In alternating championships over the past three years, Bayfield and La Junta have dominated the Class 2A division of late.  Bayfield is the defending state champion and also won the crown in 2015 while La Junta grabbed the top trophy in between.  Pollsters expect the two to again battle it out as they open the 2018 season ranked 1-2 in the classification.
A special group of seniors led Bayfield to the title last year and through four years, the class won 40 games and produced two perfect seasons.  The Wolverines’ only in-state losses over the last three years came against Durango in the 2016 regular season and to La Junta in the state semifinals that year.  Combined the losses were by a total of nine points.
But there is more than enough talent back in Bayfield to make another state title chase.  Senior QB Hayden Farmer is coming off a season where he tossed 35 touchdowns and finished with 2,090 yards.  Keyon Prior is his top returning target.  He had 16 catches last season.  The running game is also in good shape with the return of David Hawkins (596 yards), Dylan Hilliker (341) and Prior (241).
The Wolverines allowed just 56 points in 13 games last season and surrendered only seven points in four playoff games.  La Junta pushed across a second quarter touchdown in the finals for the only post-season points against the attacking Bayfield defense.
The top six tacklers from that unit were seniors but Isaac Lorenzen (62 tackles) and Hawkins (47) should become leaders.  They combined for 22 tackles behind the line of scrimmage a year ago.
The schedule includes two games against New Mexico opponents to open up.  Coach Gary Heide’s club went 3-0 against the state last year; outscoring them 193-21 with two shutouts.  Another highlight is a date at Durango (3A) on September 14th and road games against Pagosa Springs and Salida to close out the conference schedule in late October.
La Junta starts the season with a new but familiar coach in Ty Buderus.  An assistant on the staff the past few seasons, he steps into the top spot replacing his brother Clint who accepted the Pueblo West position.
Not much should change strategy wise as the Tigers will again try to run the football on offense and then use a physical defense to wear down opponents.  The triggerman is Jon Nuschy.  The two-time returning player of the year enters his third year as the starting quarterback with almost 4,600 yards of total offense and 64 TD’s on his resume.  In the past two years, Nuschy has run the football 430 times and passed it another 214.
Zach Archuleta is the only other Tiger returning with more than 100 yards rushing.  He picked up 480 yards with seven scores as a backup to Wyatt Buhr last season.
Up front, the Tigers should be good shape on both lines.  Jacob Tafoya is among the best in the state and both James Waddles and Ty Addington have played major roles in the last two state championship game appearances.
Nuschy also leads the defense with 65 stops which was second best last season.  Archuleta was fifth with 40.
The Tigers are again favored to land the Tri Peaks Title.  They’ve won 15 straight there and 19 of their last 20.  The last conference loss came against Lamar (39-13) in October 2014.
It was a very tough finish to an otherwise outstanding 2017 season for #3 Kent Denver.  The Sun Devils rolled through the regular season unbeaten including wins over Faith Christian and La Junta but were stunned by 15th seeded Resurrection Christian in the playoffs opening round.
The Sun Devils were senior heavy but the program always reloads instead of rebuilds.  One place without a question mark is QB where Joey Licht returns.  The lefty threw for 920 yards and 12 scores as a sophomore.  Expect him to look outside to the tandem of Zach Schlichting (14) and Dylan Wells (12) who return after combining for 26 catches.
The top two rushers graduated so Seth Lindsey could take over the top spot there.  He managed 126 yards last season but is the top returnee.
Will Morland paced Kent with 75 tackles as a junior and he returns.  Wells also picked off four passes and should anchor the secondary.
Schedule wise, Coach Scott Yates and the club again have the difficult back-to-back with Faith Christian (Sept 7th) and La Junta (14th) but may not be challenged otherwise.  The league includes Ridgeview Academy, Englewood, Alameda, Machebeuf and new school Riverdale Ridge.  Of that group, only Machebeuf had a winning record last year (8-2).
#4 Platte Valley joined Kent Denver as teams unbeaten through the regular season that saw a shorter playoff run that expected.  After beating D’Evelyn in the opener, the Broncos were upset by in-county rival Eaton (9-6) in a defensive minded state quarterfinal.  Coach Troy Hoffman has plenty of tradition inside his camp as they won a state title in 2013 and also reached the finals in 2015 (lost to Bayfield).
