The Top NCAA Meets in 2016

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NCAA gymnastics can be a daunting animal, with sometimes as many as 40 meets in a single weekend. Even though we try to get our lives together with our handy dandy master schedule, fans still get overwhelmed by the sheer number of options.

This year, we’ve broken down the season with some of the most anticipated meets between conference rivals and other top ten program draws that are sure to draw major attention in 2016.

Oklahoma at LSU

Last year’s #1 ranked Oklahoma will be opening their season with a huge meet against LSU in Baton Rouge. Despite their high regard, both teams did not perform to standard at last year’s NCAA Championships. It shows just how good Oklahoma is that third place overall was a disappointment for a team that will be returning Haley Scaman, Chayse Capps, and McKenzie Wofford, all known for their exquisite gymnastics. As the top-ranked team in the preseason coaches’ poll with 29 of the votes, the Sooners have the capability of winning it all in 2016 and opening their season against a team as good as LSU will be a great benchmark as they begin.

LSU will be desperate to win after such a shocking drop of the ball last year – one of the dead certs to compete for last season’s NCAA title, the Tigers didn’t even make the Super Six following three falls on balance beam during prelims. Competing at home, LSU will want to shake off that disappointing end to the 2015 season and an opening win against the 2014 national champions would do a lot for the morale of the program.

Despite losing Rheagan Courville, Lloimincia Hall, and Jessie Jordan to gradation, LSU gains elite standouts Lexie Priessman and Sarah Finnegan, although it remains to be seen whether either will be healthy enough to contribute at the highest level straight away for the Tigers.

With both teams in the hunt to improve on their 2015 nationals performance, it will be interesting to see which team can kick off this year with a win, and how the losing team will allow this to affect the rest of their season. An opening night loss for Oklahoma – who went completely unbeaten in the 2015 regular season – would be extremely disconcerting, while an opening night loss at home for LSU would create a morale slump that they need to avoid.

Prediction: Oklahoma wins

Watch Saturday January 9 at 9 pm EST on the SEC Network+

Alabama at Florida

The 2015 SEC champions Alabama will take on the 2015 NCAA champions Florida in what will undoubtedly be a hot match-up in week four of the regular season. Following Florida’s surprising coaching change – Jenny Rowlands, formerly an assistant at Auburn, now heads the program after Rhonda Faehn’s departure – the team’s cohesion should be more visible by the end of the month.

In what is senior Bridget Sloan’s final season for the Gators, the team will be relying on her leadership to retain the program’s reputation that was so well-carved by Faehn. In addition to losing the coach that led them to three national titles in a row, the team is also without two-time Honda Award winner Kytra Hunter as well as consistent mainstays Rachel Spicer and Kiersten Wang. While Sloan is an incredibly impressive gymnast on an incredibly impressive team, it will be interesting to see how much the program is affected by these changes.

Alabama will arrive in Gainesville as the underdog despite being reigning SEC champions – such is the story of this stacked conference. They are fiercely competitive and could snag it from the Gators, but they are going through some changes of their own after losing stars Kaitlyn Clark, Lora Leigh Frost, and Kayla Williams in 2015. With just two seniors on a team where one-third of its members are freshmen, they too are in an adjustment period which could make them especially vulnerable on the road.

Prediction: Florida wins

Watch Friday January 29 at 7 pm EST on the SEC Network

Utah at UCLA

The Pac 12 conference’s two highest-ranked opponents will be meeting in week five of the regular season. Utah has won this annual dual two years in a row and will be looking to make it a third. For three years now, the visiting team has been catastrophic on bars at this meet: Utah totaled 48.075 in 2013 while UCLA managed 48.625 in 2014 and 48.1 in 2015. With Utah on the road, it’ll be up to them to break the curse, and if both teams make it through unscathed, this should be an awesome head-to-head conference match-up.

Both teams will be making adjustments in 2016 following legendary Utah coach Greg Marsden’s retirement and UCLA’s disappointing 12th place finish at last year’s NCAA Championships. Both teams have lost huge senior contributors – Utah’s Georgia Dabritz and UCLA’s Samantha Peszek – and the Pac 12 teams are looking to cement their legacies in a sport increasingly dominated by the SEC.

UCLA brings in freshman Katelyn Ohashi, one of only two gymnasts to ever beat Simone Biles in the all-around in Biles’ senior career (the other is Kyla Ross, who also joins the Bruins next year). If Ohashi is back to full health, she will be money for the Bruins, but injuries have historically loomed over Valorie Kondos-Field’s program with several of their top elite recruits facing early retirement in recent years. So far Ohashi seems to be looking great, and she showed some excellent level 10 routines in 2015. Fingers crossed.

If the freshmen – and for UCLA, the entire team – can deal with the pressure here, we may finally get the solid SEC-style head-to-head that the Pac 12 deserves.

