2023 NCAA gymnastics: Who to watch as Suni Lee, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and many more return

Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee announced in November that this will be her final season competing for Auburn. She will leave NCAA competition to train for the 2024 Olympics. Stew Milne/Getty Images

After a 265-day absence -- yes, we counted -- NCAA gymnastics is finally back on Friday. With a new season comes new questions, and this year we're not just wondering if anyone will be able to turn around a "Wednesday"-themed floor routine in time (although ... could someone?).

Will Oklahoma win its sixth title in 10 years? Can Suni Lee lift Auburn to another breakthrough season in her final year of college gymnastics? And how will all those shiny new world championship medals motivate Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles in their sophomore seasons?

The season gets underway with several intriguing meets, including the star-studded Super 16 event in Las Vegas featuring -- you guessed it -- 16 of the nation's top teams over two days in four separate meets. From there, things only ramp up until the season concludes at NCAA championships on April 15 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Here are the must-watch storylines and gymnasts entering the new year.

Sophomore star power

The 2022 season saw perhaps the best and most heralded freshmen class in college gymnastics history with the arrival of five Olympic medalists -- Americans Lee, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum and Great Britain's Amelie Morgan -- and several other elite stars. Unsurprisingly, they did not disappoint -- including one magical week in which all four of the U.S. Olympians scored perfect 10s.

Lee, the 2021 Olympic all-around champion, helped lead Auburn to a fourth-place ranking, its best-ever finish in program history. Individually, she won the NCAA title on beam and finished second in the all-around. She recently revealed this would be her final season of collegiate gymnastics. "I want to be the best teammate I can be and continue the amazing legacy we were able to build last season," she told ESPN in November about her goals for the year. We have a feeling she'll do just that.

Carey, the Olympic gold medalist on floor, also carried her Oregon State team to new heights (if you've ever seen her vault, you know this is both in the metaphorical and literal sense). During her debut season, she helped the Beavers win their first-ever Pac-12 regular season championship. Carey won the conference's all-around title, then finished second on bars and fourth in the all-around at the NCAA championships. She is currently coming off of a ridiculously impressive performance at world championships, in which she won team and vault gold and earned bronze on floor, Carey's confidence might be at an all-time high.

Like Carey, Chiles is also coming off a triple-medal performance at worlds, with team gold and vault and floor silvers, and a memorable freshman season that saw her earn three perfect 10 scores for UCLA. The Bruins didn't exactly have a banner year in 2022, but with a new head coach and a seemingly reenergized squad, Chiles could help bring UCLA back to its former glory during her sophomore campaign.

McCallum, who earned team silver in Tokyo, and Morgan, who won team bronze with Great Britain, helped Utah to a Pac-12 championship title and a third place finish at the NCAA Championships. McCallum scored a 10 at the conference championships to win the bars title, shared floor honors with Carey, and finished runner-up in the all around.

Morgan was the Red Rocks' leadoff gymnast on bars and beam all season, and hit all 32 of her routines throughout the year. Olympic alternate Kara Eaker is also entering her second season with the team, and despite a season marred by injury, she was named a first team All-American on beam in 2022.

While not Olympic medalists, Florida's Leanne Wong was part of the gold-medal American team at worlds, as well as the 2021 all-around world silver medalist, and Nebraska's Emma Spence is fresh off of winning a team bronze at worlds with Canada. Yup, they're both sophomores too.

Not a sophomore but ...

Olympic and world medalists are great and all, but no one above won the NCAA all-around title in 2022. That was Trinity Thomas, the former national team star, who had one of the most dominant and impressive seasons in recent memory. Thomas also earned the NCAA floor and bars titles, won the SEC crowns on floor, vault and in the all-around, and led the Gators to a conference championship and a second-place finish at NCAAs. Not to mention, she had 12(!) perfect scores on the year, including during both of her floor performances at NCAA championships.

Now entering her fifth season, Thomas is the only gymnast in NCAA history to earn a perfect 10 on each event at least three times. If your jaw isn't on the floor, please read that stat over.

And she's far from done. While Thomas will easily contend for almost every individual honor in 2023, she will also do everything in her power to earn the one thing she hasn't yet accomplished -- an NCAA team title. Lucky for Thomas, and for Gators fans, she has an incredibly strong supporting cast around her, including Wong, Sloane Blakely, Riley McCusker, Kayla DiCello and 2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd in her debut collegiate season.

Can Oklahoma repeat?

Thomas won't be the only one looking to replicate her success in 2023. The Sooners have won five of the past eight NCAA team titles, including in 2022, and earned the No. 1 ranking in the preseason poll. So yeah, it's safe to call them not only the favorites entering 2023, but also an absolute dynasty.

While Oklahoma doesn't have Olympic names on its roster like several of the other top programs, the squad makes up for it in talent, consistency and a true team-first mentality. In fact, no Sooner competed in all four events on either day of competition at the 2022 NCAA championships.

Returning all three individual NCAA medalists in Audrey Davis (second place, bars), Jordan Bowers (second place, floor) and Allie Stern (third place, vault), as well as 2016 Olympic alternate and 2022's top-ranked beam worker Ragan Smith plus reigning Big 12 vault champion Olivia Trautman, Oklahoma looks more than capable of pulling off the repeat this year.

Look no further than Smith's "ice in her veins" moment on her signature event that clinched the national title last season for proof of just how focused and tenacious this team can be with so much on the line:

But nothing in gymnastics is guaranteed, and Oklahoma will have no time to ease back into competition this year. The Sooners open their season at the Super 16 event and will immediately have a fascinating test against 2021 national champions and preseason No. 4 Michigan and 2018 national champs and preseason No. 9 UCLA, in addition to the Lee-led Auburn squad which is ranked preseason No. 6.

