It's only November, but the college wrestling season is off a wild start.
The Penn State Nittany Lions hold down the No. 1 team spot in the NWCA rankings, but seven different teams have No. 1-ranked wrestlers after the the third week of competition. Three NCAA champions from the 2018-2019 year have made their debuts already this season, and three champions from previous years have also taken the mat in early duals.
All six of those champions set atop their weight classes to start this year. While the true test of dominance comes at the NCAA tournament in March, here's what we know about the No. 1 guys at each weight class right now.
(Rankings from Intermat)
At 125 pounds, Spencer Lee is the man until proven otherwise
It's tough to doubt the two-time champ. After taking three losses last year and dropping the Big Ten title to Northwestern's Sebastian Rivera, Lee dominated the 125-pound bracket at the NCAA tournament to win his second consecutive title, and he's back to racking up bonus points already this season. Lee made his 2019-2020 season debut against UT-Chattanooga in style, picking up a 16-5 major decision against Fabian Gutierrez and putting four team points on the board for the Hawkeyes. He'll likely face Iowa State's No. 8 Alex Mackall in the Cy-Hawk dual this weekend, an opponent he beat 13-4 last year. Lee's a contender not just for another national title but for the Hodge Trophy, though he could wrestle a modified college schedule as he aims to qualify for the Olympic Trials in April.
Spencer Lee captures the first win with a 16-5 score. Let's keep it rolling, Hawks! pic.twitter.com/Kju05ez2cj— Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) November 17, 2019
Lee opted not to take an Olympic redshirt this season, and he'll be a key part of Iowa's lineup, particularly in the postseason when the Hawkeyes aim to take down the reigning champions of Penn State. Iowa coach Tom Brands said during media day that "Spencer Lee's path to the Olympic Games will go through collegiate wrestling, will go through the Big Tens and the NCAA Championships," but in order to make the team he first has to qualify for the Trials and then navigate a stacked 57kg bracket.
133-pounder Seth Gross has lived up to the hype
Wisconsin’s Seth Gross has had perhaps the most impressive start to the season compared to his No. 1-ranked peers, having just worked his way through the loaded 57kg bracket at the Bill Ferrell Memorial International Open to qualify for the Olympic Trials. Gross beat three NCAA champions in Nick Suriano, Darian Cruz and Nathan Tomasello on his way to the first-place finish, and his victory ensures that Gross will not have to cut down to 57kg again until April. As a 133-pounder, Gross is undefeated on the season and has picked up wins against Tye Varndell, Derek Spann, Casey Cobb, Lane Peters and Gary Joint, with two of those wins coming by fall. He will be the guy to beat this year, and he too could be a Hodge Trophy contender.
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A 2018 national champion at this weight, Gross has looked nearly unstoppable since his move out to Madison. The Badgers will look to Gross for big team points as they chase a team trophy this year. If his Ferrell performance is any indication of Gross' potential, he's going to be dangerous in his final year as a college wrestler.
Luke Pletcher holds the top spot at 141 after a fiery start to the season
Bumping up from 133 to 141, Luke Pletcher has shown that he's a wrestler to fear, not only for his talent but for his mental toughness in close matches.
Ohio State's Pletcher made a statement in his first tournament at 141 pounds by beating last year's fourth-place finisher Dom Demas in a tiebreaker to move up the rankings to the top spot. Demas held the No. 1 ranking coming into the season after last season's first- and third-place finishers Yianni Diakomihalis and Jaydin Eierman announced their Olympic redshirts and second-place finisher Joey McKenna graduated. Demas, for his part, has only racked up wins since falling to Pletcher, and the two All-Americans could meet again at the Cliff Keen Invitational in early December for a battle of No. 1 and No. 2. Penn State's Nick Lee will also be fighting for the top of the podium at 141 pounds after finishing fifth in last year's tournament.
Pletcher is 8-0 so far this year and added two major decisions last weekend against Cole Matthews of Pittsburgh and Mitch Moore of Virginia Tech after battling a close overtime dual against Stanford's Real Woods the previous weekend. The Buckeyes wrestle Cornell next Dec. 1, but the Big Red do not currently have a ranked 141-pounder in the lineup, so expect Pletcher to run up the scoreboard again at the Covelli Center on that Sunday.
