Arkansas, the defending national champion and 2004 indoor NCAA champ, is the favorite to win the men's competition. Three of the Razorbacks' SEC rivals are also expected to finish in the top five with Auburn, LSU and Florida having the potential to score major points at the meet that starts on Wednesday in Austin, Tex. Ohio State looks to be the top non-SEC team in the competition.
"I feel good about the group we are taking," says Auburn head coach Ralph Spry. "We are just taking seven guys, but they are very, very quality guys."
Last year, Arkansas finished first at the NCAA meet with 59 points and Auburn was the runnerup with 50. It was a tough result for Spry to deal with as AU came very close to its first ever track national title. The Tigers missed on what looked to be 10 sure points when defending NCAA champion and collegiate discus record holder Gabor Mate had the worse performance of his career and did not score in the event he was considered almost a prohibitive favorite to win.
With just seven competitors going to Austin on the men's side, there is little margin for error if Auburn is going to finish among the nation's top squads. Spry says he is hopeful that everybody he is taking to nationals will come through with strong performances.
"The difference between this year's team and last year's team is that this one is a little bit more poised and experienced," Spry says. "They have been there and done it and I think that makes it that much easier. They are going to come in knowing what they have got to do. If we get going early with Leevan getting his big points, I think we will feed off of that."
The Leevan that Spry is counting on is senior Leevan Sands, the defending national champion in the long jump and the 2003 runnerup in the triple jump. He has a legitimate shot to win both events this year like he did with strong performances in both events at the Mideast Regional. If he does that, he will personally score 20 points for the Tigers.
Leevan Sands comes into the nationals after a strong showing in the regional qualifying meet.
Senior Maurice Smith, who was third in the decathlon last season, has a good chance to move up and possibly score 10 points, too. The Auburn record holder in the event has already qualified for this summer's Olympic Games and appears to have overcome some nagging injuries so he should be ready for the most grueling event in the sport that includes 10 events contested over two days.
Spry says he is excited about seeing how many points Smith can score and the coach is also excited about improving sophomore Marc Burns, who finished fourth at last year's national championships in Sacramento, Calif.
Burns ran a sizzling time of 10.03 in the 100 meters at the Mideast Regional in Baton Rouge, which is just 0.01 off the fastest collegiate time in the nation this year.
"It was only his second meet he has run the 100 meters at this year," Spry notes. "I was really impressed with his 10.03 even though it was wind-aided. He was just behind the two other guys who ran 10.02. I am very pleased with how Marc is running. He is healthy, his head is right. He is firing good. Everything looks good for him. I really expect him to do well at nationals."
Since his time in Baton Rouge was wind-aided, it doesn't go into the official record books. However, he is getting close to the school record, a sizzling 9.98 run by Olympian Coby Miller in 2000. The second fastest run is 10.04 by Olympian Harvey Glance in 1980.
Other competitors for the Tigers at the nationals will be freshman Edis Elkasevic in the shot put and discus, junior Sherridan Kirk in the 800 meters, junior Colton Hodge in the hammer throw and junior Damion Berry in the 400 meters.
Elkasevic is a bit of a wildcard in the mix. It is difficult to know how well he will do in Austin, but has a chance to score in both events. "Coach (Jerry) Clayton has done an excellent job of keeping him focused all year long," Spry says. "He made some technical changes and struggled some early on, but Coach Clayton kept him glued together and he is finally starting to come around."
"He threw very well at the SECs," Spry adds. "He was a little bit off his ‘A' game at the regionals, but he still looked good. I think he will step it up at nationals. This is a very tough year at the NCAA meet for the shot and discus. There are a couple of guys in the shot who are leading the world right now. The shot is a very tough event. A guy in the discus broke Gabor's NCAA record this year so both events are extremely competitive."
The Auburn women's team has qualified 12 competitors for the nationals after a strong performance at the regional. They are ranked 22nd nationally and have a chance to do better than that, Spry says. However, even though there are just seven men going to nationals, that group has much more scoring potential than the women's team.
"I feel good about the men's group we have going into the nationals," Spry says. "We don't have a lot of numbers, be we have got a lot of quality there.
"This is a meet you have got to have some luck in and get a few breaks here and there. If goes our way this year, it could be an interesting national championship meet. Obviously, we would like to win the thing, but I feel that our focus needs to be on Auburn and worry about things we can control. I think if we do that, things will take care of themselves.
"Obviously, in some events, we go head to head with Arkansas, Florida and LSU, but for the most part we have to handle our business," Spry says. "By doing that, we will put pressure on those programs to do what they are capable of doing.
"I want to come out of the meet knowing that we gave it our best shot and that we had a good meet competitively. If we do that I think anything can happen."