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Utah-Oklahoma is the early season matchup everyone wants. What does it mean for the Red Rocks?

The No. 4-ranked Red Rocks host the No. 3-ranked Sooners Friday night in Salt Lake City in a battle between national title contenders

The University of Utah’s Cammy Hall reacts after competing on the vault against Brigham Young University, Utah State University and Southern Utah University in the Rio Tinto Best of Utah NCAA gymnastics meet.
The University of Utah’s Cammy Hall reacts after competing on the vault against Brigham Young University, Utah State University and Southern Utah University in the Rio Tinto Best of Utah NCAA gymnastics meet at the Maverik Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. Utah won. 
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Nearly a year ago, Utah’s gymnastics team took to the floor inside Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma, with a singular goal in mind: defeat the powerhouse Sooners.

Last January, Oklahoma was the defending national champion and the measuring stick for all NCAA gymnastics programs. Winning at least a share of the national title four times in six seasons will do that.

Utah had a chance to put the college gymnastics world on notice on that Sunday afternoon in central Oklahoma, but the Red Rocks weren’t up to the task and lost handily.

Afterward, Utah head coach Tom Farden didn’t mince words.

“I don’t think they were aggressive or determined enough as a group,” he said. “Individuals were and we had some brilliant individual performances, but I don’t feel that they collectively came together as a team and came to play. I know when this team is coming to play and they did not. We are disappointed. We saw where we stack up and we have work to do.”

When Utah and Oklahoma face off Friday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, in the second of four currently scheduled regular season meetings between the programs, things will be different.

That work Farden talked about? The Red Rocks did not shy away from it, and at the end of last season, Utah finished No. 3 in the country, less than two tenths of a point behind Oklahoma at the national championships (Michigan won the title with 198.2500, while Oklahoma finished second with a 198.1625 and Utah finished third with a 197.9875).

Ranked No. 3 after Week 1 this season, Oklahoma is still one of the nation’s best teams, but now so is Utah, thanks to the return of all but one gymnast from 2021, as well as the addition of four impact freshmen (Utah actually received more first place votes than Oklahoma in the preseason WCGA poll).

One year later, and the early season showdown between the Sooners and Utes feels different, and so does Utah’s program.

In previous years, the Red Rocks weren’t shy about vocalizing their desire to win a national title. They wanted to win one and badly. They wanted to bring a title back to Salt Lake City after a quarter century title drought.

That desire still exists — “My ultimate goal when I got here was to help Utah get back to the top. That hasn’t changed,” Farden said — but it has shifted from a wish to something more concrete.

Utah has a team capable of winning a national title — “We need to make it to the Final Four first, but once we do that this is a team that will fight until the very end, until that very last routine,” senior Sydney Soloski said — and that wasn’t always the case before.

“In years past, we were more vocal about it (winning the national title) with the athletes,” Farden said. “But this year, I really feel like if they reach their potential and hit 24 routines under the brightest lights, let’s just see where it takes us. We were two tenths (of a point) away from (winning) a national title last year. Was I disappointed? No. How could you be?”

Ever the realist, Farden knows there are many aspects about gymnastics that are out of his control. Recent seasons have only magnified that, be it judging, injuries or pandemics.

But for the first time in years, Utah’s best appears to be as good as anyone else’s.

“That is why I am so insistent on that we are going to do the best that we can, give it our best shot,” Farden said. “And if that means (we win a national championship), then great.”

A year ago, when Utah faced off against Oklahoma, the Red Rocks had a defiant hope that they could compete with the Sooners. Now, a year later, they know they can. What a difference a year makes.