File photo / Malik Bryan's Stockbridge Tigers is one of the area's favorites to make a deep run into the postseason in 2013.
About a month removed from the end of the 2012 high school football season we gave you the “Way too early Southern Crescent top five football teams.” Now, with just a little over one month remaining before Friday night lights kicks off in earnest, we’ll take you into a slightly deeper look at what some of the area's top teams will have to encounter to make a championship run:
1. ELCA Although the Chargers, just like every other team in the state, will see the same squads on their schedules as they did in 2012, the venues will be flipped and certain roster dynamics will have changed. ELCA put up a whopping 42.7 points per game on its opponents on the way to winning its first Class A championship. It’s only loss was a 24-19 setback to Class AAA Washington County. The Chargers will have to travel there this year to face a squad that finished 11-2 last year and has a sizable amount of talent returning. Even with 2,000 yard rusher Jeremiah Kirkland, Landmark Christian failed to score on the Chargers in a 42-0 letdown. Arguably no other school in its class has accumulated the offensive firepower or defensive prowess that ELCA. The only potential stumble could be at Clinch County. This proud program experienced its first losing season (4-6) since going 4-7 in 1985. Conventional wisdom says such a season was an anomaly. And after being embarrassed 47-20, at ELCA last year, you can bet the Panthers will be looking for payback at their place. Key Game: at Clinch County, Sept. 6.
2. Stockbridge Of the top title contenders in the area, the Tigers have perhaps the most daunting schedule. M.L. King (11-1 in 2012) was the only regular season loss Stockbridge suffered last year. The Lions haven’t won less than eight games in its first 11 seasons, so a constant flow of talent is never a problem. In fact, if you factor in Griffin — who Stockbridge upset at Griffin last year — and Dutchtown, the combined records of the three opponents is 26-7. Griffin is stockpiled with returning talent at the offensive skill positions especially. And Dutchtown’s talent cupboard is not bare. But how well the Bulldogs adjust to new coach, defensive guru Kevin Jones, will determine how much of a challenge they will be to Stockbridge. Coach Kevin Whitley’s bunch loses Trent Earl at quarterback and several receivers, but the key number for Whitley’s team may be nine. That is the number of returning defenders that Stockbridge has coming back from one Class AAAA’s stingiest defenses. And while losing to M.L. King isn’t the worst thing in the world, for a school with championship aspirations, beating an Atlanta area powerhouse first thing in the season would be priceless. Key game: vs. M.L. King, Aug. 31.
3. Riverdale The Raiders didn’t make my “Way too early” top five, but if eye test titles could be doled out in the summer, Riverdale might be at the head of the list. However, a tough schedule and a coaching change adjustment are will keep them from being higher than third. New coach, and former Dutchtown defensive coordinator, Terry Herrod has energized Riverdale’s offense by adding Terrone Owens, to implement a high octane spread attack which utilizes the talents of quarterback Greg Taylor and a pair of 6-foot-4 wide receivers in Rashad Canty and Gerald Gober. Defensive end Chinedu Okonya is starting to turn heads on the recruiting trail. But after a season opener against North Clayton (1-9 last season), the Raiders will be tested early and often with away games with Drew and Griffin, while Grady will come calling, looking for revenge from being upset at home 28-14 by Riverdale last year. A September 27 tilt with Eagle’s Landing could prove difficult if the Golden Eagles’ defense can catch up with its offense. But September 20 against Dutchtown may signify a new rivalry in the Southern Crescent. It’s not the kind of schedule you want when breaking in a new coach and a new offense. But the Raiders have the talent to go 9-1 at least. Key game: vs. Dutchtown, Sept. 20.
4. Lovejoy When you put this schedule next to the 2012 Wildcats roster last year, nothing really troubled you. Sure, the Wildcats lost 14-7 at Colquitt County in week two, but it was the best feeling from a loss one could get, as it gave Lovejoy an early indication of the level it needed to ascend in order to “win the last one,” in the vernacular of 13-year Lovejoy head coach Al Hughes. But can you picture an untested junior or a sophomore quarterback fresh from the JV squad getting under center for his first road test at Colquitt (10-4 in 2012) and coming out with a win? Then taking a trip up GA 400 to Alpharetta (7-4 in 2012) the very next week? Probably not an ideal situation. Especially when quarterback is not the only new face you’ll see. Lovejoy insists that it has the talent to make a third straight trip to a state championship game. But talented, yet somewhat unproven commodities liter the landscape for the Wildcats on both sides of the ball. Offensive line may be the team’s best unit from an experience standpoint. Good news is, the rest of the schedule after those two games, preceded by a season opener against a much improved Mundy’s Mill team, should be cake. Let’s not say that a Lovejoy return to the Georgia Dome is impossible. If the new faces gel quickly — especially on offense — watch out. Key game: at Colquitt County, Sept. 6.
5. Mundy’s Mill Along with Riverdale, coach Greg Manior’s squad has the best potential to shock the world. The Tigers dropped their first four games last year against Lovejoy, Whitewater, Coffee and McIntosh — teams with a combined mark of 37-14. But look at the scores: 44-6, 30-18, 38-13, 23-18 respectively. The Tigers showed marked improvement, seemingly inching closer to victory until they broke through with four wins in its next five games. Despite losing Rodney Smith, a 1500 yard rusher in 2012, to knee injury in the regular season finale against Ola, Mundy’s Mill defeated the Mustangs 35-20, and were a play-in game win against Northgate away from its first playoff berth since 2007. They get Coffee, McIntosh and Union Grove at home, yet must travel to Whitewater. But Mundy’s Mill’s big three of Smith, quarterback Rodricous Gates and wide receiver Eric Tate have not only gained experience in Manior’s system, but confidence. They will operate behind a much improved line anchored by 6-foot-3, 295-pound right tackle Darius “Pancake” Anderson. And the season opener against Lovejoy could equally tell how far Mundy’s Mill has come or how far Lovejoy will have to climb. Key game: vs. Lovejoy, Aug. 30.
Darkhorse: Jonesboro This also is a change from the “Way too early” list. Jonesboro replaces Drew as darkhorse for one main reason: Quarterback. The Cardinals have a proven one in rising senior Mario Atkins, while the Titans will be trotting out last year’s backup, Brandon Pearson. The Cardinals get its two toughest contests from 2012 — Westover and Griffin — at home this season, and should cruise through the soft middle of the schedule until they meet Riverdale on October 25. Although the Cardinals have lost meaningful skill talent like Cameron Sutton, Taurean Ferguson, Derek London and Patrick Petty, there is no shortage of athleticism for Tim Floyd’s bunch. Combine that with what should be a much improved offensive and defensive line, and Jonesboro has a shot to make noise. Key Game: vs. Griffin, Sept. 13.