Say this for football in Georgia Region 6-AAAA: There's never a need to force-feed drama to keep fans interested late in the season.
The 2016 season was the third consecutive year the region (it was 7-AAAA two years ago) has gone down to at least the final Friday of the regular season before its playoff teams were finalized.
On the heels of back-to-back years in which Monday mini-games were needed to break ties, there was a three-way tie for first place heading into the final Friday night last season before Heritage spoiled the drama by winning at Pickens.
"It's going to be tough again," said Ridgeland coach Wesley Tankersley, whose team tied with Northwest Whitfield with one loss but earned the No. 1 seed a year ago after winning the regular-season matchup. "Our region has a lot of parity, and from one to seven it's a good group of teams that are well coached. We all have quite a few players back, so it should be fun."
There's plenty of offense back on last year's top four teams, but each has at least one big question mark. Ridgeland's wing-T attack features hard-running fullback Jalyn Shelton, wingback Markeith Montgomery and jet-quick receiver Stephon Moore, but the Panthers are inexperienced up front.
Northwest returns all-star quarterback Luke Shiflett and running back Dominique Sistrunk, but the Bruins are trotting out an entirely new receivers group. Heritage has a solid line and two receivers, Luke Grant and Ryan Carter, who can stretch the field, yet the Generals have to replace three-year quarterback Corbee Wilson. Pickens returns quarterback Jacob Brumby but lost 1,000-yard rusher Chris Pittman.
Still, there should be points aplenty again in 2017.
"The thing about our region is that it's so offensive-heavy," Southeast Whitfield coach Sean Gray said. "Football has changed so much, as we all know. I see our region being similar to last year, with Ridgeland, Northwest and Heritage being loaded and the rest of us fighting for fourth."
Another coach sees it as even closer (alert: more drama ahead).
"I would not be surprised to see the region champion have one loss again and for the second through fourth seeds have at least two losses, because there are a lot of people that can beat a lot of people," Northwest coach Josh Robinson said. "Ever who makes tackles this year will win the region championship. There are so many good offenses and individual offensive players that you better tackle."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296; follow on Twitter @youngsports22.
Region 6-AAAA outlook
Team to beat: Defending champion Ridgeland is favored, thanks in large part to a collection of the best athletes in the region.
Watch out for: Heritage returns 17 starters from last season’s eight-win team that earned the first playoff berth and win in program history.
Best game: The Ridgeland-Northwest Whitfield game a year ago was a classic, won 48-42 by the Panthers. Many expect this year’s matchup on Sept. 22 to decide the region title again.
Dream schedule: Southeast Whitfield’s four nonregion opponents won just eight games in 2016, and six of those were by one team, Murray County. The Raiders also get to host the region’s top two teams from a year ago, Northwest Whitfield and Ridgeland, though they come in back-to-back weeks at the end of the season.
Nightmare schedule: Three of Ridgeland’s nonregion opponents made the playoffs last year — winning a combined five postseason games — and the Panthers must travel to eight-win region teams Northwest Whitfield and Heritage.
Players to watch: Ridgeland has high title hopes again, led by Navy RB commitent Jalyn Shelton, WR Stephon Walker and WB/DB Markeith Montgomery. Northwest Whitfield QB Luke Shiflett is committed to Middle Tennessee State and looks to improve on his combined 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns, while Heritage has the region’s top WR duo in Luke Grant and Ryan Carter. Southeast Whitfield DE Luke Johns (6-4, 240), a Georgia Tech commitment, can wreck offenses.
Predicted order of finish: Ridgeland, Northwest Whitfield, Heritage, Pickens, Southeast Whitfield, LaFayette, Gilmer.