Another season is upon us, and it’s no question that the Big Ten is the premier wrestling conference in the country.
There are powerhouse programs Penn State and Iowa to go along with perennial contenders Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. On top of those programs, schools like Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois, Rutgers and Wisconsin always field solid teams.
The Big Ten conference as a whole lost a boat load of talent from last year — such as 3x NCAA champ Spencer Lee of Iowa, 2x NCAA champ Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State, NCAA finalist and 4x All-American Mikey Labriola of Nebraska, NCAA champion Max Dean of Penn State, and NCAA champion and Dan Hodge Trophy winner Mason Parris of Michigan.
But there’s still a ton of talent coming back to Big Ten Country.
Of Note: Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso (a two-time Big Ten Champion and 2x NCAA finalist) would be on this list at No. 5 but is taking a medical redshirt after sustaining a gunshot wound to the stomach during a carjacking in August.
25 Best Returners in the Big Ten
*rankings according to FloWrestling
1. Gable Steveson?
Currently not in rankings
After Gable Steveson won his Olympic gold in 2021 and his second NCAA title in 2022, he retired from the sport to pursue a career in the WWE.
Since then, Steveson made his return to the mat to earn a spot on the 2023 World Team at 125kg — he ended up withdrawing from the World Championships. Considered by many to be one of the best heavyweights ever (and he’s only 23 years old), Steveson has teased a return to the mat — his absence in 2022-23 officially goes down as a redshirt year.
With a career 85-2 record, Steveson has teased a return to college for one more season. He’s also teased a transfer. Whether it’s Minnesota or another school, the return of Steveson would add a ton of excitement to this year’s NCAA season. I just don’t know if I see it happening.
2. Aaron Brooks
No. 1 at 197 pounds
Another three-time NCAA champion for the Nittany Lions, Aaron Brooks is going to try to become the seventh (eighth if Starocci does it too) four-time NCAA champ.
After the NCAA Championships were cancelled in 2020, Brooks won titles in 2021, 2022 and 2023 — all at 184 pounds. He currently holds a 67-3 career record going into his senior year.
Brooks will move up to 197 pounds for his final season after he made it to Final X this summer but fell short of a World Team spot at 86kg after falling to Olympic gold-medalist David Taylor. On the age-level world scene, Brooks just won a U23 gold medal to go along with his U17 gold and U20 silver.
Another NCAA title added to his name would cement Brooks among the greatest to ever do it.
3. Carter Starocci
No. 1 at 174 pounds
Carter Starocci is in rarefied air as he has the chance to achieve something that’s never been done — win five NCAA titles.
Starocci started his career by winning a title as a freshman in the Covid-shortened 2021 season that didn’t count against anyone’s eligibility. He followed that up with championships in 2022 and 2023. With two years of eligibility left, Starocci could certainly win two more if he chooses to come back for a fifth year. Although, he’s already said that he currently doesn’t plan on using his fifth year, so we’ll see how he feels after this coming season.
After winning a U23 world bronze medal in 2022, he’s stated seriously that he wants to compete at the Olympic Trials this next spring — at 74kg (163 pounds). He’s wrestled his entire career at 174 pounds and looks big at that weight. If he’s serious about his 2024 Olympic aspirations, he’ll either wrestle this season at 165 pounds or use an Olympic redshirt and focus on keeping his weight down while focusing on freestyle. Either way, it would be a monumental upset if Starocci beats out guys like Kyle Dake, Jordan Burroughs and Jason Nolf at 74kg.
With a 61-2 record in college and his three titles, Starocci is on his way to cementing his status as an all-time college wrestler.
4. Shane Griffith
No. 4 at 174 pounds
The man who single-handedly saved the Stanford wrestling program when he won an NCAA title in 2021, Shane Griffith has decided to transfer to Michigan for his final college season.
After winning his national title in the shortened Covid season, Griffith made it to the NCAA final again in 2022 but fell to Missouri’s Keegan O’Toole. This past season, Griffith finished fifth to earn his third All-American honor.
With an 87-11 career record at 165 pounds, Griffith is expecting to wrestle at 174 for the Wolverines. Griffith comes in as the highest-impact transfer in the country and will certainly help bolster the Michigan lineup.
