NCAA Wrestling Championships, Explained

From March 19 to March 21, 330 of the country’s best wrestlers will gather at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota to compete in the 2020 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Wrestling Championships. Ten individuals will be crowned National Champions and one school will take home a team-title. 

The first NCAA Division I wrestling tournament was held in 1928, with Oklahoma State being (unofficially) declared the first team to win a national championship. Since its origin in 1928, the tournament has been held every year, with the exception of 1943, 1944, and 1945 due to WWII. Oklahoma State University has the most team and individual titles in tournament history: 34 teams championships and 142 individual championships. 

The Penn State Nittany Lions are the reigning team champion, with 2019 marking their fourth consecutive team title. The other top seeds in the 2019 tournament included the Ohio State Buckeyes, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Iowa Hawkeyes, and Michigan Wolverines, respectively. 

“Wrestlers compete as individuals yet the sport builds comradery like no other,” Penn State head wrestling coach and four-time NCAA wrestling champion Carl Sanderson said (

With the beginning of the regular competition season in early November, the time to start watching wrestling is now.

2019 National Champions
Source: John Sachs

The Fundamentals of Wrestling

Mat Diagram

Wrestling matches take place on a mat. Wrestling mats have a competition circle with a diameter between 32 and 42 feet. In the center of the circle are two neutral position starting lines: the green line marks the home team and the red line marks the visiting team. The two opponents are matched based on weight. In any two corners of the mat are triangles extending eight-feet-long, known as restricted zones, that are reserved for coaching staff.

Source: NCAA Wrestling 2019-20 and 2020-21 Rules Book

Match Structure 

Wrestling matches are 7-minutes long, and are divided into three different periods. The first period is three minutes long and begins in the neutral position. The second period is two minutes long and the wrestler who wins the referee’s coin flip determines the period’s starting position. The third period is also two minutes long and the other wrestler determines the starting position. If the score is tied at the end of these three periods, the match goes into overtime.

The first round of overtime is one-minute long, starts in the neutral position, and gives both wrestlers an equal opportunity to take down their opponent to accumulate more net points. If the score is still tied after the first round of overtime, the bout goes into a second round of overtime consisting of two 30-second periods. If the match remains tied, this overtime sequence is repeated again. College wrestling matches never end in a tie; one victorious wrestler always defeats their opponent.

Starting Positions 

There are three different starting positions in college wrestling: neutral, offensive, and defensive.

Neutral: Both wrestlers take a stance on the neutral position starting lines, facing opposite one another with both feet on the ground. The wrestlers remain stationary until the referee declares “Set” and blows his whistle, beginning the match.

Offensive: The offensive wrestler takes a top position to either the right or left of their opponent with one knee on the mat, one arm wrapped around the defensive wrestler’s side with hand on navel, and the other hand on the defensive wrestler’s elbow.

Defensive: The defensive wrestler takes a stationary bottom position at the center of the mat with both hands and knees on the mat.

Individual and Team Scoring

Individual Match Scoring 

Points are awarded in individual matches if a wrestler takes control of their opponent. There are five primary ways for a wrestler to score points: takedown, escape, reversal, near fall, and time advantage.

Takedown – 2 points

  • From the neutral position, a wrestler takes their opponent down to the mat and gains control.

Escape – 1 point

  • A defensive wrestler gets out of their opponent’s control and into a neutral position.

Reversal – 2 points

  • A defensive wrestler gains control of their opponent in one move to become the offensive wrestler.

Near Fall – 2 or 4 points

  • The offensive wrestler has their opponent on their back in a controlled pinning situation. Two points are awarded if near fall control is held for two seconds and four points are awarded if near fall control is held for four seconds.

Time Advantage or “Riding Time” – 1 point

  • The time each wrestler spends in the offensive position is accumulated throughout the match. At the end of the third period, if one wrestler has one minute or more of net time advantage, they are awarded one point.

Points may also be awarded to a wrestler if their opponent commits a violation. Several common violations in wrestling include: stalling, illegal holds, false start, hands-to-the-face, unsportsmanlike conduct, and medical disqualifications.

Source: NCAA Wrestling 2019-20 and 2020-21 Rules Book

Team Scoring

 The margin of victory of individual matches, along with classification as a dual-meet or tournament play, determines the number of points allotted to the winning wrestler’s team. There are four primary outcomes at the end of a bout: regular decision, major decision, technical fall, and fall.

Regular Decision – 3 points (dual), 1 point (tournament championship bracket), or ½ point (tournament wrestle-back bracket)

  • One wrestler wins by a margin of one to seven points.

