The records are gaudy, the stats impressive and the intrigue on the rise as GHSA Region 6-AAAA football teams begin league play tonight.
But what do we really know about the region and its high-scoring teams? Though three teams — Heritage, Ridgeland and Southeast Whitfield — went undefeated in nonregion play and another, Northwest Whitfield, went 3-1, there have been few surprises.
After all, the region has gone down to the final Friday of the regular season — and a couple of times beyond it — to determine its state berths in recent seasons.
"It's shaping up to be pretty similar to what we expected," Heritage coach E.K. Slaughter said. "Just like last year, there are a couple of games that could be close among the top four teams that will determine where everything falls."
Also just like a year ago, the region's offenses have been dominant. In fact, five 6-AAAA teams rank among the state's top 10 highest-scoring AAAA teams, led by Southeast Whitfield's average of 46 points per game.
Two of those teams, Ridgeland (40 points per game) and Northwest (37), meet tonight in a matchup of the preseason favorites to win the 6-AAAA title. The Panthers won last year's matchup 48-42 in shootout fashion, something both coaches involved hope to avoid.
"Honestly, I feel both defenses are better, so it's probably going to be a more low-scoring game," Ridgeland coach Wesley Tankersley said.
Added Northwest coach Josh Robinson: "Both teams have kind of scored on each other since Coach Tankersley got there, and it's funny since both of us are defensive guys. I do think both teams have improved on that side, but we'll find out Friday."
If there is a surprise in the region it's Southeast, which sports an offense that has gone from run-first to pass-happy. Quarterback Porter Johnson has thrown for 988 yards, second in the region to Pickens' Jacob Brumby (1,047), and a league-best 13 touchdowns. The Raiders also have arguably the most underrated player in the league with 6-foot-4 receiver Oscar Gonzalez, who has 508 yards and seven touchdowns on 21 catches.
"We've thrown the ball extremely well so far," said Raiders coach Sean Gray, who also has offensive weapons in receiver Landon Eaton (317 yards) and running back Christian Gillespie (400 yards). "We've got some talented athletes, and we knew our offensive line would be a strength. But there are several high-powered offenses in this region with some very good athletes."
Other region standouts include Heritage quarterback Blake Bryan (761 yards, 11 touchdowns) and his top target, Luke Grant (352 yards, five scores); Ridgeland fullback Jalyn Shelton (350 yards, six touchdowns), wingback Markeith Montgomery (264 yards) and receiver Stephon Walker (11 receptions, 302 yards, six touchdowns); and Northwest running back Dominique Sistrunk (league-best 582 yards, seven scores) and quarterback Luke Shiflett (740 total yards, eight touchdowns).
Given the staggering numbers, it makes sense that defense, or lack thereof, likely will decide the playoff pecking order. There has been improvement on that side of the ball, though. That's especially true at Heritage, where the varsity defense has given up just three touchdowns this season, and Ridgeland, which has allowed only 21 points in four games.
"We wanted to figure out the best way to get the most speed on the field as we can defensively to go up against the spread offenses, and I think we've taken a step forward," Tankersley said. "The offenses in the region over the past couple of years have been really good. I know that we have made a concerted effort to get better defensively. We'll find out more about ourselves starting Friday."
As will the rest of the region.
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.