DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Some think Minnesota is the nation’s top wrestling team this season. Others believe Penn State is primed for a third straight NCAA championship.
Almost everyone knows not to sleep on Iowa, and Ohio State certainly appears to be a program on the rise.
No matter how you look at it, the Big Ten is set to rule the sport in 2012-13: Four of the top five teams in the National Wrestling Coaches Association/USA Today preseason poll, led by the top-ranked Gophers, are from the Big Ten.
The college wrestling season begins in earnest for many of the top contenders this weekend and ends in March at the NCAA championships in Des Moines.
Minnesota is loaded this season. It returns all but two starters from last year’s team — which finished second to the Nittany Lions at last year’s NCAA meet — including heavyweight champion Tony Nelson and 149-pound runner-up Dylan Ness.
The road to the national title will once again go through State College, where Penn State has already sold out every home dual match. Coach Cael Sanderson, who helped guide protege Jake Varner to a gold medal at this summer’s London Olympics, has built a deep roster that includes seven ranked wrestlers to start the season.
“The guys who wrestle in our room, obviously it’s one of the best rooms in the country. So it really helps out with getting prepared for the matches,” Penn State wrestler Jordan Conaway said.
The Nittany Lions are headlined by 165-pound defending national champion David Taylor. He is also the defending Hodge Trophy winner as the nation’s top overall wrestler, but he’s only ranked No. 2 in his weight class because of Cornell’s sensational Kyle Dake.
Dake is the only wrestler in NCAA history to win three national titles in three different weight classes, and this season he’s joining Taylor at 165 pounds.
Dake and Taylor met up in an exhibition in Washington, D.C. last week, and Dake won 2-1. They’ll likely see each other again in Des Moines in March with a national title on the line.
Iowa, which won three straight national titles under coach Tom Brands, returns five All-Americans, including 125-pound national champion Matt McDonough. Brands isn’t worried yet about the rest of the league.
“I’m going to sound like a broken record. It’s irrelevant how tough the Big Ten is,” Brands said. “The Big Ten has always been competitive. There are always competitive individuals. Our guys, I think, I’ll speak for them a little bit, they thrive on that.”
Ohio State is ranked fifth to start the season. The Buckeyes have a potential all-time great in Logan Stieber, who won the NCAA title at 133 pounds as a redshirt freshman in 2011-12 before losing to Coleman Scott in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
The only non-Big Ten team ranked in the top five is No. 3 Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have four All-Americans back and Russian heavyweight Alan Gelogaev, who was 24-0 before a season-ending injury in 2012.
“It’s a class of juniors, really. There are a lot of juniors on the team starting. When you get them around that age, they really want to make a move to do whatever they can to be the best. That’s what I’m seeing in them as far as individually,” Oklahoma State coach John Smith said.
The major offseason discussion among the collegiate wrestling community was a proposal to separate the team and individual NCAA championships.
In September, the NCAA tabled a proposal that would have instituted a 16-team, dual-match format to crown a national team champion — with the individual NCAA meet to be held a few weeks later. The NCAA will also allow mat-side video reviews this season, and coaches will be allowed one challenge per dual meet.
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