College wrestling made its return Jan. 2 with a series of duals across the MAC, Pac-12, ACC, and SoCon conferences. The results were a welcome sight after eight months of no action — but we're just getting started.
Big Ten teams are scheduled to take to the mat this Friday, Jan. 8, to help kick off what will surely be an unprecedented year. Here's more on what we can expect in 2021.
First, a quick summary of what we know for this season, as of now:
- The NCAA championship is currently scheduled for March 18-20, with bracket sizes and qualification criteria to be determined based on season participation
- The traditional winter tournaments — Cliff Keen Las Vegas, Midlands, Southern Scuffle — will not happen or be rescheduled
- The Big Ten released its schedule Dec. 31 and will start with Rutgers vs. Michigan on Friday, Jan. 8
- The NWCA rankings also came out Dec. 31 with the top five teams being Iowa, Penn State, Michigan, NC State and Nebraska.
- Other conference schedules include Pac-12, MAC, EIWA, SoCon, Big 12 and ACC.
How the NCAA championships will work
The 2021 NCAA DI wrestling championship is scheduled for March 18-20 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Missouri, the same arena in which the 2017 NCAA championships were held. The NCAA tournament will feature the traditional 33-person bracket, but this could change if 50 percent or less of the participating Division I institutions opt to wrestle this season. If the number of teams competing 30 days prior to the championship drops below 51 percent, the tournament will be held at 75 percent of the normal participation capacity. Though the experience for athletes, coaches and families may look different given that the championship will be held in accordance with the CDC rules and regulations around COVID-19 and could include a lower-than-normal participation, the stage will once again be set for a battle of strength and grit.
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Expect to see a battle between familiar, tradition-rich programs like Penn State, Oklahoma State and Iowa as well as a fight for team trophies and championships among contenders like Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and NC State. The battle for top four at the NCAA tournament is always fun, and this year will be no different from that standpoint.
How eligibility and participation will work
The NCAA ruled that all athletes competing this year will receive an extra year of eligibility, which opens the door for a select few wrestlers like Iowa’s two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee to potentially win four NCAA titles, despite missing out on the 2020 championship. However, some schools, including the Ivy League schools of Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard and Penn will not compete this year, meaning that two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis won’t be back on the mat to defend his title. The Big Red were set to compete for a team title this year, but the star-studded lineup will have to wait until 2022.
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This no-Ivy League participation decision rocks every weight class, but this ruling does open the door for athletes from the conferences who have opted to compete including the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SoCon, EIWA and MAC conferences. Individual teams within the conferences also have to make a decision on participation, as Lock Haven, a team that normally competes in the MAC conferences, has chosen not to compete after a decision from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
The qualification process for the 2021 wrestling season could also prove complicated. Teams across the country will also see limited out-of-conference competition, and the shortened season also prevents athletes from being able to compete in major tournaments like Midlands or Cliff Keen Las Vegas. Without the opportunity to test themselves against top-ranked athletes, wrestlers in smaller conferences may miss out on opportunities to showcase their skills and talents, creating a challenge in terms of ranked athletes with weaker schedules.
The Top 25 rankings, right now
Here are the Jan. 5 rankings from the NWCA Division I Wrestling Coaches Poll. Powerhouses Iowa (No. 1) and Penn State (No. 2) lead. Northern Colorado (No. 25) is in the Top 25 for the first time in about 51 years.
|4||North Carolina State||1-0||308||4|
Others Receiving Votes: Michigan State 34, Appalachian State 9, Illinois 7, Virginia 7, Campbell 5, Hofstra 5, Rider 5, Wyoming 4
Dropped Out: Michigan State (0-0)
A quick breakdown of the Top 25
The unanimous No. 1 Hawkeyes took no one by surprise with their ranking. They ended the 2020 season as the top contenders for a team title before the cancellation of the NCAA tournament. Iowa crowned ten All-Americans last season, a rare feat, and will return nine of those athletes this year. The Hawkeyes are the team to beat without a doubt, and head coach Tom Brands is fired up to see what his squad can do this year.
