As the first college wrestling rankings have been unveiled, a few things have become apparent: Iowa is a national title contender... but Iowa might not have any individual national championship finalists. One of those things is not remotely unusual, while the other one of those things would be extremely unusual if it came to pass. I think you can probably figure out which is which, but if you need a little help...
IOWA NCAA FINALISTS BY YEAR (CHAMPIONS IN BOLD)
2014 Tony Ramos (133)
2013 Tony Ramos (133), Derek St. John (157)
2012 Matt McDonough (125), Montell Marion (141), Derek St. John (157)
2011 Matt McDonough (125)
2010 Matt McDonough (125), Dan Dennis (133), Montell Marion (141), Brent Metcalf (149), Jay Borschel (174)
2009 Brent Metcalf (149)
2008 Joe Slaton (133), Brent Metcalf (149), Mark Perry (165)
2007 Mark Perry (165)
2006 Ty Eustice (149)
2005 Joe Johnston (157), Mark Perry (165)
2004 Cliff Moore (141), Ryan Fulsaas (197)
2003 Steve Mocco (285)
2002 Luke Eustice (125), Steve Mocco (285)
2001 Jody Strittmatter (125), Eric Juergens (133), Doug Schwab (141), TJ Williams (157)
2000 Eric Juergens (133), Wes Hand (285)
1999 Doug Schwab (141), TJ Williams (149), Lee Fullhart (197)
1998 Mark Ironside (134), Jeff McGinness (142), Joe Williams (167),
1997 Jessie Whitmer (118), Mike Mena (126), Mark Ironside (134), Lincoln McIlravy (150), Joe Williams (158), Lee Fullhart (190)
1996 B Zadick (142), Joe Williams (158), Daryl Weber (167)
1995 Jeff McGinness (126), Lincoln McIlravy (150), Joel Sharratt (190)
1994 Lincoln McIlravy (150), Joel Sharratt (190)
1993 Chad Zaputil (118), Lincoln McIlravy (142), Terry Steiner (150), Joel Sharratt (190)
1992 Chad Zaputil (118), Terry Brands (126), Tom Brands (134), Troy Steiner (142)
1991 Chad Zaputil (118), Terry Brands (126), Tom Brands (134), Troy Steiner (142), Tom Ryan (158), Mark Reiland (167)
1990 Terry Brands (126), Tom Brands (134), Brooks Simpson (190)
The last time Iowa failed to have at least one wrestler in the finals of the NCAA Wrestling Tournament was 1989 -- 25 years ago. No other program can match that level of consistency. Even during some of the leaner years -- during the tail end of Zalesky's tenure or the beginning of Brands' run -- Iowa always maintained at least one standout performer who found himself with a shot to earn a championship on Saturday night. That streak could very well extend to 26 this year -- Iowa has some very capable wrestlers and it wouldn't be a shock to see them make their way through the bracket (especially if they get a little good fortune along the way) and wind up in that Saturday night championship match.
But on paper no Iowa wrestler is tabbed to make the finals. Unlike the last few years, there's no Iowa wrestler that stands out as one of the very top guys at his respective weight -- think Ramos at 133, McDonough at 125, St. John at 157, or Metcalf at 149. No Iowa wrestler is tabbed #1 in his respective weight class; no Iowa wrestler is even tabbed #2 in his respective weight class. The highest-ranked Iowa wrestler at the moment is Bobby Telford, #3 at 285 lbs.
So who could be an NCAA finalist for Iowa next March? Here are the five best bets.
1) Mike Evans, 174 lbs (81-22 record, 2x All-American, 6th place finish in 2013, 6th place finish in 2014)
Let's be honest: this entire argument would be irrelevant if Mike Evans' NCAA Tournament semifinal match with Chris Perry had been officiated differently (and, in my opinion, correctly). As a reminder, Mike Evans did this to Perry in that match --
-- and yet he did not get the win. If Evans wins that match (as he should have), he would have been an NCAA Tournament finalist in 2014 at the very least. (He would have wrestled Oklahoma's Andrew Howe, a very formidable opponent, in the finals, so I don't know that he would have been a champion or not.) That would have also made him the highest returning placewinner in 2015 and given how college wrestling rankings tend to work, that would have probably made him the preseason #1 wrestler at 174 (at worst he would have been #2).
Instead, Evans enters the season ranked #4 at 174 lbs. In truth, those rankings aren't hugely useful or meaningful at that weight; last year, the top faces at 174 were Perry, Howe, Evans, Logan Storley, Matt Brown, and Robert Kokesh. They were head and shoulders above the other wrestlers at 174. The departures of Perry and Howe leaves just the Big Ten's "Gang of Four" (and perhaps Pitt's Matt Wilps) to reign over that weight class. The B1G Gang of Four is pretty evenly-matched -- all four wrestlers have beat the other three at one time or another. Between the Southern Scuffle (where everyone but Mike Evans should be present), the B1G dual meet season, the B1G Tournament, and the NCAA Tournament, these four ought to see one another several more times over the course of this season. It's difficult to project which one will be standing tall on the podium come March, but Evans certainly has an opportunity to be that guy. He's come closer than any other Iowa wrestler to tasting an NCAA finals appearance, which is enough to allow me to tab him as Iowa's likeliest NCAA finalist this season.
2) Bobby Telford, 285 lbs (79-22 record, 2x All-American, 5th place finish in 2012, 4th place finish in 2014)
If not for an untimely knee injury at the 2013 NCAA Tournament, it's very likely that Telford would be a 3x NCAA All-American working to become a 4x All-America wrestler this season. As it stands, he'll have to settle for possibly being a 3x All-American, which isn't too shabby. If he could add NCAA finalist -- and, hopefully, NCAA Champion -- to that resume, even better. Telford came close a season ago, losing to eternal nemesis Tony Nelson (thankfully departed now) in the semifinals.