5. Real Woods
No. 1 at 141 pounds
Another transfer that came from Stanford to Big Ten country, Real Woods competed last season for the first time for the Hawkeyes — he finished the year with a 20-1 record, dropping his only match in the NCAA final to Andrew Alirez of Northern Colorado.
A two-time All-American, Woods also finished sixth at NCAAs in 2022 for Stanford.
Woods is 62-9 in his career and won a Big Ten title last year at 141 pounds, beating out Nebraska’s Brock Hardy in the final.
In his final season, Woods is a serious title threat again (especially since returning champ Alirez is planning on taking an Olympic redshirt this season).
6. Greg Kerkvliet
No. 1 at 285 pounds
Another top-shelf wrestler for Penn State, Greg Kerkvliet is already a three-time All-American and still has two years of eligibility left.
As a freshman during the shortened 2021 season, Kerkvliet finished seventh at nationals at 285 pounds. Then in 2021-22 as a freshman again, Kerkvliet finished fourth. This past season, Kerkvliet made it to the NCAA final but fell to Michigan’s Mason Parris.
If Steveson doesn’t return to the college fold, Kerkvliet will undoubtedly be one of the favorites to win his first title.
7. Ridge Lovett
No. 1 at 149 pounds
Nebraska’s Ridge Lovett has had an abnormal career so far.
First, he had his redshirt pulled in 2019-20 and was forced to endure a brutal cut down to 133 pounds and had to wrestle through a tough schedule before the NCAA Championships were cancelled.
Then came the shortened 2021 season when Lovett moved up to 149, qualifying for nationals but falling short of All-American status. In 2021-22, Lovett really improved and took hold of the 149-pounds spot for the Huskers. He went 24-4 while making it to the NCAA and Big Ten finals.
This past season, Lovett took his available redshirt to work on his game — primarily his neutral offense. Going into his junior year, Lovett looks primed to jump right back into the fold to contend for conference and national titles.
8. Levi Haines
No. 1 at 157 pounds
The Nittany Lions just seem to keep rolling out the stud wrestlers, and Levi Haines is next in line.
Just a true freshman last season, Haines beat Nebraska’s Peyton Robb to win a Big Ten title then went on to advance to the NCAA final at 157 pounds. He fell to two-time champ Austin O’Connor of North Carolina, but it’s obvious he’ll contend for the next three years. He finished the year with a record of 27-2.
With a rumored move up to 165, Haines will add some intrigue to an absolutely stacked weight class if he in fact moves up. Waiting in the wings at 157 if Haines moves up will be U20 World Champion Mitchell Mesenbrink.
9. Tony Cassioppi
No. 3 at 285 pounds
To start, it was feared that Tony Cassioppi would lose his last year of eligibility due to a gambling violation of the NCAA rules. Since then, the NCAA has announced they’re making changes to the gambling policy. Right now, it’s unclear whether Cassioppi will be able to wrestle, but I’m assuming he’ll serve a short suspension and be allowed back on the mat.
A three-time All-American at heavyweight, Cassioppi has been a force the past few years. If not for Hodge Trophy winners Gable Steveson and Mason Parris of Michigan, Cassioppi very well could have won an NCAA title already. His best finish was in 2021 when he took third place at NCAAs. Last season, he finished fourth.
Cassioppi is 77-15 in his career at Iowa. If he’s allowed to compete, Cassioppi could have his best finish yet to close out his career on the big stage in the NCAA final.
10. Bernie Truax
No. 2 at 184 pounds
A three-time All-American for Cal Poly, Bernie Truax transferred after the season to wrestle his final year at Penn State.
One of the biggest prizes in the transfer portal this season, Truax has been the model of consistency as he’s gone up in weight each season. In 2020, he qualified at 165 pounds but the NCAAs were cancelled. In 2021, he finished fourth at 174. In 2022, he finished fourth at 184. Then this past season, he finished fourth at 197 pounds.
With Aaron Brooks moving up to 197, that means that Truax will likely be going back down to 184 (probably his optimal weight anyway). Look for him to make some improvements and possibly contend for an NCAA title.
11. Cam Amine
No. 3 at 165 pounds
A mainstay for the Wolverines the past few seasons at 165, Cam Amine has finished as an All-American three times. First, he took seventh in 2021 before finishing fourth in both 2022 and 2023.
