I will now celebrate my on-schedule status for VCU Open writing by taking a break to compose a rambling, semi-coherent prediction post under the influence of writer-performance enhancing drugs.
We're never going to go a season without someone upsetting the predictions, which is why we play the games and all. There's going to be a grad movement we don't know about yet, someone's going to have spent the whole summer studying, a dominant history player will emerge to fill the void left by the absence of Kemezis, Hoppes, and Meigs...with that caveat, I think Trygve has generally the right idea about how things will shake out. Brown is an ever-improving monster, yet betting against a Seth-led Chicago team is always a dumb thing to do, and the sky's the limit for Minnesota. And hey, I hear that Mike Sorice dude is capable of beating anyone without it being a huge surprise, so it's a four-team race even before you account for the fact that Stanford, Dartmouth, Irvine, and TWO (2!) Harvard teams also have legitimate claims on the top tier and shouldn't lose their monocles if they end up in a national final this year. I'd also keep an eye out for MIT, who quietly finished eighth at Nationals last year and is returning all of their players as far as I know.
Who else is going to be a threat to win some tournaments over the course of this year at the regional level, and what are the prospects for all the active teams? Let's find out:
MID ATLANTIC: Princeton, maybe, if they can refocus on solid academic stuff--the canon has passed their older players by somewhat, but Mason is a legitimate ACF dude and Kunle has a great base to improve from considering he's only going to be a sophomore. Other people to look out for in the Mid-Atlantic besides the most expected pecking order (Maryland/Princeton in the finals most of the time, Swarthmore and VCU in the next tier, UNC having a good shot to go as high as #1 in the tournament if they show up to a few more things) would have to include the revitalized Virginia team, which has a solid core in Will Butler and the dramatic return of Leo Wolpert and could find all sorts of former high school bigshots and generally competent people like Noah Mink to fill the squad out. If Penn chooses to play as much in the DC area in 2009 as they did in 2008, they could notch some Top 3 hardware; I whimsically have included them in the Northeast predictions instead. I'm not sure who's coming back from the Wake Forest team that went undefeated at D2 Sectionals last year, but I hope it's people who have the hunger to translate that into overall success. Duke's quirky habit of never playing NAQT Sectionals or ACF Regionals may or may not continue; their habit of being an OK but not great team that won't dethrone Maryland, Princeton, or North Carolina for tournament championships this year is certain to continue. A rumored new team at George Mason might turn some heads. Rutgers-Newark is a team that always seems to have great people who know a lot, but has had issues translating that into high finishes in the past; perhaps this will be their year. Alas, Rutgers-New Brunswick, it will not be yours. Let's also not forget that the majority of M-A college tournaments these days feature some overachieving high school team showing up to wreck the place. There isn't a single team I listed who is not in danger of losing to Charter, Walter Johnson, Gonzaga, or Hunter on any given weekend. I hear Maggie Walker is getting that good again as well. Yeah, you could see a Top 25 college team finish behind no less than 5 high school teams at a college tournament in this region. Now that's parity.
MIDWEST: Carleton may pull one or two Midwest tournaments out from under Chicago, Illinois, and Minnesota; in fact, I predict they will have just the right amount of actual skill combined with Zen-like patience for awful ideas executed even more awfully to make it through the annual sack of oranges to the head of the quizbowl community known as TTGT11 without melting down, while all the other heavy hitters who bother to show up will explode with rage one by one. Those four teams are pretty much the beginning and end of the story in terms of actually winning tournaments, though Iowa, Lawrence, WUSTL, and a reinvigorated Ohio State (Brian Saxton and Jacob Durst are both for real, and Ohio State's returning players aren't exactly bad either) will play respectably and occasionally show up in the Top 3...I certainly wouldn't put it past Iowa to upset anybody, save maybe a full-strength Chicago team, at Sectionals, but they will not do quite as well at non-NAQT stuff. As always, Truman and S&T will be decent, plus there's the wild card of the new Missouri team and the possibility of last year's Grinnell team, which acquitted itself well in D2, continuing onward and upward. Over on the right-hand side of the Midwest, Carnegie Mellon is a good team, and Case Western has potential. I am also hearing faint rumblings about Michigan moving somewhat back towards its former glory, especially with an excellent recruiting class consisting of nearly all of high-finishing HSNCT team Novi plus HSNCT top scorer Kurtis Droge.
