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We Must Break You Is Looking Ahead

(Ed. Note -- Don't fret: more football posts coming soon, true believers. -- Ross)

There are still many months to go until the 2011-2012 wrestling season gets underway, but that doesn't mean that we can't spare a little time to break out our crystal balls and see how the season (and, more importantly, the NCAA Tournament) might play out.  Last year Iowa was thwarted in their efforts at a four-peat; is there reason to hope for better fortune this season?  According to this early forecast from The Wrestling Report... yes.

Here's a nice table breaking down the rankings for wrestlers at the top six contenders for the NCAA title.  The weights highlighted in gold are projected All-Americans.  Keep in mind that this table (and the Wrestling Report rankings it's derived from) does not include incoming freshmen, some of whom could shake things up.  It probably doesn't impact Iowa's team (none of our incoming freshmen are projected to challenge for starting spots this year), but it's possible that some of the other contenders could have true freshmen making noise this year (Penn State, for instance).

What's changed since spring? 
Not too much.  The top four of these rankings are the four returning All-Americans (McD, Minnesota's Zach Sanders, Stanford's Ryan Mango, and Oklahoma's Jarrod Patterson).  In addition, many of the guys I tabbed as worth mentioning have cracked the rankings (Kent State's Nic Bedelyon, Missouri's Alan Waters, Oklahoma State's Jon Morrison, Iowa State's Ryak Finch).  Two guys of note appear to have moved up to 133: Ohio State's Logan Stieber and Purdue's Cashe Quiroga.  In addition, TWR has Ohio State's other stud option at this weight, Nikko Triggas, taking a redshirt year to train for the Olympics.

What about the other contenders?  Only Oklahoma State and Minnesota have projected All-Americans at this weight (Sanders and Morrison, respectively).  Penn State has some interesting options here, though, particuarly stud incoming freshman Nico Megaludis.

What's it look like for Iowa?  Very, very good.  McD's the most decorated wrestler returning at this weight as a two-time finalist and the 2010 NCAA champion and he's beaten almost everyone else in the top ten.  The only guys who have given him problems during his career have been Angelo Escobedo (defeated McD at 2010 Big Ten Tournament; graduated), Andrew Long (0-4 against McDonough, but all very close matches; out of wrestling), Brandon Precin (1-3 against McD; graduated), and Anthony Robles (defeated McD at 2011 NCAA Tournament; graduated) -- and they're all gone.  McD is 4-0 against Sanders (6-4, 13-2, 8-0,10-3) and 3-0 against Mango (12-4, 11-0, 10-1).  If he stays at 125, McDonough will be a heavy favorite to become a three-time national finalist and a two-time national champion.

What's changed since spring?  
Not too much.  Purdue's Cashe Quiroga and Ohio State's Logan Stieber are evidently moving up to 133 from 125.  Last year's fifth place finisher at the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin's Tyler Graff, is taking a redshirt in 2011-2012 and last year's fourth place finisher, Central Michigan's Scotti Sentes, might be doing the same thing.  Oh, and last year's third place finisher and a key member of Penn State's Big Ten and NCAA champion teams left the program while in the midst of a sexual assault scandal.  Which is kind of a big deal. There's also some chatter that last year's national champion, Oklahoma State's Jordan Oliver, could move up to 141, but it's hard to know how much stock to put in that talk (the same rumors were floating around before last season... and Oliver just went out and smoked the field at 133 anyway).  But if Oliver does move up and Sentes and Graff do redshirt?  That, coupled with Andrew Long's departure, would make for a wiiiide open field at 133 next year.

What about the other contenders?  A few weeks ago, this looked like a dynamite weight for both Penn State and Oklahoma State; now that's less certain.  Assuming Oliver stays at 133 (and I think he probably will), he'll be the odds-on favorite to repeat as national champion, giving Okie State a good boost here.  Penn State, though, has gone from having a massive strength to a big hole at this weight -- and it's not helped by the fact that one of Long's main understudies, Sam Sherlock, has reportedly gotten into a little trouble of his own this offseason.  All of the turmoil at 133 could be great news for Minnesota, though; David Thorn was on the outside looking in a year ago, but another year of improvement coupled with a winnowed down field could definitely see him slide into All-America contention.

