• Team on the rise: Last year was supposed to be the year Southeast Whitfield ended the longest playoff drought in northwest Georgia. However, after a strong start the Raiders weren't ready for prime time. This year, though, they will rely on more than 30 seniors and top playmakers in quarterback Will Swantic and backs Devon Fields and Tyler Brown to finally knock down that door.
• Team on the decline: They won't fall far, but after losing all five offensive-line starters, their two top receivers and running back and defensive terror Isaiah Mack, Northwest Whitfield's Bruins will have a tough time matching last year's nine wins.
• Toughest schedule: Making matters worse for Northwest is a schedule that opens with Class AAA semifinalist Ringgold, an athletic Cedartown team and a very much improved Dade County. The Bruins also have to play three of the toughest region games -- Pickens County, Gilmer County and Ridgeland -- on the road.
• Dream schedule: If Southeast doesn't end with a winning record, the Raiders can't blame their schedule. They open with five teams -- Coahulla Creek, Murray County, Gordon Central, Heritage and LaFayette -- that combined for six wins last year. They also do not play back-to-back road games.
• Players to watch: The region's biggest names are Cartersville and Pickens County star running backs Tiamon Pennymon and Shannon Brooks, but there's plenty of offensive depth in guys such as quarterbacks Caleb Shiflett of Northwest, Dylan Bice of Heritage and Will Swantic of Southeast, Northwest receiver Clay Phillips and LaFayette athlete Kolbe Mosely. Top defenders are Northwest linebacker Cyrus Addison, Ridgeland linebacker Ian Hayes and LaFayette defensive back Kadarrian Ramsey.
• Predicted order of finish: Though Cartersville is the new team on the block, region coaches were unanimous in picking the Purple Hurricanes to win the league title. The next three playoff spots, however, were not so easy to choose. Gilmer County, Northwest Whitfield, Ridgeland, Pickens County and Southeast Whitfield were in the next tier, with LaFayette and Heritage at the bottom.
A down has yet to be played in Georgia Region 7-AAAA football this season, yet each of the league's eight teams already feels like a winner.
With reclassification and a reduction in the number of schools, the league is going to a full region schedule and with it the elimination of the dreaded week 10 playoff play-in games. No one celebrated more than Northwest Whitfield coach Josh Robinson, whose team, despite nine regular-season wins last year, had to travel to powerhouse Carrollton in the first round of the state playoffs.
"When you have all that crossover and don't get to play every team, some unfortunate things can happen," said Robinson, whose team was left traveling with a loss to Dalton. "We lost one game in the regular season and suddenly we had to win the last game to get in, and then at 9-1 we had to go on the road. It's ridiculous to not have a shot at a home playoff game after that kind of season."
One team seemed to suffer every year under the subdivided system, where the only advantage was being able to earn a shot at the playoffs by finishing in the subregion's top three. Ridgeland last season won three games but would have advanced to the playoffs with a week 10 win at Cedartown. If that had been the case, the win differential between No. 3 seed Northwest and Ridgeland would have been five.
"We've talked as a staff, and the thing about this year with a full region schedule is that there is no safety net in week 10," Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said. "But this is the best way to get the top four teams. Every game is crucial. You can't fall back on that week 10 play-in game because there isn't one. Any loss could put you out."
With only seven region games, each team also still can play nonregion rival games, which was a major reason the old region elected to subdivide. In other words, it's a win-win situation.
"The straight region schedule is the only way to go," Robinson said. "I tried like heck to get that worked out before, but money played a factor. What I know is you want to give your kids the best chance to make the playoffs, and that wasn't it. Money's important, but having the chance to get the kids in the playoffs is way more important than that."
With that said, league coaches expect most teams will have that shot right up to week 10. New member Cartersville is the unanimous favorite, but after that every team has a reason to believe it can get one of the other three postseason berths, especially considering each team plays all the others.
"I love the fact we have a straight region schedule," Southeast Whitfield coach Sean Gray said. "Things weren't exactly on a level playing field in the past, but this year it's all equal and the top four teams will make it. With the way it's shaping up, it's going to come down the final week anyway."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.