EPHRAIM — For Snow College, preseason rankings and a lack of respect are bigger obstacles to the team's goals than any opponent it might face.
"We'll never get any national recognition," said Snow head coach Steve Coburn.
Despite beating Georgia Military for three consecutive years and defeating Butler College in last year's Top of the Mountains Bowl in Salt Lake City, the Badgers are ranked eighth this year, behind both Butler (third) and Georgia Military (fourth). Even last year's national champion, Glendale, is ranked sixth.
"We don't have a margin for error," Badger defensive coordinator Justin DeCol said. "If we lose a game, it puts us in a bad situation."
The Badgers' goal is no less than a shot at the national championship in the Top of the Mountains Bowl in December. To have that shot, Snow needs to be ranked first or second at the end of the regular season.
But, according to the team's coaching staff, Snow has the tools it needs to reach that goal.
Quarterback Cade Cooper, from Timpview High School, is one reason. Snow's offense often faltered under last year's starter, James Pritchard. In two games last year, against Western Arizona and Mesa Community College, Cooper entered the game and showed poise and maturity as he moved the Badger offense downfield. Even with limited playing time, Cooper was one of the top 10 passers in the conference last year.
Then there's running back Matt Asiata, from Hunter High. In eight games last year, Asiata compiled 781 yards, averaging more than 97 per game and recording five touchdowns.
DeCol said Cooper and Asiata will be among the top five players in the conference and will anchor a top-three offensive unit.
Couple Cooper and Asiata with a "more talented overall" receiving corps, and DeCol said, opponents will find it difficult to make the Badgers one-dimensional. Of course, even the most accurate quarterback and most elusive running back don't mean much without a solid line.
Snow has that, too.
"This is a better group than we had last year," said offensive coordinator Tyler Hughes, who has no concern with the big, physical group of veterans.
On defense, the Badgers will field a front seven that is "the best I've ever seen," Coburn said.
"Snow's known for all-American quarterbacks and wide receivers," Coburn said, "but defense has won us games."
Anchoring the defense will be returning players Junior Tea, a preseason all-America defensive tackle from Alaska; linebacker Jamison Fitt from Orem, who was a key element in several Badger wins last year; and defensive end Sean Matagi from Cyprus.
A key pickup for the Badgers is defensive end Thor Pili from Timpanogos, who will play opposite Matagi. Pili originally signed with Oregon but chose Snow to get more playing time. Coburn said Pili is "probably the best defensive recruit out of the state of Utah" and already has five offers from Division I schools.
The only possible weakness is a young secondary.
"We have a lot of talent," DeCol said, "but we're inexperienced."
DeCol said that although the secondary is young and inexperienced, and some people might consider it suspect until it proves itself, he has full confidence not only in their ability but also in the strength of heritage.
"We have a high tradition here," he said, "so we have high expectations."
And that includes more than the performance of defensive backs.
According to DeCol, the worst-case scenario for this year's team is to end up in the top three in the Western States Football League and play in the bowl with no national championship on the line.
"And that, honestly, will be below our expectations," DeCol said. "If you ask our kids how many games they're going to win, they'll tell you 11."
Snow College schedule
Aug. 26 AIR FORCE PREP
Sept. 2 at Scottsdale
Sept. 9 RHINO RAIDERS
Sept. 16 PIMA
Sept. 23 at New Mexico
Sept. 30 at Glendale
Oct. 7 MESA
Oct. 14 SCOTTSDALE
Oct. 21 at Eastern Arizona
Oct. 28 ARIZONA WESTERN
Nov. 4 at Phoenix