They aren't coming in with the same momentum they had last season. And they'll be performing in an even less hospitable arena than they did to win their first national title.
But after a season of proving again and again that they were the favorites to repeat as national champions, all that's left for the Florida Gators gymnastics team to do this weekend is winning it all.
The Gators, and the 11 other teams in the 2014 NCAA Championships, taking place this weekend in Birmingham, Alabama, will be taking part in one of college sports's most confusing championships. Someone will claim the individual all-around national title by the end of Friday night, the team national championship will be decided on Saturday night in the 2014 NCAA Super Six, and individual event national championships will be awarded on Sunday.
Florida, which is in Friday night's Semifinal II with Alabama, Utah, UCLA, Nebraska, and surprise NCAA Championships squad Penn State, needs only to place among the top three teams in that six-team pack to advance. But Florida has the last two defending all-around national champions — Bridget Sloan won in 2013 as a freshman, one year after Kytra Hunter did the same in 2012 — and a strong third contender in Alaina Johnson, whose 39.825 on Senior Night broke a record that had stood for 18 years ... and was Florida's lone score that big for seven days, as Sloan matched it in the Gators' next outing.
Florida last failed to make the NCAA Championships in 2000, and has made the Super Six in six of the last seven seasons. But immediately prior to their 2013 breakthrough, which earned the program's first NCAA national title, the Gators placed second behind national champion Alabama in 2012, suffered a disastrous rotation on beam that kept them out of the 2011 Super Six, and finished a disappointing fifth at home in 2010. The Gators' reputation was that of a big team that inevitably faltered at the end.
The 2014 Gators have shown some of the same flashes of instability — but they've also been the nation's best team on average, and seem almost unbeatable if everything's clicking. Florida has four scores better than 198.000 on the season; no other school has more than three. Florida has three gymnasts who have topped 39.800 in the all-around in their careers; no other team in the country has more than one. Florida boasts three performers with individual event titles (Hunter won on vault in 2012; Sloan won on the balance beam in 2013; Johnson took the 2013 uneven bars title), and a fourth performer, Mackenzie Caquatto, who has been great on multiple apparatuses. The Gators were the nation's best team on the floor exercise and balance beam in the regular season.
Update: Florida moved on to the Super Six with relative ease on Friday night, posting a 197.650 that tied for the highest score between the two semifinal sessions at the NCAA Championships. But while the Gators performed very well as a whole, a handful of individual errors cost Florida gymnasts some chances at individual hardware.
Bridget Sloan's error was the biggest and strangest: She fell on the beam, and scored just a 9.200 on the apparatus she had dominated all year, which likely cost her a repeat national title in the all-around. Sloan scored a 9.95 on the uneven bars, a 9.925 on the vault, and a 9.900 on the floor exercise; all she would have needed to be the NCAA all-around champion was a 9.875 on the beam, a score she's met or bettered nine times in 2014.
Sloan's fall also cost her a chance to repeat as the balance beam champion. And she wasn't the only Gator missing an event final on an apparatus she had dominated all year: Kytra Hunter faltered on the last pass of her phenomenal floor routine, and ended up with a 9.900 for it, not good enough to make Sunday's event final.
It didn't matter for the Gators, who got a 39.600 from Alaina Johnson, good for a tie for second in the all-around, and it might actually help: Both gymnasts can focus a little more on Saturday's Super Six instead of looking ahead to those two event finals, though Sloan will still compete in two event finals. (Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto will also compete in two event finals, and all three gymnasts will compete on the bars.)
Florida needs all the help it can get in Birmingham, where its competition would seem to be Alabama, then everyone else: The Tide have surged late this season, thanks in part to a schedule that brought the Gators to Tuscaloosa for their regular season showdown, and to Birmingham for the SEC Championships and NCAA Championships. Alabama's the only team to have beaten the Gators in competition this year — and the Gators haven't beaten Alabama in three meetings, unless you count Friday night's tiebreaker victory, which gave Florida Olympic rotation (vault, bye, bars, beam, bye, floor) for the Super Six.
Florida's still in good shape for its second consecutive national title. But they'll be battling some great gymnastics teams — Oklahoma and LSU have been better on the season than Alabama, though both struggled Friday — and a hot crowd that is firmly behind the home-state team.