Who are the national title contenders?

Oklahoma's Jordan Bowers competes on the floor exercise during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024 in Las Vegas.
Oklahoma's Jordan Bowers competes on the floor exercise during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024 in Las Vegas. | Stew Milne

The stage is set.

No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Cal, No. 4 Florida, No. 5 Utah, No. 8 Alabama, No. 12 Arkansas and No. 19 Stanford are the eight teams that will compete at the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, this year. Four of those teams will ultimately earn the right to compete for the national title, the 42nd in NCAA history.

To even make it to nationals (as the final stage of the gymnastics championships are called) is a major accomplishment. The road to Fort Worth is long — three and a half months — and the final stage of the postseason is now more exclusive than ever.

Regionals this year alone saw multiple notable programs upset earlier than expected. Teams such as No. 6 Denver, No. 7 Kentucky, No. 11 Michigan, No. 14 Auburn and No. 16 NC State all went home earlier than anticipated, with the Wolverines becoming the first seeded regionals host to fail to make it to nationals ever in the history of the sport.

And where 12 teams used to make it to nationals — fans will remember the alliteration of Super Six — in the current format only eight teams advance.

“Just making it to nationals is such a huge feat,” Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf said. “It is a real privilege just to be there. ... Everybody at nationals is exceptional.”

Levels of exceptional vary, though.

No. 1 Oklahoma is searching for its third straight championship and seventh title in the last decade, while Stanford qualified for nationals for the first time since 2016 and Arkansas for the first time since 2018.

Neither the Cardinal nor the Gymbacks have ever competed in the new championship format (eight teams whittled down to four).

So while any team can win — all it takes is one bad day from one of the elite teams — all the squads competing at nationals aren’t exactly equal.

Here are the surefire title contenders, the fringe contenders and the long shots at this year’s national championships.

One of these teams should win the title

Aleah Finnegan
LSU junior Aleah Finnegan performs a balance beam routine during an NCAA gymnastics meet against Ohio State on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, in Baton Rouge, La. | Matthew Hinton

No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Cal.

Of the eight teams competing at nationals this year, those three are in a tier among themselves. A tier for the favorites. A tier for those teams that have proven all season long that they can win a natty.

Since the outset of the 2024 season, the Sooners, Tigers and Golden Bears have separated themselves from the rest of the competition virtually every week.

All three teams rank in the top two in the country on at least one event — Oklahoma on all four (No. 1 on balance beam, uneven bars and vault and No. 2 on floor exercise), LSU on two (No. 1 on floor and No. 2 on vault) and Cal on two (No. 2 on bars and beam).

Each team scored a 198 or better at least four times this season — Oklahoma 12 times, LSU five times and Cal four times — and each broke the 198 barrier at regionals, with the Sooners doing it twice.

Oklahoma, LSU and Cal also boast the three best all-around gymnasts in the country this season in Jordan Bowers, Haleigh Bryant and eMjae Frazier, respectively.

All three teams had at least four All-Americans this season, led by the Sooners with six (Bowers, Ragan Smith, Audrey Davis and Katherine LeVasseur, Faith Torrez and Hannah Scheible); the Tigers with five (Bryant, Kiya Johnson, Aleah Finnegan, KJ Johnson and Konnor McClain); and the Bears with four (Frazier, Mya Lauzon, Gabby Perea and Maddie Williams).

Of the three, Oklahoma should be considered the favorite. What the Sooners have done this season is frankly unprecedented. That includes an NCAA record team score of 198.950, and the Sooners have an NQS of 198.500, better than just the season-high score of all but two teams this year.

If Oklahoma does what it has done all year, the Sooners will run away with the national title.

If the Sooners have a rare off performance, LSU and Cal are equipped to capitalize more than any other teams at least. All eyes will understandably be on the Sooners, though. Another title and Oklahoma’s run of six titles in eight years has an argument to be included in the same breath as Utah’s success during the 1980s and Georgia’s dominance in the mid to late 2000s.

One of these teams could win the title

Leanne Wong
Florida's Leanne Wong competes on the beam during an NCAA gymnastics meet against Georgia on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla. | Gary McCullough

Though neither of these teams will be the favorite to come away from Texas as national champions, No. 4 Florida and No. 5 Utah have displayed — at times — the ability to compete with the best of them this season.

Both teams rank in the top 10 nationally on every event, with Florida standing as a top 3 team on beam and vault, while Utah is a top 4 team on floor and a top 5 team on beam.

