IOWA CITY, Iowa – It doesn’t take a hardcore wrestling fan to know the circumstance heading into the Big Ten Championships this weekend at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It can be summed up with one simple question.
Can anybody stop mighty Penn State from adding another milestone to its dynasty-in-the-making under head coach Cael Sanderson?
Popular opinion suggests that Iowa, defending national champion Ohio State and Michigan have the best chance to pull of an upset, but that it’s not likely to happen because the Nittany Lions are loaded with talent and healthy for the most part.
Penn State is also well-coached under Sanderson, who is sort of writing his own Dan Gable story as a former legendary college wrestler who is now building a dynasty at a different school from which he graduated.
The 36-year old Sanderson won four NCAA titles at Iowa State while compiling a 159-0 record. He also was a 2004 Olympic champion and is considered one of the greatest amateur wrestlers in recent history.
Sanderson is now showing greatness as a head coach, having led Penn State to four of the last five national titles.
That has to just gnaw at Cyclone fans, who now see their once-proud program struggling to stay relevant.
One can only imagine where Iowa State would be today if Sanderson hadn’t left so quickly for the Penn State job.
In three seasons as Iowa State’s coach, Sanderson led the team to a runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships and to three Big 12 Conference team titles.
Iowa State hardly is a pushover when it comes to wrestling, but Penn State is at another level in terms of recruiting advantages, fan support and resources. Sanderson took all those things into consideration and made a business decision that has changed the college wrestling landscape.
As for the Hawkeyes, they have been ranked among the nation’s elite in wrestling for four decades. Penn State still has a ways to go to match what Iowa accomplished under Gable, winning 15 national titles between 1976 and 1997.
Iowa also will have the advantage of wrestling at home this weekend in front of packed arena of mostly supportive fans.
“Home mat is what you make of it,” said Iowa head coach Tom Brands. “Our fans certainly can be a factor and we’ve got to give them a reason to be a very vocal group.”
Injuries also can be a factor.
The status of Iowa heavyweight Sam Stoll is uncertain because of a knee injury. Stoll has been a force this season, often scoring bonus points. He leads the team with nine falls.
To not have him at full strength this weekend, obviously, would hurt Iowa’s chances.
Iowa and Penn State are the only teams with at least seven wrestlers ranked third or better heading into the Big Ten Championships, which will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
Penn State separates itself, though, by having four wrestlers ranked No. 1 nationally, whereas Iowa has none. That’s a lot of points for Penn State if each of its top-ranked wrestlers meet expectations.
Iowa’s highest-ranked wrestlers are junior Thomas Gilman and sophomore Brandon Sorensen. They are ranked second nationally at 125 pounds and 149 pounds, respectively.
The Hawkeyes finished tied for first place with Ohio State at the 2015 Big Ten Championships and then went on to finish second at the NCAA Championships behind the Buckeyes.
Penn State was down slightly by its standards last season, partly because some of its top wrestlers chose to be redshirted a year ago.
Last season’s tie with Ohio State marked the first time since 2010 that Iowa finished first at the Big Ten Championships. That is also the last time the Hawkeyes won the NCAA title. Iowa finished third at the Big Ten Championships in 2013 and 2012 and second in 2011.
The Hawkeyes have been close to reaching the summit again, but the rise of Penn State under Sanderson is making it extremely difficult.
That’s because it’s impossible to have more than one dynasty in the same sport at the same time.
The challenge for Iowa is to wrestle the dynasty status away from the Nittany Lions. This weekend would be a good time to start that process.
2016 Big Ten Wrestling Championships
When: Saturday and Sunday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Saturday’s competition will begin at 10 a.m. with doors opening 90 minutes prior to each session.