Although they were denied the affirmation that comes with winning a national championship by the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there's little doubt that the 2019-20 Iowa wrestling team was the best in the country this season. They went 13-0 in dual meet competition and just one of those meets, a 19-17 instant classic over #2 Penn State, was decided by fewer than 14 points. They blitzed the field at Midlands, breaking their own point record. And in what wound up being their final competition of the year, Iowa ended up rolling to victory in the Big Ten Tournament by 25 points. They dominated the 2019-20 season.
But it made me wonder: how might they have fared against the best teams from the past decade? So I decided to break down hypothetical dual meets between this year's Iowa team and the top team from each of the past 10 seasons, starting with the 2019 Penn State national champions and wrapping up with 2010 Iowa, the last Iowa squad to claim a national title. We're going to do one dual per day, in reverse order. Starting lineups were determined primarily by NCAA qualifiers at each weight; if no wrestler qualified, I generally went with the wrestler who started the most matches at that weight. I also generally assumed a given wrestler was in good health -- unless they dealt with nagging injuries or health issues all season long, in which case that was factored into the prediction. Without further ado...
2020 Iowa (13-0) vs 2019 Penn State (14-0)
125: Spencer Lee (JR, 18-0) vs Devin Schnupp (SO, 6-17)
Iowa and Penn State didn't square off last season and Lee didn't face Schnupp in the Big Ten Tournament, so we don't have a direct example to draw on for this match like we will for several other matches in this dual. That said, I think we know what would have happened: total domination from Spencer Lee. I'm guessing a quick takedown, followed by several trips to Tilt Town for Mr. Schnupp. The only real question is whether or not Lee would have pinned him before getting the tech; given that he only recorded four pins this season, I erred on the side of a technical fall.
IOWA 5, PENN STATE 0
133: Austin DeSanto (JR, 17-4) vs Roman Bravo-Young (FR, 25-7)
This year Bravo-Young definitely had DeSanto's number, beating him via injury default at the dual meet and then edging him 3-2 in a rematch at the Big Ten Tournament. But we're looking at this year's DeSanto against last year's Bravo-Young for this exercise, and DeSanto had the upper hand last year, beating him 12-8 at the Big Ten Tournament and 7-2 at the NCAA Tournament. Given that this year's DeSanto had looked even sharper and stronger this year (prior to the injury he sustained in that Penn State dual), I favor him to grab a decision win over RBY in this showdown.
IOWA 8, PENN STATE 0
141: Max Murin (SO, 16-3) vs Nick Lee (SO, 31-4)
Murin and Lee didn't face one another this season, but they did meet twice last year, with Lee taking both matches, 8-3 at the Big Ten Tournament and 4-1 at the NCAA Tournament. That version of Nick Lee is the one suiting up for this match -- could this year's Max Murin have fared any better against him? My hunch is... no. Murin improved from a year ago, particularly in his ability to finish his shots, but he still appeared a step behind the elite guys at this weight -- including Lee. I think Lee takes a 4-5 point decision here.
IOWA 8, PENN STATE 3
149: Pat Lugo (SR, 21-1) vs Brody Berge (20-5, RS FR)
We did see this match last year -- and Berge emerged victorious, by nearly the narrowest of margins, notching a 4-2 win in the second sudden victory period over Lugo at the Big Ten Tournament. I see this match going differently here, though, because the Lugo who took the mat for Iowa this year was a much more confident and decisive wrestler than the Lugo who wrestled last season; his defense was virtually impenetrable and he finished his shots at a high rate when he was on the attack. That Lugo takes this match with a 3-4 point decision here.
IOWA 11, PENN STATE 3
157: Kaleb Young (JR, 15-5) vs Jason Nolf (SR, 31-0)
Young ended the 2019-20 season on a three-match losing streak, dropping a 9-4 decision to Oklahoma State's Wyatt Sheets in his final dual meet and then going 0-2 at the Big Ten Tournament. That was the low point of his season, but even his highs in 2019-20 were muted; rarely did he look like the wrestler who charged to a 5th place finish at the 2019 NCAA Tournament. That's not a good sign when he's going to be lining up against Nolf, who went 31-0 last year and wrapped up his third-straight NCAA title. The only real question here is how bad the damage would be. Would Nolf record a pin or a technical fall, or could Young manage to hold him to a major decision in defeat? I'm going with a major decision -- but barely. This is probably something like 18-4 and Nolf spends a lot of time working to turn Young.
IOWA 11, PENN STATE 7
165: Alex Marinelli (JR, 20-1) vs Vincenzo Joseph (JR, 27-2)
One of the (many) fun things about this exercise is that it gives us a chance to renew one of the best college wrestling rivalries of the last 5-10 years, as The Bull and Cenzo get to lock horns once again. After the four thrilling matches they did have during their college career, the prospect of getting another clash between them is awfully exciting. Marinelli bested Joseph in 2018 (at a dual) and 2019 (in the Big Ten Tournament finals) and they split two matches in 2020 (Joseph winning at the dual, Marinelli winning the rematch at the Big Ten Tournament). Given how tight their matches have tended to be (on the mat if not always on the scoreboard), you can make a reasonable case for either guy. The nature of this exercise favors Marinelli, though; Marinelli beat Joseph last year and this year's Marinelli was an improvement on last year's Bull. So give me The Bull again in another high-voltage thriller.
