For three rotations last night in Tuscaloosa, Florida was literally every bit Alabama's equal, despite some disappointingly low scores. On the fourth, the Gators proved they are mortal, bobbling and wobbling their way across the balance beam and earning their first loss of 2014 as a result.
No. 4 Alabama took a 197.675-197.400 win over the Gators less because of any sudden burst greatness than Florida faltering. The Tide didn't score lower than a very solid 49.400 on any apparatus, but didn't top 49.425, either, and the entirety of the difference between the two teams on the night came on Friday night's final rotation.
After matching scores on the first three rotations — Alabama put up a 49.425 on vault as Florida scored the same number on the uneven bars, followed by Florida vaulting for 49.425 while Alabama swung to the same number on the bars; Alabama walked the beam for 49.400 as Florida scored the same on the floor — Alabama pulled away with a solid set of floor exercises as Gators gymnasts struggled through their routines on the beam.
Rachel Spicer fell twice on her leadoff routine, and scored a 9.275. After a minimally shaky routine from Alaina Johnson (9.800) that coincided with a 'Bama blunder on the floor from freshman Katie Bailey, Florida freshman Claire Boyce looked to have the ship righted with a stellar performance that drew a 9.925. But Florida's two best gymnasts followed it with uncharacteristic mistakes that consigned the Gators to their first loss of the season.
For Kytra Hunter, it was an iffy execution of what is called a "punch front mount" that left her swinging her arms for stability, and though she recovered with a decent routine for a 9.800, it left Florida essentially needing a huge score from Bridget Sloan to win. Sloan, who scored a 10.0 on beam just three weeks ago, couldn't come up with that, actually needing to put her hand on the beam for stability early in her routine — a major faux pas that led to a score of 9.700.
Though Bridgette Caquatto finished beam with a stellar 9.925 to match Boyce, the combination of Hunter and Sloan scoring as low as they did and Spicer falling, forcing Florida to count its other five scores, doomed the Gators to a 49.150 on beam that is their third-lowest score on the apparatus this season.
And all it really proves is that Florida's got the same glaring weakness every other gymnastics team ever has had: One bad night on the beam can wreck otherwise stellar work everywhere else.
Florida entered Friday's meet ranked No. 1 on the beam by both average and the bewildering Regional Qualifying Score. And, despite the bobbles, the loss, and the 49.150, its RQS will rise on the beam1, leaving the Gators No. 2 in the event when Monday's rankings are updated.
Florida will also be No. 2 and close behind LSU in the overall RQS rankings; after setting a team record with a 198.050 on Friday, the Tigers will keep the No. 1 spot, but Florida will slide past Oklahoma for No. 22 thanks to an underwhelming night by the Sooners, who posted a 197.250 in a win over Illinois.
That 198.050 doesn't count in the calculation of LSU's RQS, of course, because a team's highest score on the season gets tossed — again, read the explanation of RQS here — and because college gymnastics' rankings are a lot like Whose Line Is It Anyway?. But it also merely matches the 198.050 Florida put up on Georgia in January, and is slightly worse than the 198.125 Florida put up against LSU last week and the 198.175 Oklahoma scored in a four-team meet including the Tigers two weeks ago. LSU looked great on Friday night, at least according to Twitter; its score and Florida's don't change the optics of the season much, though, more rightly reaffirming that there is a three-team rotation2 of elite squads — Florida, LSU, and Oklahoma — that should produce the the national championship team this year.
Florida had a bad night on beam, to be sure, but its performances to date had been the nation's best on beam. And while Alabama was clicking off excellent scores on the other apparatuses, Florida was putting up the same numbers — which felt low for the Gators. Florida's floor exercise score felt especially low after the Gators got four scores of 49.500 or better on the floor in their first four home meets of 2014 ... but it was the Gators' best road mark of 2014, and by a sizable eighth of a point. Florida's string of five straight meets with a 10.0 was ridiculous, and bound to end at some point; it just happened to end in Florida's first loss.
This team isn't flawless, contrary to some headlines I've written here, just as close to perfect as a gymnastics team gets — and there's always significant distance between greatness and perfection in this sport.
Florida's chances of repeating as national champions depend on keeping that distance as small as possible over the final six weeks of the season. And the Gators still have a better chance than every other team of doing so.
Florida had a 49.330 RQS on beam; with its 49.150 from Friday forcing out its 49.100 from its season-opening meet at UCLA, Florida now has a 49.340 RQS on beam. Oklahoma, after its nation-leading sixth score of at least 49.300 on beam on Friday, has a 49.355, and will rank No. 1 on beam on Monday, with Florida No. 2. LSU has a 49.260, and will rank third.
Florida's season high on beam, though, a 49.550, remains higher than Oklahoma's — and neither team has the nation's best beam score, which belongs, oddly, to Stanford, which put up a massive 49.600 on the road at UC Davis.
Florida's new RQS score is 197.517. LSU's is 197.605. Oklahoma's is 197.415. Florida's average of 197.478 is also second to LSU's nation-leading average of 197.481. Update: I was wrong about Florida's average; it's actually 197.484. So Florida's the nation's No. 1 team by scoring average.
With all due respect to Alabama, the Tide lack the premier scorers to compete with Florida, LSU, and Oklahoma. A team other than those three prevailing at the Super Six is likely to require all three teams counting a substantially flawed routine.