Being ranked preseason #3 is a symbolically important step for the Oklahoma Sooners because it indicates that they have finally graduated from that best-of-the-rest status that saw them continually ranked #4 and viewed only as a spoiler to the big-name teams. They've now arrived, using another second place finish at Championships to break into the highest echelon.
Oklahoma was the most consistent team at Championships last year, the only one to avoid any scoring disasters, and probably ended up being a couple stuck vaults away from winning the title. Still, they needed a Florida beamtastrophe to be that close, so if they're hoping to do better than 2nd this year, they'll have to step up the scoring potential in key places, and that's just what this freshman class provides. While the team will certainly miss Brie Olson's significant contributions, McKenzie Wofford, Charity Jones, and Chayse Capps provide a net boost to fill in some of the areas that haven't previously measured up to the Floridas and Alabamas of the world. The Sooners have graduated from that spoiler status because this is the first year they have a team that can make a legitimate case of being a favorite that can win the title outright.
The reputation question looms over everything in this sport because it all comes down to judges' perceptions, and this reputation topic seems to surround discussions of Oklahoma's gymnastics far more than any other team. Does Oklahoma have the reputation to win? Ugh, I've decided I'm done with that tired line of reasoning. Issues of reputation are often overstated in NCAA gymnastics in how much they actually influence results, and I've been guilty of that. Oklahoma is getting 198s at home, has had years of top-three finishes and massive scores at Nationals, and enjoys huge adoration within the gymnastics community. Oh, to have such little reputation. I promise I will not use the words "reputation" and "Oklahoma" in the same sentence again this season. Call me on it if I do.
Oklahoma received some very high scores on vault at home last season, occasionally misleadingly high, that produced a few unrealistic expectations for their capabilities as a vaulting team. The Sooners were a solid 49.350, give or take some sticks, but they were not really a 49.500 team. Keeping pace with the best teams on vault was always going to be one of the bigger challenges, as it has been for several seasons.
This year, the Sooner vault rotation is receiving an influx of power that should allow them to keep building toward the status of a top vaulting team. Charity Jones and Chayse Capps both excelled on vault in JO and both seem likely to bring aggressive yfulls into the lineup this year to provide a couple more options greater than 9.850. Haley Scaman looks to lead the way in difficulty once again, and Madison Mooring will lead the way in cleanliness with her Y1/2, both of whom have shown regular 9.875s into 9.9s. Maile Kanewa was the nice surprise of last season on this event, and Keeley Kmieciak will probably round out the crew. At least, this was the intrasquad lineup, and it makes the most sense to me. Problematically, I really want Taylor Spears to factor in the AA this year, but vault is her lowest scoring event for frequent 9.800s, so it may be too tough for her to make the lineup this year.
Oklahoma will still need to stick more often than the likes of Florida or Alabama to get the necessary scores, but there should be enough new power to raise the expectations a tad. Unlike some Oklahoma teams in the past, you can't really say that this group lacks power potential. Now we just need to see those qualities like distance and height manifest in the competition vaults from 1 to 6 in the lineup every week.
The Sooners have not lacked for much on bars these last few years. They've been consistently among the best teams in the country and finished last season with an RQS nearing 49.500. Here, there's little debate as to the realism of the 49.5s. That's the quality of this team. Bars is, however, the event where Brie Olson's contribution was the most significant, so they'll have to find someone to step into that role of weekly 9.9s in order to keep pace with last year's scoring. Her name is McKenzie Wofford, and her bars will be one of the key routines for Oklahoma this season because she has the potential to be near best-in-the-country good on this event.
Taylor Spears is also beautiful here and can score at a similarly 9.9ish level. Those two would be enough to carry most rotations, but the Sooners have a whole bullpen of other options. One of the defining qualities of Oklahoma's team on bars has been the ability to take someone like Erica Brewer, whom you wouldn't necessarily ever have said, "9.950 on bars!" about, and turn her into a major scorer. Without recruiting all that many specifically bars stars, Oklahoma still has a whole team of bars workers with 9.9 track records, and returning the rest of the lineup (Brewer, Scaman, Clark, and Kmieciak) from last season would be ideal for huge scores. I'd also keep an eye on Kara Lovan here because she has the potential for quite clean work, though she may not be necessary. Oklahoma and Florida should be 1-2 on bars this year by a comfortable margin once again.
In a relatively short span of time, the Sooners have carved out an identity as the beam team, and it's completely deserved. Not only do they consistently show high-scoring, acrobatically secure work to the point that they are often the only team we can rely on for weekly 49.4s (when other teams get that score, it's "Oh wow, good job at hitting beam!" but for Oklahoma it is an expectation), but they also perform more interesting routines than any other team. It's not like they're doing anything groundbreaking. It's more the little things: an unexpected scale here, a lengthy flexibility passage there, but it makes a tremendous difference.
Oklahoma hasn't been outside the top two on beam since 2009, and there's no reason the streak should end this year. Brie Olson wasn't really a beamer, so last year's Super Six lineup seems perfectly fine to me: Kmieciak, Alexander, Clark, Brewer, Mooring, Spears. Just keep doing what you're doing, ladies, and keep getting those 9.9s. In particular, Lauren Alexander stands out here for her routine themed "Dear flexibility, I own you. Love always, Lauren." Beyond the six, while not necessarily a beam standout before, Chayse Capps does look to be one of those KJ beam inventions with a visually interesting shimmy of a routine. She should push the others for lineup spots. We didn't see Wofford here during the intrasquad, but I would think she'd be a beam asset as well. The Sooners will not lack for impressive choices and should be comfortable 49.4s again this year.
The floor story is, in many ways, similar to the vault story. Oklahoma is a good floor team that can score well and has scored well, but this has not been a team of powerful gymnasts. They have E passes, but they're often front double fulls (the "boring E" because it's less visually spectacular than the high-flying double salto skills), and overall they have not had the huge skills or impressive amplitude of their peers. They can get a few 9.900s no problem, but they haven't had many gymnasts who scream 9.950 in that Kytra Hunter, Lloimincia Hall kind of way.
Therefore, much like on vault, expect Charity Jones to get into the lineup to spice things up a bit. Last year, Haley Scaman was the powerful tumbler with her DLO, but now Jones will bring her full-in to the proceedings so that they're not showing just the one big pass at the end of the rotation. Malie Kanewa, who returned from injury to do just vault last year but will add other events in 2014, also brings a piked full-in as her mount, so suddenly Oklahoma should be boasting three large mounts at the end of this rotation. But are they clean enough? That's the question. For the other spots, there will be solid 9.850 choices in Spears, Albright, Mooring, Capps, and Brewer, so the options exist and are strong enough for fairly frequent 49.4s and a comfortable 49.3. They'll still be giving away a bit here to the very top teams by the end of the season, but it should be a competitive lineup.
For some teams, it was about making Nationals. Then, it was about making Super Six. For the top three teams, however, we must look past those milestones. Picking Oklahoma to make Super Six requires no powers of insight or observation. They should be there, and it would take an injury epidemic or a collapse for that not to happen. For this team, the conversation should revolve around whether a title is a realistic expectation this season.
I think it's a realistic call, although Oklahoma is not the outright favorite. That status goes to Florida. If Oklahoma is to beat Florida this season, a few things have to happen. The Sooners must be scoring consistently within sight of the Gators on vault and floor, just 0.050-0.075 behind. They cannot afford to give up a margin much larger than that. They also must be the best team in the country on bars and beam. Vault and floor are getting there, but bars and beam are still where they'll make their mark. Outscoring that Florida bars machine is a very tough task, but it looks necessary for Oklahoma's path to victory.