As always with Telford, it's probably going to come down to his offense: heavyweight matches are frequently decided by one takedown (and not in the sense of "who gets the final takedown" so much as "who gets the only takedown") and Telford's matches against the top heavyweights in the country have tended to follow that same pattern. The encouraging news is that Telford does have career wins over several of the top challengers at this weight, so if the takedown gods smile upon him come March, Telford could find himself on top of the podium.
3) Thomas Gilman, 125 lbs (21-3 record)
I opted to place Gilman higher in these rankings for two reasons: one, because he's staying at his previous weight (Clark wrestled at 125 last season, but is moving up to 133 this year), and two, because he's recorded some big wins in his short Iowa career so far. The win that really put Gilman on the map was his upset win over #1 Jesse Delgado at the 2013 Midlands Championships. Gilman also enters his sophomore season off a bronze-medal winning performance at the Junior World Championships and while freestyle success doesn't always translate into folkstyle (college wrestling) success, his experiences this summer should only help his confidence. Gilman still has a difficult path to the finals, considering that he would likely have to beat either Delgado (and beating him in March is a different matter than beating him at Midlands) or #2 Nahshon Garrett (whom he's never wrestled) just to get to the finals. But Gilman appears to have the ability to contend at a high level here and this is a weight that's fairly wide open after Delgado and Garrett at the top. It's also a weight that's often favored younger wrestlers in recent years, for whatever that's worth.
4) Cory Clark, 133 lbs (26-4 record, 1x All-American, 5th place finish in 2014)
Again, if you wanted to slot Clark higher than Gilman, I wouldn't fight you. Clark also has recorded some big wins in his Iowa career (like Gilman, he also has a win over Delgado, albeit back in 2012-13) and he's also a returning All-American (albeit at 125). Clark has top-level ability and I expect him to be a force at this weight, but for now I'm slotting him lower than Gilman until I see him record some big wins at 133. It is still a new weight for him and we need to see how he fares against some of the better opponents here. 133 is also a weight marked by several experienced challengers, like Edinboro's A.J. Schopp, Minnesota's Chris Dardanes, and Oklahoma's Cody Brewer. Come February or March, I may have Clark higher on this list, but for now he slots in here.
5) Sammy Brooks, 184 lbs (22-7 record)
Admittedly, this is a bit of a roll of the dice, since Brooks is the least-experienced Iowa guy listed here and I chose him over a two-year starter and returning All-American in Nathan Burak at 197. There were two main factors in my decision to go with Brooks over Burak here: the respective competition at each weight and the upside each guy possesses. Put simply, the top of 197 is a lot more fearsome-looking than the top of 184. At 197, there's the returning national champion, Missouri's J'Den Cox. There's also the man who already beat him this year and who is a top contender, Minnesota's Scott Schiller, as well as Iowa State's Kyven Gadson, another top contender. There's also super-frosh Kyle Snyder, who seems poised to wreak havoc at this weight. I like Burak's odds to be an All-American again at 197 (I think he's every bit as good as the guys in the bottom half of the top ten), but I don't know if he can make the NCAA finals without a really favorable draw. 184 looks much more open; the departure of Ed Ruth (and last year's NCAA runner-up, Maryland's Jimmy Sheptock) has really opened things up and, other than Cornell's Gabe Dean, I don't know if there's anyone at 184 that looks hugely threatening or imposing at the moment. Brooks is a wildcard since we've seen so little of him against varsity-level competition, but he's looked very promising in those glimpses and he just seems to have the attacking chops to really do well at this weight.
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Could Iowa win a National Championship without any finalists? It's possible, although not terribly likely. You have to go back to 2001 to find a team champion (Minnesota) without a single individual finalist. The Gophers had no wrestler finish higher than 3rd that year; they did, however, manage to get all 10 wrestlers on the podium. They had three third-place finishers, three fourth-place finishers, two eighth-place finishers, a fifth-place finisher, and a sixth-place finisher. And that's really the only way to win a national championship without finalists: you have to substitute good overall quantity for elite-level quality.
Could Iowa pull that off this year? Maybe. Iowa has good bets to achieve All-America status at the upper and lower weights; the big question for Iowa is in the middle weights. Iowa didn't have All-Americans at 141, 149, or 165 last year and at 157 they're facing the daunting task of replacing four-time All-American Derek St. John. Could the likes of Dziewa, Grothus/Sorensen/Cooper, Kelly, and Moore all make the podium this year? Yes -- they have that ability. Is that a safe bet? No -- especially given the inconsistency all of those guys have displayed during their Iowa careers.
The reality is that even a quantity-over-quality approach and an effort to hoover up All-America spots may not be enough for Iowa. Minnesota could have as many as five NCAA finalists and Ohio State could plausibly have four finalists (which includes some guys with major bonus point potential); as we've seen in recent years from Penn State, a good number of high-scoring studs can carry you to a title. The truth is that, more often than not, you need NCAA finalists -- and you probably need a champion, to boot. (Iowa did manage to win a national title in 2009 without a championship, but that was such a fundamentally bizarre tournament -- Iowa won with just 96.5 points, a point total that's virtually never enough to win a championship -- that it seems like a mistake use that as a blueprint for success.) Let's hope Iowa can find a few guys to take up that mantle this year -- and continue Iowa's staggering 25-year streak of placing at least one wrestler in the NCAA Tournament finals.