NORTHEAST: MIT, Harvard A, Harvard B, Dartmouth, and Brown are all Top 10 national teams. On the one hand, this means everyone else is going to have a tough time picking up any hardware on the Boston circuit this year. On the other hand, it means just making the playoff bracket will be a legitimate accomplishment, so every game is going to be hard-fought and meaningful at these tournaments. Of all the non-national-championship-contender teams who are often found at tournaments in the greater Massachusetts area, Cornell is clearly the "best of the rest"; they have a bittersweet year of stomping on all the non-elite teams and finishing last in the playoff bracket ahead of them. The rumored Letzler-Yetman-Tabachnik team at CUNY would be interesting to watch and could threaten upsets on a regular basis if it actually exists. Nathan Freeburg, do you have an African Literature class you can sign up for to round out that squad? Also, Penn made a bit of noise last year, and with Chris White, whose legitimate knowledge in his favorite categories scales very well with difficulty, now on that team, they have a good future ahead, at least after some graduations clear up the logjam at the top of this circuit. Brandeis--look to the future. You have some good players and you have some things that are more important than leaning broadly on giveaways, like Hannah Kirsch's real knowledge of music at all difficulty levels and your team's desire to play real tournaments. Yale--you may have less desire, but you have just as much talent, so develop it. Whoever is ready to pounce when Jerry is deported to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Dartmouth and Harvard graduate their entire lineups will be very glad they stayed prepared. Columbia is already a good team and has the potential to nibble at the edges of great as early as this semester, as long as they avoid the looming spectre of getting banned from every potential tournament site due to arrears on last year's registration fees. In any case, I hope their proposed open tournament comes together this year, as I was forlorn at missing my chance to drink iced tea at Sylvia's with Dan Passner last spring.
WEST: Nobody's going to consistently challenge Irvine or Stanford on regular-difficulty questions in California just yet, though UCLA and Berkeley are chief programs that come to mind as having enough institutional coherence and decent-to-good players to do so in the future if they get one more player who's willing to work. And of course, when Berkeley starts playing their casual old people or the questions go to ACF Fall level or below, anything can happen. Stanford B is always really good on the regional level, though it hasn't translated to success against the national elite just yet. The Pomona-Claremont-whatever program will probably go to more stuff and probably do pretty well at it. UCSD will be new, enthusiastic, pleasant, and about a .500 team at general events, though they are the smart man's dark horse pick in D2. The new University of Washington team of Mike Bentley and Brittany Clark will go 12-0 at all the tournaments held in Vancouver, if any tournaments are actually held there this year.
SOUTHEAST: The two pillars of the Vanderbilt team--gone. Billy Beyer and Matt Alford, the heavy lifters at Florida State--gone. Alabama's core scorers--I think they're gone. Ahmad Ragab--rumored gone from USF. The one-year "Charlie Steinhice as player" experiment at UTC--reportedly come to a close. There's a huge power vacuum here waiting for someone to exploit it. Will that someone be a Georgia team that was close to contending last year and is returning its two best players? Perhaps South Carolina, a team that seems to do better the harder the questions get? Maybe the young Clemson team, which hits the ground running with the two high scorers from Dorman's high school powerhouse last year, including George Stevens, who demonstrated that he's already on the elite level with his performance at the Chicago History Doubles? Don't count out Louisville, a team that was really on the upswing in 06 and 07 but went on semi-hiatus when #1 player Monica Marks spent a year abroad. If she's back and ready to roll, they could certainly win a bunch of events. I could also see good things in Virginia Tech's future now that they no longer have College Bowl to distract them, especially if Jason Thweatt plans to play more than just ICT this time. I'd like to see VT at more Richmond and DC events, but I'll account for them in this section since it's where they seem to play most of the time. One thing's for sure--the Southeast had better hope that Dorman HS doesn't follow the lead of the DC-area powers and start playing collegiate tournaments, because they would probably win every single college tournament in the Southeast if they played them.