Amine hasn’t been able to break through the logjam of champions at the top of this weight class, and he’ll again have to go through NCAA champs Keegan O’Toole of Missouri and David Carr of Iowa State.
A national title will be a tall order, but Amine is a lock to earn his fourth All-American honor.
12. Peyton Robb
No. 3 at 157 pounds
Peyton Robb heads into his senior season under a lot of uncertainty. He wrestled through a leg injury before finding out it was a bacterial infection. He underwent a number of surgeries and skin grafts in the weeks that followed the NCAA Championships in March.
Not only was Robb’s wrestling career in jeopardy, so was his life.
But Robb is doing well and is expected to be back to start the season after dominating his wrestle-off.
Robb is a two-time All-American for the Huskers. He finished fourth in 2022 before taking sixth this past season. He’s as tough as they come and could again contend for an NCAA title at 157 pounds.
13. Matt Ramos
No. 1 at 125 pounds
As a freshman wrestling up at 133 pounds, Matt Ramos fell one win shy of All-American honors. Then as a sophomore at 125, Ramos went 35-5, beat Spencer Lee in the NCAA semis and made it to the NCAA final, falling to Princeton’s Pat Glory.
By far the most talented wrestler on the Boilermaker squad, Ramos is fun to watch. And with the 125-pound division kind of cleared out finally by the graduation of guys like Lee and Glory, the title is right there ready to be taken.
14. Shayne Van Ness
No. 2 at 149 pounds
Another freshman phenom for the Nittany Lions, Shayne Van Ness finished fourth at Big Tens before taking third at his first NCAA tournament.
Wrestling at 149, Van Ness made it to the NCAA semifinal — losing to eventual four-timer Yianni Diakomihalis 8-3. He finished the year with a 24-7 record.
With so many graduations in the 149-pound weight class, Van Ness should be considered a contender for both conference and NCAA crowns.
15. Beau Bartlett
No. 3 at 141 pounds
Going into his junior season, Beau Bartlett is a two-time NCAA qualifier and a 2023 All-American.
After starting his career up at 149 pounds, Bartlett dropped to 141 this past season and was very successful. At 149, he’s 23-13 and qualified for NCAAs in 2022. At 141, Bartlett went 27-3 last season and finished third at NCAAs.
With the losses of Bravo-Young and Max Dean from last season’s team, Bartlett will be counted on to contend for titles.
16. Brock Hardy
No. 5 at 141 pounds
In his first year starting as a redshirt freshman, Brock Hardy had a very successful season.
He finished the season with a 30-8 record while making it to the Big Ten final and finishing sixth at NCAAs while wrestling through a rib injury.
Earlier this summer, Hardy also showed his freestyle skills when he made the U23 World Team at 65kg. He just won a bronze medal at the U23 World Championships last weekend.
He’s shown he is one of the top 141-pounders in the country, and with three years of eligibility remaining, he could absolutely capture some conference and/or national gold.
17. Aaron Nagao
No. 3 at 133 pounds
Another high-profile transfer for the Nittany Lions, Aaron Nagao transferred after the season from fellow Big Ten squad Minnesota.
Wrestling at 133 pounds, Nagao fell to Penn State’s Bravo-Young at the NCAA Championships and went on to finish fifth to earn All-American honors as a freshman. Especially tough on top, Nagao looks to have a great career ahead of him.
In what was a big blow to the Golden Gophers, Penn State found the perfect replacement at a weight of need — and he has three years of eligibility left.
18. Jared Franek
No. 2 at 157 pounds
Another impact transfer for the conference, Jared Franek comes to Iowa from North Dakota State after his head coach took the job at Oklahoma earlier this summer.
A three-time NCAA qualifier for the Bison, Franek broke through in 2023 to finish fourth at NCAAs to become an All-American. He’s 93-20 in his career and is ranked No. 2 at 157 going into his senior year with the Hawkeyes.
19. Dean Hamiti
No. 4 at 165 pounds
Going into his junior year, Dean Hamiti is already a two-time All-American for the Badgers.
In 2022, Hamiti went 28-4 as a true freshman while taking sixth at NCAAs. This past season, he again finished sixth at nationals with a 25-6 record on the year.
In a stacked 165-pound weight class, Hamiti should be an All-American threat once again.