What's it look like for Iowa? Better than it did a few weeks ago, that's for sure.  Removing Long and Graff from the equation opens up the Big Ten considerably and makes Tony Ramos one of the favorites in the league and a good bet to crack All-America status nationally.  That said, Iowa's biggest improvement could come from within if Ramos is able to correct some of the deficits in his own game (such as his ability to escape).  Of course, that depends on Ramos still keeping the spot at 133; he was in a pitched battle with Nate Moore and Tyler Clark a year ago and both guys are still at that weight.  Either way, Iowa should have a very good chance to get an All-American at this weight.

What's changed since spring?  
Very little, actually.  The biggest change is the "news" that Cal Poly's Boris Novachkov, last year's NCAA Tournament runner-up, is due back this season.  And that's only "news" because I had him down as a senior last year.  Other than that, Pitt's Tyler Nauman, expected to contend for All-America honors, has moved up to 149 and Penn State's Andrew Alton is still expected to redshirt.

What about the other contenders? Not counting Iowa's Montell Marion, the best wrestlers at this weight are Michigan's Kellen Russell (the defending national champ) and Novachkov.  Penn State would have a likely All-America contender if Alton didn't redshirt, but it sounds like a done deal that he'll be sitting out this year.  But his replacement is so unclear Wrestling Report didn't even list a Penn State wrestler in their top 33.  Whoever gets the nod will probably be pretty good -- but they may not be a near-lock for All-American, the way Alton probably was.  Meanwhile, Oklahoma State has Josh Kindig, a top 15 wrestler a year ago looking to break into the All-America ranks, while Minnesota has an intriguing option in redshirt freshman Nick Dardanes.  He's probably the best bet to challenge the Russell-Marion duopoly in the Big Ten.  Lehigh also checks in here with Steve Dutton, a potential All-American.

What's it look like for Iowa? Very good.  Perhaps not quite as good as at 125 (where McD is a heavy favorite to be national champion), but still rather strong: Russell, Marion, and Novachkov are the only returning All-Americans at this weight and while Marion wasn't able to beat Russell, he came achingly close on a few occasions.  If he can get his mental game to match his incredible physical gifts, he'll be tough for anyone to beat this year, which would give Iowa yet another points machine come NCAA Tournament time.

What's changed since spring?  
The biggest change was the seismic shift at the top, where Cornell's Kyle Dake, the defending national champion, is expected to move to his third different weight in three years (157).  The only other change of note was the addition of Pitt's Nauman, moving up from 141, expected to be an All-America contender at his new weight.

What about the other contenders?  And now we reach our first weight where Iowa's contenders have far better options at this weight than the Hawkeyes.  Dake's departure clears the way for last year's runner-up, Penn State's Frank Molinaro, last seen getting ridden like a camel across the Sahara by Dake in the finals.  But PSU isn't the only contender with a strong option at this weight: Oklahoma State returns an All-American and legit title contender in Jamal Parks and Minnesota has the latest member of the Ness family, Dylan, who spent his redshirt year pinning his way through the competition and generating considerable buzz.

What's it look like for Iowa?  Well, that all depends on a few tiny things: namely, the ligaments in Dylan Carew's knees.  If he's fully recovered from double-knee surgery, he gives Iowa an option at this weight that ought to be pretty solid and be a potential All-America contender (although probably not a title contender like Molinaro or Parks).  If he's not fully recovered, though, Iowa's options are to see how far a half-fit Carew can take them (probably not onto the podium at 149) or to see what one of the fabulous Ballweg brothers might be able to do.  Mark Ballweg moved up from 141 last year when Marion returned to claim his starting spot, but he struggled mightily with opponents who tended to be noticeably bigger than him.  If he's dedicated to making a run at 149, hopefully he's spent the offseason bulking up.  And if it's not Mark, then perhaps Jake, the youngest and, according to some observers, the most talented of the Ballwegs.  The good news is that it wouldn't take much at all for Iowa to see an upgrade at 149 in 2011-2012, considering this was the only weight where they failed to qualify anyone at last year's NCAA Tournament.  The bad news is that even without Dake this could be a pretty tricky weight to navigate, especially in the Big Ten, which comprises almost half of Wrestling Report's top ten.

