Well, Big Horn, how do you come up with an encore for that?

The Rams were more than just dominant in 2018 on their way to the Class 1A 11-man title. The numbers speak for themselves — 11-0 record, a state 11-man record 577 points scored, a title-game victory margin of 53 points, a state record for most points scored in a three-game playoff series… and on and on.

Now, the Rams have to find a way to remain competitive despite graduating seven all-state picks. Somehow, they have six other all-state picks coming back, and Big Horn remains the favorite to win 1A 11-man even with all the changes.

Part of the reason the Rams are drawing so much respect is because the talent well is just that deep in Big Horn. And part of it is that the Rams proved they could handle change last season when they shifted head coaches, giving Kirk McLaughlin a perfect start to his head coaching career with that dominant season.

If anyone can handle high expectations AND transition at the same time, it’s Big Horn. However, a repeat of last year’s record-setting season would be a surprise — and challengers like Upton-Sundance, Pine Bluffs and Cokeville will make an undefeated season in and of itself a challenge.

Four questions to answer

What makes Big Horn the favorite again? Returning firepower. In short, no other team returns what Big Horn returns this fall. The six returning all-state players is the highest number in the state regardless of classification, and with so many key players back from an undefeated team, the Rams start the year as the favorites.

Who’s most likely to challenge Big Horn for the top spot? Is “pick ’em” an option? Several squads return key chunks of players, including Upton-Sundance, Pine Bluffs and Lusk from the East and Cokeville, Rocky Mountain and Shoshoni from the West. Any one of those teams is capable of pulling off a first-round playoff victory given the right circumstances, although Upton-Sundance appears on paper to be the most capable of challenging Big Horn for both conference and state title honors.

What was that about Lusk? Oh yeah, Lusk is a thing again. The Tigers return four of their five all-conference choices from last year, including a pair of all-staters in senior Damien Molzahn and junior Drake Lamp. After missing the playoffs last year thanks to a little bad luck in a coin flip, Lusk should be a contender again this year.

What about the West Conference? In short — what about it? Aside from Cokeville, the conference was disappointing in the postseason last year, with the No. 2, 3 and 4 seeds losing first-round games by scores of 67-8, 54-0 and 56-0. With Saratoga playing six-man and Wyoming Indian playing a patchwork schedule, four teams are eligible for the four playoff spots out of the West — not exactly conditions conducive to creating playoff-ready, tested squads.

Four players to watch

Quinn McCafferty, Big Horn. Any discussion of the Rams’ hopes this year starts with the man under center. McCafferty led Class 1A 11-man with 1,731 passing yards (157.4 per game). His completion percentage of 63.4 (92 of 145) was by far the best among 1A, and he had a 27-to-3 touchdown to interception ratio. His presence will keep the Rams stable in a new season.

Will Pelissier, Big Horn. Pelissier is a rare player that can show up in the top 10 of the classification in both the rushing and receiving categories. He was ninth in 1A in rushing last year, carrying 82 times for 653 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he was just as dangerous through the air, finishing with 20 catches for 429 yards. As a senior, both yardage totals could go up as Pelissier gets even more opportunities.

Dax Yeradi, Wright. The Panthers broke a long streak last year by qualifying for the playoffs, and Yeradi was a big reason why. As the Class 1A 11-man leader in defensive points each of the past two years, Yeradi has consistently proven his ability to provide huge plays (class-high seven interceptions last year) and keep Wright in games.

Jayden Caylor, Upton-Sundance. As a junior, Caylor was instrumental in the Patriots’ run in the playoffs. He led U-S in several key statistics, including rushing (779 yards), receiving (331 yards), scoring (110 points), tackles (91), and defensive points (147). As the Patriots’ only returning all-state player, Caylor might see his responsibilities increase in 2019 — as if that’s possible.

Four key games

Big Horn at Upton-Sundance, Sept. 27. This showdown between the Patriots and the Rams is always key — and the Rams have always had the upper hand. Big Horn is 2-0 against the U-S co-op, winning 55-14 last year and 53-13 the year before that.

Cokeville at Rocky Mountain, Oct. 11. The Panthers appear to be ready to cruise to yet another West Conference title, and no one appears to be in a position to put up much of a fight against that. However, the up-and-coming Grizzlies, at home in Week 6, are in the best position to catch the Panthers in a potential trap game.

Upton-Sundance at Pine Bluffs, Oct. 18. This game between the Patriots and Hornets has had playoff implications for the past several years. Expect similar stakes this year, where a victory could mean the difference between having a home playoff game and not.

Pine Bluffs at Lusk, Oct. 25. A lot of people are looking at Lusk as a potential breakout team in 2019. If the Tigers uphold their end of the expectations, this Week 8 meeting at home against perennially tough Pine Bluffs could have higher stakes than pride on the line.

Predicted order of finish

East Conference: Big Horn, Upton-Sundance, Pine Bluffs, Lusk, Tongue River, Wright, Southeast.

West Conference: Cokeville, Shoshoni, Rocky Mountain, Wind River, Wyoming Indian.

Way-too-early title game score prediction

Big Horn 34, Upton-Sundance 24. By acclimation, the Rams are the favorites in 1A this year. A surprise might be waiting somewhere along the line, but as of August, the Rams are in the best position to be the last team standing come November.

Stadium tour and season preview video

What do you think? Can Big Horn keep up the pace it set for itself last year? Could Upton-Sundance, Pine Bluffs or someone else end the Rams’ run in the East? Is Cokeville, of all programs, being overlooked? Leave a comment, or drop a line on Twitter or Facebook.

Next week: Class 2A preview.


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