SALT LAKE CITY — It is a question that we will never have an answer to. COVID-19 saw to that. And yet, you have to wonder, would Utah’s gymnastics team have won the national championship this year?

The question is particularly apropos now, given the 2020 NCAA college women’s gymnastics championship was scheduled to take place this weekend, from April 17-18 in Fort Worth, Texas. If this year were a normal year, the best collegiate gymnasts in the country would be gathered in Dickies Arena, duking it out for the title, the Red Rocks among them.

That is obviously not happening. And in the world of COVID-19, when sporting events everywhere are canceled or in a perpetual state of postponement, there are really only three things to do: look ahead to the future, gaze back into the past or immerse oneself in present-day hypotheticals. 

“They never gave up in a meet. When they started to get behind, they were like, ‘OK, we need to step it up.’ They would pull out the wins.” — Student-coach Macey Roberts

This is your 2020 NCAA college women’s gymnastics championship hypothetical, strictly with an eye on the Utes. More than just a hypothetical, though, it is an examination of the arguments for and against a Utah national title win.

For the purposes of this exercise, we are going to set the postseason bracket using the final Road to Nationals rankings

To keep things as simple as possible, we are also going to assume that both the NCAA regionals — all three days of it — and the NCAA national semifinals went chalk, meaning the top ranked teams advanced.

In this scenario, the eight teams who qualified for the championship were No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Florida, No. 3 UCLA, No. 4 Utah, No. 5 Michigan, No. 6 LSU, No. 7 Denver and No. 8 Alabama. From there, Oklahoma, Florida, UCLA and Utah advanced to the final day of competition, becoming the “Four on the Floor.”

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There is absolutely an argument to be made that No. 9 Cal, No. 10 Minnesota, No. 11 Washington or No. 12 Georgia could have advanced to nationals in place of any of the aforementioned teams. All were capable of pulling off an upset or two in the postseason. You could even argue in favor of an upset by No. 13 Kentucky, No. 14 Missouri, No. 15 Oregon State or No. 16 BYU. Just last season, then-No. 13 Oregon State upset then-No. 4 Florida at regionals, after all.

There is also an argument to be made that any of Michigan, LSU, Denver or Alabama could have scored an upset in a national semifinal. Denver was the No. 5 seed in 2019, but they advanced to the final day of competition, nonetheless.

Those upsets are not going to happen in this hypothetical, though. Here, the national championship would have come down to a single meet between the Sooners, Gators, Bruins and Red Rocks.

Could Utah have won the title? It is time to look at arguments for and against.

For — An undefeated season

Utah gymnastics has a long and storied history. That is not new information. It is exactly that history, though, that suggests that the 2020 Red Rocks could have brought home the chip. This year’s team was only the second in program history to go undefeated, joining the 1993 team. While the ‘93 team didn’t actually win a national title, almost every other incarnation of that group (1992, 1994 and 1995) did.

The 2020 Red Rocks’ unbeaten season was particularly impressive when you consider the way they navigated a brutal conference stretch that included away meets against Cal, UCLA and Washington. Throw in a home victory over Oregon State, and Utah defeated four ranked teams over the course of a single month to win the regular season Pac-12 championship.

University of Utah gymnast Kim Tessen celebrates her 10 on the vault in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 6, 2020. Tessen was the MVP for the meet. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I don’t think we have (had a stretch like that),” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “In my 10 years here, I don’t recall ever having it come down to the last two or three routines in multiple meets, where we came out on the winning side.”

The ability to pull out wins in hotly contested meets was what set this year’s Red Rocks apart. Other Utah teams may have been as talented, or even more so, but few teams in recent years have had a similar indomitable spirit. Utah simply refused to lose this season.

“They never gave up in a meet,” student-coach Macey Roberts said. “When they started to get behind, they were like, ‘OK, we need to step it up.’ They would pull out the wins. Watching how much talent there was on the team, how much drive they had to compete and to win, that made me so excited to see what the postseason brought. This team, honestly, there was just something different about it.”