What's changed since spring?  
One 900-lb. gorilla at the top of the weight class left (Penn State's David Taylor), while another 900-lb. gorilla at the top of the weight class (Cornell's Kyle Dake) moved in.  That was the only real change at this weight, and it's unclear how big of an effect it will have on the team title race, but more on that below.

What about the other contenders?  Taylor's move from 157 to 165 solves the big hole Penn State had at that weight, but creates a new one at 157.  There are some talented (on paper) options for them to turn to, like Dylan Alton (who redshirted last year) or Jim Vollrath, but it's unclear if they'll provide more points at 157 than whoever Penn State would have sent out at 165 if Taylor had opted to stay at 157.  Still, Penn State is likely going from an almost sure-fire NCAA finalist to a complete unknown (but probably not another NCAA finalist), which is a blow. Oklahoma State has senior Albert White, Minnesota might have redshirt freshman Jake Deitchler, who has a ton of upside, and Cornell has the aforementioned Dake.

What's it look like for Iowa?  If Derek St. John stays at 157, things probably look very good for Iowa.  St. John's season got off to a rocky start, but he started turning things around in January and went on an absolute tear from then on, losing only to Taylor and American's beastly Steve Fittery.  Well, Taylor's moving up to 165 and Fittery's graduated; Dake will present a formidable challenge, but if DSJ can build upon his late-season performance last year, being an NCAA finalist isn't out of the question for him this year -- which would be a nice boost for Iowa (particularly since, on paper, this doesn't look like a weight where their major rivals will get a ton of points).

What's changed since spring?  
Big shake-ups at the top of the weight, with perennial kingpin Andrew Howe of Wisconsin taking an Olympic redshirt and last year's NCAA runner-up, Oklahoma's Tyler Caldwell (now at Nebraska) also redshirting.  Plus, there's David Taylor's already-mentioned move up from 157 to 165; he may already be the NCAA Tournament favorite with those two sitting out this year.

What about the other contenders?  Penn State gets a massive boost at this weight, going from not even having an NCAA qualifier in 2011 to having the presumptive NCAA Tournament favorite in 2012.  Neither Oklahoma State nor Minnesota had an All-American last year, but that could change in 2012: Dallas Bailey was just on the outside looking in for the Pokes and Cody Yohn should enter the season as a fringe All-American for the Gophers.

What's it look like for Iowa?  Aaron Janssen just missed out being an All-American last year, dropping out in the Round of 12; how much they're able to improve on that weight could depend on which Hawkeye takes control of this weight.  Assuming DSJ stays at 157, the most likely contenders are redshirt freshmen Nick Moore and Michael Kelly (as well as, possibly, the loser of the Ethen Lofthouse-Mike Evans duel at 174).  Moore was a bit better than Kelly at 165 last year (the results were a little more pro-Kelly at 157).  The Wrestling Report slots him in at #15; the only redshirt freshman to rank higher was Nebraska's Robert Kokesh (9th).  Moore has a lot of potential, but if he gets the nod, he'll need to do well from the get-go in order for Iowa to keep up with their rivals at this weight.

What's changed since spring?
Until recently, not very much -- the most significant change was the fact that fringe All-America contender Austin Meys of Lehigh was ruled out of the lineup (medical issues).  And then Ed Ruth decided to do a little drankin' and fightin'.  Of course, there are some key differences between Ruth's situation and that of his troublemaking teammate Andrew Long: Long's charges are far more serious and Ruth hasn't left the team (or been suspended yet).  And even if he is suspended, it's entirely possible that he'd be back in time for the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

What about the other contenders?  A lot depends on what happens with Ruth, frankly.  If he's suspended for the season (or if he's removed from the team, either voluntarily or involuntarily), that's a significant blow to Penn State and possibly too much for them to overcome on top of the loss of Long.  If he stays, he'll be expected to match or improve upon his third-place finish at last year's NCAA Tournament.  Oklahoma State is the only other contender with a notable guy at this weight; Mike Benefiel was a fringe All-American contender last year, but could be a solid All-American this year.