The offense starts with QB Trevon Wehrman.  Suddenly a senior, Wehrman has totaled 3,461 yards passing and 2,648 rushing his career.  He led the Broncos in both categories last year and expected to again carry much of the load this fall.
Joining him at the skill positions are returnees Ernesto Rios (784 yards rushing) and Josh Yancey (13 receptions).
As in the past, the schedule is a tough one.  The Broncos open with Berthoud and Lutheran on the road and then host Elizabeth before visiting Eaton for a much-anticipated rematch.  The league race again appears to be a battle with Sterling and they visit the Tigers on October 12th.
First year coach Vince Siravo is now in charge of the Faith Christian program but the expectations remain the same for the Eagles and that’s to contend for a state championship.  Siravo succeeds Ralph Nance who stepped up to the top job to replace Blair Hubbard four years ago.
The new coach gets welcomed to the top job very quickly as the Eagles open with Resurrection Christian on August 31st and then tangle with rival Kent Denver seven days later.  D’Evelyn and Bennett should be the most challenging league opponents.  D’Evelyn ended up second in the race last year and earned a playoff bid.  Bennett is back in the 2A ranks after reaching the state semifinals the last two years in Class 1A.
QB Isaiah Kroll threw for 1,018 yards and 14 TD’s as a sophomore and enters his third year as the starter.  Kroll will get plenty of help in the running game from returnees Jordan Abbot (755 yards) and David Nagy (419).  They each scored six touchdowns.  The top two receivers graduated as newcomers must replace Jonah Gardner (37 catches) and Ty Ritter (17).
Jacob Thielen (57) and Michael Osgood (42) were second and fourth in tackles a year ago and are expected to become leaders of the unit this season.  Osgood also recorded four sacks.
Rifle is one of a few newcomers to Class 2A and most experts the Bears to become a state championship contender right away.  They’re ranked sixth in the pre-season poll.  Coach Damon Wells directed his team to nine wins including a playoff win over Evergreen (37-10) last year.  The program has won at least eight games every year since 2011 and reached back-to-back state championship games in 2011 and 2012.
The Bears should again have the ability to run the football.  Tanner Vines picked up just 124 yards as a sophomore but exploded to 2,068 with 19 TD’s a year ago.  He will get a good share of the carries and can score from almost anywhere on the field.
Joe Lopez also returns.  He ended third with 807 yards and helped the Bears averaged over 350 yards on the ground.  He scored 11 of the Bear’s 47 touchdowns.
Vines was the top tackler as well recording 88 stops.  Ariel Herrera was third with 55.  The defense also picked off 14 passes including three from returnee Kevin Tlaxcala.
RPI wise, the Bears should be in great shape come playoff time.  They have three 3A clubs on their schedule and must tangle with Delta and Basalt in league play.  They visit Delta on October 5th and then host two-time defending league champion Basalt on the 19th.
Jeff Van Winkle is the new coach for #7 Resurrection Christian.  He served as an assistant to Mark Roggy the last few years and was elevated to the top spot over the summer.  The Cougars have plenty of momentum and talent from the 2017 season.  They limped into the playoffs as the #15 seed but took out #2 Kent Denver and #7 Faith Christian before ending the season with a semifinal loss to Bayfield.  The eight wins pushed their total to 39 over the last four years.
Leading passer Isaac Crane (912 yards), leading rusher Kyle Lueck (523) and leading receiver Zane Zuhlke (28 catches) all return on offense.  Zuhlke also paced the Cougars with 131 tackles.  The next five tacklers from last year were also underclassmen.
A tough non-conference slate is again first up for #8 Classical Academy.  The Titans and Coach Justin Rice start with D’Evelyn on a Thursday night (August 30th) and then face Sterling and Resurrection Christian before ending non-league action against 3A Sierra.  League wise, it probably will come down to a meeting with La Junta on October 19th.  Three of the last four Titans losses have come against the Tigers.