You can quibble about the overall difficulty of Utah’s schedule. Was it the most trying in the country? Probably not. That honor most likely belonged to Oklahoma. The Sooners were also undefeated and they beat Cal, UCLA, Alabama (twice), Denver (twice), Georgia and Michigan. Still, Utah’s schedule was largely on par with Florida and UCLA’s, and any undefeated team deserves consideration as a national title contender.

Against — History 

This isn’t about Utah’s national title drought of 25 years. This is actually about the recent history of national champions.

To start, only one of the last 10 national champs finished lower than fourth overall at nationals the year before they won the title. 

Prior to winning in 2011 and again in ‘12, Alabama finished third (‘10). Florida won in 2013, ‘14 and ‘15 and the Gators finished second overall in ‘12. Oklahoma won in 2014, ‘16, ‘17 and ‘19 and finished second in ‘13 and third in ‘15. The year before UCLA won their latest title (2017), the Bruins finished fourth overall. The only exception in the last decade were the 2010 Bruins, who finished in seventh place in ‘09. 

Oklahoma celebrates after winning the NCAA college women’s gymnastics championship, Saturday, April 20, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas. | Cooper Neill, AP

Utah, meanwhile, finished seventh in 2019, and if you wanted to pile on, the Red Rocks were seventh in ‘18, fifth in ‘17 and ninth in ‘16. By way of comparison, this year’s Oklahoma and UCLA teams were both right in line with historical trends, given their first and third place finishes in 2019. Florida, meanwhile, finished 10th overall last year.

Looking even more closely, specifically how Utah compares to past national champions on each event, as well as this year’s competition of Oklahoma, Florida and UCLA, things don’t come up very rosy for the Utes.

Each of the last 11 national champions (Florida and Oklahoma tied in 2014) finished the regular season ranked in the top 6 nationally on every single event, including balance beam, floor exercise, uneven bars and vault. Going deeper, nine championship teams ranked in the top 4, five teams finished in the top 3 and one, the 2019 Sooners, were in the top 2. 

This year’s Utah team was ranked second on balance beam, seventh on bars and vault and eighth on floor. Oklahoma and Florida, meanwhile, finished in the top 3 on every event, while UCLA was in the top 5.

By those numbers, the 2020 Red Rocks just weren’t on the level of a national title contender.

For — Depth

Arguably the greatest strength of the Red Rocks this season was depth. Where recent Utah teams were almost inarguably top-heavy, whether it be because of injuries or early retirements and the like, the 2020 team was as balanced as they come.

Consider this: Utah had 12 gymnasts compete this season and 10 earned at least one event victory.

Senior Kim Tessen led the way with 10 wins, but Abby Paulson, Sydney Soloski, Cristal Isa and Maile O’Keefe all tied with five, Missy Reinstadtler had three and Alexia Burch two, while Hunter Dula, Emilie LeBlanc and Adrienne Randall each had one win apiece.

The balance and depth of the team goes deeper than that, though.

University of Utah gymnasts congratulate Cristal Isa after her bars routine in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 6, 2020.   | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Tessen, O’Keefe, Soloski, Paulson and Isa, all of whom were regular season All-Americans, each scored a 9.9 or better in each of the last five meets of the season. Other gymnasts to score a 9.9 or higher at any point during the year included Randall, Dula, Burch, LeBlanc, Reinstadtler and Cammy Hall.

Five gymnasts scored a 9.975 or better during the year, including Tessen (9.975 against Cal and a perfect 10 against Stanford), Paulson (a perfect 10 against UCLA), O’Keefe (a 9.975 against Oregon State and Stanford), Randall (a 9.975 against UCLA) and Reinstadtler (a 9.975 against Washington).

Tessen, Paulson and O’Keefe were each honored at one point or another by the Pac-12, as Specialist or Freshmen of the Week.

Utah also hit 205 of 216 routines this season, a completion percentage of 94.9%. Gymnasts who hit every routine included O’Keefe (30-30), Paulson (22-22), Burch (19-19), LeBlanc (18-18), Randall (17-17) and Dula (5-5).

By the end of the year, the Red Rocks had at least eight gymnasts with competition-ready routines on every event, with LeBlanc (vault), Paulson (bars), Tessen (floor) and Reinstadtler (beam) ready to jump into a lineup at a moment’s notice.

