With the high school football playoffs getting under way this Friday, don't be surprised if fresh faces are hoisting state championship trophies a month from now.
Of the five defending state champions — Lone Peak, Logan, Hurricane, Manti and Duchesne — only Duchesne is ranked No. 1 in its respective classification in the final Deseret News rankings. In fact, three of the five aren't even the No. 1 seed from their own region.
Duchesne is realistically the only clear-cut favorite heading into the state tournament. The two-time defending state champion Eagles roll into the 1A state tournament on a 31-game winning streak and double-digit wins over every 1A team it has faced.
Coach Jerry Cowan doesn't expect things to come as easily as last season.
"I just hope our kids aren't overconfident 'cause we're not as dominant as we were last year. It's been scrappy the way we've won some of the games this year," said Cowan.
The other four champs all face tough paths to the finals.
Defending 5A champion Lone Peak lost three games this year — even though Timpview was recently forced to forfeit its win over Lone Peak — and could've easily lost several more without some fourth quarter dramatics.
The Knights have a favorable path to the 5A semifinals, but No. 1 Jordan will likely be waiting at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Jordan is the highest-scoring team in the state at 46.6 ppg, and its only loss came in the waning seconds of the XFinity Challenge at Rio Tinto Stadium against St. John Bosco, Calif.
"We've had a target on our backs all year and teams always want to beat the defending champ. We're sort of used to it. but every game is a challenge and we’re going to do it just like we did last year — take one game at a time and make sure we're playing our best game for each opponent. It was a huge challenge last year and the parity this year will probably make it even more difficult to repeat. There are just so many great teams in 5A," said Lone Peak head coach Tony McGeary.
Logan's road to another 4A state title is littered with land mines. It opens with Region 8 juggernaut Timpview, which everyone knows is still one of the elite teams in 4A despite being forced to forfeit four regular season wins. If Logan gets by Timpview, it would then likely need to beat a quality Woods Cross team in the quarterfinals, No. 1 East in the semifinals and then a Mountain Crest team it lost to in region play in the championship.
Logan beat mentally-depleted East in the regular-season finale last week, and no doubt believes it can beat anybody.
Defending 3A state champion Hurricane feels the same way despite a triple-overtime loss to Desert Hills a few weeks ago.
"I think we're a bit disappointed not only in ourselves but we all, (and) it's kind of funny, but we feel like we've been good for — this is our fifth year — and as soon as we lost that game we've been disrespected by everybody," said Hurricane coach Chris Homer. "I don't think anybody expects us to repeat now. We're using that, as coaches. We're trying to motivate our team as more of the underdog and being disrespected role."
Assuming Hurricane takes care of business in round one against Delta, it won't have to wait long to prove itself as it will likely face No. 1 Juan Diego in the quarterfinals.
In the 2A ranks, many believe the state title is a two-team race between No. 1 San Juan and defending champion Manti.
Manti's only loss this season was to Juan Diego back in Week 2, whereas San Juan is perfect heading in the playoffs as it seeks its third state championship in four years.
"I think our kids expect to win, I don't think they expect that it's going to come to them easy, but they expect that out of themselves," said Manti coach Cole Meacham.
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