North Carolina's Austin O’Connor has the No. 1 spot at 149 pounds but has not yet stepped on the mat this year
The only No. 1-ranked wrestler so far this season who has not competed in a dual yet is Austin O'Connor, the North Carolina sophomore who finished third in last year's NCAA tournament. O'Connor has been out with an injury, and while his return date is not confirmed, his No. 1 ranking suggests that he'll be a a valuable asset to the Tar Heels when he's back at full strength. Redshirt sophomore Gino Esposito and Michael Goldfeder have been competing in place of O'Connor, but head coach Coleman Scott will be happy to have O'Connor back when he's healthy to add team points for a Tar Heel team that just suffered an upset loss against Stanford.
NO. 1 IN THE NATION: Penn State holds the top spot in the latest NWCA poll
Missouri's Brock Mauller holds the No. 2 spot at 149 pounds, and the young Tiger is 6-0 with wins over Brent Moore, Tanner Smith, Colston DiBlasi, Seth Hogue, Austin Smith and Mousa Jodeh. Mauller has been a critical part of the Missouri lineup this year, and his bonus points will be needed as the Tigers look for their first Division I win of the season.
Hayden Hidlay is chasing his first title at 157 pounds
After finishing second in the NCAA tournament his freshman year and nearly knocking off Jason Nolf in the semifinals of last year's tournament before finishing fourth, North Carolina's Hayden Hidlay is ready for his run at the title in a weight class where he has been a consistent player the last three seasons. Nolf and last year's second-place finisher Tyler Berger have graduated, leaving just Hidlay, Iowa's Kaleb Young and Northwestern's Ryan Deakin left from the top-six finishers in 2019. Hidlay won't face either of those two guys in the dual season and will instead look to put up an undefeated season within the ACC and hold on to his top spot heading into the national tournament.
🐺 🤼♂️ | RECAP: Bonus points by Tyrie Houghton & Trent Hidlay, ranked wins for Hayden Hidlay & Tariq Wilson lead #9 @PackWrestle to a 22-11 home win over Old Dominion!#PackMentalityhttps://t.co/v3fFQT89yg— NC State Wrestling 🤼♂️ (@PackWrestle) November 16, 2019
A team captain for NC State this year, Hidlay is off to a 6-0 start, picking up a ranked win over No. 4 Larry Early in the Old Dominion Dual and then going 5-0 at the Wolfpack Open last weekend. Hidlay lost to Early at this same dual last year, so this two-point win over the Monarch grappler allows him to hold on to undefeated season hopes early. Four of his six total wins so far have come in bonus point fashion including a pin over Josh McClure and techs against Will Evans, Douglass Gudenburr and Garrett Fisk. NC State will take on Cornell next, and again, the Big Red do not have a ranked 157-pounder to test Hidlay, though he'll be challenged at the Cliff Keen Invitational in December where he might see Deakin. Hidlay has never lost the Northwestern middleweight, and if he continues to rack up wins like he has, Hidlay will be a name to watch in the 157-pound title chase.
Only one wrestler has ever beaten Vincenzo Joseph in an NCAA final. Last weekend, Joseph avenged that loss and holds the No. 1 spot at 165 pounds
Like several of his Penn State teammates past and current, two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph tested himself last weekend at the Bill Ferrell Memorial International Open, beating 2019 NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis before falling to fellow Penn State multiple-time national champion Jason Nolf in the semifinals. The win against Lewis avenged the loss Joseph took in last year's NCAA finals and sent a message to the wrestling world that Joseph is a different wrestler than the one that took second at last year's tournament. He'll still need to qualify for the Olympic Trials if he aims to compete for a spot on the United States Olympic Team at a crowded 74kg weight class, and he could aim to book his ticket to the Trials at Senior Nationals in December.
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Outside of the Ferrell, Joseph has wrestled just one time this year, picking up a tech fall against Navy on Nov. 10. He'll take on No. 5 Josh Shields of Arizona State this Friday, and he's 2-0 against Shields so far in college. Joseph's biggest challenge this year will come from Iowa's Alex Marinelli, a wrestler that Joseph has yet to beat in his college career. Joseph could see Marinelli both at the Iowa-Penn State dual and Big Tens before the NCAA tournament, so circle those two dates on your calendar. Until then, as long as Joseph keeps winning, he's still the No. 1 guy at 165 pounds.
The 174-pound weight class is all Mark Hall right now, and the 2017 champ earned bonus points against every opponent so far
Penn State's Mark Hall did not compete at the Bill Ferrell Memorial International Open with Joseph. He instead barreled through the bracket at the Black Knight Invite with two falls and a major decision to capture the tournament title at 174 pounds. His three wins in New York brought Hall's season record to 4-0, a solid start for the 2017 NCAA champion. Hall has just five losses in his career, with two of those coming against Zahid Valencia in the 2018 and 2019 NCAA finals. Valencia has now moved up to 184 pounds, and the only three other athletes who have picked up wins against Hall have all graduated. The Penn State senior is undoubtedly the favorite in this weight class, and he'll look to bookend his career with national titles.
