Normally, the Windy City Invitational is a preview of the men’s gymnastics Big Ten Championships.

This year, it could also be an NCAA team finals preview.

All the usual suspects – Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and host Illinois-Chicago – will compete.

But this time they’ll be joined by preseason No. 1 Stanford, which will increase the talent level and make Chicago feel even more like a championship meet. Like the NCAA Championship meet, there will be a bye rotation after high bar because seven teams will compete in six events. And each team, except for perpetual doormat Illinois-Chicago, could conceivably earn a slot in April’s Super Six.

To add to the early-season drama, Michigan and Stanford are nursing a budding rivalry. Even before last year’s NCAAs, the schools were athletic and academic rivals, vying for the annual Director’s Cup award.

Then, in the Super Six, Stanford nudged Michigan out of third place by just .05 points. The Windy City Invitational will be the first of three regular-season meetings between the teams.

“There’s definitely a rivalry there,” Michigan senior co-captain Paul Woodward said. “Anything we can do to beat them is always important.”

No. 6 Michigan’s rotation will begin with parallel bars, an event that should be the team’s strength this season. Last year, the team started the meet with the same event and finished in first place.

Michigan will finish the night on vault, the same event it finished with last season. But this time, the Wolverines won’t have to deal with dramatically lowered start values. With the adoption of the new, open-ended Code of Points, start values for vault were leveled with those from the rest of the events. So Michigan’s strong vault squad could end with a bang for the Wolverines.

While Iowa and Illinois-Chicago are the nation’s ninth- and 13th-ranked team, respectively, Michigan has much more talent than either. Stanford and fourth-ranked Ohio State will prove more of a challenge to the young Wolverines.

But Michigan’s real objective at the season-opener is to leave feeling positive about the season, regardless of where the Wolverines finish.

“We need to walk out of there with our heads up,” Woodward said. “That’s the important thing.”

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