Session 1 – Saturday January 4, 1:00pm PT
#7 Denver, #13 Auburn, #21 Arizona State, #25 Penn State
Session 2 – Saturday January 4, 6:30pm PT
#1 Oklahoma, #4 UCLA, #9 Cal, #22 Stanford
The first week of the season is not aggressively packed with teams this time around (9 of the top 25—and most of the lower-ranked teams—are taking a pass until next weekend), but a bunch of important schools have RSVPed yes to the destination wedding that is the Katelyn Ohashi Went Viral At This Meet Last Year Challenge.
So many teams, in fact, that the meet is now split into two sessions like it’s some conference championship. I’ll be there live blogging—in person, like a public person—so I’ll be sure to tell you how weird everyone is being. Although with my favorite TV show What’s Miss Val Doing Now? having been cancelled, I’m not optimistic.
The evening session features two national title contenders in Oklahoma and UCLA—though a combination of Oklahoma’s default #1 status and reputation for quick starts means Oklahoma will be considered the semi-comfortable favorite heading in. It would be quite a start to the Waller Era should UCLA score the upset victory here, and I would consider it an upset. UCLA has turned around its reputation for slow starts in recent years, but that would still be a statement result.
But of course, it’s the first meet, so this is all basically symbolic. These meets are more about prognosticating what might happen in a couple months.
In that regard for Oklahoma, eyes will be on the collegiate debut of Ragan Smith. Training videos have incubated some optimism that her story could be on the better side of the Texas Dreams College Career spectrum, but we don’t really know anything yet. UCLA, meanwhile, is less reliant on a freshman than Oklahoma, so my UCLA gymnast to watch for this meet is Marz Frazier. It’s easy to forget that Frazier ended up competing just one event at nationals last year (I usually do), but UCLA is going to need more than supporting contribution from her this season. She has to be a scoring leader and is the best nominee to make up for Ohashi’s lost floor score.
Joining UCLA and Oklahoma in the evening session are Cal and Stanford. Cal is eyeing Nevaeh DeSouza as a potential all-around force in the new season, though just as important will be how sophomores like Grace Quinn and Abi Solari are able to increase their contributions and deliver scores this year. It’s almost like having a couple extra freshmen, and improvement in 2020 will have to run through them as well. For Stanford, depth is always the watchword, and while there’s potential to have a bit fuller lineups this season with more options to choose from, we need to see who’s actually healthy and whether that depth promise can be fulfilled. Basically what I’m saying is that Stanford’s gymnast to watch is Walking Boot. Also Chloe Widner.
Other than being like, “Y’all, how did we get stuck in the first session, like some first-session team?” Denver will look to continue proving it’s the third-best team here—while also laying to rest some early-season depth questions of its own. Maddie Karr missed the intrasquad with injury while Amoree Lockhart was a late joiner to the team, so there are some amorphous dust clouds around the perimeter of these lineups for what is a small roster to begin with. Penn State is sort of in a similar position in that first session, bringing a smaller roster with several athletes who have previously been just 2- and 3-eventers. Of particular note, we need to see that six whole vaults exist, which will be critical for Penn State’s competitiveness this year.
That’s the most entertaining part of first-week meets, playing the lineup game and seeing how real life compares with preseason “I think there might only be 3.25 bars routines” expectations. Arizona State has much to do in that regard since most of the routines from last season are gone. Who exists to fill those roles, how many of the freshmen have real-life routines, and can those scores maintain the program’s upward trajectory? That’s why Arizona State may be the most compelling team at this meet. At least the team with the most to prove.
Auburn returns enough routines that there should be less “how are we filling out lineups?” concern, but I do see an Auburn squad with some different strengths in 2020 compared to 2019, bringing in some big potential floor routines but also facing quite a bit of turnover in what was an excellent bars lineup last year. I’m eager to see whether those Brusch and Stevens floor routines come through, but also whether the gymnastics exists to patch up the Abby Milliet void.
Friday, January 3th, 7:00pm ET
 Georgia,  Oregon State, Iowa, Bridgeport
Critique Classic, which is also my right eyebrow’s name, is a new college meet in Florida, where apparently they haven’t invented live streaming yet. Which is very cool. Oregon State finished better than Georgia last season, including outscoring UGA in the national semifinal, so there will be some “hey now” feelings about Georgia receiving the better preseason ranking, with OSU looking to use this meet to prove that ranking was a reputation-based decision.
But really, bars. This meet is a bars story. Bars bars bars. Bars is the epicenter of preseason concern for Georgia with the fewest sure-thing routines returning. The specter of that potential Sabrina Vega bars routine (and how it might score) will make that rotation a must-follow. Oregon State is also down a couple key bars sets from last season and must bake some new ones on what was its lowest-ranked event in 2019, making it an equally critical piece.
The bars story extends to Iowa as well. Iowa should have some good events this season—floor is particularly encouraging—and brings in two exciting freshmen in Ari Agrapides and Jerquavia Henderson, but that bars lineup is drastically depleted from last season with just a small handful of people returning who have ever competed bars before. Throw Bridgeport in there too because bars was the team’s best event last season, but the roster returns—yep—just two people who competed bars last season and therefore needs a total lineup reconstruction of its own. This is the Who Best Put the Bars Back Together Classic.
Ah, So, Um, Everyone Left Classic
Friday, January 3th, 6:00pm MT
 Kentucky @  Utah
I love that Kentucky and Utah are going head-to-head on the first weekend since the two teams are living very similar lives, both coming into this season trying to prove that the massive routine loss from last season’s roster won’t be a thing, at least not a thing of the devastating variety. While Kentucky lost 13 of 24 final-lineup routines from last season, Utah was like, “That’s cute” and went and lost 14 of 24 final-lineup routines including 5 of 6 with NQSs of 9.9 or more.
This will be a fascinating test of how effectively these teams are able to reinvent themselves because we’re going to see so many gymnasts on both sides who have never gone before. And that can always get a little hairy.
- LSU hosts Arizona to open its season, a meet in which the result shouldn’t really be in doubt—but we will get our first true look at how LSU is fairing in its own reinvention project. What is the current state of the vault lineup a month on from when the team showed just five at the 101? How is Operation Shchennikova/Operation Bars Depth progressing?
- If you’re not FLOing and can’t watch the first session of the Collegiate Challenge, your consolation prize will be the Illinois/Missouri meet, with the NCAA debut of Helen Hu, as well as a crap-ton of Illinois freshmen who will need to do a lot of work filling up the vault lineup this season. Eyes on that piece.
- Your Monday bonus meet will see Nebraska head to BYU, a competition that based on recent precedent and BYU hosting should be closer than history or reputation suggests. The NCAA debut of Clara Colombo should help put a star next to this meet in your calendar.