What's it look like for Iowa? Ethen Lofthouse missed out on being an All-American last year and he might miss out on a roster spot altogether this year, despite having a pretty solid season a year ago.  If he does find himself the odd man out, it's because heavily-hyped Mike Evans has muscled his way into the lineup, which could be very exciting news indeed.  Still, whether it's Lofthouse or Evans, Iowa should be in line for an upgrade at this weight in 2012.  Five of eight 2011 All-Americans are gone (six of eight if Ruth isn't able to wrestle this year) and while there are some talented faces ready to fill that void (including Ohio State's Nick Heflin, Illinois' Jordan Blanton, Iowa State's Chris Spangler, and Okie State's Benefiel), this is one of the more wide-open weights nationally and a prime opportunity for Iowa to pick up some points on their rivals (especially if Ruth doesn't compete this year).

What's changed since spring?  
Only one significant change: Wisconin's Travis Rutt (last year's 7th place finisher at the NCAA Tournament) is taking a redshirt year.  Sidenote: you can remove Wisconsin from any possible "Big Ten challenger" or "dark horse NCAA contender" talk; they have way too many guys redshirting or not showing up yet (like Destin McCauley and Jesse Thielke).  Just finishing in the upper half of the Big Ten may be asking a lot of them.

What about the other contenders?  184 is the most loaded weight nationally (prior to Rutt's redshirt, all eight 2011 All-Americans were slated to return in 2012) and that holds true among the title contenders, as every single one of them has a potential All-American on their roster.  Penn State has the current king of the hill in reigning Big Ten and NCAA champion Quentin Wright, but Lehigh brings back Robert Hamlin, last year's NCAA runner-up and Cornell returns Steve Bosak, last year's 4th place finisher.  Oklahoma State and Minnesota don't return All-Americans to their lineup, but in Chris Perry and Kevin Steinhaus they have a pair of guys who were fringe All-Americans and who are easily capable of beating any of the actual All-Americans (Steinhaus, for instance, beat Wright last year).  Anyone who claims to be able to predict what's going to happen at this weight is a filthy lying liar.

What's it look like for Iowa?  On the bright side, Iowa returns last year's surprise 3rd place finisher at the NCAA Tournament, Grant Gambrall.  On the down side, between Gambrall's maddening inconsistency and the overall depth of this weight class, it wouldn't really be a surprise or an upset at all if he went from a 3rd place finish to not even being an All-American.  This weight class is simply impossible to predict with any accuracy.  It's conceivable that Gambrall matches (and perhaps even betters) his 3rd place finish... but it's probably not terribly likely.  Our best bet may be to hope that Wright isn't able to repeat and neither Perry nor Steinhaus break through in a big way. Considering how tight the team title race appears to be, every point could be precious, especially at a weight like this where the contenders will be going toe-to-toe for top honors.

What's changed since spring?  
We know the answer to this question all too well, unfortunately: blue-chip transfer Cayle Byers never made it to Iowa City and instead will by plying his trade in Stillwater in 2011-2012.  That wasn't the only significant move, though: defending national champion Dustin Kilgore (of Kent State) is taking a redshirt this year.  That decision (and the graduation-induced departures of four of the other top-six finalists a year ago) leaves things wide open at the top of the weight...

What about the other contenders?  ...which offers up a prime opportunity to some of the top contenders.  Cornell's Cam Simaz (last year's third place finisher) finds himself in the catbird seat, but Oklahoma State (Byers) and Minnesota (Yohn) also have highly-ranked contenders who will be favorites to become All-Americans and push for a national championship.  Even Lehigh as an All-America option here in Joe Kennedy.  Penn State doesn't have a surefire option here, but if they burn true freshman Morgan McIntosh's redshirt, he could be a legitimate threat to push for an All-America spot: he enters college with a mountain of hype and, by some accounts, the physical strength to be a threat even as a true frosh.