That depth meant Utah was capable of absorbing a subpar routine or two and still recording an elite team score, which happened in wins over Stanford, Washington and Cal. If Utah was able to avoid a single subpar routine, such as what happened against UCLA, that depth suggested the Utes could contend with anyone.

Against — Florida and Oklahoma

This is where the argument becomes rather simple. Based on numbers and rankings, the Sooners and the Gators were just on another level this season. As good as Utah was, the Red Rocks never quite measured up.

Take Oklahoma. The Sooners were 16-0 — we already mentioned their difficult schedule — but it was more than that. They never once scored below a 197, and topped 198 six different times. The Sooners’ national qualifying score of 198.080 was better than any other team and they had the country’s best single season meet score in their 198.450 to 197.000 win over Denver.

Look at the individual Sooners themselves, and Oklahoma had three of the nation’s best vaulters, including top-ranked Maggie Nichols, Anastasi Webb and Jade Degouveia. It was a similar story on bars, where Nichols was ranked third in the country, with Ragan Smith and Degouveia both in the top 10. On beam, it was Nichols again — she was ranked seventh — as well as on floor where she was fourth overall. When the regular season ended, Nichols was the single best all-around gymnast in America.

Florida’s Rachel Gowey competes on the balance beam during the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships Saturday, April 21, 2018, in St. Louis. | Jeff Roberson, AP

For as great as Oklahoma was, Florida wasn’t too far off the pace, though. The Gators were similarly dominant over the course of the season and scored below a 197 a single time. Florida topped 198 on three different occasions, in wins over LSU, Alabama and Penn State. 

Trinity Thomas led the way for the Gators, as the second ranked all-arounder in the nation. Thomas was elite on floor — where she was the top ranked gymnast — beam and bars, where she ranked third and fourth, respectively. 

Thomas wasn’t the only standout gymnast for Florida, though. Rachel Gowey and Alyssa Bauman each were top 10 gymnasts on beam, with Bauman also earning that honor on floor.

By way of comparison, the Utes had three gymnasts rank in the top 10 nationally on events: Tessen on vault and bars, where she ranked ninth, and Paulson and Isa, who tied for ninth on beam.

Over the course of 10 weeks, Oklahoma and Florida were simply the top two teams in women’s college gymnastics, in a tier above UCLA, Utah, Michigan and the rest.

Prediction

There was more that could have been examined, both for and against Utah. Tessen, for instance, had become a true star in her senior season, capable of leading the Utes to victory over anyone. Reinstadtler, after working back from offseason surgery, had come on late too, and between the leadership of those two seniors Utah was only getting better and better.

Of course, the team’s youth could have been a liability, considering only five gymnasts who were expected to compete had any sort of postseason experience, namely Tessen, Reinstadtler, Soloski, Burch and Randall. 

Then again, there was something brewing in Salt Lake City. 

Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols celebrates after her vault during the NCAA college women’s gymnastics championship, Saturday, April 20, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas. | Cooper Neill, AP

“As a coach — and I think some of the athletes on the team felt this, too — there was mojo building,” Farden said.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to pick against Oklahoma. The Sooners are in the midst of one of the most impressive runs in gymnastics history, with national title victories in four of the last six seasons. It only makes sense, given their wealth of talent and championship experience, that Oklahoma would win again. 

As for Utah, a third place finish seems the most likely end to the season. Florida may not have been as good as Oklahoma this year, but in almost any other season this year’s Gators would’ve been title favorites. The Red Rocks, meanwhile, had already defeated UCLA once, at Pauley Pavilion. They could have had back-to-back wins over UCLA if you prognosticate what would’ve happened at the Pac-12 Championships. What is a third win over the rival Bruins?

A third-place finish would have represented a significant step forward for the Red Rocks. Above all else, it would have signified that Utah was back to national championship contention.

Of course, we’ll never know. But the future is bright for Utah gymnastics.

“If we are healthy, we are going to assemble another talented team,” Farden said. “We want to set realistic goals and roll our sleeves up, but on paper we look to be another force next year.”