The release of the first NWCA rankings of the 2021-2022 season means that dual rivalries, stacked tournaments and unexpected storylines are right around the corner, and this year will hopefully represent a slight return to normalcy.
Most programs return nearly their entire rosters, thanks to the COVID year of extra eligibility, and the Iowa Hawkeyes, in particular, have used this opportunity to field one of the strongest teams in program history.
The Black and Gold are no doubt the team to beat, but Penn State has a strong track record of success, and motivation is high for anyone else to dare challenge these two powerhouse programs.
Here are the rankings and the biggest takeaways and some thoughts on what we can expect from the nation’s best wrestlers as the season starts.
2021 FINAL RANK
Top teams: Iowa earns unanimous No. 1 ranking
Unsurprisingly, the reigning NCAA champion Iowa Hawkeyes claimed the No. 1 ranking in this first poll, a result indicative of their 2020-2021 success and the return of their entire winning lineup.
The Hawks are, of course, bringing back their entire squad from 2021, led by three-time champion and two-time Hodge winner Spencer Lee and three-time All-Americans and NCAA finalists Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer. The depth of Iowa is what has made this team so dangerous over the last two seasons, and the experience of these athletes will once again make them a major threat in 2022.
But Penn State is coming.
The No. 2 Nittany Lions put on a show in St. Louis in March, winning four of the ten NCAA finals and finishing within 15.5 points of the veteran Hawkeye squad. Penn State will return this year with even more firepower, potentially adding NCAA finalist Max Dean at the 197 pound starting spot where 2021 seventh-place finisher Michael Beard competed last year. Freshman Alex Facundo is also expected to join the lineup at 165 to replace Joe Lee, who is likely to drop down to 157 pounds and look to earn some more ranked wins. Facundo comes with high expectations, as does any athlete wearing the Blue and White singlet, and if he can put points on the board and fight for a podium spot in March, he could be a key difference-maker in the chase for the team trophy.
Trophy teams: The race for the top four is tighter than ever
Oklahoma State and Arizona State earned the third and fourth spots in last year’s NCAA tournament to bring home team trophies, but both have dropped a few spots from their tournament finishes in comparison to this year’s preseason poll.
The Cowboys earned the No. 7 spot, and certainly being left outside the top five will make this poll bulletin board material for head coach John Smith and his squad. Oklahoma State wants more NCAA hardware, and the team has a good chance with stars like Daton Fix and AJ Ferrari returning again to lead this team.
Arizona State comes in right after the Cowboys at No. 8, with their top wrestler, Brandon Courtney, looking to make another NCAA final. The Sun Devils put together a nice NCAA tournament in March, but the field is deeper this year with the Ivies and new freshmen, so Arizona State will need to prove itself again against some teams on the rise.
SEASON OF STORYLINES: Everything to watch out for in the 2021-2022 wrestling season
Jumping ahead of both of those returning trophy teams is the often nationally underrated Missouri, a team that finally solidified a ranking representative of its talents. The Tigers haven’t had the toughest schedule in recent years and were particularly hurt by limited competition in 2021, in terms of being able to demonstrate their skills against the top teams, but this ranking puts a target on their back in a new way. Led by junior world champions Keegan O’Toole at 165 pounds and Rocky Elam at 197 pounds, Missouri has a unique roster, and while not all of the names on Missouri’s roster may be familiar to all wrestling fans, this is a squad that will be dangerous. Credit to head coach Brian Smith for the exceptional recruiting that led to the strength of this year’s team, and don’t be surprised if this team lives up to the hype.
While Missouri is young and hungry, Michigan, the fourth-ranked team in the NCAA, is one of the most experienced, with perhaps the most anticipated wrestler on its roster — Olympian Stevan Micic — returning for a historic eighth season of college. The Wolverines are solid from 125 to 285 pounds with All-Americans in Micic, Olympic bronze medalist Myles Amine back down at 184 pounds, graduate transfer All-American Patrick Brucki coming in at 197 pounds and, of course, NCAA finalist and junior world champion Mason Parris anchoring the team at heavyweight.
14 consecutive national championships ✅— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 28, 2021
6 returning individual NCAA Champions ✅
10 teams in the Top 25 ✅@B1GWrestling will be must-see 📺 this season.
