By LUKE MEREDITH
Cael Sanderson left Iowa State for Penn State because he saw the Nittany Lions as a potential national powerhouse.
Having long established them as the country’s premier program, Sanderson enters his fifth season in State College with a shot at history.
Penn State, which opens its dual season on Saturday at Rider, could be the first team since Oklahoma State (2003-06) to claim four straight NCAA team crowns. Sanderson is confident that he’s got a roster capable of pulling it off.
“I think we have a lot of tough, real talented kids,” Sanderson said. “I think these guys are as ready to go as any team we’ve ever had. It’s got the potential of being a great team.”
Minnesota is ranked second in the Division I coaches’ poll, followed by Oklahoma State, Iowa and Oklahoma. But the top-ranked Nittany Lions entered the season with depth in two past NCAA champions, two former national runners-up and five All-Americans in all.
Penn State’s strength starts at the top, with David Taylor and Ed Ruth both huge favorites in their respective weight classes.
Taylor won the Hodge Trophy as the nation’s most dominant wrestler in 2012, though he lost to four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake of Cornell in last year’s finals at 165 pounds in perhaps the most anticipated college match in decades.
With Dake out of the picture, the wrestler known as the “Magic Man” is the overwhelming favorite to win his second national title.
Ruth, an 184-pounder who is going for his third straight NCAA title, entered the season on a 68-match winning streak.
“What’s so great about being on this team is that we’ve had guys that go out with the goal to dominate. I think that’s going to continue with the guys we have in (our) room,” Taylor said.
Minnesota won the Cliff Keen National Duals last season and has eight returning All-Americans. Heavyweight Tony Nelson is ranked first in his class, and 197-pounder Scott Schiller also has a good shot at a national title.
Chris Perry, the defending national champion at 174 pounds, leads an Oklahoma State team that pushed Penn State hard at last season’s national meet and currently has five top-five wrestlers.
The Cowboys and Gophers will get a huge early test when they face each other in Stillwater, Okla., on Dec. 8.
“This kind of matchup is going to tell you where you’re at real quickly and what your deficiencies are. They’re really strong, and I think they might be one of the best teams in the country,” Oklahoma State coach John Smith said.
The Hawkeyes could push Penn State as well. Tony Ramos (133) is first in his weight class with Ohio State star Logan Stieber now at 141 pounds, and Derek St. John is the defending champion at 157 pounds.
Iowa will host Minnesota and Oklahoma State this season. As if that wasn’t tough enough, Sanderson and Iowa coach Tom Brands set up a non-conference meet in Iowa City for late December after the Big Ten failed to schedule one between the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes.
After three years spent watching Penn State come out on top in March, Brands is looking for the Hawkeyes to return to the dominant form of 2008-10 when they won three national titles.
“I want to see urgency. I want to see fight. I want to see points. I want to see separation and domination,” Brands said.
The implementation of optional mat-side video reviews is among the rule changes for 2013-14.
Video reviews were an experimental rule last season. They were called for 51 times during the NCAA championships, with just 10 reversals.
The NCAA wrestling rules committee has also made it a point of emphasis with referees to be quicker to call stalemates. Also, near-falls and pins can now be called on the edge of the wrestling area as long as any part of either wrestler remains inbounds.