In a different world -- a better world -- the Iowa wrestling team would be coming off a triumphant national championship victory last March, ending the program's 10-year drought atop the national wrestling scene and formally confirming this team as one of the best Iowa's had, or at least the best they've had in a very long time. (The standards to be among the "best" in the Iowa program are awfully high, after all.) Alas, we don't live in that world. Instead, we live in a world where the NCAA Wrestling Tournament was canceled mere days before it was set to begin due to the coronavirus pandemic and where life -- and sports -- has existed in a strange state ever since.
But the 2021 wrestling season is at last upon us and it provides Iowa with a chance to at last claim the championship that they circumstances denied them an opportunity to comepete for last year. (Well, they will hopefully have that chance this season -- as ever in the Age of COVID, plans are tentative and everything is subject to change.) And they have a team very much capable of claiming a national championship, too. They're set to return every starter from last year's team except 149 lb star Pat Lugo, the defending Big Ten champion and the #1 seed at that weight in the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Tournament. But Iowa's effectively replacing him with Jaydin Eierman, a multi-time All-American transfer from Missouri who will add plenty of firepower to the Iowa lineup. He's set to take over the starting spot at 141 lbs, which will move Max Murin, a two-year starter at 141 previously, up to 149 lbs.
Other than that the lineup looks unchanged from the squad that cut through the rest of the nation like a buzzsaw last year. Spencer Lee and Austin DeSanto give Iowa the best 1-2 punch at the lightwights of any team in the nation. Eierman provides plenty of pop at 141 and Murin is an intriguing option at 149. Kaleb Young slumped in 2020, but he was an All-American in 2019 and hope springs eternal that he can regain that form. Alex Marinelli and Michael Kemerer might be an even better 1-2 punch at 165 and 174 than Lee and DeSanto are at 125/133 and will be serious national title contenders this season. The biggest question mark in the Iowa lineup is at 184, where Nelson Brands and Abe Assad are poised to scrap for the starting spot; Assad got the nod for the second half of last season, but Brands appears firmly in the picture this season. Jacob Warner and Tony Cassioppi bookend the Iowa lineup at 197 and 285 and provide plenty of quality at the upper weights, too.
There is no weak spot in this Iowa team. It's far from impossible to think that all 10 Iowa wrestlers could achieve All-America status; most of the starters will be heavily favored to do that (and much more), with the biggest question marks for a podium finish coming from Murin, Young, and Assad/Brands. Iowa has the high-end firepower to put multiple wrestlers into the Friday night semifinals at the NCAA Tournament and several of those wrestlers will be favored to wrestle for national championships on Saturday night. No other team in the country boasts the level of depth and top-end quality that Iowa has this year.
Of course, they still have to go out and do it. At the end of the day hype is just bluster and preseason rankings are just numbers. Iowa's wrestlers will still have to go out onto the mat and finish the job -- get the wins and the bonus points that it will take to win championships. Everything points to them being able to do it -- now it's time to see them seal the deal.
But the rest of the wrestling world isn't going to roll over and crown Iowa champions -- the Hawkeyes are going to have to fight for their title this season just as they would any other. Who will be the top challengers? Let's break them down.
Notably absent from that breakdown? Any Ivy League teams. The Ivies announced plans not to compete in any winter sports a few months ago, which includes wrestling. I don't think any of the Ivy League teams would have been a major national title contender (though Cornell would have had a very strong squad), but their absence will definitely shake things up at multiple individual weights, which will in turn have an impact on the team title race.
The table above lays out just why Iowa is such a heavy favorite this year -- they're not just the only team with all 10 wrestlers projected to earn All-America status, they're the only team with all 10 wrestlers ranked inside the Top 20 at their respective weights. That depth and balance across the lineup is impressive. And those 10 guys aren't expected to eke onto the podium, either -- there are four projected finalists (125, 141, 165, 174) and two additional semifinalists (197, 285). No one else can match that, at least in the early going.
I think only Michigan and Penn State profile as legitimate contenders to Iowa this year. Oklahoma State and Ohio State are intriguing, as they each have a few standout talents as well as some guys who could easily exceed these early expectations. But they also look to have several weights where they may struggle to score any points at the NCAA Tournament, which will make it difficult for them to keep pace with the likes of Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State.
Michigan might be near their ceiling in these projections. They have four wrestlers who could be wrestling for NCAA championships on Saturday night in Stevan Micic (133), Logan Massa (174), Myles Amine (184), and Mason Parris (285) -- that's not nothing. That would be worth at least 80 points by itself. But there are question marks too -- Micic and Parris will need to navigate two of the most brutally competitive weights in the sport this season (133 and 285), while Massa and Amine will have to deal with new weights, as well as the weight of expectations and past performances. And even if all four live up to those projections -- it probably wouldn't be enough to claim a title. They'll need help from other guys on their team, and it's not clear where that would come from. The best bets look like Dylan Ragusin (125), Kanen Storr (149), and Will Lewan (157), but they look like guys who may be competing for spots closer to the bottom of the podium than the top.
As was the case last year, I expect Penn State to end up being Iowa's toughest opposition in the quest to win a national title this year. While Michigan may be close to their ceiling in terms of points here, Penn State is much closer to the floor of their potential projections. They have an enormous amount of upside -- and uncertainty -- owing to the number of inexperienced freshmen that are likely going to be in their lineup this year. The proven things for them are Roman Bravo-Young (133), Nick Lee (141), and Aaron Brooks (184), though the latter has yet to test his mettle in the fires of an NCAA Tournament. All three of them look like solid bets to contend for spots in the NCAA semifinals and perhaps more.
But what truly elevates Penn State's ceiling is the potential of guys like Carter Starocci (174) and Greg Kerkvliet (285), who have the talent to come in and immediately contend for spots in the middle of the All-American podium -- or higher. Nick Lee (165) Michael Beard (197) may not be too far behind them, either. If Robert Howard can give Penn State something at 125 (a weight that has long been a black hole for them) and if they can get better performances out of Jared Verkleeren (149) and Brady Berge (157), or replace them with other new studs, Penn State will have a lineup with few (if any) holes and a lot of scoring upside. They would be a truly dangerous threat to Iowa at that point. Granted, that relies on a lot of things breaking right for Penn State and a lot of fresh faces hitting the ground running, which could be challenging (especially in such a sprint of a season), but if the last decade has taught us anything, it's that you count out Penn State at your peril. They've reloaded with fresh studs in the past, so we can't rule out their ability to do so again this year.
Expectations might be the defining theme for this year's title race. To win their first national title since 2010, Iowa wrestling simply needs to meet them -- do that and it's unlikely anyone else will be able to match them. Meanwhile, for Penn State to claim their ninth national title since 2011, they'll need to exceed the tempered expectations set for them at the early stage of the season. Whichever team handles their side of the expectations equation better will be the one hoisting an NCAA championship trophy in March.