Some are perennial powers in their respective classification, others have rosters dotted with college-level talent. Whatever the formula, these are the area's five must-see high school football teams this season (listed alphabetically):
Baylor Red Raiders
Coach: Phil Massey
Over the last three seasons, few area programs can match the level of talent or the playoff success Baylor has produced. After two state-runner-up finishes, the Red Raiders narrowly missed returning to the title game last year; and while they're young this season, there is plenty of talent to make them contenders again. If for no other reason, Baylor is worth watching just on the chance that senior all-state kicker Rafael Gaglianone is a threat to break the state record of a 61-yard field goal. Speed running back George Porter, junior quarterback Nick Tiano and gifted sophomore receiver Gage Upshaw also are capable of highlight-reel plays.
Calhoun Yellow Jackets
(Georgia Class AA)
Coach: Hal Lamb
This essentially has become the equivalent of a small college program playing on Friday nights. Calhoun has won an astonishing 78 straight region games and 13 consecutive region championships. The Yellow Jackets have played for a state title each of the last five seasons, and their last regular-season loss was on Sept. 12, 2008. There is speed in all the right places -- including receivers Tydus Curtis and Chandler Curtis as well as running back Alex Urbano -- and that aspect is helped by the sure footing of the turf field. Add to that the overwhelming community support, which certainly gives the team a huge home-field advantage.
Coach: Ted Gatewood
It's hard to believe this is only the fifth season for the Hurricanes, in light of the level of talent they have put on the field the last two seasons. East Hamilton has won district championships the last two years and last year advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals. This season the Hurricanes move up one class, but with players such as cornerback/receiver Tre Herndon (Vanderbilt commitment), quarterback Hunter Moore (Central Arkansas commitment), tight end Bailey Lenoir (an FBS prospect), linebacker Austin Gatewood (FCS prospect) and offensive lineman Cordell Sands (FCS prospect), they have the talent to compete with any opponent.
Coach: Charles Fant
Few teams have come so far so fast as the Fighting Irish. Before last season they hadn't finished with a winning record in six years, but in Coach Fant's first season -- with the help of a young roster stacked with Saturday talent -- they won nine games and advanced to the state second round last year. Ninety-five percent of the offensive production returns, led by versatile athlete Kareem Orr, a junior who will be one of the top prosepcts in the state next year, as well as sophomores Alex Darras at quarterback and Ricky Ballard at running back. Add junior lineman Joe Dossett, who also will be one of the state's top recruits next year, and who helped the offense average scoring five touchdowns last year, and the Irish are clearly a fun team to watch.
Coach: Tim Moore
A recent poll of area coaches, and another by the Times Free Press prep staff, each made this the area's top atmosphere on Friday nights. Although a small-school program, the Pirates have proven they will take on all comers, averaging 11 wins per season despite every nondistrict opponent since the 2005 opener having been teams from larger classifications. The program has played in 10 state-title games, winning five, and there's again an abundance of talent, led by state Mr. Football finalist Jajuan Lankford at running back. He's joined in the backfield by versatile junior Corbin Fitzgerald and classmate Kitt Grider, who has 4,200 career passing yards. Senior Kahlil Mitchell is a hammer at fullback and linebacker.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...