Clash of the Titans: No. 1 NAU & No. 2 BYU Square Off In Classic Battle In Louisville for the 2017 NCAA XC Title

November 14, 2017

(Editor’s note: Before you read the preview below, be sure to enter our free prediction contest. You can even play in a group with your friends: $200,017 Running Warehouse Prediction Contest)

Since the last weekend of September, we’ve seemed destined for an epic showdown between the University of Northern Arizona and Brigham Young University in the men’s race at the 2017 NCAA Cross Country Championships. The excitement began building when BYU went up to Springfield, Oregon, and scored 17 points to win the Dellinger Invitational over perennial powers Oregon and Stanford. One day later, NAU went 1-2-3-4 to win the Louisville Sports Commission Cross Country Classic and since then the two schools have been engaged in a season-long game of “Can you top this?” A few weeks later, NAU went to Madison and scored 51 points to win the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, only for BYU to win Pre-Nats the following day with 41 points. BYU perfect-scored the West Coast Conference meet; NAU answered back the next day by scoring 24 to win at Big Skys. On Friday, the two schools finally met for the first time this year at the Mountain Regional in Logan, Utah, and though NAU won, 49-79, all it really amounted to was a 10-kilometer staring contest ahead of the real race this Saturday in Louisville.

Now NCAA XC is finally upon us, and it’s time to break down one of the best team competitions in recent memory. Which team is better, NAU or BYU? And is one of those schools destined to win the title, or could a school like Syracuse, Stanford, or Portland play spoiler? We break it all down below.

Event details

What: 2017 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships

Where: E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, Louisville, Kentucky

When: Saturday, November 18. Due to weather concerns, the race times have been moved up. The women will start at 9:00 am ET with the men following at 10:00 am ET. 

Article continues below player.

How To Watch: In-person, admission is $10 admission. Flotrack will also stream both races live online, but the bad news is that if you are watching online, you’ll have to pay three times as much as the fans who get to see it in person as you can only watch the races with a Flotrack Pro subscription ($29.99/month recurring or $150 per year).

Whether you watch it live or not, we always recommend that you follow/talk about all of running’s biggest live events on our messageboard (and the live timing website).

MB: NCAA’s greed has no bounds!! NCAA/FLO will charge you $29.99 to watch D1 and even D2 and D3 nationals this year!

Course Map: Men’s 10k *Women’s 6k Note that the courses have changed since the last time NCAAs was in Louisville in 2015.

All NCAA Regional Results NCAA XC champs site * All LRC NCAA XC Coverage

Tale of the Tape: NAU vs. BYU

This NAU-BYU showdown has the feel of a heavyweight title fight. And no heavyweight title fight is complete without the tale of the tape. It’s a little tricky to compare each team man-by-man as neither team has had a true #1 runner this year, so for the purposes of this analysis, we’ve used each team’s finishing order from its most competitive meet of the year (Wisconsin for NAU, Pre-Nats for BYU).

#1 Andy Trouard, SR Rory Linkletter, JR
37th ’16 NCAAs; 3rd Wisconsin; 18th Mtn Reg; 3:38/13:36
32nd ’16 NCAAs; 1st Pre-Nats; 2nd Mtn Reg; 2nd NCAA 10k; 13:49/28:58
#2 Tyler Day, JR Connor McMillan, JR
23rd ’16 NCAAs; 4th Wisconsin; 3rd Mtn Reg; 13:49/28:46; 9th USA 10k 84th ’15 NCAAs; 6th Pre-Nats; 4th Mtn Reg; WCC champ; 13:53/29:13
#3 Matt Baxter, SR Casey Clinger, FR
11th ’16 NCAAs; 5th Wisconsin; 5th Mtn Reg; 13:46/28:48; 7th NCAA 10k 7th Pre-Nats; 4:02/8:44 in HS; 2-time NXN champ
#4 Geordie Beamish, JR Clayton Young, JR
97th ’16 NCAAs; 17th Wisconsin; 12th Mtn Reg; 3:41/13:53 77th ’16 NCAAs; 12th Pre-Nats; 27th Mtn Reg; 7:49/13:45/28:45; 10th NCAA 5k
#5 Luis Grijalva, FR Daniel Carney, JR
21st Wisconsin; 4:02/8:45 in HS 15th Pre-Nats; 14:01/8:48 SC
#6 Peter Lomong, JR Jonathan Harper, SR
43rd Wisconsin; 11th Mtn Reg; 8:16/14:26 101st ’16 NCAAs; 27th Pre-Nats; 7:59/13:54/29:05
#7 Cory Glines, SR* Kramer Morton, SO*
84th ’16 NCAAs; 10th Big Sky; 23rd Mtn Reg; 13:58/29:11 9th WCCs; 20th Mtn Reg; 3:46/14:28