Penn State and Michigan round out the top three, creating a Big Ten top-heavy schedule, as usual. The NC State Wolfpack come in at No. 4. This ACC squad is always fun to watch, anchored by the leadership and talent of the Hidlay brothers, sophomore Trent and senior Hayden Hidlay. Nebraska and Ohio State round out the top ten for the Big Ten, with the Huskers sitting at No. 5 and head coach Tom Ryan's Buckeyes at No. 7. The Bucks have finished in the top-three at the NCAA tournament for the last five years, so with the Scarlet and Gray at No. 7 currently, this could be a team causing some shakeups in the rankings as the season progresses.
In the sixth spot is the always steady and competitive Oklahoma State, the winningest team in NCAA wrestling history. Head coach John Smith has a loaded team this year of returning All-Americans including Kaid Brock at 141 pounds, Boo Lewallen at 149 pounds, and Dakota Geer at 184 pounds. Travis Wittlake and Wyatt Sheets also earned first-team and second-team All-American honors last year. With the addition of NCAA finalist Daton Fix into the lineup in mid-February, the Cowboys will be ready to rock and will be a team that could rise a spot or two in the rankings if the Big Ten shifts up and down and teams take some losses.
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The biggest competition for the Cowboys in the Big 12 will be Iowa State, and we'll see this match on Jan. 30. Oklahoma State beat ISU 23-9 last year, but this year's Cyclone squad is stronger and will be a team to watch. Another Big 12 competitor, Northern Colorado, snuck into the rankings at No. 25 to earn a top-25 ranking for the first time in 51 years. Leading the Bears is 149-pounder Andrew Alirez, and the young Colorado native wants to put his team on the map. While the Big Ten dominates the rankings with ten teams in the Top 25, competitive teams and title contenders run across all seven conferences, creating another year of can't-miss wrestling.
Some highlights on the schedule
The Big Ten schedule begins competition this weekend, starting with Michigan vs. Rutgers and Minnesota vs. Nebraska on Jan. 8. Illinois will then take on Indiana and Michigan will battle Maryland on Jan. 10 to round out the first weekend of Big Ten action. Last year's No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes will return to the mat for the first time against Nebraska on Jan. 15 while the 2019 NCAA champions Penn State will start their season against Rutgers in the RAC on Saturday, Jan. 15. Iowa will take on the Nittany Lions in Rec Hall on Friday, Feb. 12 for what is expected to be another barn-burner of a dual.
With Iowa returning nine of its starters and Penn State training up a young squad, the battle between these two is sure to continue. Added to the mix of title contenders this year will be the Michigan Wolverines who will bring a stacked squad to the mat that features 2019 NCAA finalist Stevan Micic, 2019 Big Ten finalist Myles Amine, and 2020 senior national champions Logan Massa and Mason Parris. Michigan finished last year ranked No. 22, but this team is primed to make a run for a title with top athletes out of Olympic redshirt and their returners looking strong. The Jan. 8 dual against Rutgers, a team that finished ranked No. 25 last year, will be a good early chance for the Michigan Men to wrestle a solid opponent and bust off folkstyle rust in competition. The season as a whole, however, and the rules governing this unusual winter and spring of wrestling will look a little different as we move closer to March.
In the ACC, top teams Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and NC State will once again be in a battle for the conference title, but head coach Pat Popolizio and the Wolfpack are hungry to defend their championship again. North Carolina wrestles NC State on Jan. 29 while the Hokies take on the Tar Heels next weekend, Jan. 15. Virginia Tech will wrestle the Wolfpack on Feb. 5 in Blacksburg and will look to make a run for a team trophy at the national championship anchored behind the leadership of 2019 NCAA champion Mekhi Lewis.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys can also never be ignored, and head coach John Smith has a powerful roster this year of proven veterans and young talent. The Cowboys rank sixth right now nationally and have the chance to bust through the top four and look to bring home some team hardware in March if everything goes according to Smith's plans. With the season just starting, the storylines are already emerging for what will be a unique year but a year full of elite wrestling across the country.