The final grades won't come in until late March when college wrestling teams compete for the NCAA title in St. Louis, but two of the weekend's midterm tests indicated Iowa and Minnesota could be at the head of the class.
The top-ranked Hawkeyes and defending NCAA champion Gophers flexed their tournament muscles by tearing through two of the top meets during the Christmas break.
"The two champions are going to meet somewhere down the road," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "And there's going to be fireworks."
Iowa obliterated the field at the prestigious Midlands Championships in Evanston, Ill., scoring a tournament-record 185 points to finish 46 ahead of second-ranked Iowa State. The Hawkeyes had four individual champions (Joey Slaton, Dan LeClere, Brent Metcalf and Mark Perry Jr.), five finalists and nine of their 10 wrestlers matched or placed better than they were seeded.
"Our team is the real deal," Metcalf said. "We've got a lot of guys stepping up and wrestling to their potential. These aren't upsets; these are guys wrestling to their potential."
The Hawkeyes are trying to regain their grip on the NCAA title. Iowa won 20 national championships in a 26-year stretch, but the Hawkeyes haven't been on top since their remarkable run ended in 2000, and they haven't been in title contention since 2001.
"Not that we're great right now, but we're going in the right direction to do some special things this year," said Perry, named the Midlands outstanding wrestler after pinning his way to the 165-pound final and then beating Iowa State's fifth-ranked Jon Reader by an 8-0 major decision. "It's the best feeling to be a part of a team where you can get fired up about your teammates winning and you're not the only one."
As good as Iowa has been during the first two months of the season, there are some followers who still consider Minnesota the favorite to claim its fourth NCAA title in eight years.
The Gophers didn't damage their reputation over the weekend at the Southern Scuffle in Greensboro, N.C. Minnesota won the tournament with 182 points, 51.5 more than second-place Edinboro. Jayson Ness, Mack Reiter, Manuel Rivera and C.P. Schlatter won individual championships for the Gophers. Ness pinned all six of his opponents at 125 pounds and Schlatter knocked off Edinboro's defending national champion Gregor Gillespie in the finals at 157, allowing the Gophers to cruise to the title at less than full strength.
Dustin Schlatter, a 2006 NCAA champion and the top-ranked 149-pounder in the country, lost in the finals at the Southern Scuffle and second-ranked 184-pounder Roger Kish didn't compete at the tournament.
With Ness, Reiter, Rivera, Kish and the Schlatter brothers, the Gophers have one of the most formidable six-man combos in the country and perhaps enough individual firepower to still be considered the team to beat in March, even after a Dec. 2 loss to Iowa State.
"I don't think we've ever felt that way," Reiter said. "I don't think we've ever looked at it that way. We say all the time that no one has won the 2008 NCAA title yet. We're not trying to defend the national title, we're wrestling to win the national title. We've never thought that way because it's not ours, it's nobody's right now. There are some great teams. Iowa had a great Midlands, Iowa State wrestled us well, Penn State has had some success, Oklahoma State has a great team. That makes it exciting for the fans."
Iowa, Iowa State and Minnesota have already had a turn wearing the No. 1 label this season. Third-ranked Penn State is undefeated and owns a dual victory at Oklahoma State. Central Michigan won the Reno Tournament of Champions before finishing behind Iowa and Iowa State at the Midlands.
Fifth-ranked Oklahoma State and No. 7 Michigan have enough top-end talent to get into the title fray and help provide wrestling fans with something they haven't seen in 20 years -- more than two teams brawling for the national championship until the national finals.
Arizona State won the 1988 NCAA title without an individual champion, edging Iowa, Iowa State and Oklahoma State in the last race that featured four teams within 14 points of the title. Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma State have won each of the last 19 NCAA titles, but there haven't been three teams within 10 points of the top spot since.
"I think a lot of times it's [a product of] university support for the programs," Central Michigan coach Tom Borrelli said. "There are some schools with a tradition of excellence in wrestling and they get a lot of university support, and most of the other schools are trying to catch up and a lot of times that's what it comes down to. I think in any sport, you kind of get what you pay for."
Borrelli said he thinks traditional powers like Iowa, Minnesota and Iowa State have the upper-hand for March.
"We feel we have an outside shot, but we've got a lot of work to do," he said. "I felt like we lost some momentum this weekend."
Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes and Gophers gained. Brands said prior to Christmas that he thought the Midlands and the Jan. 12-13 National Duals in Cedar Falls, Iowa, would give wrestling followers a better reading on the national title chase at the midway point of the season.
"You want to keep building on [the Midlands]," Brands said. "We are not near where we need to be or can be."
• Boston University's Mike Roberts went from being unranked to nationally-known by the sport's most enthusiastic fans over the weekend at the Southern Scuffle. The junior pinned North Carolina State's second-ranked Darrion Caldwell and won a 3-2 decision over No. 1 Dustin Schlatter on his way to the tournament title at 149.
• Iowa State's Jake Varner won the 184-pound Midlands title with a 3-1 victory over Jake Herbert in a rematch of last season's NCAA title bout. Herbert, a 6-1 winner in the 2007 NCAA finals, is sitting out this season at Northwestern to train for the Olympic Trials in freestyle.
• Jason Welch, the fifth high schooler to compete at the Midlands in the tournament's 45-year history, placed sixth at 157 pounds. The senior from Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, Calif., will wrestle at Northwestern next season.
Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.