SOUTHWEST: Matt Nance will lead Texas to a bunch of just-good-enough victories until one of the Oklahoma teams decides to step it up a notch. Eric Kwartler will play exactly one tournament this year; whether it's ACF Nationals or a mirror of Sword Bowl remains to be seen. Tulsa will be decent but not decent enough to beat the strongest possible Texas team. I still will have no idea what teams in Louisiana actually exist. Maggie Larkin's debut on the Oklahoma team is eagerly anticipated.
CANADA: Toronto and Western Ontario are very good teams. They will split all the local events in Ontario, and they are encouraged to come to more stuff on this side of the border as well. I hope someone wises up about the date and editing of VETO next summer, because I'd really like an excuse to visit Toronto.
OTHER REGIONS: What, like the Syria Sectional Meigs wants to hold? Um...there's supposed to be a new team at Boise State this year. BYU sent a foursome to ACF Regionals in 2008 and I hope they're going to be even more active this time around. Maybe the potential influx of former College Bowl players will let some kind of circuit finally take hold in the Mountain Time Zone, but it'll take some time for them to get up to speed. I guess there are also a lot of teams in Florida, both at the CC and university level. Other than a confidence that Aaron Kashtan will score a lot of tossup points and know everything about comic books, I know nothing about the teams in Florida so I can't say anything further.
Of course, the question on everyone's tongue is--who will win such prestigious tournaments held on high school questions as CUT, Rollapalooza, and that thing at Macalester? Answer: There will be no winners, spiritually speaking, but Mike Sorice will likely pick up a nice book on sociologists of the Hoysala Dynasty for scoring 165 PPG on an IS set.
Actual predictions for nationals...Brown and Chicago are the best ACF teams in terms of "the best potential teams made up of four people who attend those schools" right now. But, the question of which individuals will actually show up to St. Louis in April is a closely guarded secret. In any case, I don't think I will compromise my objectivity as tournament director by stating what everybody knows: either Brown or Chicago will win ACF Nationals this year.
At ICT, Brown may make use of their new recruit, who was an NAQT machine in high school. Chicago may make use of the fact that they're Chicago, they still have Seth and a bunch of other great players, and they have finished lower than third at NAQT exactly once ever. Minnesota may combine their status as perhaps the third-best real team to begin with, with Brendan's freakish ability to figure out NAQT questions, and either challenge for a spot in the final or become the first-ever all-undergrad team to win a medal spot by comfortably finishing third. Of course, NAQT being NAQT, you shouldn't rule out any of the other seven teams on my list of the elite (Dartmouth, Irvine, Illinois, Stanford, Harvard A, Harvard B, and MIT) from trophy contention. Math tells us that at least two of those teams will drop to the second playoff bracket and terrorize everybody else there on Saturday afternoon, so watch out.
Minnesota is taking the team that won the ACF Undergrad title last year and adding a new #1 player, so they're the logical favorites to repeat there. At ICT Undergrad, can the Harvard seniors' seemingly mystical grokking of the NAQT wavelength keep them ahead of a Minnesota team that, judging from their megadecibelled expletives, was not feeling it at ICT last year? Maybe so, but I'd advise Andrew Hart to study up on failed health insurance legislation either way. As always, Dartmouth will be a strong challenger for any Undergraduate title, and there's the newly grad-free Maryland A waiting to pounce savagely on any weakness in the teams above. North Carolina, VCU, Truman State, Cornell, Swarthmore, and Missouri S&T will also surprise any other all-UG teams caught napping; while it may be unrealistic to expect anyone outside of the Harvard-Minnesota-Dartmouth troika to actually win the UG title at either national, the teams I listed will all be ready to step into a lower medal spot if anyone falters. Williams might also be good, though they have to go to some real tournaments before we can say anything further. One thing's for sure--if Chris Ray completes the NAQT grand slam of HSNCT, DII, DI, and Undergrad in four straight years, he will have earned it against this field. Let's also not forget up and comers like Western Ontario, Lawrence, and Carnegie Mellon, who made it happen in D2 last year and hopefully will keep their eyes on the next level during the coming seasons.