The challengers

Perhaps the biggest question of all: Which teams can contend against Oklahoma for the national title? Florida, the preseason No. 2-ranked team, has perhaps more depth than any other team and, well, Thomas. The Gators came oh-so-close last year, it's hard to think that won't provide some extra motivation.

In addition to Florida, the SEC has four other teams -- Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Missouri -- all ranked in the preseason top 10, with Kentucky and Arkansas in the top 15. Whichever team can come out on top of this loaded conference at the end of the regular season will be more than prepared to win it all.

And then there's Utah, the No. 3-ranked team entering the season. The Red Rocks certainly have the talent to do it. In addition to McCallum, Morgan and Eaker, Utah has 2021 bars and beam NCAA champion Maile O'Keefe and reigning national vault champion Jaedyn Rucker. The original dynasty in women's college gymnastics, Utah will look for its record-breaking 11th national title this year and first since 1995.

Michigan, the preseason No. 4, seems to be perennially overlooked, despite being just two years removed from an NCAA title, but that's a mistake. Natalie Wojcik, one of the most decorated gymnasts in program history, is back for a fifth year and joined by seniors Sierra Brooks, the Big Ten Gymnast of the Year and NCAA bars runner-up, and Gabby Wilson, who won the Big Ten floor crown in 2021. That level of veteran leadership and experience could make the difference come April.

The history-makers

The 2023 season will see the addition of one brand-new team on the scene. Fisk University is slated to make its eagerly anticipated debut -- at the Super 16 event, no less -- and is the first HBCU school to have an intercollegiate gymnastics team. The team's creation was met with great enthusiasm when it was announced last year, and it nabbed its first five-star recruit almost immediately when Morgan Price, a two-time competitor in the Nastia Liukin Cup and third-place vault finisher in 2021, decommitted from Arkansas to compete for Fisk.

"I have always wanted to be an HBCU gymnast, but I just never had the opportunity because there wasn't an HBCU with [a] gymnastics team," she told Sports Illustrated in August. "So when I saw this opportunity come up, I was super excited. I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of this team."

And now Morgan gets to be a part of history in Fisk's inaugural season. If highlights from the team's intrasquad in December are any indication, it should be one to remember.

After Las Vegas, the Bulldogs will travel to Michigan for a meet on Jan. 13 and then head to Georgia for a meet just three days later on Jan. 16. Talk about starting strong.

The comeback kids

In addition to all of the incredible moments of the 2022 season, it also saw adversary and debilitating injuries for others.

Perhaps no one embodies that more than Denver's Lynnzee Brown, who will be returning for an unprecedented sixth year after sustaining a season-ending Achilles injury -- the second of her career -- in January of 2022. Brown, the 2019 NCAA co-champion on floor, is a fan favorite in the sport due to her inspirational story and looked more than ready to go at Denver's intrasquad meet last month.

Margzetta Frazier also made her return to competition at UCLA's intrasquad in December. The redshirt senior broke her foot in the first event of the first meet of the 2022 season and missed the remainder of the year, but she competed on all four events at "Meet the Bruins" and reminded everyone of exactly why she was the 2021 Pac-12 bars champion.

Frazier's teammate Emily Lee will be making her long-awaited NCAA debut after tearing her Achilles during Olympic trials in June of 2021. The 20-year-old had to redshirt her freshman season following surgery but should make an immediate impact for the Bruins, especially on beam and floor.

In another much-anticipated college debut, Florida's Hurd should make her presence known for the Gators. After her highly decorated elite career -- which saw her win the 2017 world all-around title and the 2018 all-around bronze -- came to a disappointing finish in 2021, Hurd underwent surgery for a torn ACL and missed the 2022 NCAA season.

But she competed on floor, bars and beam at Florida's Hype Night event last month, and gymnastics' beloved glasses-wearing queen is officially back.

Who's going to go viral?

It wouldn't be a college gymnastics season without at least one truly viral floor routine. While UCLA justifiably tends to dominate this conversation, thanks to some truly epic routines in recent years (See: Ohashi, Katelyn), the Bruins aren't the only team with incredible floor performers and choreography. It would be impossible to predict who will become an internet sensation this year, and we recognize we've yet to see all of the routines thus far, but here are a few contenders based on what we saw at intrasquads.

Derrian Gobourne (Auburn): The 2022 NCAA floor runner-up opens this standout routine with "God Save the Queen," while placing an invisible crown atop her head, and this is exactly the kind of energy and confidence we can all use in the new year. It's giving a little 2020 Nia Dennis with some of the Beyonce/Homecoming music choices -- and we can't wait to watch on repeat all season long.

Watch the full version here.

Jessica Hutchinson (Denver): Paying homage to her mom Silvia Hutchinson (nΓ©e Mitova) and her 1992 Olympic routine, Hutchinson uses the same music and even does much of the same choreography as her mom did over 30 years ago. Sentimental value 10/10.

Frankie Price (Arkansas): Still wearing a knee brace after surgery last year forced her to redshirt her freshman season, we're not sure how frequently we'll see Price crack the Razorbacks' floor lineup this year, but with this confidence and poise in her very first collegiate routine, we feel certain she'll be going viral at some point during her NCAA career.

Chae Campbell (UCLA): What happens when you combine one of the most electrifying gymnasts in college gymnastics with Beyonce and the choreography of BJ Das? You can see for yourself below, but the answer is absolute magic.