DISTRICT 7-AA AT A GLANCE
• Team on the rise: Bledsoe County has 17 returning starters, a college prospect in receiver Nathaniel Collins, a strong quarterback battle between senior Connor Boynton and sophomore Chaise Sorrow, a power running game with an experienced offensive line plus the return (from Rhea County) of offensive coordinator Josh Owensby.
• Team on the decline: Grundy County has the line and returning quarterback Houston Mainord, but coach Nick Bryant was casting a net for a running game and more receivers to go with the two he has who have been battle-tested.
• Toughest schedule: Signal Mountain opens the season with road games at Class 5A member East Hamilton and 3A toughie Tyner, and sprinkled among the district games are Class 6A member Bradley Central and Greeneville, a 4A semifinalist in 2013.
• Dream schedule: Chattanooga Christian opens the year against Grace Academy and Lookout Valley, two of three 1A opponents on the schedule. It should enhance the Chargers' drive for their first winning season, this one under new coach Rob Spence.
• Players to watch: There already are two NCAA Division I commitments in the ranks: Notre Dame athlete Kareem Orr -- who could show up at receiver, running back, quarterback, cornerback and/or safety -- has settled on Louisville, and Signal Mountain offensive tackle Harrison Moon committed to Mississippi State in July. Grundy County's Terrince Bramhall is likely to show up at numerous positions on both sides of the ball, and Sequatchie County has a big running back/linebacker in Hayden Hicks. Notre Dame has numerous skill players to go with Orr, including running backs Auston Banks and Ricky Ballard and quarterback Alex Darras. Signal has another big fullback (converted defensive tackle William Franklin), and the Eagles have high hopes pinned on second-year quarterback Jack Teter and running back Skye Wilson.
• Predicted order of finish: Signal Mountain's Oct. 3 game at Notre Dame should tell the tale at the top. In a Times Free Press poll of 7-AA coaches -- one coach abstained -- Signal edged the Irish by a single point for No. 1. That night's game between Bledsoe and Sequatchie County at Pikeville could decide third place. The two finished in a ballot deadlock for third. Grundy County came in fifth with CCS sixth.
Only one District 7-AA football coach disagreed, and he voted for his own team No. 1. Everybody else believes Notre Dame or Signal Mountain will be at the top when the final regular-season whistle is blown on Oct. 31.
Each of the powerhouses will have played five games when they meet on Oct. 3 at Notre Dame.
Signal has won each of the three games played in the current district configuration, but after rolling 58-18 in 2011 the Eagles have prevailed 27-20 and 20-13 the last two years.
"When you lose the district championship by seven points two years in a row, you tend to pay lots of attention," Irish coach Charles Fant said. "We always try to play in their 7-on-7s. We want to get a look at them, and I'm sure they want to get a look at us. Bill [Price, Signal's coach] and I have developed a great relationship, and he brings a very competitive nature to that team."
Neither Price nor Fant was surprised to be voted atop a poll of 7-AA coaches.
"I guess they based it on past performance, but nobody has played a game yet," said Price, who pointed out that both Bledsoe County and Sequatchie County have high numbers of returnees.
"I'm not [surprised], considering the amount of people we returned and how many they returned," Fant said. "We expect to fight them for the championship, barring injury."
That injury bug already has bitten the Irish with No. 1 quarterback Alex Darras sidelined for the opener against Knoxville Catholic and possibly for Game 2 against East Ridge.
"He stepped in a hole in his back yard a couple of weeks ago, and we thought he'd rolled his ankle," Fant said. "After the first couple of days of camp we decided to have it looked at. Turned out it was what they call a dancer's fracture, and he had surgery the next day to have a pin put in the ankle. He should be back in four weeks."
The injury has opened the door for backup Nicholas Coronas, who had an outstanding 7-on-7 summer, and Kareem Orr, who already had been working at quarterback as part of the Irish's offensive scheme.
Running back and defensive back Ricky Ballard already was sidelined with an ankle sprain.
Signal Mountain has thus far avoided injuries, and Price noted that his team has a lot of experience beyond returning starters.
"We have a lot of guys that played a lot of football last year," he said.
Sequatchie County coach Ken Colquette said the Notre Dame-Signal matchup could be a speed-vs.-strength battle.
"They have size, no doubt, and right now, skill position-wise I felt we ran faster," Fant said. "Most games are won in the trenches, and I thought last year we matched their size and strength and they just made one play more than we did. We stressed strength in the offseason, and we are definitely stronger."
Price acknowledged Notre Dame's prowess.
"They have a good football team -- a lot of skill players," he said.
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.