UNIVERSITY PARK - With a two-month trek down easy street behind them, Penn State wrestlers will begin the grueling second-half of their season Tuesday morning.
The latter portion of this season's slate includes six of 10 dual meets on the road in addition to trips to Champaign, Ill., for the Big Ten meet and eventually Des Moines, Iowa, for the NCAA Championships.
Tuesday's itinerary - a trip to Chattanooga, Tenn., to compete in the two-day Southern Scuffle - will be the best tune-up No. 1 Penn State (4-0) will get as it prepares to face the best of the best when the national championship is on the line in Des Moines.
"It's a good trial run for that. It's like that in most weight classes," Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said of the Scuffle. "This is, at least as far as I can remember, the toughest Scuffle yet. I'm excited to see our team get thrown in there and see how they respond to the challenge."
Penn State won last season's Southern Scuffle and tied Minnesota for the team title the year before. This year, Sanderson expects more teams to push for the tournament championship.
The individual brackets have received a boost with more of the nation's top-flight wrestlers entering, as well.
With No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 3 Minnesota, No. 6 Missouri and No. 8 Cornell sending wrestlers into the tournament's 10 weight classes, this season's field boasts 29 seeded wrestlers ranked in the Top 10 of their respective InterMat polls and 27 more rounding out Top 20 rankings.
Among them, six will be wrestling for Penn State, which is expected to send 20 wrestlers into action.
Sophomore Nico Megaludis, junior Ed Ruth and senior Quentin Wright are the No. 1 seeds for the 125-, 184- and 197-pound weight classes, respectively. Junior David Taylor is seeded second at 165.
"It's a great tournament, great competition, and really, especially this year with Oklahoma State coming into the tournament in addition to Missouri, Cornell and Minnesota, it's really a mini-national tournament for a lot of guys," Taylor said.
Penn State will be without two grapplers the Nittany Lions were depending on to post key team points as the Scuffle unfolds. Andrew and Dylan Alton, who would've likely garnered high seeds at 149 and 157 pounds, are being held out of action after being cited following an altercation over the team's holiday break.
In place of the Alton twins, Penn State fifth-year senior James English received the No. 10 seed at 149 pounds while junior James Vollrath is seeded fifth at 157. English is a Central York High School graduate.
Dual-meet starters Jordan Conaway (133) and Bryan Pearsall (141) are unseeded while Matt Brown is seeded third at 174. Conaway is a New Oxford High School graduate.
Jimmy Lawson and Jon Gingrich are seeded sixth and seventh, respectively, at heavyweight. Both have made starts in duals this season. Sanderson has said how each one performs at the Scuffle could end the position battle, but the battle also could be extended if both do well.
Joining them is fellow heavyweight sophomore Nick Ruggear. He'll join reserves in Jimmy Gulibon (133), Zach Beitz (141), Seth Beitz (149), Luke Frey (149), Nick Fischer (165) and James Frascella (174), who will look to get in as much action as possible.
Gulibon, a true freshman who is redshirting, is seeded sixth at 133 pounds.
"This is really one of their greatest opportunities all year long," Sanderson said. "If you're not a starter, you don't get a chance to wrestle in the big duals, you don't get a chance to go to the Big Ten, National Championships, but you get a chance to wrestle several of the best teams in the nation here at the Scuffle. Great opportunity."
For those who figure to be big contributors in Penn State's quest to win its third straight national title, this season's Scuffle will be a key measuring point.
Megaludis, Taylor, Ruth and Wright all went deep into the NCAA tournament last season with Taylor and Ruth winning national titles. All four are likely to face a top competitor in their brackets at some point during the two-day Scuffle.
Five of the country's Top 10 125- and 165-pounders are seeded in the Scuffle. Five of the Top 20 184-pounders, including second-seeded defending national champion Steve Bosak of Cornell and State College, are in Ruth's bracket, while three top 197-pounders could await Wright.
"There's some adjustments to be made, but as long as I know that I can make them and I can make them here, then I don't have a problem," Ruth said of the Scuffle. "But if I had to look elsewhere to get my experience for this weight, it would be a lot harder."