Major Decision – 4 points (dual), 2 points (tournament championship bracket), or 1.5 points (tournament wrestle-back bracket)

  • One wrestler wins by a margin of eight to fourteen points.

Technical Fall – 5 points (dual), 2.5 points (tournament championship bracket), or 2 points (tournament wrestle-back bracket)

  • One wrestler leads their opponent by fifteen points, terminating the match regardless of the period and time remaining on the clock.

Fall – 6 points (dual), 3 points (tournament championship bracket), or 2.5 points (tournament wrestle-back bracket)

  • One wrestler holds their opponent in contact with the mat for one second, immediately terminating the match.

Points may also be awarded to a team for several alternative outcomes, including forfeit, default, and disqualification. A forfeit results when a wrestler fails to appear for a match, with further classification as a medical forfeit if a wrestler fails medical exams, is injured, or becomes ill. A default results when a wrestler is unable to continue wrestling in the match due to an injury. A disqualification results when a wrestler if banned from further competition due to unsportsmanlike conduct and technical violations.

Source: NCAA Wrestling 2019-20 and 2020-21 Rules Book


Road to the Championships

For the 2019-2020 season, approximately 2,400 student-athletes from across the country will compete at the intercollegiate level on a division I wrestling team. There are 78 institutions in the United States that sponsor a NCAA Division I varsity men’s wrestling program. These 78 programs are divided among seven athletic conferences: Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference (Big Ten), Big 12 Conference (Big 12), Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA), Mid-American Conference (MAC), Pacific-12 (Pac-12), and Southern Conference (SoCon).

The regular season competition conventionally runs from early November until early March. During the regular season, teams may have matches in the form of dual meets or tournaments. Dual meets are varsity competitions between two teams, with each team entering one wrestler per weight class. If multiple people on the same team are competing for the same weight class, intersquad matches, or “wrestle-offs”, officiated by the team’s coaches determine the top wrestler at each weight class prior to the dual meet. Tournaments are competitions among wrestlers from many teams, with several wrestlers competing in the same weight class bracket. Results from both dual meets and tournaments contribute to an individual’s overall season record.

Postseason competition begins in early March. Seven qualifying tournaments determine which wrestlers from each conference will advance to the final tournament. The top and/or larger conferences receive more allocations at each weight class than worse and/or smaller conferences. After all allocations are distributed, 330 of the country’s best wrestlers are now qualified for the Championships. Out of the 330 participants, 290 automatically qualified via a qualifying conference tournament and 40 were selected at-large by NCAA Wrestling Committee.

The NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships

There are ten different weight classifications at the championships: 125 lbs, 133 lbs, 141 lbs, 149 lbs, 157 lbs, 165 lbs, 174 lbs, 184 lbs, 197 lbs, and heavyweight. Even distribution of the 330 overall qualifiers across the ten weight classes results in 33 wrestlers per weight class. Due to the odd number of wrestlers, each 33-man bracket requires a “pigtail” match between seed #32 and seed #33 to determine the final first-round spot in the tournament.

Seeding in the first round of the tournament is influenced by a number of factors, including individual win-loss record, head-to-head competition, ratings percentage index (RPI), and coaches’ rankings. After all the wrestlers have been seeded, the six rounds of double-elimination competition proceed as follows: first round, second round, quarterfinals, semifinals, medal round, and finals.

The top eight finishers in each weight class are honored as All-Americans. The first place finisher at each weight class will be crowned a National Champion, for a total of ten individual titles. The school with the most accumulated points at the end of the tournament will take home the 2020 team title.

Source: John Sachs

There are several standout wrestlers to keep an eye out for this year, including six 2019 NCAA tournament champions. At 125 pounds, Spencer Lee of the University of Iowa returns as reigning champion, along with Jack Mueller of the University of Virginia who fights to win the first national champion title in UVA’s history of wrestling. At 133 pounds, Nick Suriano of Rutgers made school history last year as he became the first wrestling national champion for the Scarlet Knights. At 141 pounds, reigning champion Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell will return. Hayden Hidlay of NC State and Ryan Deakin of Northwestern are likely winners at 157 pounds, as reigning champion Jason Nolf graduated. At 165 pounds, Mehki Lewis’s win in 2019 made him the first Virginia Tech athlete to win a national title in wrestling, and he returns this year for more action. At 174 pounds, reigning champion Zahid Valencia of Arizona State returns for a chance to win his third consecutive title. Max Dean of Cornell was the runner-up at 184 pounds, and this year he returns for a chance at becoming a national champion. At 197 pounds, Kollin Moore of Ohio State returns for his senior season. At 285 pounds, Anthony Cassar of Penn State returns as reigning heavy weight champion. 


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