Hall will face Zahid's brother Anthony in the Penn State-Arizona State dual this weekend, and while the two have never competed against each other in college, Valencia has already picked up a loss to Purdue's Dylan Lydy and likely won't give Hall the trouble that Zahid has in the past two years. If Hall continues to bonus point wrestlers like he has so far this year, he could put himself in contention for the Hodge Trophy as well as another NCAA title.
Zahid Valencia is chasing a third title, an undefeated season and a Hodge Trophy at 184 pounds
Up at at a new weight class, Valencia is rolling through opponents just like he did at 174 pounds. The two-time Arizona State champion did face a test from Nebraska's Taylor Venz at the Journeymen Classic last weekend. Other than his 8-7 win over the Cornhusker, Valencia has pinned or tech-falled all six of his opponents, putting up an 85.7 percent bonus rate and a 7-0 record to start the year. Valencia, like Hall, has just a few losses spread out over his entire career, but all of those athletes have either graduated or are not in his weight class anymore.
Valencia is a Hodge favorite after being a finalist in 2018, and he's expected to put on a show every time he takes the mat at 184 pounds. He could face a challenge from Penn State this Friday, but the Nittany Lion's top 184-pounder, Shakur Rasheed, has not wrestled yet this year after battling injury. Valencia's dual against Venz showed that perhaps the Arizona State champ can't pin everybody, but he's certainly dominant and will be expected to chase his third NCAA this spring while making a run at wrestling's most prestigious award, the Dan Hodge Trophy, along the way.
No.1 197-pounder Kollin Moore hopes to end his career on top
Like so many top-ranked guys on this list, Ohio State's Kollin Moore has been close to a title almost every year he's competed at the national tournament. He finished third in 2017 as a redshirt freshman, fourth in 2018 after earning the No. 1 seed going into the bracket and second in 2019 behind Hodge Trophy winner Bo Nickal. With Nickal gone and one more year of experience under his belt, the Buckeye captain is now ready for his shot at the top of the podium.
EARLY SEASON DUALS TO WATCH: Don't miss Ohio State vs. Cornell on December 1
Moore's season is off to a dominating start, as he's picked up wins in all eight of his matches so far this year with an 87.5 percent bonus rate. His most impressive win came from a 19-8 major decision over No. 10 Nathan Traxler. Though he was also tested against Oklahoma's Jake Woodley in overtime at the MSU Open, Moore has shown that he's still the man at 197 pounds. Cornell does not have a ranked athlete at 197 pounds for Moore in his next dual, but he'll face steep competition at the Cliff Keen Invitational later in December. Moore's record of success is solid, and the only guys who have beaten him more than once in college are Brett Pfarr, Bo Nickal and Kyle Conel, a Penn State transfer originally from Kent State who pinned Moore at the NCAA tournament. Conel just took an unranked loss at the Black Knight Invite and while he could be a concern for Moore again, the Buckeye's early season statistics prove he's a confident wrestler ready to fight for a title in his final campaign.
Anthony Cassar is the most dangerous heavyweight in the country
The 2019 heavyweight champion has only wrestled one dual meet so far this year, but he pinned his opponent in less than 5 minutes and will look to do the same against Arizona State's Tanner Hall on Friday. Hall recently took a loss to Utah Valley's Tate Orndorff, a wrestler Cassar majored at the NCAA tournament last year, so he'll take on Cassar with a 6-1 record.
The Nittany Lions are BACK! Nick Lee, Luke Gardner, Mark Hall and Anthony Cassar recorded pins in their bouts against Navy, helping propel Penn State to a 45-0 shutout win over the Midshipmen. #WeAre— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling) November 10, 2019
📸: @pennstateWREST pic.twitter.com/g2bwGBO0X7
After taking down Minnesota freshman phenom Gable Steveson in last year's Big Ten finals and then again in the NCAA semifinals, Cassar solidified himself as a breakout star to watch in last year's tournament, and he's shown this year that he's ready to run it back and end his career as a two-time champion. Cassar wrestles with confidence and swagger, and with his team in contention for another title, you can't count out Cassar to be on top of the podium again in March. It's early in the season to make these kinds of predictions, but Cassar has given no reason to doubt him, even after just one dual so far this year.