What's it look like for Iowa?  There's no point sugarcoating things here: with Uncle Luke's departure and Cayle Byers' never-was tenure, Iowa's in a pretty deep hole here.  Along with 149, this weight is the biggest question mark in Iowa's lineup; unlike 149, it's hard to say if Iowa even has any decent options at this weight.  Unless there's a shock transfer in the next few months (and there's been no talk to suggest that, at all), Iowa's probably looking at either a massively slimmed down Brodie Ambrose or a bulked up Vinnie Wagner at this weight.  Ambrose didn't wrestle a single match for Iowa last year and reportedly needs to lose a lot of weight to make it down to 197 this year.  He's reportedly committed to doing so in order to end his Iowa career with a bang and boost the Hawkeyes' national title hopes, but... there's a long way to go yet.  I have no idea what to expect out of this weight in 2011-2012, although it would probably be wise to lower expectations from Uncle Luke's All America finish last year and Byers' NCAA finalist potential.  On the bright side, this isn't a particularly nasty weight, nationally, so it may not be as hard to wring a few points out of this weight as it would be at other weights.

What's changed since spring?  
Not a thing, actually.  As The Wrestling Report notes, there's a possibility that Central Michigan's Jared Trice could take an Olympic redshirt, but it's not confirmed yet.  Other than that, though, things look pretty much like they did a few months ago.

What about the other contenders?  Heavyweight is, by its nature, a fairly unpredictable weight since the matches tend to be very tight and determined by which wrestler can get a takedown.  That situation is only exacerbated when seven of eight All-Americans (or six of eight if Trice sits out) return and there's no dominant wrestler among them.  Suffice to say, this could easily be a fatter, more boring version of the chaos we're likely to see at 184.  And, like 184, most of the contenders have fairly high-end options at this weight.  Lehigh returns the reigning national champion in Zack Rey, Minnesota returns an All-American in Tony Nelson, and Penn State returns a fringe All-American in Cameron Wade.  Oklahoma State has their own potential All-American option in Alan Gelogaev, the Mad Russian.

What's it look like for Iowa?  That's still very much TBD.  Blake Rasing is back and he did win the Big Ten Tournament in 2011.  Of course, he also went 1-2 and crashed out of the NCAA Tournament in uninspiring fashion.  If Rasing isn't the guy at heavyweight, it'll be highly touted redshirt freshman Bobby Telford, who was impressive during his redshirt season (albeit against lower-level competition in most cases).  Telford's smaller than Rasing and doesn't resemble a shaved bear, but he's also quicker and more aggressive; at the very least, heavyweight matches ought to be more exciting if Telford is the guy next year.  Could either Rasing or Telford improve on Iowa's dismal showing at the NCAA Tournament in 2011?  Sure.  Could either guy also crash out in an early round at the 2012 NCAA Tournament?  Yep.  That's life in the heavyweight division, especially one featuring as many returning All-Americans as the 2012 heavyweight crop.  

* * * 

If the projected team scores for The Wrestling Report pan out, we could be in line for an absurdly tense and exciting title race: they have Iowa edging Oklahoma State by one measly point.  Based on their projected standings, it looks like essentially a three-team race between Iowa, Oklahoma State, and Penn State.  I think that's largely true, although I wouldn't dismiss MInnesota, either: they rank behind those three at this stage because they have more question marks, but a lot of those question marks have very high upsides.  If they get going, they could easily outpace their projections here and find themselves in the thick of the national title picture with a host of All-Americans.  Cornell and Lehigh each have a handful of high-end wrestlers, but they don't have the overall depth of the other teams.

The Long departure brings Penn State back to the pack and should make for a fascinating team race between Iowa, Penn State, Oklahoma State, and (potentially) Minnesota.  Oklahoma State and Minnesota have the most projected All-Americans here (7 apiece), while Penn State has the most projected finalists (4), and Iowa has the most projected top-5 finishers (6).  That said, I'm not necessarily confident in Iowa living up to all of those top-5 finishes, which means they'll likely need some guys with lesser projections to step up.  Fortunately, I think whoever wins the battles at 149, 165, and HWT is definitely capable of doing just that.  Despite this projection, I don't think Iowa is the team title favorite heading into the season (I'd still tip Penn State slightly; we saw last year how far having a lot of NCAA finalists can carry a team), but they're definitely in the mix -- and it should be one hell of a race.