*Neither Glines nor Morton were in their team’s top seven at Wisconsin/Pre-Nats but we expect them to run on Saturday

In the past, we’ve added a final column on the right entitled “Edge,” where we gave the edge of #1 vs #1, #2 vs #2, etc. If we had included it this year, we would have given BYU a slight edge at #1 and #4 — based primarily on their higher finishes at NCAAs last year — but we’d definitely have given NAU the edge at #2 and #3 based on their past accomplishments. Wisconsin was certainly a tougher meet than Pre-Nats, so we’d probably have given NAU an edge at #5, but BYU gets it back at #6. It’s so hard, we didn’t put the column in there.

NAU won Wisconsin for the second year in a row in October; now theyll go for the NCAA repeat in Louisville NAU won Wisconsin for the second year in a row in October; now the Lumberjacks will go for the NCAA repeat in Louisville. Photo courtesy NAU Track & Field/XC.

What’s the first thing you notice about these teams (besides how closely they are matched)? They are deep. Both schools have multiple guys that could easily be the #1 man on a top-10 team, and they have the depth to absorb a bad day by one of their presumptive top five. And both squads are loaded at the top. The deepest meet in the country outside of NCAAs is the Wisconsin Invite, and only two men finished ahead of NAU’s top three in that race: the two NCAA favorites, Justyn Knight and Grant Fisher. NAU, under new coach Mike Smith (who took over when Eric Heins decided to step away from the sport last year), scored 51 points, the lowest total at Wisconsin since 2010, back when the meet was smaller (21 teams, compared 35 this year) and not nearly as deep. For comparison, NAU scored 78 at Wisconsin in 2016 and Syracuse scored 101 in 2015 and both teams went on to win the national title.

But just like NAU, BYU has its own signature performance, and it wasn’t Pre-Nats, even though the Cougars’ 41 points were the lowest score at that meet since 2014 Colorado tallied 35 — a squad that is widely regarded as the best in CU history. No, BYU’s best race was at the West Coast Conference meet on October 27, where the Cougars dropped a perfect 15 on the #3 team in the country, Portland. As we’ve already covered, Portland held out some of its guys in that race, but the Pilots did run their top two guys from the Wisconsin Invite and still couldn’t break up BYU’s top five.

Regionals takeaways

So, yeah, NAU and BYU are both really good. But you already knew that. How do they stack up against each other? Well, NAU did beat BYU at regionals last week, but here at we don’t read too much into regionals results as the only point of regionals is to make it to nationals. Plus, both teams were shorthanded: both the Lumberjacks and Cougars rested their freshmen stars (Grijalva and Clinger) so that they did not have to run back-to-back 10ks (BYU also rested Carney). That’s a strategy that makes sense on paper, but it has had mixed results. Fisher skipped regionals as a freshman in 2015 and finished 17th at NCAAs but two other recent first-year sensations — Syracuse’s Knight in 2014 and Stanford’s Thomas Ratcliffe in 2016 — were held out of regionals and bombed at NCAAs (Knight finished 143rd, Ratcliffe DNF’d).

Clinger has been at home in the front of BYUs pack in 2017 Clinger (#129) has been at home in the front of BYU’s pack in 2017. Photo courtesy BYU Track & Field.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Knight and Ratcliffe should have run regionals. Rather, the takeaway here is that it is always a risk to depend on a freshman — especially if that freshman is running the first 10k of his career in the biggest meet of his life so far. Again, both teams are deep, so a bad day from one of the freshmen won’t kill either of them. But Clinger is more important to BYU than Grijalva is to NAU. Advantage, Lumberjacks.