There are holes to fill across the board for TCA.  Dual-threat QB Cade Bethany graduated as did the top two rushers in Brayden Luft and Jenson Hall.  Alec Day (79 tackles) led the club last year but is the only one of the top seven back in the lineup.  Ethan Boyles is another key defender returning.  He intercepted three passes a year ago.
Among the many highlights for Basalt last year was the win over Salida 28-22 in the first round.  It was just the second post-season win in school history and first since 1979.  They open this season ranked 9th and should again battle for the Western Slope championship and a third consecutive post-season bid.
The Longhorns rolled through league play last year outscoring five opponents 257-44.  With Rifle coming in from 3A and Delta moving over from the Intermountain, the slate should be more difficult which could help the Longhorns if they reach the playoffs.
Leading rusher Noah Williams (1,422 yards) and leading receiver Raul Torres (33 catches) were lost to graduation but QB Trevor Reuss is back.  He threw for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns and added four more scores on the ground.  Jake Reardon ran for 301 yards and should get more carries in 2018.
Tai Kim, with a team leading 58 tackles last year, is back for the Longhorns defense along with Reuss (57) and Jake Reuss (54).
Probably the ranked team with the most positions to fill is #10 Eaton.  The Reds lost over 20 seniors to graduation and many of them had played major minutes for the past two or even three seasons.
Ty Garnhart likely becomes the QB.  He attempted just 11 passes as a backup to Austin Coalson last year.  The top four rushers were seniors leaving JT Baughman as the top returnee.  He rushed for 107 yards as a sophomore.  The top five receivers were also lost to graduation.
Henry Fritzler is the top returnee on defense.  He racked up 58 tackles and ended up second for the Reds.
The schedule out of the gate is very difficult; especially for a club with so many new faces.  First up is Sterling and then D’Evelyn and Platte Valley.  The league schedule also added Berthoud and they along with Resurrection Christian pose the biggest challenges for the Reds to defend their Patriot West crown.
Salida (14), D’Evelyn (12), Sterling (11) and Alamosa (10) were four teams that earned double digit votes but not enough to crack into the Top 10.
Salida went 7-3 and lost to Basalt in the first-round last year.  Their top offensive threat is Eli Smith.  He caught 30 passes for seven touchdowns last year but the Spartans must find someone to get him the ball following the graduation of Bridger Russell (2,041 yards passing).
D’Evelyn always seem to lose a talented quarterback every year and that’s again the case this year as Chad Dines finished up his high school career last Fall.  The top three receivers also graduated so the Jags could run the ball more at least early.  That part of the offense is in good shape with the return of Luca McIntyre (619 yards) and Enzo Franzese (338).  Tackles leader Peter Flack graduated but Brady Sullivan finished second (101) and returns this season.
Sterling finished at 7-3 following an opening loss to Eaton in the playoffs (24-13).  Skill players return across the board including receivers Isaac Harris (44 catches), Axel Henry (28) and Colton Shalla (22).  Top rusher Sean Jay also returns (327 yards).  Brock Shalla is slated to succeed Bodie Hume at QB.  Hume threw for 2,543 yards and 10 scores last season.
Alamosa finished above five hundred (5-4) but did not crack the playoff field.  Losses to Pagosa Springs and Bayfield over the final two weeks took them out of contention.  They’ll battle those same two clubs for the IML championship this season.  QB John Lujan returns.  He threw for 569 yards and was second in rushing with 273.
Bennett and Berthoud are two teams that join the 2A division this year and each could challenge for one of the 16 playoff berths.  Bennett made the Final Four in Class 1A the last two years and suffered just three losses in two years at the 1A level.  The Tigers last year ran for 4,823 yards and featured three 1,000-yard rushers.  Only one returns.  Mason Wakeham totaled 1,125 yards and 11 TD’s last season.
Berthoud was a playoff team in Class 3A twice in the past four years including last season.  They lost to eventual state champion Palmer Ridge (48-13) in the opening round.  Multi-talented QB Brock Voth graduated but expect the Spartans to be very good defensively this year as both Anthony Trojahn (122 tackles) and Ty Beaman (105) return.