Prediction: Utah wins

Watch Saturday February 6 at 4 pm EST on the Pac 12 Network

LSU at Florida

Some may say Florida vs LSU is the new Alabama vs Georgia as these programs consistently battle it out in the top three. When these two get together, it’s never without drama – last year, fans may remember Claire Boyce allegedly screeching in an effort to make Rheagan Courville fall off beam, with Courville later calling out the Gator gymnast on Twitter, and fans of the two teams engaging in screaming battles at nationals.

The Tigers still retain some great contributors despite graduation – Ashley Gnat will be back along with Randii Wyrick and Jessica Savona – and this meet will certainly prepare their superstar freshmen class for postseason. And at this point in the season, the Gators should have the kinks worked out even with the coaching change.

LSU captured the dual meet battle in 2015, but this won’t be quite as easy on Gator turf in Gainesville. If Florida can win both this meet and their match-up against Bama, all doubts and concerns about Rowlands’ lack of head coaching experience will be quelled, setting the Gators up for an SEC win and a possible fourth NCAA title in as many years. But if LSU beats Florida, it would be a huge vindication after missing last year’s Super Six.

Prediction: Florida wins

Watch Friday February 26 at 7 pm EST on the SEC Network

Georgia at Alabama

February 26th will spoil us with SEC gymnastics as the four biggest teams in the conference all come out to play in an SEC Network double-header. A rivalry hot enough for a documentary, Georgia and Alabama will meet in Tuscaloosa this time around for their annual showdown.

In the 33 years of NCAA gymnastics, these two teams have won a combined 16 championship titles. The Gym Dogs have more wins against Bama overall, but the last six years have belonged to Bama, with the Crimson Tide winning 13 of 14 match-ups against their foes. However, the beauty of this meet is that despite statistics, it’s always anyone’s game.

Last season, Georgia raised a lot of questions in the opening weeks of the regular season before beating Utah in their final home meet and winning the NCAA regional at Cal. They have a rockstar senior class, including Brandie Jay, one of the most consistent competitors in recent program history who is also known for her leadership qualities, in addition to fellow standouts Mary Beth Box and Brittany Rogers, who just returned from world championships in Glasgow, where she helped Canada qualify a full team to next year’s Olympic Games.

Bama, meanwhile, lost an incredible senior squad in 2015, and now has a team where two-thirds of its members are underclassmen. They had a few questionable losses last season with the most notable being against Arkansas, as well as to Oklahoma at home on senior night. Legacies don’t disappear overnight, however, and the Crimson Tide should prove here that they are a top 5 program for a reason.

Prediction: Alabama wins

Watch Friday February 26 at 8:30 pm EST on the SEC Network

Utah at Cal

Of the teams that traveled to Berkeley last year for the 2015 NCAA regional, the dead cert to qualify to championships was Utah, with Georgia most likely to take the second spot. What happened in the end was shocking – a strong Utah team struggled to a mere 48.625 on beam following two falls as well as counting a 9.6 on bars. Georgia won the meet, with the final spot coming between Utah and Cal.

The ten-time NCAA champion Utes faced a Cal program that has never once made it to nationals and almost shut down due to lack of funding in 2010. Utah won out in the end, making it to Fort Worth and placing second in the Super Six final, though it was never anticipated that Cal would come so close to stopping them.

In a rematch of the 2015 regional back in Berkeley, Cal will be looking to prove that their up-and-coming program – complete with 2014 Pac 12 Freshman of the Year and 2015 World Championships competitor Toni-Ann Williams – has gotten even better and is capable of threatening the biggest name in the conference. At a time where parity is greater than ever, mistakes from Utah might just mean that Cal could take this one.

Prediction: Utah wins

Watch Saturday February 27 at 6 pm EST on the Pac 12 Network

Oklahoma at UCLA

UCLA’s senior night meets are always emotional. Last year, the team said goodbye to program legend Samantha Peszek, and this year will be no different, as the Bruins bid farewell to a standout class featuring Sophina DeJesus, Danusia Francis, and Sadiqua Bynum, the latter two of whom have been especially reliable performers in a program that has seen some shakiness in recent years.

This year, their final home meet of the season will be against Oklahoma, who bring an incredible senior class of their own with Haley Scaman, Keeley Kmieciak, and Maile’ana Kanewa, all reliable performers loved by their fans. If UCLA can hold it together on an emotional evening, Oklahoma will be a great benchmark for the Bruins going into postseason. But Oklahoma is brilliant competing away from home – they consistently have the highest road score average each season – and this will arguably be UCLA’s biggest test in what will be a much more difficult regular season for them compared to recent years.

If both teams bring it, coupled with saying goodbye to a large handful of well-loved gymnasts, this will be an emotional meet for sure.

Prediction: Oklahoma wins

Watch Sunday March 13 at 5 pm EST on the Pac 12 Network

By Emma Taylor

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