That being said, we have a lot more faith in Clinger simply because he is a proven cross country star given his two NXN high school titles. The big-time high school stars in XC often do quite well at NCAAs. Here is how the last three two-time HS national champs that ended up running NCAA XC did their freshman year at NCAA XC (admittedly, we don’t think Clinger was the best HSer his junior year — Drew Hunter was).

Grant Fisher – 17th, 2015
Edward Cheserek – 1st, 2013
Dathan Ritzenhein – 4th, 2001

Do we think Clinger is as good as those three? No, but a top-20 showing is certainly doable.

One other regionals note: Clayton Young, who had finished within 17 seconds of BYU’s #1 guy in his first four races (he was their #1 guy at Dellinger as he won that race), was 27th at regionals, 49 seconds behind BYU’s #1. He wound up as their #5 finisher, behind Kramer Morton and Brayden McLelland. Andy Trouard, NAU’s #1 at Wisconsin, wasn’t quite as far back (18th), but he also finished as NAU’s #5 man and was 29 seconds behind their #1.

It’s certainly possible that both men were under instructions to take it easy — each school had two low sticks up front and would have required an epic blowup to miss out on qualifying. But it’s also a sign that the low spreads each school has enjoyed this year — especially BYU, whose largest #1 through #5 spread until regionals was just 17 seconds — will remain that low. First, NCAAs is a 10k, which naturally leads to larger spreads than the 8k regular-season races. Second, and more important: there’s no holding back at NCAAs. When NAU’s top three crossed the line together at Wisconsin, and when BYU’s #2 through #5 crossed the line together at WCCs, they beat some incredible athletes. But neither of those races were as deep as NCAAs will be, and it’s safe to say that at least one of the guys in each group was holding something in reserve in those races — which means each squad could theoretically be even better on Saturday if those top guys race to their true potential.

How much does experience matter?

In Baxter, Day, and Trouard, NAU has three guys who can run in the front pack of any race in America In Baxter, Day, and Trouard, NAU has three guys who can run in the front pack of any race in America. Photo courtesy NAU Track & Field/XC.

While both NAU (Trouard, Day, Baxter) and BYU (Linkletter, McMillan, Clinger) are capable of putting three guys in the top 10, and both teams have outstanding depth at #6 and #7 (NAU is helped in this respect by the return of Cory Glines, who scored for the team at conference after missing two meets in the middle of the season), there is one area in which NAU has a distinct advantage: most of NAU’s guys have done this before. That’s not to say that BYU has no NCAA experience: Linkletter, McMillan, Young, and Harper have all finished in the top 101 at NCAAs before. But NAU has four guys — Trouard, Day, Baxter, Glines — that scored for their NCAA title team last year. All four of them were under pressure to succeed in the biggest moment, and all four of them came through. And while NAU has three returning All-Americans and a fourth who scored on its title team, BYU has just one guy (Linkletter) who has finished in the top 75 of an NCAA XC meet.

But how much of an advantage is experience? Two years ago, Colorado entered as two-time defending champions with a squad full of proven studs and lost to Syracuse. Last year, the one knock on NAU was that, apart from Futsum Zienasellassie, the Lumberjacks were woefully short on NCAA experience. It didn’t matter, as NAU won anyway. The point is, if you’ve got a squad full of guys who experienced a huge breakthrough on the track this past spring or during this year’s XC season, they might not have a lot of quality NCAA XC experience. That doesn’t mean you can’t win a title with them.

Portland and the “transitive property of running”

Since it’s hard to make a fair comparison based off of regionals, one other way to compare the squads is to see how they fared against a common opponent: Portland. NAU beat Portland at Wisconsin, and BYU beat Portland at its conference meet. We compared the results of the two meets below:

Wisconsin WCCs
3. Andy Trouard, NAU 23:40 1. Connor McMillan, BYU 23:22
4. Tyler Day, NAU 23:41 2. Daniel Carney, BYU 23:28
5. Matt Baxter, NAU 23:42 3. Casey Clinger, BYU 23:29
8. Jeff Thies, UP 23:52 4. Rory Linkletter, BYU 23:29
9. Nick Hauger, UP 23:53 5. Clayton Young, BYU 23:29
11. Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse, UP 23:53* 6. Jeff Thies, UP 23:31
17. Geordie Beamish, NAU 24:00 7. Nick Hauger, UP 23:31
21. Luis Grijalva, NAU 24:04

