What to make of Georgia Region 6-AAA?
On the surface, with heavyweight Rockmart and six-time playoff participant North Murray moving out and returning playoff teams Ringgold and Adairsville - the only two teams returning with winning records a season ago - hit hard by graduation, this eight-team league appears to be wide open.
Sometimes what you see is what you get, and in this case region coaches expect the unexpected in 2022.
"It's as balanced a region as any I've ever been in," Coahulla Creek coach Danny Wilson said. "Adairsville is, I think, a step ahead of us, but they just beat us by 10 last year and we had a chance to win it. Anybody in this region can beat anybody on any given Friday night. It's almost like a playoff atmosphere every week."
Joining holdovers Adairsville, Ringgold, Coahulla Creek, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and LaFayette are newcomers Ridgeland, Gordon Lee and Bremen, a program that has eight consecutive playoff appearances.
If Adairsville gets the early nod it's because the Tigers return a strong offensive corps led by junior quarterback Jonathan Gough, running back Chris Roper and receivers Grayson Belcher and Evan Sanders. The Adairsville defense, though, must replace seven of its nine top tacklers.
Ringgold lost 23 seniors from its 10-win team, including seven defensive starters, but coach Robert Akins returns an offensive group that may be better than last year's unit that scored 30-plus points in eight games.
"Graduation hurt us a bit more defensively, but we've got a lot of talent, especially with our skill guys," Akins said. "It will be hard to replace some of the guys, like (quarterback) Mason Parker, (running back) Kori Dumas and (safety) Kyle White, but we like what we've seen so far. Now, that may all change when we get to Friday nights."
The Tigers are excited to see new quarterback Garrett Edgar and, in backs Peyton Williams, Judah Smith and Haddon Fries, they have one of the best backfields in the region. The line, with starters Clint Carlock, Miles Hudson and Jaden Parks all back, is another strength.
Andy Scott's second season in LaFayette could produce one of the area's biggest gains after falling one win short of making the postseason. The Ramblers return three offensive line starters, led by 6-3, 290-pound junior Noah Johnson, and a bevy of potential playmakers in Dawson Pendergrass, Jaden Morris, Sam Hall and sophomore Khalis Finley, one of the team's top athletes who could start at quarterback if returner Zach Barrett isn't fully healed from offseason surgery.
"The biggest key for us is just finding ways to win," Scott said. "Last year we played Rockmart to seven points, and had a chance at the end of the game to win against Ringgold. Our guys are learning that everything matters. You don't just lose a game on one play."
Also 4-6 a year ago was Coahulla Creek, the best record in program history. The Colts are a sleeper pick by many to get to their first postseason.
The offense, led by returning quarterback Kace Kinnamon, 6-3, 180-pound fullback Manny Dominguez and shifty backfield mate Payton Gordon, should continue to improve. It's defensively, though, where the Colts stand out, led by dominant noseguard Robbie Wiggins, a Best of Preps first-team selection a year ago.
The Mac Bryan era begins at LFO, where 15 starters return, including athletes Trevon Gott, LaDarrius Bunch, Donnie Brown, Jordan Nintirat, Gabe Helton and freshman Jared Mitchell. The Warriors also get quarterback Dylan Blankenship back after the senior missed last year due to injury, a significant addition considering Bryan wants to take advantage of his team's athleticism on the outside.
Gordon Lee enters the region following reclassification and a move up two classes. Easily the smallest region school, the Trojans will try to get in the playoff hunt with several two-way starters, including quarterback Conner Whitman, who doubles as a linebacker, two-way lineman Brodie Genter, running back/defensive back Nate Dunfee and running back/linebacker Holt Roberts.
"Personally, even watching college and NFL football, I love pulling for the underdogs, and it's hard to not think we're the underdogs competing against the bigger schools," Gordon Lee coach Josh Groce said. "It's going to be very interesting. It will be exciting and new - and sometimes something new isn't always a great thing - but it could be for our kids because they are playing against kids they grew up playing against."
Former player and assistant coach Craig Pritchett returns to help lead Ridgeland back from back-to-back one-win seasons as the Panthers move down from Class AAAA, where they won seven region titles.
Pritchett promises a physical style of football will return to Bowers & Painter Field, starting with 220-pound quarterback Chase Watkins, who will trigger the team's run-oriented attack. Among the numerous skill guys Pritchett will feature includes seniors Darrian Burks and Jakobe Turner and sophomores Demetree Bates, Kain Brown and Braylon Pritchett and freshmen Bryson Donald and Aaron Sanders.
"We've got a group of running backs that could develop into something special," Pritchett said. "We're young - we only have seven seniors - but that makes it exciting for the younger players, who will get their chance this year."