Last year Region 6-AAA was considered, at least in preseason rankings, to be the weakest triple-A football league in Georgia.
Things have changed in 12 months after each of 6-AAA's four playoff teams won at least one 2016 postseason game. Perennial power Calhoun again led the way, winning its 16th consecutive region title and reaching the state quarterfinals.
No surprise there, but Sonoraville, North Murray and Bremen reaching the second round was. The leaguewide turnaround was led by a group of teams that scored points in bunches. Calhoun, Sonoraville, Murray County, North Murray, Ringgold and Bremen each averaged more than 40 points in their region wins.
It's no wonder then that teams spent most of the offseason seeking defensive answers, especially since many of the region's top playmakers return.
"I'm an offensive guy, but you better have you a good defense if you want to win in this league," North Murray coach Preston Poag said. "Just look at Calhoun: They have a good offense, but it's their defense they win with. That's what gives them the edge in this region."
The Yellow Jackets are again the favorites and it's the defense that again sticks out, led by linebacker Davis Allen, noseguard C.J. Fuller and safety Brannon Spector. Coach Hal Lamb always has been a defense-first coach, and he believes this season could be one of his team's biggest challenges.
"Offenses in this region are solid, so it's a good time to have a solid defense," Lamb said. "This region put up a lot of points last year, and some of those teams are going to be even better this year. In fact, I feel the region as a whole will be better."
The league again is divided into subregions, and like last year each of the four playoff spots will be determined in week 10 with crossover games. Subregion top seeds will play the other side's No. 4 seed, with the No. 2 seeds meeting the 3s. Each of the four postseason teams could come from one subregion.
North Murray was the only north subregion team to win in week 10 after finishing in a three-way tie with Ringgold and Murray County. Those three figure again to be the north favorites.
"There was a lot of balance on our side of the region," said Ringgold coach Robert Akins, whose team returns the bulk of its high-scoring offense. "LFO will be better. Coahulla (Creek) will be better with a new coaching staff. North Murray will continue to improve, as will Murray, who has the best running back in the region in the (Tucker) Gregg kid.
"It's going to be a dogfight in the north."
The south may still belong to Calhoun, but its Gordon County neighbor believes the gap is closing. New Sonoraville coach Denver Pate, the offensive coordinator last season, won't say this is the year someone unseats the Jackets, but he does believe the Phoenix will be more competitive coming off an eight-win campaign.
"Until somebody can knock them off, and you have to give them credit, Calhoun is still the team to beat," Pate said. "Coach Lamb does such a great job and that's the kind of program we all want to be. They are second to none over the past 10 years.
"We're heading in the right direction and these guys are hungry. They are not looking to get second place. The kids feel they can compete with any team in our region."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296; follow on Twitter @youngsports22.
Region 6-AAA outlook
Team to beat: Until proven otherwise, Calhoun is still the top dog. The Yellow Jackets have won 16 consecutive region titles and are on a 106-game region win streak.
Watch out for: Ringgold. The Tigers have the region’s top offense and a new defensive philosophy that should take advantage of the team’s overall speed.
Best game: There are several tasty nonregion games, including Calhoun playing Dalton and Cartersville and Ringgold going against Northwest Whitfield and Heritage, but in region play the Sonoraville at Calhoun game Oct. 20 could decide the south subregion.
Dream schedule: Murray County’s first three opponents had a combined six wins a year ago, so another quick start should help the Indians break in several new starters. They also get to host rival North Murray in a crucial north subregion game.
Nightmare schedule: Calhoun has a murderer’s row of games, including hosting 6A semifinalist Dalton and visiting 4A champ Cartersville before hitting the road in key north subregion games against Adairsville and Bremen.
Players to watch: If you like offense, check out Murray County RB Tucker Gregg (5-10, 210), who rushed for 1,600 yards a year ago, or Ringgold junior WR Andre Tarver (6-2, 195), who has over 2,000 yards already. One of the most underrated players is Sonoraville RB Tristan Key (5-10, 175), a 1,000-yard rusher last year, while North Murray junior QB Preston Poag Jr. (6-3, 185) is an up-and-coming gunslinger. Ringgold’s Bucky Williams (6-2, 285) and North Murray’s Luke Griffin (6-5, 305) headline the big boys, while top defenders are Calhoun LB Davis Allen (6-5, 210), DL teammate C.J. Fuller (6-0, 265) and LFO’s Johnathan Cutcher (6-0, 185).
Predicted order of finish: North subregion—Ringgold, North Murray, Murray County, LFO, Coahulla Creek; South subregion—Calhoun, Bremen, Sonoraville, Adairsville, Haralson County.