Between last July and last August, high school football coaches across the state cast their votes to the Deseret News ranking the teams in their region.

Fast forward to October, and in the 4A classification, it’s almost comedic just how wrong the predictions were in both Region 10 and Region 11. However, among the red rocks of Region 10 in Southern Utah, one team has separated from the pack and looks like the team to beat: Crimson Cliffs.

The Mustangs have burst onto the scene this fall, racing out to a 7-1 record, and have won five straight games, the last three coming in blowouts. With the playoff just a few weeks away, their grip on the No. 1 spot in RPI is tighter than ever.

“The more you win, the more valuable each game becomes after that,” Crimson Cliffs coach Wayne Alofipo said. “When you have an opportunity to be in the driver’s seat and control your own destiny, it’s a good thing. We’re fortunate to be in the situation we’re in right now. … We’ve got our hands full near the end of the season.”

Having won three games this season by a touchdown or less, Crimson Cliffs has been no stranger to close matchups, but Pine View did not offer that last Friday night as the Mustangs rolled to a 40-14 victory over the Panthers. Junior quarterback Steele Barben completed 13 of 26 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns, and the Mustangs collected 224 total rushing yards.

Of the 13 schools comprising the divided 4A landscape, Crimson Cliffs is the newest, as the Mustangs played their first football season in 2019. The team went 1-9 that year, but since then, they increased their win total to four, then eight and now seven with two regular season games to go.

The Mustangs had a mountain to climb at the beginning of this season, returning only six seniors combined in the starting lineup, but after scraping by in a low-scoring win over Green Canyon, the Mustangs started to hugely outperform expectations, crushing 5A Spanish Fork and collecting two region wins against the common powers, Deseret Hills and Snow Canyon. The Mustangs only loss this season so far came from Timpview, a team no one would have expected them to compete with.

Juniors like Barben, who has 20 touchdown passes to five interceptions, and Mason Topalian, who has over 400 rushing yards and five scores, surround the few productive seniors on the team. A significant advantage for Crimson Cliffs is that five of those six seniors are on the offensive or defensive line, giving size and leadership to perhaps the most crucial position group in prep football.

Alofipo took over as head of the program this year, but had experience being a defensive coordinator at nearby Dixie. His experience working with multiple schools within the area is a common theme, one that breeds familiarity and extreme competitiveness in the current 4A map.

Most of the coaches in 4A right now, Alofipo said, have coached together at one point or another. Because of that, not only do the coaches understand each other, but they tend to run their teams very similar.

For most classifications in Utah, two or three teams usually reign over the rest and have the best shot at winning the state championship. Alofipo said he can reasonably see eight teams across 4A (over half the classification) go on to win it all this season

“The 4A deal is wide open right now,” Alofipo said. “There’s a lot of good teams from the north and the south. … It’s all based off of matchups. The seeding is going to really matter (in the playoffs). Like I told our young men, we hold the key to that right now.”