For all the off-field excitement created by its two in-town region rivals, it is Silverdale Baptist Academy that has the fewest questions heading into this prep football season.
While both Boyd Buchanan and Chattanooga Christian School made splashy head coaching hires during the offseason - and the latter also has a collection of some of the highest-rated college prospects among area programs - Silverdale hopes its slow-and-steady approach will once again lead to an under-the-radar solid season.
In Mike Connor's second season as head coach, the Seahawks not only put together their first winning record in five years, they also swept the three local Division II-AA teams - Boyd Buchanan, CCS and Notre Dame - for the first time in program history. SBA finished one game behind DII-AA East Region co-champions Christian Academy of Knoxville and Knoxville Webb before running into the buzzsaw that was eventual state champion Lipscomb Academy in the second round of the playoffs to finish 9-3 overall.
Now the challenge is to not only maintain that level but to do so despite needing to replace the players who provided 85% of last season's offensive production.
"It's tough to lose as much production as we did, but we have experience in a lot of other areas, and our numbers have grown from 42 to 65 on the roster, so we have guys we believe can step up and become what we need," Connor said. "But we'll need to find those playmakers fast. With so many unknowns offensively, our defense must step up and play smart, fundamental football."
The return of two-sport all-state athlete Brett Rogers at quarterback, as well as the entire starting offensive line, will help ease the offensive burden while other playmakers are found. Last fall, Rogers accounted for more than 2,000 yards, including 539 in one game.
The defense brings back seven starters, led by senior linebacker Brody Lamb, who led the area in tackles, and defensive back Turner Junkins, who ranked among the area's top 10.
The Seahawks' season outlook could be determined before the midway point as they face CCS and Boyd Buchanan during a three-week stretch in September.
CCS brings back just as many starters on both sides of the ball, and with former Baylor coach Phil Massey taking over, the Chargers have scrapped the wing-T for a more wide-open offense designed to take advantage of their skill position depth.
That includes junior athlete Boo Carter, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards last season and is versatile enough to play running back or receiver, as well as sophomore receiver A.J. Wallace. Both players are rated among the state's top prospects in their respective recruiting classes. Senior quarterback Jordan Gile is a transfer from Arizona with a strong arm and offers from Florida International, Kansas and San Diego State.
Also back are the team's two leading tacklers from last season, Landon Newton and Davoris Havis (he also led in sacks). Havis' twin brother, Javoris, was the team's second-leading rusher and is also a defensive star at linebacker.
Last season ended with the Chargers winning three of their final four games and scoring an average of 40 points during that stretch, with the playoff loss by one point. There could be as many as four freshmen who earn either starting jobs or significant playing time.
"We have quite a bit of experience back on both sides of the ball, and they've adjusted well to the changes we've made," said Massey, who worked as Baylor's head coach for 16 years, compiling 112 wins during that time and consecutive DII-AAA state runner-up finishes in 2010-11.
He also added this, though: "But how well all that individual talent comes together will determine how good we can be."
There was no bigger splash hire over the offseason than Boyd Buchanan bringing in Gary Rankin, the state's all-time leader in wins (his career record is 467-78) and state championships (17).
Rankin's first order of business for the Buccaneers is to "get better pretty quick" on defense after they allowed 32 points per game last year, giving up 40-plus four times.
"We won't be as pass-happy as they were last year, so hopefully that will cut down on the number of snaps the defense has to be out there," Rankin said. "We've got some good receivers, and we'll be able to throw it, but we're looking to be more of a run-first-type offense, which will help the defense, too."
The return of running back and linebacker Jaylon Sanderfer, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior, gives the Bucs a cornerstone player on both sides of the ball. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and also led the team in tackles for loss. Fullback and linebacker Matt Stone is a three-year starter and gives the offense another physical runner.
"It's a rebuilding project, and it's already been a pretty big overhaul as far as the change from what they did on both sides of the ball before," Rankin said. "We're trying to develop some mental toughness because I like to be precise in everything we do. I want things executed on time, and we need to get to where we don't beat ourselves or give games away with turnovers like they did last year."
Notre Dame is looking for a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs the past three years. It was just five years ago that the Fighting Irish played for the DII-AA state title, and while they may not be ready to return to that level, having six starters back on each side of the ball and an impressive collection of athletes should lead to greater success than the more recent past.
Linebacker Dylan Vintrov, who led the defense in tackles for loss, is back to anchor that side of the ball, while senior running back Rickey Maples and junior receivers Justin Baker and Kenny Hammond have big-play potential for an offense that was held to single-digit points seven times last year.