Feb. 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas - It's going to be fast, and it's going to be different.
That's on the minds of the coaches, athletes and support staff for the 10 men's teams and 12 women's teams competing this week at the 2013 SEC Swimming & Diving Championships, which has become one of the biggest and fastest meets in the country over the years.
Missouri and host Texas A&M are new. That is the biggest difference, one that has been felt across every sport in the SEC so far this school year. And this year's meet will mark the first time since 1992 - when South Carolina and Arkansas joined the league - that the SEC's swimmers and divers will see new faces, a new banner and new swim caps across the pool.
But that isn't the only change for this year's SEC Championships. Traditionally a four-day meet, the 2013 version of the country's fastest meet has been extended to five days. The first two days are essentially the same as in the past, but the individual events traditionally contested on Friday and Saturday have now been spread across the final three days.
Auburn Head Coach Brett Hawke, in his fourth full year at the helm of the Tiger program, thinks that this change can only be beneficial for the entire field.
"I think it opens up a chance to have an overall faster meet," Hawke said. "It gives our athletes a chance to recover between races. The hardest part will be managing the ups and downs, making sure we can be up when we need to be up and get rest when we need to get rest."
The addition of Missouri and Texas A&M will also change the dynamic of how the scoring is distributed. The Aggie women won the Big 12 title their final year in the league and are among the favorites to claim an SEC crown their first year in this conference. On the men's side, Missouri boasts some of the nation's top breaststrokers and relays, and the Tigers will be a huge threat in the diving events as well.
"It will be interesting to see which teams take points away from the top-tier teams," Hawke said. "It's hard to predict at this stage, but I think our approach has been that it's just another SEC meet and we have to be at our best. We try to focus on ourselves and not worry about everybody else too much."
Points will become even more valuable this year - especially spots in the championship final. Three heats of finals in each individual race will be contested, meaning that 24 individuals will score in each event. The winner earns 32 points, the ninth-place finisher will earn 20, and 17th place gets nine. That also means that relays will count more than 50 percent more than in the past - 64 points for the first-place team, 56 for second place, and so on. A relay disqualification could be disastrous for any team with sights set on the championship.
"Every point is going to count," Hawke said. "It gives every swimmer an opportunity to make it back into finals, and that's what we need to do. Getting everybody back in three events, and everybody getting as many points as they can to help the team is going to be the key."
This is the first time since the 2006 SEC Championships that more than 16 places have scored at a conference meet. That year, competing at the old Student Aquatic Center at Tennessee, coaches and officials elected to go with a six-lane pool, contest three heats of finals and score 18 positions due to the UT pool being far more shallow than most other pools in the league.
With 24 scoring spots available this year, the teams with the most depth will likely emerge victorious. That means all 18 or 19 swimmers and all three or four divers finishing in the top 24 in all three of their individual events. Hawke said that the bottom third of the roster becomes invaluable in a meet such as this.
"I think all the top teams have good depth across the board," he said. "It's always a matter of 15th, 16th, 17th athletes getting a second swim in three events. That's the key, trying to be balanced in three events, and that's what we're looking at doing."
On the whole, there are numerous unknowns about this year's SEC Championships that will not be resolved until Saturday night's final relay. But with a little luck and a strong performance across the board, the Tigers could find themselves in more familiar territory - atop the award podium.