REGION 7-AA OUTLOOK
› Teams to beat: Rockmart and Pepperell. Or maybe Pepperell and Rockmart. It was the former last season, when the Yellow Jackets topped the Dragons 56-42 for Pepperell’s only region loss. It was the latter in 2016, when the Dragons defeated the Yellow Jackets 31-10 for Rockmart’s only region loss. These two might fight it out for the top spot a third straight time.› Watch out for: Chattooga has been, at worst, competitive in most region games since Charles Hammon took over as coach four years ago. That should be the case again, and the Indians could really shake up the league with an upset of Rockmart or Pepperell.› Best game: See “Teams to beat” — then circle Oct. 5, when Rockmart visits Pepperell, as the likely region championship game.› Dream schedule: Pepperell gets to host what are arguably its three toughest region games, and they’re spread out nicely, with the Dragons facing Coosa on Sept. 21, Rockmart on Oct. 5 and Chattooga on Nov. 2. Add in an open date the week after what will surely be a physical battle with the Yellow Jackets, and things set up fairly well for Pepperell where the calendar is concerned.› Nightmare schedule: Coosa’s first five games are against teams that made the playoffs a year ago. Nonregion matchups against Trion (7-4 in 2017), Darlington (8-5) and at Mount Zion-Carroll (10-3), are followed by a 7-AA opener versus Chattooga and a trip to Pepperell.› Players to watch: Coosa senior Sean Brown, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound tight end, announced his college commitment in the spring, choosing Tennessee over three other Southeastern Conference programs (Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss). He can be a target in the passing game but is known for his physical play — he made an all-area team last season as a defensive lineman. He is a member of Georgia High School Football Daily’s Class AA preseason all-state team this year, along with Rockmart running back Zabrion Whatley, who rushed for 1,530 yards last season.
Chattooga football coach Charles Hammon didn't claim to be speaking for Georgia's Region 7-AA when he assessed the league's outlook for this season, but his view isn't an uncommon one.
"It's still Rockmart and Pepperell, and then I think it's anybody's game for that third and fourth spot, I really do," Hammon said. " I think anybody can beat anybody any Friday night, but I think the two favorites are Rockmart and Pepperell."
With the Georgia High School Association's reclassification cycle now four years instead of two, those two programs enter the third season of 7-AA's current configuration with one region title apiece, with Pepperell winning in 2016 and Rockmart winning last year. Their rivalry - Rockmart holds a lead of 19-18-1 in the all-time series, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association - would only grow if their Oct. 5 meeting settles the region championship again.
Other region teams are trying to do their own growing, of course, and those include Gordon Central, which went 2-8 last season - both wins came in region play - in Cory Nix's first year as coach. That may not sound like much, and Nix and the Warriors know it's far from where they want to be, but it matched the number of wins for the previous four years combined.
Now Nix hopes a lineup that returns 17 starters, including an offensive line that has four members returning and the other a senior who has come back to football, can make an even bigger impact. He sees an opening, too, though even he acknowledged that Rockmart, led by senior running back Zabrion Whatley, will set a tough pace.
"Certain teams lost a lot of really good kids," Nix said. "Pepperell lost 90 percent of their production, so you would think they would be down some. Rockmart is the top dog and should be the region champs. After that, it's pretty wide open. Coosa has some players, as does Chattooga, but we feel we can be right there."
Dade County has endured back-to-back losing seasons since reaching the playoffs three years ago and brings back only four offensive starters, but the Wolverines expect their sizable, strong, physical line to lead them to what they hope is higher ground. Running back Malaki Webb, a 1,200-yard rusher in 2017, is being counted on for another big year as a junior.
"I think a strong season with this bunch right now is winning the games you're supposed to win and giving yourself a chance to compete in the playoffs," said Bradley Warren, who's entering his 11th season as Dade County's coach. " We've got to find a way to win four or five region games."
One of those ways is by staying upright where the injury list is concerned. That's a challenge that rises exponentially each step down the classification ladder, and Dade County might feel the pain more than most as one of Class AA's smaller schools, enrollment-wise, in a region with some of the classification's biggest schools.
"We've just got to find different ways to give ourselves a chance to win," Warren said. "I feel like the region will be pretty balanced this year for the most part, so whoever stays healthy will have a chance to make the playoffs."
Chattooga has found a way to make the playoffs in each of Hammon's first four seasons as coach, and he's optimistic a fifth straight state berth is a reasonable goal with the experience level considerably better for the Indians this year compared to 2017, when they went 4-7. He expects big things from several position groups but especially in the secondary, where height and experience could make the Indians a tough matchup.
One of his concerns is arriving at the start of region play in mid-September with health and confidence intact. The Indians' nonregion schedule is against Adairsville, Wesleyan and Heritage, all playoff teams with winning records a year ago.
Regardless of how that goes, though, the objective from that point forward will remain the same.
"We expect to get back to the playoffs - that's our goal," Hammon said. "We try to walk before we run, but our goal here is to get back in the playoffs and play well in the region."
Contact Marty Kirkland at firstname.lastname@example.org.