The Red Rocks rate in the top 7 on every event, putting them in a group with only Oklahoma, LSU and Cal.

Both Florida and Utah broke the 198 barrier multiple times this season, and are two of only six teams in the entire country to score a 198.300 or better.

The other four teams? OU, LSU, Cal and UCLA.

Florida started the season slowly, with a young, inexperienced team, but has steadily improved as the season has grown old. Entering nationals, the Gators have scored a 197.9 or better in six of their last eight meets.

The Red Rocks, by way of comparison, lived in the 197.6 to 197.7 range for a large chunk of the season, but have scored a 197.8 or better in five of their last seven competitions.

Both teams have had poor performances lately, too — Florida at the SEC championships (the Gators finished a disappointing fourth, well behind LSU, Alabama and Kentucky) and Utah in the Gainesville regional final (the Red Rocks had their worst bars performance in seven years and had to pull off a furious rally to keep the program’s record run of trips to nationals alive).

Florida and Utah also boast two of the more talented rosters in the country, with five All-Americans between them in Grace McCallum (UU), Maile O’Keefe (UU), Abby Paulson (UU), Anya Pilgrim (UF) and Leanne Wong (UF), to say nothing of gymnasts like Sloane Blakely (UF), Ellie Lazzari (UF), Amelie Morgan (UU) and Jaedyn Rucker (UU).

The Gators and Utes compete in the same national semifinal as Oklahoma, Thursday evening at Dickies Arena, which means only one team is likely to advance to the national championship meet.

Whichever team gets there has the potential to pull off an upset or two. Utah as done it multiple times in recent seasons, finishing third overall after coming into nationals ranked lower than that, and the Gators have already beaten Alabama, Kentucky, LSU and Utah this year, proving themselves more than capable of taking down some of the best in the sport.

It’d be a story for the ages

Shania Adams
Alabama gymnast Shania Adams during an NCAA gymnastics meet against Missouri on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. | Vasha Hunt

Alabama, Arkansas and Stanford couldn’t be more different, while also being quite similar.

The Crimson Tide are one of the traditional powers in the sport, and based on their No. 8 ranking, were expected to find a way to nationals.

Alabama was a top three or four SEC team throughout the season, is a top four team on an event (bars) and a top 6 team on another (beam).

Throw in repeated excellent recruiting classes, including a top 5 class in 2023 (this year’s freshmen) and Alabama realistically was expected to be better this season than it has been.

Still, a return to nationals after a year’s hiatus is notable.

Then there’s Arkansas. The Gymbacks hadn’t been to nationals since 2018, back when the Super Six was still in existence. And though excitement has been palpable throughout the Jordyn Wieber era, it wasn’t until this season that Arkansas was able to really put things together and even then it took an upset of Kentucky in the Fayetteville regional final for the Gymbacks to secure a berth that nationals.

Not to be forgotten is Stanford. The Cardinal have had some of the best recruiting classes in the country of late, including the No. 2 class in 2023, but the regular season was less than excellent, an afterthought almost.

The Cardinal have turned things on in the postseason, though — even more so than during a remarkable and unexpected run in 2022 — upsetting No. 6 Denver, No. 14 Auburn and No. 22 Arizona State along the way to nationals.

Are any of these three teams be expected to win the championship? Absolutely not. It would be a surprise if any of them advance to the national championship meet itself, with LSU and Cal standing in the way of Arkansas and Stanford, and Oklahoma, Florida and Utah standing in the way of Alabama.

A championship for any of the three would qualify as one of, if not the most remarkable in the history of the sport.

There is reason to hope, though, hope that one of the trio can at least pull of a surprising upset.

Alabama has proven capable of scoring a 198 and finished second at the SEC championships behind only LSU. Moreover, Alabama beat Florida at the SEC championships.

As for Arkansas, the Gymbacks have turned things on in the postseason, scoring a 197.825 in their regional final to upset Kentucky. It was at home and won’t be easily replicated, but Arkansas has shown the ability to break a 198 this season.

And then with Stanford, well, the Cardinal have scored a 197.5 or better in three of their last four meets, competing at a level well beyond that of the No. 19 team in the country. Stanford also has a near 198 this season, a 197.975 in a loss to Cal.

No one will expect anything from Crimson Tide, Gymbacks or Cardinal, setting the stage for notable upsets. If one of the team’s can pull one off, it won’t be soon forgotten.