Full Big Ten Network schedule: https://t.co/3587bSKKXh pic.twitter.com/QXXkHUoaoa
Speaking of heavyweights though, No. 11 Minnesota will welcome back with open arms their own Olympian in gold medalist Gable Steveson, the legendary big man who is looking to make a final statement in the maroon and gold. He’ll be joined by All-American teammates Patrick McKee and Brayton Lee, and these three will aim to put enough big points on the board to keep the Gophers in trophy contention. Minnesota doesn’t have the depth of a team like Michigan, but all three of its All-Americans are expected to be podium contenders again, and Steveson’s bonus rate will no doubt be a factor that helps the Gophers in the team standings. The No. 11 spot is low for a team that finished seventh in last year’s poll, but it’s not fair to ask just Steveson to carry this team to a trophy. The Gophers will need success from far more of their weight classes if they want to take down the likes of Michigan and even fellow Big Ten foes in No. 9 Nebraska and No. 10 Ohio State, who both have multiple podium contenders in their lineups.
The ACC, as always, will be fun from a team perspective. Four teams garnered pre-season rankings with NC State leading the way. After finishing seventh in the 2021 NCAA tournament, the three-time conference champion Wolfpack rose two spots to earn a top-five position, and they’ll have some star power to show off this season with NCAA finalists Trent and Hayden Hidlay leading the way along with two-time third-place NCAA finisher Tariq Wilson adding depth at a new weight of 149 pounds this year.
NC State’s biggest potential for more team points in March this year will come at 125 pounds and 197 pounds where their talented wrestlers Jakob Camacho and Isaac Trumble have the chance to podium but haven’t done so yet. Camacho had a strong dual season last year before the NCAA tournament where he took tough postseason loses against Brandon Courtney and Killian Cardinale that put him just short of All-American honors, while Trumble went 6-1 last season with a win over NCAA finalist Nino Bonaccorsi before losing out on the starting spot to Nick Reenan. Both these guys have the capability of helping elevate the Wolfpack back to trophy status.
Just behind the Pack though is No. 6 Virginia Tech followed closely by No. 12 North Carolina and No. 15 Pittsburgh, and this foursome always competes hard. North Carolina and Virginia Tech also have returning champions in Austin O’Connor and Mekhi Lewis at 157 and 174 pounds respectively, demonstrating the elite level of wrestling coming out of this conference.
Teams to watch: Nationwide depth builds anticipation
Iowa State, coming in at No. 14, finds itself in the middle of rankings once again, but this is a team that has historically been underestimated and deserves more respect. In an effort to not overlook this lineup, be sure to watch the talent that Kevin Dresser will put on the mat this year from the start of the season against Army all the way through the infamous Last Chance Open. NCAA champion David Carr will lead this squad against tough Big 12 competition including No. 3 Missouri and No. 7 Oklahoma State, they’ll also have elite non-conference competition in Arizona State on January 9. This team doesn’t mess around. The Cyclones may be outside trophy contention now, but that doesn’t mean the wrestling will be any less exciting to watch or produce any fewer storylines.
Speaking of storylines, the other two teams in the rankings with returning champs that have yet to be mentioned are Stanford and Cornell, with the former just outside the rankings and the latter coming in at No. 13.
Stanford faced a tough season last year with COVID-19 protocols and the threat of their program being cut, so this squad will certainly be expected to rise into the top 25 by mid-season under the leadership of new head coach Rob Koll and returning NCAA champion Shane Griffith. Koll came to Stanford after three decades at Cornell where he left longtime assistant coach Mike Grey in charge of the Big Red and two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis, but he’ll compete against his former program in a highly-anticipated dual on November 20.
After sitting out the 2020-2021 season with the rest of the Ivy, Cornell is ready to be back in the action, as is Ivy League foe No. 22 Princeton, a team that has recently pushed the Big Red and risen to the top of the conference.
THE LEGEND OF YIANNI: Get to know Cornell's two-time NCAA champion
The Princeton-Cornell rivalry is an intense dual event every year, but there’s another New Jersey team that always puts up a fight against the Tigers: Rutgers. As the only team in the top 25 without a dual win last year, the Scarlet Knights want nothing more than to roll into the 2021-2022 season with some statement performances. Head coach Scott Goodale boasts three NCAA podium finishers in his lineup this year in three-time All-American Sebastian Rivera, 2021 fourth-place finisher John Poznanski, and 174-pound eighth-place finisher Jackson Turley, and all three want to help Rutgers get back near the top-ten team position they were in after the 2019 season. There’s tons of potential on this Scarlet Knight squad, and their match against the Princeton Tigers on February 18th will be must-watch wrestling.
There’s great pride in being a top-25 team, and the changes in the bottom fourth of the rankings creates excitement as the season progresses, so don’t sleep on any of those returning votes teams either. The App State-Campbell rivalry, in particular, makes the SoCon an exciting conference this year. Earning a ranked position is expected for so many of the Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC schools, but watching wrestling grow in these smaller conferences is a good sign of national depth and the growth of the sport across the country.