Strasburg’s first year in the Class 1A football division will be difficult to top.  The Indians rolled through the schedule 13-0 and knocked off Meeker for the state championship.  Along the way they outscored opponents 620-186 and scored a whopping 85 touchdowns.  Several top players from the club graduated but the Indians are still considered the team to beat as they’re ranked #1 in the first CHSAA poll of the season.
The Indians are followed in the rankings by familiar programs, Meeker, Bennett and Paonia.  Meeker as mentioned reached the state championship game while the Tigers and Eagles both reached the state semifinals.  Other programs in the pre-season top ten in order from fifth to tenth are Peyton, Crowley County, Platte Canyon, Burlington, Cedaredge, Limon.  Each of the six were playoff members in 2016.
Senior Hunter Bergstrom is the top returning offensive threat for Strasburg.  He rushed for a team best 1,110 yards and 15 touchdowns averaging 13 yards per carry on just 84 attempts.  He also led the defending champs with 23 receptions for 446 yards and six more scores.  Missing through from the offense are big play threats Jeremy Ladd and Chase Starman along with QB Connor Martin.  Senior tackle Chris Gudka though returns to help find room for Bergstrom and new faces that will need to step up.
Defensively, Strasburg returns the second and third leading tackler from a year ago in Michael Spence (70) and Wyatt Warren (57).  They could help the Indians through a difficult early season stretch that includes two opening games with Burlington and Bennett.  They also face a third top 10 opponent in non-league play against Limon in week four.
Meeker was unbeaten in 2016 until the frustrating state championship loss to Strasburg.  It appeared the two teams were equal in talent overall but the Indians just had too much speed for the host Cowboys.
Meeker will rely heavily on Logan Hughes and Doak Mantle offensively.  Hughes, a senior, begins his third year as the starting quarterback and has thrown for nearly 38-hundred yards and 39 touchdowns over the last two seasons.  Mantle ran for 1,058 yards last year and caught nine passes while totaling 14 touchdowns overall.
Several holes on the Meeker defense will need filling as the top five tacklers from a year ago were all seniors.  That list included the physical duo of Chase Rule (147 tackles) and Casey Turner (122).  Mantle (61) and Taylor Merrifield (45) are the top two returning tacklers from that unit.
Bennett could have easily been the number one team in the pre-season polls.  The Tigers were bounced by Meeker (34-24) in the state semifinals last year but return two 1,000-yard rushers, four starting offensive lineman and all five defensive line starters for this season.  The Tigers’ only other loss came against Strasburg (55-44) and those two I-70 rivals meet again in week two this season.
Other than the two losses, Bennett outscored opponents 511-115 during a dominant 2016 campaign.  Jesse Rodriquez and Rocky Lechman combined for 2,598 yards and 38 touchdowns last year and each return for the senior season.  Lechman also threw for 432 yards and nine touchdowns on just 18 completions at QB.  The Tigers are run dominated offensively and when they do throw the ball, it normally results in big plays.
With two state championships, a third finals appearance and semifinal trip over the past four years, Paonia has been one of the football bell weathers in Class 1A.  A new era begins in Paonia as former player Blaine Escher succeeds Brent McRae as head coach.  Escher gets to work with the returning running back tandem of Jaden Miller (977 yards) and Sackett Chesnik (572) and combined for 13 touchdowns.  They could help ease the loss of talented signal caller Dagan Reinks to graduation.
Miller, with 61 stops, is also the top returning tackler but he will get help from Anthony Felice (42) and Levi Patterson (36).
Depth could be a concern for Paonia as they list just 24 players on their MaxPreps roster.  That depth could also be tested early as they visit Centauri in zero week.  The game was a late addition to the schedule after Center announced they would not field a team this year.  Both Paonia and Centauri had the Vikings on their slate and got together on a schedule for very early in the season.
Pushing Meeker and Paonia in the Western Slope will be a solid Cedaredge team that is ranked 9th to open the season.  It’s difficult to move up in the conference as the league has three state titles since 2012 and has had a team reach the state championship game five times over the last six seasons.
The Bruins defense was very good last year as they limited state champion Strasburg to a season low 29 points in a second-round playoff loss.  But six of the top seven tacklers from that unit are gone.  That means the offense may have to carry the team early in the season and that group should be very strong.  QB’s Pedro Madaleno (532 passing yards) and Jared Reynolds (463) both return.  Madaleno was also second on the Bruins with 560 yards and six touchdowns and those numbers could increase with the graduation of the speedy Isaac Swoffer.
5th ranked Peyton is the reigning Tri Peaks champions.  The Panthers, who picked up some help from nearby Calhan when the Bulldogs could not field a team, ended 2016 with a 10-1 record and a first round playoff win over Limon (16-7).  Peyton ran for 2,691 yards and 36 touchdowns last year but the top two rushers, Tristan Hanks and Wyatt Lee, both graduated.  But returning are Josh Gonzales (498 yards) and Trevor Walker (438) who combined for nine scores.  Walker is also the starting QB so the Panthers are in good shape there.  Mitchell Swartz (97 tackles) is the top defender coming back.
The schedule is favorable as the Panthers open with Trinidad and Byers, two teams that have struggled in recent years.  Those games should allow the Panthers to work on getting new players placed and comfortable in the lineup.
Crowley County, ranked 6th, enters 2017 seeking a fourth consecutive league championship and they’re favored to again land the Santa Fe crown.  The Chargers lost to Cedaredge (24-7) in their playoff opener and finished at 7-2.  QB Bradley Clabey is the unquestioned leader of the team as he begins his fourth year as the starter.  During an injury filled junior season, Clabey ran for 415 yards and threw for 451.  The Chargers also welcome back Chris Meyer who totaled 507 yards rushing and 11 receptions as a junior.
