• Team on the rise: With 17 juniors who have loads of game experience and a more favorable schedule, Marion County could be one of the most dangerous teams in the area.
• Nightmare schedule: South Pittsburg plays just one nondistrict game against another 1A team. The other six nondistrict foes are in larger classifications and made the state playoffs last season, including 6A Franklin County. The Pirates play two district champions and four opponents that advanced at least to the second round. One of their road games is at 2010 2A state champ Signal Mountain.
• Dream schedule: Of Marion County's five road games, only two are against teams that had winning records last season. Three of the Warriors' opponents won three or fewer games last year, and four of their first six games are at home.
• Best game: When South Pittsburg travels to Marion County on Sept. 16, not only will county bragging rights be on the line, but the district title likely will go to the winner.
• Biggest shoes to fill: South Pittsburg running back Raquis Hale set a school record for rushing yards with more than 2,400 and was the MVP of the state championship game. He carried the Pirates in several playoff games and will not be easily replaced.
• Playoff bound: South Pittsburg, Marion County, Lookout Valley
If South Pittsburg is going to make a run at a fourth state championship game in five years, it must account for the loss of four offensive linemen and a backfield that rolled up more than 4,000 yards last season.
While the Pirates return six offensive starters, how quickly their new quarterback, running back and revamped line mature could determine the season.
Junior Jake Stone (5-foot-11, 175) comes off a knee injury from early last season in taking over at quarterback, while Demetric "Little Man" Johnson moves from receiver to running back. Johnson (6-1, 180), who compiled more than 1,500 all-purpose yards last season, has the talent to become the program's next college prospect. He averaged nearly 20 yards per touch last season as a receiver, runner and kick returner.
Senior receiver and defensive back Antonio Chubb (5-11, 175) is another two-way star who had more than 1,000 all-purpose yards in 2010 and is the fastest player on a team loaded with speed. Whether those playmakers and heralded sophomore Jiajuan Lankford (5-10, 175) continue the program's 45-points-a-game average for the past four seasons will depend heavily on a heavy offensive line.
Cody Branham (6-1, 300) is a three-year starter at center and is joined by transfer D.J. Roberson (6-5, 315) on a line that averages 291 pounds.
"Even in the spots where we lost starters, we've got guys who have a lot of game experience," Pirates coach Vic Grider said. "We've got guys with talent, there's no doubt about that. It's just a matter of them stepping up now that it's their turn. I have a lot of confidence in their ability."
A defense that limited eight opponents to one touchdown or less returns eight starters, including all four linebackers. That group is led by Coltin Blevins (5-10, 220), an all-state selection and the defensive MVP of last year's state-title game.
All the trials that forced Marion County to play 17 sophomores last season could pay off this season with so much returning experience. Eight starters are back on each side of the ball, and the optimisim starts with junior quarterback Matt Zeman, whose 6-2, 220-pound frame lends a physical presence to the position. He likely will be joined at linebacker and in the offensive backfield by younger brother Blake (5-10, 205), who is one of the most anticipated freshmen to join the varsity in more than a decade.
"He's everything people have talked about and then some," Warriors coach Troy Boeck said. "He could become an all-state-caliber player for us right off. Blake and Matt are both very tough kids who will be leaders for us.
"I think we're in a the exact same situation we were in 2008 when people were overlooking us and we wound up getting to the semifinals. I would be very disappointed if we had just an ordinary season."
Senior Hunter Murray (6-2, 240) anchors both Marion lines, while junior Jeb McCullough (5-9, 220) is another tough runner at fullback and Eric Qualls (6-3, 180) is a big target at receiver.
After five straight winning seasons, Lookout Valley slipped last year, but the Yellow Jackets have nine starters on each side returning. The junior class will be counted on heavily, led by running back Jamal Jones (5-10, 180), quarterback Vann Scribner and receiver Toney Summerow. Each side of the line will rely heavily on seniors Zach Frashier and Tyler Higdon.
It's been eight years since Whitwell had a winning season, and last spring former Ridgeland assistant Billy Barnhart became its sixth head coach in eight years. Instability has kept the Tigers out of the playoffs since 2005. Among the 13 seniors who will be expected to help turn things around are undersized running backs and defensive backs Tyler Cookston (5-7, 150) and Austin Kirby (5-7, 165), while Austin Skelton (5-10, 190) is one of the steadiest two-way linemen.