Hodge Talk: The 2018 Race Has Begun

Collegiate wrestlers strive to win but one award each season, and that is the Hodge Trophy.

Now that December has hit and we've seen the first major tournament of the year, it's time to get an early look at the Hodge race. Before we begin, here are the criteria:

Hodge Criteria

  1. A wrestler's record
  2. Number of pins
  3. Dominance on the mat
  4. Past credentials
  5. Quality of competition
  6. Sportsmanship/citizenship
  7. Heart

We have years of data to prove that the fourth criterion on that list, "past credentials," is extremely important. I don't personally agree with that, but I certainly took into account when compiling these rankings. In my opinion, it should be used as a tiebreaker, not the first or second thing you use to eliminate options. Which means the current group of voters either disregard the order of the criteria or don't pay attention/care until the NCAA tournament.

What do I mean by "past credentials" being important? Let's take a look at last year, when three-time NCAA champion J'den Cox finished second in the Hodge race with a 67.8 percent bonus rate, and one-time champ Jason Nolf finished fourth with a 92.3 percent bonus rate. 

The year before that, Zain Retherford won his first NCAA title with an 88.2 percent bonus rate and averaging a tech per match but finished second for the Hodge to three-time champ Alex Dieringer with an 81.8 percent bonus rate and average of 4.76 team points per match.

Additionally, if it is just going to be a career achievement award, then release a watch list before the season that says only Kyle Snyder, Dean Heil, and Retherford can win it this year. On to our list.

Because of the fourth criterion, I did not include any wrestlers from the 125-pound weight class, where Nathan Tomasello has not wrestled yet and Darian Cruz has lost (even though it "didn't count"). 

I also held off on including either Vincenzo Joseph or Isaiah Martinez until we get more data on their seasons. Below are some stats to consider for my current list, arranged in weight-class order.

Seth Gross
South Dakota State
Dean Heil
Oklahoma State
Zain Retherford
Penn State
Jason Nolf
Penn State
Zahid Valencia
Arizona State
Bo Nickal
Penn State
Kollin Moore
Ohio State
Kyle Snyder
Ohio State

Regarding record, I only took into account matches against Division I opponents and do not count forfeits. Now let's try to rank those eight guys.

8) Seth Gross, 133 (South Dakota St.): 4-0, 2 pins, 1 tech

This one is perhaps the most open to flak, given that Martinez and Joseph both already have NCAA titles. But right now, there is a huge gap between Gross and everyone else at 133, and I believe the "dominance on the mat" and "quality of competition" stats will soon bear themselves out.

7) Kollin Moore, 197 (Ohio St.): 8-0, 2 pins, 1 tech, 1 major

Though Moore had an up-and-down CKLV, his pin over Jared Haught in the finals is a bigger and more impressive win than anything Gross has done so far.

6) Dean Heil, 141 (Oklahoma St.): 7-0, 2 pins

Heil gets a HUGE feather in his cap by being a two-time champ and riding a 50-plus match winning streak. What's interesting will be if he finishes ahead of someone like Gross who may be significantly more dominant. Given that Cox only had six pins last year, this seems likely.

5) Kyle Snyder, 285 (Ohio St.): 3-0, 2 pins, 1 tech

He was a finalist last year with only 17 matches, finishing third behind Retherford and Cox. It doesn't matter what you think, he will be in the conversation at the end of the year. His trump card will be if the Buckeyes topple Penn State and the stranglehold they have on the NCAA title.

4) Zahid Valencia, 174 (Arizona St.): 9-0, 1 pin, 3 techs, 1 major

He's already beaten Mark Hall (whether it counts or not), Bo Jordan twice, and Myles Amine. His wins over Taylor Lujan and David Kocer could both turn into victories over All-Americans by the time the season ends. If I had a vote, which I do not, I would factor quality of competition very highly, especially since order of criteria doe not seem to matter to voters anyway. But since that is only Criterion 5, Valencia is the most likely on this list to drop as the season goes on.

3) Bo Nickal, 184 (Penn St.): 8-0, 4 pins, 1 tech, 2 majors

Now we get into Penn State's trio of big guns. The difference between the three will be who ends up with the most pins/highest bonus rate/largest dominance score. Nickal would almost be better off, in terms of Hodge odds, wrestling for another team. It's awful hard to be considered the favorite when you might not be the "best" wrestler on your own team, which is a subjective thought of course.

2) Zain Retherford, 149 (Penn St.): 8-0, 6 pins, 1 tech, 1 major

If previous credentials are your primary metric, which I consider a foolish thing to weigh most heavily, then you can basically hand Zain the trophy right now. Snyder won't wrestle enough matches and Heil won't be dominant enough to compare. He's the reigning trophy-holder, and would become just the third person to win two in a row, after Ben Askren and Retherford's coach, Cael Sanderson. He would also become the fourth to win two trophies, joining former Nittany Lion David Taylor.

Right now, the argument for Zain (aside from last year's trophy) is that he has spent just 28:06 of time actually wrestling, despite the fact he's had a match go the distance. Additionally, that match was against #13 Ryan Deakin, the only ranked opponent either he or Nolf has faced this season.

1) Jason Nolf, 157 (Penn St.): 8-0, 7 pins, 1 tech

Nolf's NCAA finishes of second and first are more than enough to meet the past credentials criteria. The quality of competition will come, but the dominance is incredible. He has yet to wrestle a full match and has spent 28:03 on the mat. Which means despite having wrestled in eight matches, he's only spent four matches' worth of time on the mat.

There's also style to his wins, an artistry to the way he elevates the sport and pushes it into the future with his creativity, understanding of the rules, and general willingness to try anything. That's more than enough to make him my early favorite for the Hodge.

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