The Royal Rumble went down on Sunday night in Houston, but as far as college wrestling is concerned, the real Royal Rumble is taking place this Friday night in Iowa City, where #1 Iowa (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) is hosting #2 Penn State (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten). This dual has been sold out since December, which is just incredible. Even Iowa, a school with probably the largest and most rabid fanbase in the college wrestling world, sells out a venue as big as CHA (15,000) only rarely; the last sellout came against Penn State back in 2013. The fact that they sold out this dual a few months in advance is absolutely wild. The atmosphere for this dual should be off-the-charts good.
And that's because this is the showdown in college wrestling this year. These are the two best teams in the sport, ranked #1 and #2 in most polls for basically the entire season. Iowa has ascended to the top spot this year and appears to have the best overall team, in both a dual meet setting and a tournament setting... but they haven't faced Penn State yet. "To be the man, you've gotta beat the man," as Ric Flair used to say, and Penn State has been "The Man" in wrestling for the last decade, winning eight of the last nine titles and the last four in a row. This year's team isn't quite as loaded as their squads from the past few seasons, but they still have a lot of talent and they're clearly the biggest threat to Iowa this season.
This dual is likely to feature 17 ranked wrestlers (and it could be 19 if Max Murin and Brady Berge wrestle, though both are questionable due to injuries). Of that number, 15 are ranked in the Top 8 at their respective weights; in other words, 75% of the wrestlers on display on Friday night are projected to finish as All-Americans this season. That features no fewer than seven wrestlers who are in the Top 2 at their respective weights, including three #1s: Iowa's Spencer Lee (125) and Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Mark Hall (174). In fact, there are two #1 vs #2 match-ups set to go down: between Joseph and Iowa's Alex Marinelli at 165 and between Hall and Michael Kemerer at 174. Those matches could easily be previews of future Big Ten Tournament -- and NCAA Tournament -- finals in March.
Iowa and Penn State look to be the top challengers for both the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament in March -- those will be the second and third rounds in this year's three-part showdown between the programs. This first meeting is the least consequential of the three -- the winner will almost certainly go on to win the Big Ten dual meet championship, but that's not an accolade that anyone cares about too much -- in most senses... but it still feels vitally important for Iowa.
First, it's been a while since Iowa beat Penn State. They haven't defeated the Nittany Lions in a dual meet since an 18-12 win in 2015 and they haven't knocked them off in Iowa City since 2013. Iowa and Penn State actually ended up evenly splitting their dual meet showdowns in the 2010s -- four apiece -- but Penn State has won three of the last four and four of the last six. So they've certainly had the upper hand in the rivalry lately. More importantly, they've finished ahead of Iowa at the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament consistently over that span of time. Outside of Iowa's shared Big Ten title in 2015 (with Ohio State), Penn State has finished ahead of Iowa at every Big Ten or NCAA Tournament since 2011.
Two, Iowa needs this to prove that, yes, they can beat Penn State. Winning a dual isn't the same thing as winning a tournament and success (or failure) on Friday isn't going to be determine what happens in Piscataway at the Big Ten Tournament or in Minneapolis at the NCAA Tournament. But Iowa needs to prove that they can beat Penn State to boost their confidence going into those bigger competitions. Penn State has had their number in recent years; this is Iowa's first opportunity to prove that they can beat them.
Three, Iowa's not going to get circumstances more favorable than this to beat Penn State. Outside of possibly Murin, Iowa should be fielding a full-strength lineup on Friday night. Penn State is already down their defending national champion at heavyweight (Anthony Cassar), they've endured a lot of injury and upheaval at 184 and 197, and their starter at 157 (Brady Berge) has missed most of the season while dealing with concussions. Not to mention that some recent beastly Hawkeye slayers like Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal have (finally) graduated. This is not the Penn State team that has run roughshod over college wrestling in recent years. This should also be the most rabidly pro-Iowa environment imaginable; 15,000+ Iowa fans squeezed into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and ready to cheer Iowa to victory.
This is a dual meet so big that BTN is going to air a "pre-dual" show before the dual for the first time ever. The pre-dual show will air on BTN at 7:30 PM CT and preview the matches and feature interviews with Dan Gable and Tom Brands. This dual is a big deal. It should also be easily BTN's most-watched wrestling telecast this season and may even challenge for the title of BTN's most-watched wrestling telecast ever.
Iowa wrestling wants to regain its spot atop the college wrestling mountain this year. Doing so means going through Penn State -- not once, not twice, but thrice. The first showdown is Friday. Let's. Get. Ready. To. Rumble.