<strong> Team on the rise:</strong> Central went 2-8 a year ago and lost a handful of games after leading at halftime. They’ve moved from the wing-T to a spread offense to take advantage of speed at the skill positions. Experience will be a positive with eight starters returning on each side of the ball, and the Purple Pounders expect big things from running back Kevin McKenzie and defensive back Terry Tiller, who missed last year because of an injury.
<strong> Team on the decline:</strong> Howard, which has missed the playoffs the last three years, had just 26 players dressed for practice earlier this week, and the Hustlin’ Tigers count just nine linemen among the 26. They have doubled up on conditioning because many of the starters will be going both ways.
<strong> Toughest schedule:</strong> Brainerd ends the year with a five-game district string, but the beginning stretch is tough — three of the first four are on the road — and after opening at home against 5-AAA contender Ooltewah, the Panthers have to play at McCallie, Red Bank and Baylor.
<strong> Dream schedule:</strong> With the balance that’s predicted in the league, there might not be one. There is only one Class 1A team (South Pittsburg vs. Hixson) and one Class 2A team (Boyd-Buchanan vs. Red Bank) in the league’s composite schedule, and both are perennial deep-into-the-playoffs programs. The other nondistrict opponents come from equal or higher classifications all the way to Class 6A.
<strong> Players to watch:</strong> Quarterbacks are always key but could be no more pivotal in playoff hopes at Central (Scout Morgan) and Red Bank (Michael Robinson). Jo Jo Tillery and Haasan Miller will provide much of the offense at East Ridge and Tyner, respectively. Terrance Brooks is a triple threat for Howard and won’t leave the field unless he gets a break on punts.
<strong> Coaches’ predicted order of finish:</strong> Hixson, Central, Tyner, Red Bank, East Ridge, Brainerd, Howard.
East Hamilton is gone, and District 6-AA football coaches couldn’t be happier.
The Hurricanes bolstered gate receipts, but they also created a lot of havoc before moving up to District 5-AAA.
“Last year the league had East Hamilton and then everybody else,” said Hixson coach Jason Fitzgerald, whose team wound up second, losing in the district only to the Hurricanes.
That and numerous returnees were reason enough for his fellow coaches to put the onus of preseason No. 1 on Fitzgerald’s Wildcats.
“When you take East Hamilton out of the discussion, then the kingpin year in and year out is Tyner,” Fitzgerald protested. “Coaches have picked us because we have a lot of returnees, but it’s preseason and every coach knows anything can happen.”
Tyner has been a perennial toughie, for sure, but the 2013 Ram-train version has reignited a fire in the belly of veteran coach Wayne Turner, easily the dean of 6-AA coaches.
“Wayne’s really excited, and that’s scary,” Fitzgerald said. “Everybody knows what kind of coach he is and what he’s capable of putting on the field. When you see the fire he’s got right now, that scares you.”
The Hixson coach had good things to say about each of his team’s opponents. In addition to Tyner, he mentioned Central, Red Bank, Brainerd and East Ridge.
“District championship? It could be anybody. When you throw us all in a hat, I think any of the teams can beat any of the others,” he said. “Central is supposed to have a lot of speed. The new coach at Brainerd seems like a really sharp guy, and E.K. [Slaughter at Red Bank] does a great job every year getting the most of his talent.
“But if I went with a dark horse, it would have to be East Ridge. They’ve got a shot to be a pretty good football team.”
Most of the coaches feel the league is balanced but that the competition will be stiffer because all have improved, seeking to shed the taint of mediocrity.
“Every team will be better,” Fitzgerald said. “In order for our district to get statewide recognition, the teams that come out [on top] at the end have to win some games in the postseason. There could be some great battles in the league, but to show this league’s getting better, we have to win in the playoffs.”
<em>Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765.</em>