Cliff Keen has ended, Midlands is right around the corner, and the Southern Scuffle is coming up, so what better time to make some wild predictions for the rest of the college wrestling season?
Last year's three returning NCAA champions all sit atop their respective weight classes, but Olympic redshirts and wild upsets have disrupted the rest of the rankings. Let's take a look at who could make a run to the NCAA finals, and who from outside the Top 10 in the rankings might have a chance to make some noise in March.
Not a lot of room at the lightweights
The 125 pound and 133-pound weight classes are deep, led by Iowa teammates Spencer Lee at 125 and Austin DeSanto at 133 pounds. Lee has held the No. 1 spot all season, after coming into the year as the pre-season favorite following his second NCAA title run in last year's tournament.
Behind Lee is NCAA finalist Jack Mueller, a Virginia senior who just won the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Princeton's Pat Glory and Oklahoma State's Nick Piccininni hold down spots No. 3 and No. 4. Piccininni pinned Lee in Gallagher-Iba Arena last year, and Glory just beat Piccininni in the same venue two weekends ago.
For someone outside the Top 10 at 125 pounds to break through and take down one of these four All-Americans will be a challenge. Northwestern's Michael DeAugustino is No. 11 currently while Penn's Michael Colaiocco sits at No. 12. These two wrestlers have 7-2 and 7-3 records respectively and both could make a run for the podium, but the finalist spot may be tough.
The 133-pound weight class rankings tell a similar story, with NCAA fifth-place finisher Austin DeSanto at No. 1 and Wisconsin's Seth Gross at No. 2. DeSanto took over the top spot in early December after upsetting 2018 NCAA champion Gross in the Iowa-Wisconsin dual, and with these two guys holding down the top spots, another finalist would have to upset one of the two point-scoring machines.
Adding to the depth of the weight is 125 pound Big Ten champion Sebastian Rivera who has moved up to 133 pounds. NCAA All-American Roman Bravo-Young holds down the No. 4 spot. Spots No. 11 and 12 right now belong to Northern Colorado's Mosha Schwartz and Binghamton's Zack Trampe, with the latter undefeated at 6-0 and the former 12-2. Campbell's Noah Gonser has also impressed, but at No. 13, he'll have a tough road ahead of him.
Kaden Gfeller is a mystery, but Tariq Wilson and Real Woods are potential finalist threats at 141 pounds
The 141-pound weight class is where the action is. With NCAA finalist Joey McKenna graduated and NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis taking an Olympic redshirt, 141 is open.
Ohio State's Luke Pletcher holds down the top spot after upsetting last year's fourth-place finisher Dom Demas early in the season, and the Buckeye captain has only continued to dominate. He's solidified himself as the man to beat at this weight, and he wrestles with the determination of someone who wants to bring the 141-pound title back to Columbus.
Penn State's Mr. Consistent, Nick Lee is No. 2 with Minnesota's Mitch McKee at No. 3 after beating Demas at Cliff Keen. Demas is fourth with Ian Parker and All-American Chad Red at No. 5 and No. 6.
With this weight class as deep as it is, the odds of an outsider coming in and making a title run seem slim, but the depth at 141 actually makes this the perfect weight class for an underdog finalist.
WRESTLERS TO WATCH: 7 breakout athletes who could become All-Americans this year
Starting at No. 11, Oklahoma State's Kaden Gfeller has the potential to surprise some people in March, but the sophomore Cowboy has not wrestled yet this year, so calling him a finalist might be giving him too much credit. Oklahoma State head coach John Smith knows how to work some magic, so perhaps he has a plan for his 141-pound podium contender, but Gfeller is still a 'wait-and-see' contender.
North Carolina State's Tariq Wilson and Stanford's Real Woods, however, will be fun guys to watch moving forward. Wilson shocked the country when he made a run to third at the 2018 NCAA tournament at 133 pounds, but he then dropped in the Blood Round of last year's tournament. Now up at 141 pounds, Wilson hasn't quite found his footing against ranked opponents like Red, but given his deep run in 2018, we can't count him out.
Real Woods holds down the No. 14 spot, but it's hard to forget the overtime scramble battle that he had with No. 1 Luke Pletcher at the Covelli Center early in the season. Woods has not had the chance to wrestle that level of competition since that dual, but he hasn't lost a match after dropping to Pletcher. He will head to the Southern Scuffle at the start of the new year, so watch for the Cardinal to rip through the 141 pound bracket at that tournament and make some noise.