*Did not run WCCs

Clearly, in this comparison, BYU has the edge. If you go by the transitive property (never as sure in running as it is in mathematics), since BYU put five in front of UP’s Jeff Thies and Nick Hauger at WCCs but NAU only put three in front of Thies and Hauger at Wisconsin, BYU is better. But that’s assuming Thies and Hauger ran the same on both days, and it’s very possible that they could have simply run better at Wisconsin than they did at WCCs. Since Portland basically forfeited WCCs as a team on purpose, Thies and Hauger may not have even been running all-out.

So who’s better?

Lowest non-winning scores at NCAAs since 1998*
2015 Colorado, 91
2001 Stanford, 91
2004 Wisconsin, 94
2000 Colorado, 94
2014 Stanford, 98
*prior to 1998, the meet had fewer than 31 teams

NAU and BYU are extremely strong, evenly-matched teams. With how each team has been running this year, we wouldn’t be surprised if both of them scored fewer than 125 points — NAU’s winning score last year. Check that. We expect them both to score under 125 points, which means that the loser could add its name to the list to the right.

But we have to pick a winner, so we’re going with NAU. The Lumberjacks have been on a hot streak since the start of 2016 and since then, they have yet to run a bad meet. Of course, the Cougars are so strong that NAU could run great on Saturday and still lose. But we trust NAU’s top three slightly more than BYU’s top three. While BYU’s top guys are greatly improved from last year, so are NAU’s — and NAU’s were starting from a higher place. We also like that the Lumberjacks aren’t as reliant on their star freshman as the Cougars are on theirs even if the Cougars star freshman is better. Again, these are small differences, but when teams are this evenly-matched, the small differences are the ones that matter. We like NAU to repeat.

Who Could Play Spoiler?

While we expect that either NAU or BYU will be your national champion on Saturday, nothing is a given at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, where big favorites routinely fall by the wayside. One need only look back to last year for proof. Entering the 2016 NCAA meet, everyone thought Edward Cheserek was invincible, and we proclaimed with certainty that no one would touch the Colorado women. Yet both Cheserek and Colorado wound up third, and that’s before we even mention Karissa Schweizer‘s out-of-nowhere win in the women’s individual race.

So it’s definitely possible that NAU or BYU loses, but even upsets have their limits. We see three teams capable of springing the upset. But if any of the following three teams wins, they will likely only do so with some help. BYU and NAU will likely both have to have a key cog have a subpar day for it to happen.

Syracuse (3rd Wisconsin, 1st ACCs, 1st Northeast Regional)

Coach Chris Fox has instilled an us-against-the-world culture in Syracuse, so he’ll probably be glad to hear that his Orange are being counted out again (the LetsRun staff will definitely hear about it should Syracuse spring the upset). But we’re not totally writing off the Orange. Syracuse has Justyn Knight, and that means they’re effectively scoring four runners against everyone else’s five as Knight, who has finished 4th and 2nd at the last two NCAA championships, isn’t finishing outside of the top five. The Orange has two more proven contributors in fifth-year seniors Colin Bennie (8th and 17th at last two NCAAs) and Philo Germano (39th and 49th) and they’ve been joined in 2017 by redshirt freshman Aidan Tooker, who has aced every test thrown his way this fall (10th Wisconsin, 6th ACCs) and is riding high as his recent tweet has gone viral.

Syracuse has already won one title in Louisville this year -- its fifth straight ACC crown in October Syracuse has already won one title in Louisville this year — its fifth straight ACC crown in October. Photo courtesy Syracuse XC/Track.

