Why Utah gymnastics isn’t happy with its No. 4 preseason ranking

The Red Rocks performed for fans at the Huntsman Center for the first time in nearly two years

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maile O'Keefe reacts after competing on the uneven bars for Utah in the PAC-12 Gymnastics Championship tournament at the Maverik Center, on Saturday, March 20, 2021.

Utah’s gymnastics team thought performing in front of a Huntsman Center crowd for the first time in 651 days would be the biggest deal about their Red Rocks preview Friday.

Then the preseason rankings came out.

The Utes, who return 23 of their 24 routines from a team that finished third last year at the NCAA Championships, are ranked fourth in the preseason coaches poll behind NCAA defending champion Michigan. Florida and Oklahoma also are ranked ahead of the Utes. Oklahoma finished second last year and Florida was fourth.

Like the Utes, the Gators welcomed a strong freshman class, but it was evident after the annual intrasquad the Utes weren’t thrilled to be ranked behind a team they defeated in the NCAA Championships last year.

“We can choose to be angry about it or push forward and prove them wrong and draw on it,” junior Maile O’Keefe said. “Dwelling on it would drop us back, so our approach is to prove them wrong.”

The Utes certainly looked like a team that was ready to compete against the best, using eight gymnasts on every event. No scores were kept, but coach Tom Farden was pleased with what he saw as the Utes had few major bobbles or miscues.

“We wanted to get them out in front of a live audience and take a turn with the freshmen and see who is jockeying for the sacred six,” he said of the lineup spots. “We wanted to dip their toes in the water in front of a live audience and they responded great.”

Olympian Grace McCallum performed on every event and had a few small bobbles. She admitted being in front of several thousand in the Huntsman Center was different for her.

“There was so much energy,” she said. “I need to learn how space it out. It was so high and so different than the elite but I absolutely loved it.”

Farden said the Utes were conservative on vault but expects to have six 10.0 vaults in the lineup by the end of the season, as compared to just four last year. Bars and balance beam had a couple bobbles, but they came mainly on new tricks the team was trying out.

“This team is definitely different than a lot of other teams,” he said. “I don’t worry about them. I thought they would do this or more. Some teams you come in and worry how many falls are we going to have, not this team.”

Which gets us back to the rankings and the feeling the Utes are a little irked at the rankings.

The Utes will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves against ranked opponents since they face nine of the teams ranked in the Top 25. The highlight of those is the meet against Oklahoma in the home opener on Jan. 14. The Utes travel to No. 5 LSU, No. 7 California and No. 8 UCLA.

“I get it,” he said. “I watched Michigan last year and they looked incredible, really, really good. “Florida had an incredible incoming class and we did too. Oklahoma is a stalwart the last decade. The top is pretty stout.”

2021-22 Gymnastics Preseason Poll

1. Michigan, 2405 (37 first-place votes)

2. Florida, 2319 (16 first-place votes)

3. Oklahoma, 2317 (6 first-place votes)

4. Utah, 2306 (8 first-place votes)

5. LSU, 2179 (1 first-place vote)

6. Alabama, 2027

7. California, 2020

8. UCLA, 1887

9. Minnesota, 1803

10. Denver, 1763

11. Arkansas, 1700

12. Arizona St., 1666

13. Kentucky, 1571

14. Auburn, 1460

15. Georgia, 1384

16. Missouri, 1334

17. Oregon St,. 1316

18. Iowa, 1308

19. BYU, 1208

20. Iowa St., 1005

21. N.C. St., 981

22. Ohio St,. 957

23. Illinois, 919

24. Boise St., 908

25. SUU, 864