Meanwhile, in Division II...we have the least predictable of the races. Every year, people confidently proclaim that [school high school superstar X is attending] is the favorite in DII. By my estimation, the team with the best high school senior of the previous year on it has actually managed to win DII a grand total of one time since NAQT started awarding the title in 1998, when Maryland with freshman Chris Ray won in 07. This unpredictability happens for various reasons, the most obvious being that national championship level college quizbowl isn't about cruising on what you knew in high school, it's about assembling a team of people who are willing to learn more. Also, some of the lateral thinking tactics that work in high school don't pay off as much at the college level (yes, even NAQT DII has a realness to it compared to a lot of what happens in HS) so players who were just outside the elite tier in high school can leapfrog their former betters if it turns out they had more of a real knowledge base. Also, because like half of the teams that won D2 had upperclassmen on them who had never bothered to qualify for ICT before, or find totally new quizbowl players who don't give a crap about how good anyone was in high school; that definitely has something to do with it.
Anyway. We all know that UCSD, Clemson, and Missouri are having new programs started by players who are already very good and have a great understanding of what going from good to great at the college level requires. We also know that places like Carleton, Harvard, Chicago, and to some extent Yale and Stanford are skilled at getting their best four recruits up to speed quickly and being in contention for D2 in most years. Kurtis Droge really earned his HSNCT scoring title in 2008, and will be going to traditionally D2-friendly Michigan. And of course, we don't know who's going to be this year's Robert Beard or Vik Vaz--someone who was pretty good on the local level in high school, didn't get much national exposure, and had a hidden core of true knowledge that he was able to use to explode on everyone at D2 ICT. I guess right now I might lean towards UCSD as being the most likely of those squads to send a well-rounded team of four to the ICT, but it's basically an arbitrary selection. If we're talking about a race among the recent high school stars, it all depends on who does the work over the course of the year. But, if some team nobody thought to mention ends up winning this, I won't be surprised, since that's what happens in D2 pretty much every year.
It should be noted that Shantanu Jha proclaimed to me his lack of interest in playing DII, joining a list from this past year, including Evan Adams and Gautam Kandlikar, of freshmen who want to play the main event as soon as possible. It's laudable, but it also means you shouldn't be betting on Chicago in D2 before you see what they put together for Sectionals.
At ACF, all of those teams are also in play, and any all-freshman squads who played D2 at ICT last year but skipped ACF Nationals retain one more year of ACF D2 status. Carnegie Mellon, Swarthmore, Lawrence, Western Ontario, Carleton--I'm reasonably confident this means you. Come on down to St. Louis and give the D2 thing one last go. If I have to make a pick, I guess Clemson makes some sense, but again it could be Missouri, or UCSD, or Carleton, or any of like 10 other teams, so it will be a fun tournament to watch.
At the CC level, you'd have to be a gibbering moron to not pick Valencia as the favorite. However, any Alabama schools that receive parts of the Brindlee Mountain diaspora, as well as the always-plucky J Sargeant Reynolds team, should at least be on the radar screen.
Other questions for this year that everyone wants an answer to:
*Will the Brown team's beards eventually cover their entire faces, werewolf-style?
*Is Harry Nelson ever going to explain what he didn't like about FICHTE?
*What's going on at William & Mary?
*How many years does staying up for three days to finish a tournament take off your life, anyway?
*Will there be any people who play both an academic national and TRASHionals this year?
*The BEES thing: A fad past its time?
*Will UTC send its past packet sets to collegiate.quizbowlpackets.com?
It should be an interesting year as the ramifications of College Bowl's demise begin to be felt and a bunch of new programs pop up, alongside the extreme parity that has led me to dub 10 teams elite and nearly 30 teams contenders for tournament titles. I'm looking forward to seeing how things turn out.
Here's my preseason Top 25:
5. Stanford A
The 5 teams above could win ICT or ACF without surprising me at all.
6. Harvard A
9. Harvard B
The 10 teams above could finish Top 3 at ICT or ACF without surprising me at all.
12. North Carolina
23. Truman State
Last teams out: Carnegie Mellon, Western Ontario, Stanford B
Likely entrants to the list once we see their first tournament performance: Virginia, Clemson, Florida
Watch out in six months for: Missouri, UCSD, Lawrence, Missouri S&T, Penn, Ohio State, Louisville, Dartmouth B, Michigan, Chicago B
Founder of hsquizbowl.org