Elite and NCAA in the same weekend. Worlds colliding. It’s very disturbing. It’s like two groups of friends meeting for the first time.
That’s right, it’s American Cup time. So get ready to watch Simone Biles take some names (so she can follow them on instagram) and watch the men look fairly unready to compete the all-around because it’s March. Hooray! As always, the American Cup will be preceded by the annual Nastia Liukin NCAA Preview on Friday. The Nastia meet is always a useful glance at the gymnasts who are going to get 9.900s in a couple years, but as is tradition, it takes place at the exact same time as significant meets involving current, actual NCAA gymnasts. Sigh. Tomorrow is very much a multi-screen day. For our immediate purposes, a few of the Nastia competitors will be starting college next season, including Alicia Boren, who will be Florida’s new star, Olivia Karas and Emma McLean of Michigan, Macy Toronjo of UCLA, and Makenna Merrell of Utah, so keep an eye on them.
In the rankings, Oklahoma will remain safe at #1. LSU and Florida are quite close together and will be fighting it out for the #2 spot, with the Gators having a slight advantage since they have the weaker score still to drop. Utah has a chance to challenge for a higher ranking but would need at least a 197.700 and some help from either Florida or LSU to move any higher than 4th. Beyond that, with two meets this weekend and a 196.175 to get rid of, Alabama looks the most primed to make a surge toward the top 4, with Auburn in a similarly advantageous position. Both teams should move up with anything resembling normal performances in their meets this weekend.
It’s also worth beginning to look at the top-36 Regionals cutoff. West Virginia is a little too close for comfort right now in 34th place, especially because they’re slated to host a Regional this year. It would be rough if they fail to make the top 36. WVU’s season high is just a 195.350, which doesn’t cut it. They’ll need something real against Penn State this Sunday. NC State and George Washington currently occupy the last two spots, with North Carolina, Utah State, and San Jose State all challenging, and we could still see some shifts among that group this weekend.
Friday begins with Auburn and Alabama on the road in what should be comfortable wins for both, but the meets still carry some significance. Auburn has a road 195 to get rid of and could jump right up to challenge #5 Michigan with a solid 197 performance. Alabama is coming off the kind of loss that makes Kayla Williams do Roza-Galieva-face and the whole team needs a mental recovery, not just with a win but with a big mid-197. In other action, LSU will take on Minnesota in a meet that is much more important for Minnesota than LSU. The Gophers are in desperate need of a road 196 to keep them solidly in the top 18 for seeding purposes.
But really, let’s get to the good stuff. Florida. At Oklahoma. Yessssss. Clash of the titans. Last year may have ended in a tie, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the tiebreaker. Sadly, it’s only available on one of those Fox Sports regional networks that I don’t get, but I’m excited about it nonetheless. The Gators still have to prove that those huge 198s are not just a home phenomenon, and they’ll probably need exactly that in order to beat Oklahoma in Oklahoma. Florida’s highest road score so far this year is a 197.425, and I doubt that’s going to get the job done this time.
The biggest progression for Oklahoma this year has been the introduction of Dowell and Jackson, especially on vault and floor, where they provide many more options for 9.9 realness. Those vault and floor routines are going to be the most important performances of the night for Oklahoma because Florida will bring the Baker/Hunter 1-2 punch on floor and the Hunter/McMurtry 1-2 punch on vault. It’s through those four routines that Florida is most likely to build an advantage (plus the inevitable Bridgey bump on floor), but if Dowell and Jackson are on it to join Scaman’s auto-9.9s, the Sooners can mitigate the advantage Florida gains from their best routines, keep things tight, and then take control of the meet on beam (a rotation that finally came out of hiding last weekend). Watch for which team lands those big vaults better. Both teams are very reliant on those big vaults for 9.925-9.950s, and neither team can afford to be bouncing around for even a 49.3 in a meet this close. It’s March. It’s time to stick. I’m looking at you Kytra.
Not to be outdone, there’s also the matter of Michigan heading to Utah, which should be equally interesting. The two teams are ranked similarly, but Utah has the much higher peak (having broken 198, while Michigan’s top score this year is a 197.300), which makes the Utes the favorite, especially at home. Utah’s biggest advantage in this meet comes on vault. They’re clearly the stronger vaulting team and can use a big score there in the first rotation to create a cushion, while Michigan will need the help of a 2014 Austin Sheppard vault to keep pace.
Vaulting will be significant because while Utah is ranked higher on both bars and floor, I would say that the two teams are qualitatively equal on floor and can be qualitatively equal on bars, though Michigan’s double fronts are a nerve-wracking problem. On beam, Michigan has been the stronger and steadier team, especially given last week’s performance from the Utes. Utah must recover with 6 hit routines this week so beam doesn’t become a thing again.
On Saturday, after all the American Cup action you can handle, I’ll be back to do a bunch of live blogging. First, Georgia hosts Arkansas and must stop the bleeding, get a win, and get a 197. At home, with a hit meet, that should be easy-peasy for Georgia, but it hasn’t happened yet. Then, Nebraska hosts Oregon State in a vital meet for the Beavs. OSU needs a high 196 to get out of that yucky #15 ranking. #15 puts you in a tough Regional. At the same time, we’ve got Beautiful Disaster Showdown Part Deux between UCLA and Stanford, which should be delectable. Actually, both teams are coming off pretty strong performances for season-high scores, so dare we hope it might not be a disaster after all? Nah. Don’t be silly.
Having Price on floor makes Stanford look so much better. It’s crazy what one routine can do. They’re suddenly relatively competitive there. They’re still not 100% on vault, continuing to keep Vaculik out when possible, so in spite of Price’s scores, UCLA should have the vault and floor advantage. They’ll be at home and do have more depth on both events if the landings make it to the arena. Stanford is so very lovely on bars and should be the better team there because, while UCLA has Lee, Peszek, and what has become a very reliable leadoff stick from Francis, the Bruins lose a bit of ground for a couple 9.825 routines (or 9.6 routines) in the middle of the lineup. Stanford won’t necessarily have to count scores like that. As for beam, it’s a treat from both. These are two of the most enjoyable beam teams in the country, but in spite of Ivana Hong being perfect in every way, it’s tough to beat the Francis, Lee, Peszek trio.
Sunday features one more huge meet, with Alabama and Auburn heading to Birmingham for a podium competition and perhaps the most interesting meet those two schools have ever contested, considering Auburn’s quality over the last month and the fact that Auburn managed to win both vault and beam in the loss to Alabama earlier in the season. Sadly, no broadcast information is listed. What is this life?
Top 25 Schedule
Friday, March 6
8:00 ET/5:00 PT – Iowa State @  Iowa
9:00 ET/6:00 PT –  Michigan @  Utah
10:00 ET/7:00 PT – NC State @  Washington
7:00 ET/4:00 PT –  Oregon State @  Nebraska
7:00 ET/4:00 PT – Illinois Classic ( Illinois, UIC @ Northern Illinois)
8:00 ET/5:00 PT – Ohio State, Air Force @  Denver
2:00 ET/11:00 PT –  Penn State @ West Virginia
4:00 ET/1:00 PT –  Alabama vs.  Auburn (Birmingham, AL)