NCAA Preview: Week 8 

It is a big week for college gymnastics teams across the country. Starting March 1st, the national rankings will officially be determined by National Qualifying Score (NQS) rather than team average. This season NQS will average each team’s top four scores, two of which must be from away meets, and will determine the seeding for NCAA Regionals. This is a sign that post season is right around the corner, which means teams will be looking to post big scores from here on out to boost their NQS! 

Here are a few meets for this weekend you won’t want to miss!

No. 18 Auburn at No. 1 Florida – Friday, February 26 

Any match up with the No. 1 team in the nation is bound to be a good one. Last week Florida had to compete without their junior class due to COVID-19 protocols but accepted the challenge and rose to the occasion. The Gators posted a respectable score of 197.500 thanks to big scores from senior Alyssa Baumann (39.650 in her all-around debut) and junior Leah Clapper (first career 10 on beam). With Trinity Thomas, Nya Reed, and Savannah Schoenherr expected to be back in action, the Gators will be looking to improve upon that score to maintain their first-place national ranking. This meet will be the second time Florida and Auburn have faced off this season. Auburn is currently ranked No. 18 but is coming in hot with a season high 197.050 and a win against Georgia last weekend. The Tigers will be relying on the leadership from their upperclassman like junior Derrian Gobourne, who sits 12th in the nation on floor, and powerhouse senior Drew Watson, to lead the team to another 197+ score. 

Watch: SEC Network at 7:30 p.m. ET 

No. 7 Alabama at No. 6 Arkansas – Friday, February 26 

The most thrilling competitions are the ones that come down to the very last routine and that could very well be the case with this meet. With a 196.854 team average for the Razorbacks and a 196.842 average for the Crimson Tide, it’s safe to say the two teams are even keeled in terms of capabilities. Both teams are also coming off their season high performances with Arkansas posting a 197.350 (also their program record) to top Missouri and Alabama posting a 197.725 to take down the LSU Tigers. This meet is going to come down to who can stick the most landings. Arkansas has junior Kennedy Hambrick who is coming off a program record all-around score of 39.750 as well as a talented senior class: Sophia Carter, Sarah Shaffer, and transfer Maggie O’Hara, who are known for their textbook execution that can bring in huge scores. Meanwhile, Alabama will look to sophomore Lusia Blanco who ranks 3rd in the nation after posting career highs on every event last weekend en route to a massive 39.825 all-around score. The Tide can also rely on senior all-arounder Lexi Graber who has proven her ability to post big scores when the team needs it most. 

Watch: SECNetwork+ at 8 p.m. ET or tape delayed on ESPNU on Saturday Feb. 27 at 12:30 p.m. ET 

No. 9 Cal at No. 4 Utah – Friday, February 26

Friday evening will wind down with a Pac-12 matchup between the only two teams who remain undefeated in Pac-12 conference play: The Utes and the Golden Bears. With only four meets under their belt this season, Cal has plenty of opportunity to make a jump in the rankings, starting with a big score this weekend. The Bears are currently 4-0 on the season and if they want to keep it that way and fend off the Utes, they will need a similar performance to last weekend where they posted their season high (197.425). Cal is led by their trusty senior and all-around leader Kyana George and has an arsenal of talent including junior Maya Bordas, junior Milan Clausi, and freshman Andrea Li. However, Utah will not go down without a fight. They have never lost to Cal at home and would like to keep it that way. The Utes are led by sophomore Mailie O’Keefe who sits 9th in the all-around rankings and 3rd in the nation on beam after posting a perfect 10 earlier in the season. The Utes also have a lot of confidence in senior Sydney Soloski who has an average of 9.9 on floor this season and knows how to seal the deal as the anchor on that event. 

Watch: Pac 12 Network at 9 p.m. ET

Big Five – Friday, February 26

Saturday will bring an exciting matchup between Big 10 foes, divided into two sessions, where all ten teams will be vying for a spot in the evening session of the Big 10 Championships. The top three finishers from each session will land themselves in the evening session, whereas the bottom two will go to the afternoon session. The states are high as only one team has ever won the Big 10 title from the afternoon session. (It was Michigan back in 2014!) 

Session 1 – No. 8 Minnesota, No. 19 Illinois, No. 21 Ohio State, No. 38 Nebraska @ No. 26 Maryland

Fresh off a near program record performance (197.625) last weekend, Minnesota is the favorite to win this session. The Gophers are led by senior Lexy Ramler, who sits 4th in the nation in the all-around, vault, and bar rankings, and Ona Loper, whose 10 on vault just two weeks ago helped her climb to No. 1 in the vault rankings. Coming off a season high 196.650, Illinois will certainly keep things interesting. The Illini have improved their team score each week of competition and could jump to the top if Minnesota falters. With their standout sophomore Arayah Simons now out for the season with an Achilles tear, the Illini will be relying on their senior veteran Nicole Biondi, who is steady on all four events. They will also look to their remaining sophomores such as Mia Townes and Mia Takekawa to bring in the big scores.  Perhaps the biggest battle will be for that number three spot. Ohio State seems like the likely candidate, but Maryland is not too far behind. Nebraska has found themselves lower in the rankings this season than they typically would be, but usually finds a way to pull out their best performances in the later half of the season. This could be a nail bitter! 

Watch: BTN+ 5 p.m. ET

Big Five – Saturday, February 28

Session 2 – No. 12 Iowa, No. 30 Penn State, No. 31 Michigan State, No. 43 Rutgers @ No. 5 Michigan 

Michigan has been on a role this season and will look to remain undefeated in the Big 10 conference. The Wolverines are led by junior Natalie Wojcik, who is number one in the nation on beam and spent four consecutive weeks ranked as the number one all-around gymnast in the country. However, Iowa will be hot on Michigan’s heals. They are currently ranked 12th in the nation as a team and first on floor. They have a plethora of talent on their team who can bring in big scores such as senior Clair Kaji and sophomore Jerquavia Henderson. Just as with session 1, the battle for the third spot and a place in the evening session of Big 10’s will be the biggest battle here. Penn State and Michigan State are both teams on the rise who can get the job done. The teams sit back-to-back in the national rankings, however, either team could come out ahead on any given day. The Nittany Lions have gone as high as 196 this season whereas the Spartans have reached 195.775. However, the Spartans are coming off a two-week break, so how that will affect their performance remains to be seen. The Spartans will be relying on their senior leader Lea Mitchell to lead the way and standout freshman Baleigh Garcia, who has claimed all-around wins in MSU’s only two meets of the season. 

Watch: BTN+ 2 p.m. ET Big 5 meet at Michigan: Schedule – Big Ten Network+ 

Note: MSU has withdrawn from the meet due to Covid protocols

Photo credits Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics and University of Utah

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