will have in their first season in the NCAA is hard to do, but we'll use history to the best of our ability to gauge expectations.

Historical Consistency

If a team has been nationally competitive for years on end, then that's hard to ignore when putting together our preseason rankings, regardless of who they lose. Those programs have proven time and time again that, no matter how many lineup concerns we may have, those teams are still going to be among the better distance squads in the NCAA.

There are also scenarios where a historical lack of consistency can play a role in our preseason rankings. Admittedly, that only applies to teams that are bringing back the same personnel as prior lineups from recent years, but it is something that we consider.

Of course, there are plenty of exceptions.

The New Mexico women, for instance, just lost their head coach in Joe Franklin earlier this summer. And as a result, nearly all of the Lobos' top distance running stars have departed from the program.

While we won't disclose too much about our expectations for that team this fall, it would be silly to suggest that this program is going to be the same national title contender that they were expected to be prior to June.

TSR Values Seasonal Success Over National Meet Success

Let's make one thing very clear: The NCAA XC Championships always hold the most weight of any cross country meet in our rankings, regardless of the year.

However, to only look at national meet results from last year as the sole basis of our rankings would be myopic and lazy. Instead, we want to review the overall talent that a cross country team showed throughout a season -- not just in one November-time race.

There are plenty of meets like Nuttycombe, Joe Piane, Pre-Nationals (depending on the year) and a few conference championships that we place heavy emphasis on as we craft our team rankings. After all, if a cross country squad earns top finishes at Joe Piane, Nuttycombe and a major conference meet, but massively struggles at the national meet, then it would be a little ridiculous to suggest that that team wasn't one of the top programs in the NCAA.

That also leads us to a sub-topic in discussion: Varying competition levels.

Some teams can't always afford to venture to larger invitationals (or simply choose not to) -- and that's understandable. There are plenty of reasons why a team may not venture to a major invitational and we're not necessarily going to penalize a team because of that.

But at the same time, it's harder to rank a team any higher if they're racing against lesser competition all season long. We won't necessarily send a team spiraling down our rankings because of that, but it can, at times, be more challenging to understand just how good a team is when they haven't faced top talents.

In those instances, the postseason, specifically the NCAA XC Championships, will hold a greater amount of weight on a team's preseason ranking (in conjunction with other factors) for this summer.

Lack of Emphasis for Regional Championships

NOTE: The language used in this section was copy and pasted from our individual preseason rankings rubric as our explanation in this article largely applies to our team rankings as well.

The regional meets are tough to gauge, mainly because a lot of the best teams in the country don't always put forth their best effort. This is usually in an attempt to preserve themselves for the NCAA XC Championships.

On the other hand, some teams and individuals are going all-out to extend their seasons. Those men and women are fighting for the last few national qualifying spots and hoping that the Kolas system swings in their favor.

Generally speaking, we don't look at the regional meets too heavily (which applies more to the D1 level than the D2 or D3 levels). In our opinion, those meets aren't truly indicative of what the overall cross country season actually looks like as far as competition is concerned.

While we certainly take outstanding performances into consideration, it's rare for us to really look at the nine regional meets and have them be a significant part of our rankings.

A Final Note

Naturally, not everyone is going to agree with each other, not even our own writers.

Some writers put emphasis on certain factors more or less than other writers would. Some writers also take into consideration other aspects that we haven't even talked about in this article (injuries, international recruits, peaking for the postseason, etc.).

But at the end of the day, we take all of those thoughts and considerations, put them together, attempt to find a fair middle ground, and produce the lists that you're about to see over the next four to five weeks.


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