20. Lucas Byrd
No. 7 at 133 pounds
Wrestling at 133 pounds, Lucas Byrd has been one of the best in the country the past three years. Byrd finished fifth at NCAAs as a redshirt freshman before taking fifth again as a sophomore. This past season, Byrd went 30-6 but fell one win short of his third All-American honor.
With a 74-15 career record and a couple top guys ahead of him gone due to graduation, Byrd could contend for a conference title and All-American honors again.
21. Lucas Davison
No. 4 at 285 pounds
After four years at Northwestern, Lucas Davison transferred this summer and will take his last year of eligibility at Michigan.
With the graduation of NCAA Champion and Hodge Trophy winner Mason Parris, Michigan was in need of a heavyweight — and they got one of the best in the country in Davison. Davison was 79-28 for the Wildcats while finishing as an All-American twice. He finished sixth at NCAAs in 2022 and fifth this past season.
Davison will fit into Michigan’s lineup perfectly to end his career.
22. Silas Allred
No. 6 at 197 pounds
Going into his sophomore year, Silas Allred has high expectations after becoming the first Husker in eight years to win a Big Ten title. He defeated NCAA Champion Max Dean of Penn State in the 197-pound final.
Finishing his first year as a starter 29-8, Allred fell one win shy of All-American honors at NCAAs. He’ll be expected to reach the podium this next season after some of the weight’s heavy hitters exhausted their eligibility this past season.
23. Will Lewan
No. 7 at 157 pounds
A consistent presence the past few seasons at 157 pounds for the Wolverines, Will Lewan goes into his senior year as a two-time All-American.
Lewan holds a 75-27 career record, taking fifth at NCAAs in 2022 before finishing eighth this past seaon. He’ll be relied on to help carry this year’s Michigan squad.
24. Carson Kharchla
No. 8 at 174 pounds
A former top recruit for the Buckeyes, Carson Kharchla is moving up from 165 to 174 for his junior season.
Kharchla finished seventh at NCAAs in 2022 as a freshman but failed to make the podium this past march. He’s 40-11 in two seasons and will be looked on to help replace a handful of talent that graduated from Ohio State’s upper weights.
25. Patrick McKee
No. 10 at 125 pounds
A senior for the Golden Gophers, Patrick McKee has had a solid career to date. He’s a two-time All-American with a 72-33 record.
Two years ago, McKee fell early at NCAAs but battled back through the consolation bracket, winning six-straight matches to finish third. In 2022, McKee lost in the first round at NCAAs only to finish the tournament 6-1 on the way to a 5th-place finish. This past season, McKee fell short of All-American honors, falling in the Round of 16.
26. Michael Caliendo
No. 5 at 165 pounds
I decided to include a No. 26 because it’s a long shot that Steveson returns to college wrestling, so really this spot is the real Non. 25. A sophomore for the Hawkeyes, Michael Caliendo transferred in from North Dakota State this summer after a coaching change.
As a freshman last year for the Bison, Caliendo went an impressive 29-5 while finishing seventh at the NCAA tournament. He’ll be counted on to score points for an Iowa team that may have a down year compared to its standards.
What Did We Learn Here?
It’s obvious that Penn State will be hell to deal with this year. Not only are eight of their 10 starters on this list (next most were Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan with four each), they’re all in the top-17. And all eight should legitimately contend for NCAA titles. This may end up being Cael Sanderson’s best team at Penn State, which is saying something as they’ve won 10 of the last 12 NCAA team titles.
Iowa lost a lot of firepower last year and may be without some of its heavy hitters due to the gambling scandal, which is still unclear as the NCAA has announced it is changing its gambling policy. They could still have a top team this year, but it certainly won’t be as dominant as years past. Bringing in a pair of transfers from North Dakota State in Franek and Caliendo helps, but the Hawkeyes do have some holes.
Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State will challenge Iowa for second place in the conference. The Wolverines totally retooled their roster with four All-American transfers (Griffith from Stanford and a trio of starters from Northwestern in Davison, Chris Cannon at 133, and Michael DeAugustino at 125). And the Huskers welcome back Lovett who will help form a 141-149-157 gauntlet with Hardy and Robb. Then there’s Allred and Lenny Pinto at the upper weights who go into their sophomore seasons with high expectations.
After those five teams, there’s a big drop off to the other schools like Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue — but don’t count any of those teams out.