Oklahoma State and North Carolina State are also expected to go to the Scuffle, so wrestling fans could be treated to a matchup featuring any combination of Gfeller-Woods-Wilson if Smith wrestles Gfeller at the tournament.
Can Woods make an NCAA final? Well, he took the No. 1 guy in the country to overtime in Columbus on the opening day of Ohio State's new wrestling venue with a crowd full of the Buckeye faithful. Pletcher has looked unstoppable since that dual, but Woods is hungry, and he's hungry for another match against the Ohio State star, perhaps under the bright lights on a Saturday night in March.
The middleweights are tough as well
Picking anyone outside the Top 10 to finish Top 2 at the NCAAs is tough, and it's particularly tough at 149, 157, 165 and 174, where the top four in each of those weights seem solid. The 149-pound weight class has the potential to be interesting, with No. 1 Austin O'Connor coming back from injury and last year's eighth-place finisher Pat Lugo in third.
The problem for contenders at 149 is the rest of the top 6, where All-American Boo Lewallen sits at fourth and freshman phenoms Brayton Lee and Sammy Sasso hold down spots No. 5 and No. 6. All-American Max Thomsen in No. 7, and All-American Jarrett Degen is No. 10. No. 13 Michael Carr hasn't wrestled yet this year, so he's an interesting name to watch, and No. 15 Kizhan Clarke is undefeated, but both of these guys need to wrestle more ranked opponents before they can move into the finalist conversation.
At 157 pounds, Ryan Deakin and Hayden Hidlay have separated themselves as the two best at the weight, but right behind them is junior world champion David Carr and 2019 All-American Larry Early at No. 3 and No. 4. Penn State's Brady Berge earned himself the No. 5 spot after a win against Lehigh's Josh Humphreys, who ranks No. 12 while Rider's Jesse Dellavecchia is 13-0 with a win over No. 7 Quincy Monday.
Iowa' All-American Kaleb Young is No. 8 with Purdue star Kendall Coleman at No. 9, creating a solid wall that any wrestler outside the Top 10 may struggle to crack. No. 11 Taleb Rahmani of Pittsburgh and No. 12 Josh Humphreys of Lehigh are both Round of 12 wrestlers who will be fighting for a podium spot in March. A hot streak at the tournament could put both of those guys in a good spot, but a finalist position will be difficult.
WHAT HAPPENED IN VEGAS: Here's what you need to know about the 2019 Cliff Keen Invitational results
The 165 and 174 pound weight classes are both led at spots No. 1 and No. 2 by a Penn State-Iowa duo in Vincenzo Joseph and Alex Marinelli at 165 and Mark Hall and Michael Kemerer at 174. The All-American pairs have three national titles and four Big Ten titles between them and will look to add to those totals this year.
Joseph and Marinelli battled in the Big Ten finals last year at 165 pounds with Marinelli pulling off the win and earning the No. 1 seed at the NCAA tournament, before dropping to eventual NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis in the quarterfinals. To pick against Marinelli and Joseph would be bold, and even assuming that one of those two doesn't make it to Saturday night, All-Americans Evan Wick, Isaiah White, Josh Shields and David McFadden are waiting in the wing for their shot at the top-ranked guys.
The four wrestlers at spots 11-14 are all solid with Cael McCormick holding a 9-1 record with his only loss to Wick. Jake Wentzel of Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State's Travis Wittlake are undefeated, with Ethan Smith of Ohio State becoming more dangerous by the day. These competitors should be podium contenders, but suggesting that they'll beat the crop of All-Americans ahead of them and make the finals is a tough call.
Hall and Kemerer own 174 pounds, and for the first few weeks of the season, 174 was all Hall, but Kemerer could very well challenge the 2017 NCAA champion. In fact, the winner of that battle, if it happens at the NCAA tournament, could have serious implications on the team race between Penn State and Iowa.
Outside of them, the 174 pound weight class is filled with familiar stars in seniors Jordan Kutler, Dylan Lydy, Bryce Steiert, Joe Smith, Devin Skatzka, Anthony Valencia, Joey Gunther, Ben Harvey and Kimball Bastian. The only non-seniors in the top 13 are No. 6 Mikey Labriola and No. 12 Kaleb Romero of Ohio State. The name recognition and experience of No. 11 Harvey, No. 13 Bastian and even No. 12 Romero makes them tempting to pick, and while all three could certainly be All-Americans, the finalist position is something entirely different.