#7 Platte Canyon (9-2) finished second to Bennett in the Colorado conference last year and posted a playoff win over Monte Vista (46-7).  The Huskies ball-control running game churned out 293 yards a game with 42 touchdowns and Trevor Sander, the leading rusher with 1,115 yards, is back for his senior season.  He’ll be helped in the running game by Mathias Johnson who ended 2016 with 538 yards and eight touchdowns.  The Huskies do need to find a new QB as three-year starter Otis Schmidt finished up his senior season last Fall.  He started 30 games over three years and threw for 1,334 yards.
#8 Burlington is favored to land another North Central title.  The Cougars recovered nicely from a lopsided loss to Burlington in their season opener to finish 8-3 and a perfect 5-0 mark in league play.  Their season ended with a hard fought 22-20 to Paonia in the state quarterfinals.
QB Bubba Sullivan graduated but Braden Witzel appears ready to step into the starters role.  He tossed four touchdowns as a sophomore last season.  Witzel though led the team with 92 tackles so he has plenty of varsity and big game experience.  Leading rusher Justis Marshall also graduated but the Cougars return good depth there with Case Reiber (531 yards), Kaden Meurisse (224) and Witzel (125).  Jonan Hansen is also back after leading the team in receptions (22) and interceptions (4).
Pushing Burlington for the North Central title could again be #10 Limon.  The Badgers came up short by an extra point to the Cougars (7-6) in the game that determined the league championship.  The next week, the Badgers ended their season with a nine-point playoff loss to Peyton.
Coach Mike O’Dwyer’s club again faces a strong schedule with Crowley County and Strasburg in league play to go along with traditional rivals Wray, Holyoke, Wiggins and Yuma along with Burlington in the conference.  Running back Hauk Hubbard is the top returnee.  The junior ran for 781 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman and added 787 and six scores a year ago.  He’s also the top returnee on defense with 70 tackles.  Cole Younger will also help there after registering 46 tackles and three interceptions last season.
Outside the rankings, Monte Vista (11) and Centauri (7) received the most votes as the longtime rivals should again battle for the Southern Peaks crown.  Both teams had a league loss and shared the top spot with Center last year.  Centauri was the odd team out as the league point system placed them third in the tiebreaker and the Falcons also missed the playoffs due to RPI.  Monte Vista and Center both advanced to playoffs but were bounced in the first round.  The race though is likely down to Monte Vista and Centauri this year as Center will not field a team due to low numbers.
Monte Vista (5-5) suffered a key loss to graduation in QB Keshaun Duran who combined for nearly 17-hundred yards of offense last season.  Look for junior Zach Hindes and sophomore Kaidon Wentz to battle for the starting job.  Jacob Chavez returns after leading the Pirates with 559 yards rushing and he’s joined in the backfield by Mario Dominguez (254) and Tyler Vigil (251).  Dominguez (90 tackles) and Chavez (80) lead a veteran defense that also gets help from Cedric Perea (83).
Centauri could easily improve on last year’s 6-3 mark.  Key returnees on offense include QB Nate Anderson who led the team in passing (810 yards) and rushing (600).  Brandon Buhr caught 33 passes a year ago and returns to give Anderson a threat down the field.  Defensively, Adam Chacon is coming off a remarkable freshman season where he led the Falcons with 95 tackles.  Also returning on that side of the ball are Jackson Price (80), Bennie Chacon (79), Tristan Crowther (78) and Casey Fringer (71).  Buhr also added three interceptions.
Clear Creek (7-2) was another team with a winning record that failed to make the playoff bracket.  The Golddiggers were hurt by a weak RPI in non-league play and could be again unless Lake County, Estes Park, Byers and Summit can generate more wins.  The ‘Diggers should be able to score points as both Ty Judge and Noah Siarra return.  Judge threw for 1,973 yards while Sarria added 703 yards rushing and 827 yards receiving.  Another returnee is Lucas Gerding with 28 catches for 514 yards.
Highland (6-4) ended their season with a first round loss to Bennett (49-0).  All four of the Huskies losses came against playoff teams and they face the same schedule this year starting with #2 Meeker in zero week.  Logan Stewart is back after leading the Huskies with 763 yards rushing and Koby Anderson, with a team best 135 tackles, returns to lead the defense.
Out west, Grand Valley and Olathe both received two votes but as mentioned, they could face a difficult time moving higher in the Western Slope standings.  Grand Valley ended up fourth in the conference last year but still made the playoffs for a second straight year.  A third appearance is likely as the Cardinals have the talented Jeff Hollbrook back at QB.  He threw for 1,123 yards and 12 TD’s and added 784 yards and 11 scores on the ground a year ago.  Jonathon Pena also rushed for 523 yards as a sophomore.
Olathe (4-5) gets back QB Dillon Nelson and RB Cesar Suarez to lead the offense but the Pirates were just 1-4 in conference play a year ago.
Dolores won three games last year but picked up a top 10 vote to start the season.  The Bears were extremely young last year so improvement in the win column is a strong possibility.  The top seven tacklers are back on defense; a group led by Forest Pejsa who set a school record with 165 tackles.  QB Justin Purkatt (1,723 total yards) also returns as does RB Skieler Grooms (531 yards).
Buena Vista won the state championship two years ago and made the playoffs last season but somehow failed to attract a single top 10 vote to open the campaign.  The Demons get back Hayden McGinnis (67 tackles) and Jordan Yates (59) on defense along with Parker Johnson (508 yards passing) and Michael Morgan (513 yards rushing) on offense.