UCLA @  Utah
Friday, February 19 – 7:00pm MT – ESPNU
It’s…a different year for this UCLA/Utah rivalry. But it’s still UCLA/Utah. Typically, this meet is about parsing minor advantages and little ifs and buts and preparing for a judging apocalypse (it was just a year ago that Utah went 49.775 on beam and UCLA 49.800 on floor in the final rotation of a 198-a-thon). This year, however, Utah enters as a more convincing favorite than we’ve had in this dual-meet series in quite a few seasons.
Thus far, UCLA has peaked at 196.750, while Utah has scored over 197 in its last three meets and has dipped below that 196.750 mark only once in five competitions. Utah is ranked higher on all four events and, in both roster depth and preparation, has a major edge on UCLA this year. Now, expect to see a better UCLA team in this meet than what we saw during the annual “exploring depth” adventure at Washington last weekend. The Bruins were resting some important routines at that meet and should bring them back against Utah to have more complete lineups, including the full complement of potential 9.9+s at the back half of a floor rotation that can keep pace with, or beat, Utah there. Despite last week’s 195, UCLA will be aiming to hit the 197s this week.
Utah’s scoring aims will be noticeably higher, with the team’s primary advantages coming on vault and beam. UCLA relies on Yfulls from Campbell and Dennis for its top vault scores (and won’t have Wright’s 1.5 again this week), while Utah has four Y1.5s to end the lineup and therefore starts from a much higher place when the landings are on. Beam is Utah’s go-to event these days, compared to a UCLA team that has looked tight and tentative so far and has fewer natural, comfortable beamers than we have come to expect from UCLA beam lineups of yore. UCLA has been working beam lately like they’re at their first middle school dance, and if we see one improvement for the Bruins against Utah, it needs to be that.
If Utah opens up the expected lead because of vault and beam, there won’t be a lot UCLA can do. Beyond winning, Utah will be aiming to improve bars in its quest to get close to those 198s that the popular-girls table has started scoring. Bars is the event that has looked a little medium lately, particularly in the handstand and sticking departments. I mean, there’s only so much a Farden fist pump can do if you cut off your casts and lunge on landing.
 LSU @  Alabama
Friday, February 19 – 7:30pm CT – SEC+
So, this meet is weirdly only on streaming since it’s going to be broadcast on ESPN2 on Sunday, which does us absolutely no good at all because can you imagine waiting until Sunday? Every time we think gymnastics might be making some strides, reality is like, “This is a sport that should be watched two days later.”
But anyway, it’s the best of the SEC meets this week, even though a fairly sizable gap has now developed between the two teams (similar to Utah and UCLA) with LSU going 198 last week and Alabama recording a season high on the same day—but of 197.000. I’d say it will be interesting to see how the teams rate this time around, outside of last week’s drug-addled confines, but who’s to say we’re outside of them?
The most significant accomplishment in LSU’s performance last week was a reinvigorated vault lineup that looked quite a bit more competitive than the average lineup we had seen previously, what with Edwards back and Johnson performing at full strength. That’s starting to look like a squad with the potential to be dominant, especially if Bryant starts sticking. With vault looking better, attention then turns to floor, the event Johnson hasn’t come back to save yet and the weak rotation from last meet. Numbers have been high for LSU on floor lately, but real talk, there are some classic “I got 9.925 all season and then I showed up to nationals and got 9.825” routines in that lineup until Bryant and (hopefully) Johnson at the end. So don’t sleep on that event.
Though I’m more interested in Alabama’s floor lineup this week than LSU’s because…what is going on with your leg events right now? Shania Adams had an off meet last week and fell on vault and floor, Makarri Doggette (who needs to be there) made her season debut on floor last week but it didn’t go great, and Shallon Olsen didn’t do floor last week and got only 9.750 for her DTY. Those are athletes who kind of need to be getting big scores for Alabama to be anywhere close to a team like LSU. Although, I am still in favor of the Shallon Leadoff Project because she just flat-out hasn’t gotten big scores even in late positions throughout her time at Alabama, so sacrificing her score in the first spot and hoping she gets a little form forgiveness for her difficulty that can then bump someone else up seems strategically sound.
Melissa, Pick Up Your Face – While most teams have five meets left, the SEC’s built-in week off right before conference championships gives those schools just four meets remaining. That means after this weekend, at least one of the already-recorded scores will have to count for NQS. Missouri doesn’t yet have a particularly strong score (peak of 196.175, no away scores over 194.800), so there’s some actual pressure on Friday’s visit to Arkansas to be a strong result.
There’s also starting to be some real score anxiety for teams like Nebraska and Oregon State who basically don’t have any usable numbers yet, though they have five meets remaining so there’s a sliver more breathing room. Still, both teams are in legitimate danger of not making regionals this season if they don’t pick up the scores soon. If you’re a fan of watching live scores come in with your fingers over your eyes…
Actually, Iowa’s result in Saturday night’s meet against Nebraska is worth watching as well because despite Iowa’s #7 ranking, Iowa and UCLA are the only two teams in the top 15 that haven’t gone 197 yet. Iowa’s high ranking is built on consistent competence, the kind of thing that NQS rewards exactly zero. Without a couple program-recordy 197s of its own, Iowa will see its ranking drop once NQS takes over and the typical 197ies are allowed to pretend their early bad ones never happened.
Just Shannon – It’s a packed Friday this week (the top 6 all in action), starting a little earlier than usual with a 6:00 ET quad meet at NC State featuring Oklahoma, George Washington, and William & Mary, and I mostly enjoy that ESPN lists this meet as just “Oklahoma.” I mean…
Is The Horse Smart? – Is Georgia good? Last weekend’s big 197 against Alabama—a meet that we’ve really slept on for judging because of what came after—nonetheless displayed multiple improvements and less horrifying lineups. Doing that again on the road against Auburn will be a more taxing ask, but was it too soon to give up on Georgia as a top-4 SEC team this season?