All of these athletes have had good wins this year, but we're going to play it safe at 174 pounds, though if you want to go wild with some lower-ranked finalist predictions, 184 is your weight.
Is picking Nelson Brands or Travis Stefanik to make a finals run putting too much stock in early season duals?
The answer is yes, but playing this out is kind of interesting. Arizona State's Zahid Valencia holds down the top spot at 184 pounds with North Carolina State freshman Trent Hidlay in second after an impressive early start to the season. Hunter Bolen of the rising and always dangerous Virginia Tech Hokies is No. 3 with the only loss of his 13-1 record coming against No. 4 Taylor Lujan of UNI. All-American Taylor Venz is No. 5 while Binghamton's Lou DePrez is No. 6.
To make a finals run, anyone outside the Top 10 would have to beat this solid top-six that doesn't even include Cornell's Ben Darmstadt, Pittsburgh's Nino Bonaccorsi, or Penn State's Aaron Brooks. No. 10 Tanner Harvey of American is also fun to watch and will try to become the school's first All-American since 2016.
But 184 has some spark outside the top 10, and we like the results so far from Iowa's Nelson Brands and Travis Stefanik.
Brands had an early run with wins against Matthew Waddel and Sam Colbray, but a loss to Princeton's Travis Stefanik set him back, dropped him in the rankings and caused concerns. Taking a No. 14 freshman all the way to the finals is a dangerous game, but Brands has grit, focus and, of course, the bit of brilliance he's shown so far in a big in-state dual. The other major worry about Brands is that teammate Cash Wilcke has been the starter at this weight as well for the Hawkeyes. Brands will not only need to beat everyone else in the country, but he also needs to beat his teammate.
If we think Brands could be a factor in March, however, we have to consider Stefanik as well. The Princeton sophomore is 5-1 with a loss to unranked Chris of Lehigh, but the Brands win launched him up in the rankings. Currently, at No. 18 in the country, Stefanik has a long way to go before he's challenging the likes of Hidlay and Bolen, but his upward trajectory suggests positive growth.
Neither of these guys are as likely to be finalists as Real Woods, Tariq Wilson, or even Kaden Gfeller, if he comes back. But, you always have a make a few out-of-the-box picks, and these two guys could be up-and-coming stars to at least All-American, if not upset some people on their way to the quarter or semifinals.
Josh Hokit could be a finalist at 197 or 285, but the football star is going heavyweight this year
Picking Josh Hokit to be a finalist is not only picking an All-American, but it's picking a great storyline for the senior and for the weight class. The 2019 fifth-place finisher came into last season with a 17-9 career record and ran through his national bracket with poise, confidence and heart.
Now back for another shot at the top of the podium, Hokit is once fresh off another Fresno State football season and blowing past opponents on the mat. He picked up three wins at the Reno Tournament of Champions and will have a double-header against Cal Poly and Utah Valley to start the new year.
At 285, Hokit is ranked No. 12 behind NCAA champ Anthony Cassar, junior World Champ Mason Paris and All-Americans Trent Hillger, Tanner Hall, Jordan Wood and Matt Stencel. Iowa freshman Tony Cassioppi, Utah Valley U23 World Team member Tate Orndorff and 2019 NCAA qualifiers Chase Singletary, Demetrius Thomas and Jere Heino also rank in front of him, but Hokit proved last year that he can beat All-Americans and he can put Fresno State back on the map. Watch for Hokit to slowly rise up the ranks as the season continues and make his way past several of the top-ranked guys in the heavyweight division.
Of course, the very concept of picking NCAA finalists outside of the Top 10 in December is not wise. But few people ever take the No. 8 seed to win the whole tournament, a No. 15 seed to advance to the semifinals or a No. 26 seed to take seventh, and we saw all of those outcomes in last year's tournament.
Is the idea of Kaden Gfeller, Tariq Wilson, Real Woods, Nelson Brands, Travis Stefanik or Josh Hokit as finalists too absurd? Maybe, but ask Tariq Wilson how many people expected him to finish third in 2018 after entering the tournament unseeded.