It was almost by default that Anderson County finished atop a poll of Tennessee Region 2-4A football coaches.
The Clinton-based Mavericks and Madisonville's Sequoyah are the region's only teams outside the Chattanooga area, and several local teams have competed against Sequoyah in the recent past.
When asked about Anderson County, East Ridge coach Tim James responded, "Look at the region they have been in and who they've been playing, and I've seen their facilities and I know they have a good athletic base."
The Mavericks won only three games last year in a region that included state-ranked Knoxville Catholic, Knoxville Fulton and Knoxville Central. They opened against Greeneville, at the time top-ranked in Class 4A.
"You're certainly concerned when you see a team that's faced the competition they've seen," Central coach Cortney Braswell assessed.
"Anderson County is an unknown entity, but I think (the 2-4A winner) could be anybody," said East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood.
If nothing else, the Mavericks have some big linemen, at least five weighing 250 pounds or more. The group includes Isaac Bullock (6-foot-4, 275) and Thomas Roberts (6-3, 290). They also have a flashy quarterback in Stanton Martin (5-11, 160) and a quality running back/linebacker in Mason Phillips.
"One thing, they're not going to come down here and be impressed. They're going to come expecting to win," Braswell said. "I've heard their community has been waiting on this group of seniors for two years."
East Hamilton is the team coaches expect to provide the most competition for Anderson County, although Braswell and James are feeling better about their respective teams after a handful of scrimmages.
"I think we can compete," Gatewood said. "Being No. 1 depends on us staying healthy. We can't lose anybody."
The Hurricanes return a quarterback, Jared Price (5-11, 180), who's started a handful of games and a bulky offensive line anchored by senior center Corbin Turner (6-3, 290).
"When it comes to East Hamilton, they always have big guys up front that want to hit. If you have that O-line, then everything will follow along," Hixson's Gary Murray said.
"Ted's not going to put a bad product on the field," added James, who's looking to replace a former Mr. Football winner (Traneil Moore) and three of four defensive-line starters.
James, though, has Lorenzo Stewart, one of the area's top linebackers last year, and his Pioneers return Eric Bennett, an off-and-on starter at quarterback who missed almost half of the 2016 season with concussion symptoms.
Murray, the first-year head coach at Hixson, is replacing the Wildcats' entire offensive line from 2016, but players to watch for include quarterback Jack Jullian (6-2, 190), defensive end Preston Ward (6-2, 215) and receivers LaTrell Sandefer (6-1, 195) and Tre Warthan (5-11, 170).
"A lot can happen between now and November. All of our guys love to compete and love being here," he said. "I've never seen a team that doesn't gripe, but these kids are showing up and getting after it."
Howard is another of the region's 2016 playoff participants — joining East Hamilton, Central, East Ridge and Hixson — and the Hustlin' Tigers have been working just as hard as the others, whether it was flipping the big tractor tires, banging weights or running plays.
For its wing-T offense, Howard has an explosive quarterback in Quez Williams, called "a natural leader" by coach John Starr. As usual, there is some size as evidenced by linemen Torry McComb (6-0, 290) and Chris Peace (6-0, 295), but speed from Williams (5-8, 155) and Dontavious Smiley (5-9, 165) and perhaps even fullback Antwan Monfort (6-0, 245) likely will be the key to success.
Sequoyah went 1-9 last year, 1-5 in region play.
Contact Ward Gossett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6288. Follow him on Twitter @wardgossett.
Region 2-4A outlook
Team to beat: The newcomer, Anderson County, is an unknown quantity but is coming from a tough region that included Knoxville Catholic, Knoxville Fulton and Knoxville Central.
Watch out for: A program on its way up, Central has better numbers than it has had in several seasons and added three quality transfers to its 14 returning starters.
Best game: If coaches’ opinions hold true to form, it should be Anderson County’s visit to East Hamilton on Oct. 20.
Dream schedule: Three of Sequoyah’s first four games are against nonregion and lower-classification teams, and there are no higher-classification teams on the board.
Nightmare schedule: Central’s Purple Pounders open with 5A’s Walker Valley, which boasts a high-scoring offense, and their other nonregion games are against teams favored to win their regions (Red Bank, Notre Dame and Tyner).
Players to watch: Hixson QB Jack Jullian (6-2, 190) is a junior in his first year as a starter, but he’s an athlete who could be recruited for both his football and baseball talents. Central LB Jerrod Bibbs (6-1, 205) is projected as an FBS college player, East Ridge LB Lorenzo Stewart was among the area’s leading tacklers last year, East Hamilton coaches are high on RBs Jhaden Smith (5-11, 175) and Adam Caudle (5-9, 180) and coaches also mentioned Howard QB Quez Williams (5-8, 155) and RB Dontavious Smiley (5-9,165).
Predicted order of finish: Anderson County, East Hamilton, East Ridge, Central, Hixson, Howard, Sequoyah.