* Team on the rise: McMinn Central, Loudon and Sweetwater all return the bulk of their starters from a year ago, but Sweetwater struggled in a preseason scrimmage against Oneida, and Loudon's down year in 2013 was only its second losing season since 2004. That leaves the Chargers, who are seeking to finish above .500 for the first time since going 7-4 in 2009.
* Team on the decline: It could be Polk County, although the Wildcats still will carrry the moniker of district favorites. A little less than half the defensive starters return this season, and even fewer starters return on offense. The Wildcats have also gone from regularly fielding 70-plus-player squads to a little more than 50 this year.
* Toughest schedule: Polk County's nondistrict road schedule consists of trips to Class 6A teams Bradley Central and Walker Valley and to Notre Dame, the team that eliminated the Wildcats from the Class 4A state playoffs last season. The nondistrict home schedule features a game with 2013 Class 1A state runner-up South Pittsburg and dates also with Class 4A playoff teams Central and East Ridge.
* Dream schedule: Loudon also has East Ridge on its home schedule this season, but even with the Pioneers included, the combined 2013 records of the Redskins' nondistrict opponents is 14-49.
* Players to watch: Polk County senior Isaac Smith moves into the starting role at quarterback. He'll also be counted on to help at free safety after playing linebacker last season. Sophomore Seth Sloan is the Wildcats' new fullback, and he'll remain in the rotation at defensive tackle. Senior guard Keegan Ingram is a mainstay on the line. McMinn Central has an extremely versatile player in senior Luke Davis, whose skill set ranges from the ability to play quarterback to middle linebacker. Senior Josh Knight is a returning starter and a worthy pass rusher. The Chargers need someone to emerge at quarterback so they can get the ball to senior speedster Ryann Dahle.
* Predicted order of finish: Polk County has presided over the district for the last five years and, despite overall numbers and numbers of returning starters being down, is still the standard-bearer. McMinn Central graduated two of the best players in the district, and in the state in Class AA for that matter, in running back Denzell Boyd and linebacker Gage Johnson. But the Chargers return starters to 15 of 22 spots from a 4-6 team that played Polk County within a touchdown last year. Loudon had an uncharacteristic 3-7 season in 2013 after going a combined 65-30 since 2005 with state-playoff berths in seven of eight seasons. Nine starters back on both sides should lead a return to prominence. Sweetwater (4-6 in 2013) returns more than Sequoyah (9-3, lost to Hixson in second round of the 4A playoffs). However, if preseason scrimmages are any indication, Sweetwater struggled against a good running game while the Chiefs' passing game stood up at Maryville College against larger schools in 7-on-7 workouts.
Polk County has 10 opponents lined up for the 2014 football regular season. But there's an off-the-field adversary that concerns the Wildcats' coach even more.
It's called complacency.
"One challenge with our guys is that we've gone 20-something district games without losing," said Polk County coach Derrick Davis, whose teams are 20-0 in District 5-AA since the TSSAA changed to the current format for football beginning in 2009. "My fear is they think this is the way it's always going to be. We had a lot of work put in the last five years to go undefeated in the district."
For the record, the Wildcats have won 21 consecutive games against league opponents. Their last league loss was to McMinn Central on Oct. 24, 2008, and then they beat Notre Dame in their final Region 3-AA game that season.
Polk County's biggest challenge on the field will be trying to find ways to make up for the 2,000 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns that Carson-Newman signee Zach Miller totaled last season.
"Those are definitely some big shoes to fill," said 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore Seth Sloan, who has earned the starting fullback position going into the season. "Polk County has always had a good fullback and a power running game. I think we'll spread the ball around a little more, but we'll be running the same offense."
Davis agreed the offense won't be trying to make up Miller's production with one player.
"We'll replace the position with a kid, but you can't replace the person," Davis said. "Seth Sloan will step in, but we'll have to get others involved to take a load off. We'll have to share it with everybody."
From the beginning the Wildcats are expecting to use a variety of ball carriers, including seniors Ryan Rowland and Tristen Senn and junior Ben Norwood, from the wing and slot positions in their offense. Third-year starting guard Keegan Ingram (6-1, 245) is one of two back at his offensive-line position this year, and another played a great deal a year ago.
"If the line can make a hole," Ingram said, "they can run the ball."
Senior Isaac Smith is a defensive veteran but will be the varsity starting quarterback this year for the first time. The passing game could help make up for some of Miller's yards.
"Now is a good time to look at it," Davis said of the preseason.
Staying healthy will be another challenge for Polk County, which has fewer players out for football than in the past few years -- the years it was compiling a 20-0 district record.
"I've told them, 'What we've done the last five years ain't going to do anything for you this year,'" Davis said. "That's the big challenge, trying to stay on top."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.