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Iowa and Penn State have the best rivalry in sports

Just how dominant the Big Ten’s best teams are at wrestling

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a pretty big wrestling dual going on tonight. At 7:30PM (God’s time), #2 Iowa will head to State College to take on #1 Penn State. Both teams are undefeated, and eying a chance at a national title in March. Long gone are the days of dual titles, and some are chirping that duals just don’t matter any more. Sure, the individual matches matter for establishing seeding come tournament time and giving the wrestlers top competition to sharpen their skills against. But what does a dual matter when the NCAA doesn’t recognize a dual champion? The best tournament teams aren’t always the best dual teams, and the wrestlers’ seedings are not affected by how their teammates did. But don’t tell any of the sixteen thousand fans in the Bryce Jordan Center, or countless others watching from home, any of that. Don’t tell any of the wrestlers that. Don’t tell Shane Sparks that.

Whether it has consequence or not, a dual has an electric atmosphere that rivals anything else in sport. I’ve been to national title football games, top ten basketball games, playoff hockey games, you name it. But the best atmosphere I’ve ever been to was an Iowa-Penn State wrestling dual. And tonight, we get another chance to witness it.

These teams are good. They have 19 ranked wrestlers between them, including four unanimous number ones and five other top-five wrestlers. They’ve each beaten Intermat’s #3 (Iowa State), and Penn State just beat their #7 (Michigan) while Iowa beat their #10 (Nebraska). They are the only unbeaten teams left in wrestling, and I don’t think anyone would disagree that they’re #1 and #2. And it’s been that way for a while.

Over the last four seasons, Iowa and Penn State are 87-1 against everybody else. In 2020, Iowa were heavy favorites going into NCAAs after winning Big Tens, with three number one seeds compared to Ohio State’s two and five other teams with just one. Nine Iowa wrestlers were seeded in the top-eight, where they would be favored to earn all-American status. That tournament was canceled, but Iowa returned nine starters the following year and took home the top prize by 15.5 points. Of course, last year Penn State reclaimed their prize, finishing 36.5 points ahead of Michigan for first, and 57.5 ahead of Iowa in third place. It was their first title since 2019, but their ninth since Cael Sanderson took over twelve years ago. They also have nine individual champions over the last two years, far outpacing the field.

Penn State is Goliath. I don’t want to take away from that by lumping Iowa in. But these two teams have been the best two teams in wrestling for a long, long time. They’ve won every title but one (two if we count 2020) since 2008 (nine for Penn State, four for Iowa, not counting 2020). They get the best recruits. They churn out all-Americans. They win titles.

I shouldn’t have to sell this to you. This rivalry is one of the best in all of sports. Tonight’s dual will define a season of work in the eyes of the fans, the media, and likely the very wrestlers competing. There may not be a trophy on the line, but you can bet that this is a title fight. So grab your popcorn, find your seat, maybe warm up with a little OSU-Michigan action, but make sure you’re ready at 7:30 for some phenomenal wrestling.