IOWA 14, PENN STATE 7
174: Michael Kemerer (15-1, SR) vs Mark Hall (30-1, JR)
The Kemerer-Hall rivalry doesn't have the history (or quite as much literal blood and thunder) of Marinelli-Joseph, but it delivered a pair of tasty encounters in 2020; Kemerer won an instant classic over Hall at the dual, but Hall got the better of him in the less-thrilling, but still good rematch at the Big Ten Tournament. How might Kemerer have fared against last year's Mark Hall? There wasn't much difference between last year's Hall and this year's Hall -- they're both stellar -- so how you feel about the match probably comes down to how you felt about them this year. They were a tossup this year... and I see little reason to think there would be much different with Kemerer against last year's Hall, either. My imaginary coin flip goes Kemerer's way this time, but the opposite result is eminently possible.
IOWA 17, PENN STATE 7
184: Abe Assad (FR, 22-7) vs Shakur Rasheed (SR, 21-2)
Rasheed has bounced around the Penn State lineup at multiple weights, but he was the man at 184 lbs last year. And while injuries hampered his season a bit (most infamously when he medically forfeited out of a Big Ten Championship match with Ohio State's Myles Martin), he was generally in better health last year than he was in 2020. He did go 21-2 last year with a 74% bonus rate, which is pretty solid stuff. That makes him a daunting match-up for true freshman Abe Assad. Rasheed's biggest threat is his pinning ability; his ability to lock up cradles was lethal. I'm going to say that Assad avoids getting stuck, but I don't see him finding a way to score enough points to beat Rasheed.
IOWA 17, PENN STATE 10
197: Jacob Warner (SO, 20-4) vs Bo Nickal (SR, 30-0)
Nickal, last year's Hodge Trophy winner, was an absolute monster; he went 30-0 with a 90% bonus rate, including 18 pins. He would present an absolutely massive challenge for Warner. Could Warner avoid getting put on his back? Maybe -- he's only lost via bonus points twice in three years at Iowa (including his redshirt campaign). But Nickal is a different breed and I can definitely envision his slick attacks tripping up Warner and leading to him getting planted.
IOWA 17, PENN STATE 16
285: Tony Cassioppi (RS FR, 20-3) vs Anthony Cassar (SR, 30-1)
So just like this year's actual Iowa-Penn State dual, our imagined dual between 2020 Iowa and 2019 Penn State comes down to the final match of the night, at heavyweight. That worked out well for Iowa in the actual 2020 dual, because Tony Cassioppi is better than Seth Nevills. Unfortunately, it's going to work out less well in this dual because instead of a young Nevills, Penn State gets to send out Cassar, who went 30-1 last year and blitzed the competition 71% bonus rate on his way to a national championship. Cassioppi held his own against many of the best heavyweights this year, but I think Cassar's quickness and elite finishing ability would be a problem for Tony Pins.
PENN STATE 19, IOWA 17
|125||Spencer Lee (JR)||TECH FALL||Devin Schnupp (SO)||IOWA 5-0|
|133||Austin DeSanto (JR)||DEC||Roman Bravo-Young (FR)||IOWA 8-0|
|141||Nick Lee (JR)||DEC||Max Murin (SO)||IOWA 8-3|
|149||Pat Lugo (SR)||DEC||Brody Berge (RS FR)||IOWA 11-3|
|157||Jason Nolf (SR)||MAJ DEC||Kaleb Young (JR)||IOWA 11-7|
|165||Alex Marinelli (JR)||DEC||Vincenzo Joseph (JR)||IOWA 14-7|
|174||Michael Kemerer (SR)||DEC||Mark Hall (JR)||IOWA 17-7|
|184||Shakur Rasheed (SR)||DEC||Abe Assad (FR)||IOWA 17-10|
|197||Bo Nickal (SR)||FALL||Jacob Warner (SO)||IOWA 17-16|
|285||Anthony Cassar (SR)||DEC||Tony Cassioppi (RS FR)||PSU 19-17|
Overall, Iowa is slightly better top-to-bottom, in that their biggest weakness (Assad) is better than Penn State's biggest weakness (Schnupp). Iowa had a legitimate shot at 10 All-Americans this season (though Young would have needed to find some much better form than he had displayed at the end of the year and Assad might have needed to swing an upset or two), while Penn State definitely did not. But what made that PSU team so fearsome -- and what gives them the edge in this exercise -- is the strength of their top guns. Iowa has guys who can reasonably counter Joseph and Hall; they would really struggle to counter Nolf, Nickal, and Cassar. Spencer Lee's dominance can only offset so much.
I projected a narrow Iowa loss here, but it's certainly not hard to imagine Joseph or Hall (or both) winning their respective matches, or Nick Lee or Nolf getting more bonus points; any of those outcomes would stretch the final margin for Penn State. And those outcomes look more likely than finding additional points for Iowa. This would have been a humdinger of a dual and both teams were excellent... but I've got Penn State taking this round.
NEXT: 2020 Iowa takes on 2018 Penn State