Friday, 6:00 PT, ESPN2
The first “live on real television” meet of the season pits two of last year’s Super Six teams against one another with Nebraska paying a visit to defending champion UCLA.
For UCLA, the judgment monocles will be fixed to this performance, not only because a championship inherently brings more eyes and an expectation of setting the standard the following season, but because UCLA is still trying to get itself out from under a sticky reputation for starting the season poorly.
The reputation is earned. More often than not in the last decade, UCLA has started the season with a missed meet. The last time the Bruins won the title (2010), they began the following year with a sluggish, fall-laden 195.300 in a loss to Utah. Even in 2018, UCLA started the season counting a fall on vault in its very first rotation.
Based on the impressive level of progress shown in December’s Meet the Bruins exhibition, particularly on vault and floor, there’s no reason to expect a missed meet from UCLA out of the gate other than history, but the hits still have to come. Oklahoma and LSU, two programs that have tended to score 197 in recent season openers, will be quite eager to start faster again this year and say, “OK, all that UCLA blah blah blah is over, back to us now.”
A hit start will be especially important for UCLA because Nebraska hardly presents pushover first-meet competition. Finishing the 2018 season in 6th place, and then being ranked 11th in the preseason poll for some reason, Nebraska will be looking to open the first meet of the post-Kendig era with continuity by saying, “Hi, we’re better than you think we are—again.”
Nebraska, however, also has a reputation for starting the season slowly—going sub-196 in each of its last four openers—a result that wouldn’t make a dent if repeated on Friday. Still, we know that Nebraska can be a very 196 team, so UCLA certainly won’t feel the luxury to count a fall and still win this one despite being the clear favorite.
Telling in Nebraska’s quest to challenge will be the very first rotation on bars, a question-mark event for the roster right now. With injuries to Roby and Orel, Nebraska will leo-up only three available gymnasts who have competed bars before in Houchin, Crouse, and Schweihofer, so there will be some serious pressure on multiple new routines to get through (and get through with real scores) in their debuts.
While the headline freshmen debuts will belong to Marz Frazier and Norah Flatley for UCLA, the performances from Abby Johnston and Sarah Hargrove for Nebraska will be equally significant in determining the course of their team’s season.
Like UCLA, Nebraska will be hoping to pour on the 10.0 starts on vault this year with some new 1.5s that have made cameos in training, so a major story to track will be how many of those vaults for both teams actually make it into the lineup with usable landings now that things are real. While it’s early, that will present a helpful benchmark for how competitive these teams might be on vault moving forward.
 Cal @  LSU
Friday, 7:00pm CT, SECN+
LSU enters its season opener at home in a similar position to UCLA: the clear favorite but without the luxury of having a bad meet and still winning—not against a team as strong as Cal.
For the Tigers, after finishing 4th last season and being ranked 4th in the preseason poll, they’ll be looking to block back any subtly creeping “Is LSU going to be as good this season…?” questions with a big early score.
Because we saw LSU perform in a preseason exhibition, we mostly know what to expect from these lineups. Still, particular interest will be paid to the newly arrived (and therefore still fairly mysterious) Bailey Ferrer since we didn’t see her in that exhibition. Ferrer will be an essential cog on multiple pieces, her strengths vault and floor, but perhaps most essentially in shoring up a bars lineup that doesn’t enjoy a surplus of options this year—especially if the team has to be cautious with Priessman’s Crest Whitestrip of a shoulder.
The curiosity cat will also have its back arched about a new-look beam lineup, without Hambrick and Macadaeg but with the same expectations for 9.9-itude. Can the freshly formed center of the lineup keep up with LSU’s beaming of last few seasons?
You know Cal is moving up in the world of NCAA gym with the team eschewing participation in the traditional NorCal Classic this year (which typically takes place in the land that time forgot), and instead traveling to LSU to open the season with a high-profile clash against a national title contender.
Just how “moving up in the world” Cal is this season will rest significantly on much-sought freshmen Milan Clausi and Maya Bordas. Both won their divisions at JO Nationals in 2017, so expectations are high—but so is the level of mystery as we wait to see how freshmen integrate themselves into teams on the first weekend. With vital freshmen, not to mention the uncertain status of Toni-Ann Williams who missed the elite season with an elbow injury, Cal has a number of questions to answer in this first meet.
- The season will open on Friday with Michigan‘s triennial trip to Cancun to compete against Iowa State, West Virginia, and Rutgers. This meet has gone well for the Wolverines on the last couple ventures but is also officially cursed, just to be clear. We simply don’t know who the victim of the curse will be this year. In 2016’s edition, the victim was Iowa with a 6-fall performance for 192.475. In 2013’s meet, Oregon State drew the short straw with 5 falls and a 193.600. Not since 2009 has Michigan been the unlucky one with 5 falls and a 192.700. Round and round it goes, where the Cancun curse stops, nobody knows.
- Oklahoma, probably the team most famous for its fast starts and the 197ishness of its January performances, travels to Arkansas on Saturday looking to keep that reputation alive against a Razorback team that will expect to get the majority of its routines this season from first- and second-year competitors—and will look to continue the surge that got the team into the top 10 at the end of the 2018 regular season.
- If you’re looking for the most competitive meet of the weekend, keep an eye on Missouri and Minnesota heading to Arizona State on Friday for a quad meet along with UIC. Missouri, Minnesota, and Arizona State should all be evenly matched this season, so that one could go any which way.
- Since the first week is all about how the newbies fare, Georgia‘s will be a prime performance to watch as the big bag of new on that roster will be trotted out for the first time on Saturday to face Ohio State. While the returning core will do the big jobs, Georgia is still leaning several buildings on those freshmen shoulders. How much of that potential will translate to actual lineup routines?
- Remember last season when Central Michigan went 196.375 on the first weekend and was ranked #3? CMU will start the season at home again this year by hosting Illinois, Arizona, and Bridgeport in a quad meet that should be the viewing highlight of the Sunday schedule.
Injury and roster news
- Catelyn Orel (Nebraska) had knee surgery and will miss a few months
- Bailie Key (Alabama) had surgery in December
- Nicole Webb, who disappeared from Florida’s roster, has transferred to NC State