And quietly, that group has been doing some serious damage of late. The Orange scored 27 points to win ACCs over a good Virginia Tech team (#9 in the coaches’ poll) and scored 28 in winning the Northeast Regional. Both of those totals are better than what SU scored in either 2015 or 2016, years in which Syracuse wound up on the NCAA podium. But for Syracuse to win on Saturday, it needs two things to happen: its #2 through #4 guys must fight BYU/NAU’s #2 through #4 to a near draw, and it must find a #5 runner. The latter has a better chance of occurring. Syracuse’s gap from #4 to #5 was 33 seconds at Wisconsin, but it was down to 3 seconds at ACCs and 5 seconds at regionals thanks to nice runs from redshirt freshmen Joe Dragon (9th ACCs, 15th regionals) and Dominic Hockenbury (20th ACCs, 11th regionals). Illiass Aouani (13:55 5k) is another option at #5, though he fell apart at NCAAs last year, losing 77 places over the final 2k.

Even if one of those guys steps up and finishes somewhere in the 50s, the rest of the team will need to run near-perfect races if SU is to prevail. NAU beat Syracuse by 101 points at Wisconsin. 74 of those points came down to the difference between NAU’s #5 (21st) and SU’s #5 (95th), so even if SU can conjure up an incredible run from its #5 equal to NAU’s #5, its #2 through #4 runners still need to make up nine places per man (since Knight, who won Wisconsin, cannot improve his place). That’s a big ask.

Stanford (4th Wisconsin, 1st Pac-12s, 3rd West Regional)

Will Grant Fisher have something to smile about on Saturday? Photo courtesy StanfordXCTF. Will Grant Fisher have something to smile about on Saturday? Photo courtesy StanfordXCTF.

Coach Chris Miltenberg and the Cardinal finally got the monkey off their backs by ending Colorado’s six-year win streak at the Pac-12 meet on October 27. Next up: ending a string of near-misses at the NCAA meet (2nd in ’14, 3rd in ’15, 2nd in ’16) with the program’s first national title since 2003. Like Syracuse, Stanford has a guaranteed low stick in NCAA 5,000 champ Grant Fisher, and it has some experienced guys behind him in Sam Wharton (41st ’16 NCAAs) and Steven Fahy, (59th ’16 NCAAs, 3rd ’17 Pac-12s), both of whom scored for the Cardinal’s NCAA runner-up squad last year. Alex Ostberg (12th Wisconsin, 4th Pac-12s) has emerged as another front-of-the-pack threat.

If all of Stanford’s guys run great, it has a chance to spring the upset, but that is unlikely to happen. Because while Stanford’s results over the past few years have been consistent (thanks to the talent on the team), its individual performances have not. Look at Sam Wharton. He’s finished 40th, 42nd, and 42nd at regionals the last three years. In two of those seasons, he bettered that finish at NCAAs, taking 39th in 2014 and 41st last year. In the other, he finished 207th at NCAAs. Jack Keelan is a 13:40 guy but has never put it together in XC; he was 52nd at Pac-12s this year. Fahy was 3rd at Pac-12s and regionals this year but only 65th at Wisconsin.

Stanford really could use the services of sophomore Thomas Ratcliffe. Last year, they burned his redshirt late in the year to give themselves a title shot but he’s been injured this year and won’t be racing.

The good news is that in the last three years, Stanford has run its best race of the season at NCAAs. The bad news is that, once again, that may not be enough for a national title.

Portland (2nd Wisconsin, 2nd WCCs, 1st West Regional)

In the two meets where the Pilots ran their A squad this year — Wisconsin and regionals — they ran exceptionally well. Their top three of Jeff Thies (8th Wisconsin, 2nd regionals), Nick Hauger (9th Wisconsin, 4th regionals), and Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse (11th Wisconsin, 1st regionals) is almost as good as those of NAU and BYU, but the depth behind them isn’t quite on the same level. And based on the evidence available, the gap between Portland’s #3 and #4 may still be too much to overcome — at Wisconsin, it was 23 seconds, and at regionals, it was 24. Granted, that’s an improvement since regionals was 2k longer.

If Caleb Webb (27th regionals, 14:00 5k), Noah Schutte (29th regionals, 14:05/29:05), and Logan Orndorf (36th regionals, 14:19) can rustle up two All-American performances between them, the Pilots will have a chance to win their first-ever NCAA title, and that would be huge for a program that has long played second fiddle to in-state rivals Oregon. And if Portland does somehow win it all, we just hope that nobody else decides to follow their lead and blow off their conference meet.

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