Florida @ NC State – Friday 7:00 ET
This meet is really more like Florida vs. Expectations as NC State should not be in the same scoring stratum as the Gators in a sane world. NC State currently sits in that frustrating purgatory where they should make Regionals but have no realistic hope of making Championships. They bring the same composition and skill set as teams in the 13-18 range, but a lack of general amplitude and acceptable split position keeps them a step lower. We’ll see a lot of tuck jumps and cat leaps as a way of avoiding those splits.
As for Florida, we got official confirmation this week that Rachel Spicer is joining the team, which should give them some depth and a consistent early-lineup worker on any event. I have more hope for her making lineups than I do for Kiersten Wang, but time will tell. The change in fall preparation schedule will likely have an effect on Florida’s January quality, but I do still expect them to perform well and score in the 196s. Although, as explained in my Florida preview, a fall or two on beam in these early meets would not be the worst thing in the world. All in all, we’ll probably see a healthy mix of solid 9.9s and tentative 9.7s, which is to be expected at this time of year. Pay special attention to Kytra Hunter’s contribution here and over the first few weeks. They will need her sturdiness to take some pressure off of Caquatto’s legs in the early season and to anchor vault and floor with 9.9+ in the later season.
Rotation to watch: Florida on beam. They will need to experiment with this lineup over the course of months since no one should have a guaranteed spot after the performance last postseason. Watch this rotation more for competition confidence than for scores. A fall is fine right now as long as it is part of an aggressive routine. Uncertainty is the biggest red flag.
Denver @ Georgia – Friday 7:30 ET
Here we have another meet where the result shouldn’t really be in doubt, although Denver is a better team than NC State, and Georgia is a worse team than Florida. It wouldn’t be entirely inconceivable for Georgia to have a shambolic performance and lose, though I wouldn’t bet on it. Georgia has the benefit of opening the season at home, so expect the scores to be . . . generous with a sarcastic smile.
Jay Clark held a live chat earlier today, which is a pretty boring read, so you don’t need to bother unless you really love Jay and/or diplomatic answers. He did make one odd comment, though, saying that vault and beam would likely be the highest scoring events for Georgia this year. Really? Vault? Where you have Kat Ding, Kaylan Earls, and . . . who else? Bekah Bennetts and Rue McClanahan? Bars should be a better event for them with Ding, Worley, Davis, and Nuccio who all should be capable of 9.9s, so bars being weaker than vault would be a concern going forward.
While we usually hear the most discussion each fall about how the freshmen are going to change the complexion of a team, the rhetoric for Georgia this year has been all about Shayla. “This is Shayla’s year.” They better hope so. Because of her performance over the last two seasons, she has a lower threshold for a slow start. One fall on beam and those pitchforks are going to be out. She needs to be a scoring leader from the first meet.
Rotation to watch: Georgia on bars. They will not be able to contend with the top three teams on vault and, especially, floor. They just don’t have the quality and depth. A great bars rotation is crucial to help erase that deficit. Christa Tanella’s 9.7 won’t cut it here.
Cancun Classic (Arkansas, LSU, Iowa, Auburn, Arizona, San Jose State) – Friday 8:00 ET
I’m calling this meet the Spoiler Alert Classic as Arkansas and LSU are the most discussed spoilers to the top teams. LSU had a miserable season by their standards in 2011, and they will be relying primarily on an excellent crop of freshmen to lift them up. Relying on new gymnasts for the majority of late-lineup routines is a dangerous proposition, and I’m not sold on their ability to carry this team. I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I don’t see them challenging consistently. This meet will be a good first test of how many holes those freshmen can fill and where the team is still lacking.
Arkansas has a bit more experience and depth as a group, which is why I expect them to take this meet. The big task for Arkansas in 2012 is avoiding being simply The Jamie Pisani Experience Starring Jamie Pisani. Katherine Grable is the most likely heir to that throne, just as Pisani was the heir to the Casey Jo Magee throne, but the team will need to find more top routines from the likes of Borsellino, Howdeshell, and the freshmen.
Rotation to watch: Arkansas on beam. If this team is going to make the transition to being a contender instead of a perennial challenger, they can’t have rotations that they are just trying to get through, as beam was in 2011. We’re starting to expect more than just a bunch of 9.75s. Do they exist?
(continued with Saturday and Sunday meets)
Oklahoma @ Kentucky, with Bowling Green and Wisconsin-Oshkosh – Saturday 6:00 ET
This is the least interesting meet in terms of potential result since a loss would be embarrassing for Oklahoma, but watching for the quality of Oklahoma’s performance will be much more interesting. There are many doubts as to how this team can contend without Natasha Kelley, so even though I’m usually mistrustful of big scores in early meets, a huge result may benefit Oklahoma more so than other teams in terms of momentum, confidence, and overall perception.
Oklahoma would like someone aside from Megan Ferguson to have a big meet right away in order to become another scoring rallying point. They have several solid nominees for this Best Supporting Actress title like Taylor Spears, Kayla Nowak, or maybe Rebecca Clark, but there’s no clear winner yet. At least one frontrunner will have to step up earlier rather than later.
Rotation to watch: Oklahoma on bars. Who is making this lineup? Are they just getting through the routines or do they look comfortable? I have a feeling this lineup will all of the sudden look extremely sparse without Natasha Kelley.
Utah @ UCLA – Sunday 5:00 ET
This meet is the showpiece of the weekend and is realistically 50/50. Utah should be the better-prepared team at this point in the season, but UCLA has more raw talent and is competing at home. For that reason, I’m giving the slight edge to UCLA, but that prediction assumes they will be able to hit their routines in January. I really should know better.
Utah released their meet notes, and the tentative lineup is notable for the 9 routines coming from freshmen. It’s smart to see how they perform in this environment early in the season. The vault lineup looks stronger than we have seen in a couple years (Delaney, Dabritz, and Robarts have real scoring potential), but bars jumps out as a concern. There are too many form breaks in that six to score very well right now.
For UCLA, we should expect some characteristic early mistakes (six hit beam routines would be a January miracle), but the most important thing to watch will be the progression of Zamarripa and Larson. Neither will be in top form right now, but both bring a level of precision and scoring potential that no one from Utah can match. UCLA will hope they aren’t too far behind the rest of the team. If we know anything about this team, it’s that they’ll keep us guessing about their real level until March and April, but it would be nice to see some of that potential realized a little earlier. Perhaps we can rely on a now-healthy Sam Peszek to bring the goods in January.
Rotation to watch: UCLA on bars. It would be easy to say beam, since they do need to gain serious consistency there, but bars should be the lineup with the most changes from last season. If they are able to get Wong and Whitcomb into this lineup and performing well, they will be in great shape. If they are relying too much on 9.8s from Hopfner-Hibbs and Courtney again, they may fall behind other top teams.