Even in these unpredictable times, life got a bit easier for the Georgia High School Association's Class A football coaches this year.
The latest round of reclassification resulted in a completely split Class A, in which private and public schools compete in not only their own state playoffs — as they have for nearly a decade — but their own regions during the regular season. Just as importantly, the GHSA trashed the power rating system it had used to fill postseason brackets in recent years.
So, finish in the top four in your region and a playoff berth awaits, something northwest Georgia's three Class A teams are counting on this season, which is set to kick off on Sept. 4 for the GHSA.
"The big thing now is you control your own destiny," said Christian Heritage coach Jay Poag, whose team joins former 6-A members Darlington, Mount Paran Christian, North Cobb Christian and Walker in the new 7-A private region.
The Lions won nine games last year, losing in the final minute to Darlington in what turned out to be the region title game. With an experienced group of 17 starters returning, Poag believes it's time to take the next step — and maybe keep climbing.
"We've never won a region championship, but we have the team to do it," Poag said. "However, it will be tough. Darlington, Mount Paran and North Cobb Christian all have aspirations of winning it, too. We have Darlington and North Cobb at home, which is nice. All three of us believe we can win a state title as well, so that tells you how tough our region will be. It's set up for a really exciting season."
Among the players returning for the Lions are four who produced nearly 4,000 yards of offense last year: quarterback Christian Thomas, running backs Gage Leonard and Solomon Locke and receiver Evan Lester. The defense is equally talented, led by Ben Hermann — Christian Heritage's top tackler in 2019 — Ben Williamson and Leonard, each having eclipsed 100 stops last season.
There is equal excitement in Chickamauga, where Gordon Lee, now rid of competing against private schools, has what coach Josh Groce believes is the program's most talented group in years. Seventeen starters return, including a running back corps of Brody Cobb, Cody Thomas and Cade Peterson that will make stopping the Trojans' ground-oriented offense difficult.
"I'm an old defensive coach, so we're going to run the ball," Groce said with a laugh. "Provided we stay healthy, we should be able to do that."
Region 6-A public has, in addition to Gordon Lee and Trion, holdovers Bowdon and Mount Zion-Carroll, while Atlanta-area B.E.S.T. Academy and former Class AA program Armuchee are newcomers.
The Trojans had high expectations a year ago, but injuries hit hard after a 2-0 start and they ended up being one of the highest-rated teams to not make the playoffs. Groce believes it's time to move forward.
"A lot of these guys have been playing for three years," he said. "They are no longer underclassmen, so can they take the bull by the horns and realize what they can do? I told them, 'You won state championships in baseball. Why can't you do it in football?' They need to realize winning is contagious and they have to do it week in and week out."
For the first time in nearly a decade, someone other than Justin Brown will lead Trion into action. Sean Patrick, who gained a reputation as one of the state's top offensive coordinators at several stops, gets his initial head coaching job and will bring some change to the Bulldogs.
The offense, long a wing-T scheme, will now feature a spread look — though Patrick, who coached former Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm at Houston County, doesn't plan to go full air raid.
"No, we're still going to run the ball," Patrick said. "We're just going to be more balanced, but we have to be able to run it."
To do that he will lean heavily on junior running back Rob Brown, a physical 200-pounder who is also a good receiver out of the backfield. When Trion goes to the air there will be plenty of big targets, led by 6-foot-5, 205-pound junior Cole Cavin and tight ends Ben Allen (6-3, 195) and Brantley Willbanks (5-11, 225).
The key for any Trion success, however, lies in the trenches, where both sides will be inexperienced.