This is the last in a four-part series previewing offensive and defensive players to watch, top storylines and top teams in 2015.
Part of the fun of the preseason is debating over which teams will lead the way in the upcoming football season.
Already, I’ve had a number of players and fans cautioning me over how their team is a sleeper and how they may shock another team to start the season.
Those are things that can be decided on the field. But we don’t have that luxury yet. So for now, we’ll stick to an early list of the top teams in the Bi-City and why they have reason to believe they can make big strides in 2015.
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5. Chattahoochee County
2014 record, result: 6-5, lost in first round of Class AA playoffs to Great Atlanta Christian
Reasons for optimism: In his first season back with the Panthers, coach Josh Kemp led them to their first winning record since 2009 — the final year of his first four-year stint with the program. His signature high-flying air attack was in effect, as quarterback C.J. Afoa passed for more than 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Afoa is back to lead Kemp’s offense as a senior in 2015, and the expectations should be even higher for this team now that they’ve spent a year in the new system.
Chattahoochee County was five points in two games away from an 8-2 regular-season record last year. That should be the minimum bar it is shooting for this season.
4. Marion County
2014 record, result: 12-1, lost in Class A-public semifinals to Hawkinsville
Reasons for optimism: The Eagles program has reached the reload-not-rebuild stage as a program. No matter what it lost from the previous season’s roster, it should be expected to compete for a state championship season in and season out.
Despite a heartbreaking 15-13 loss to Hawkinsville in the semifinals, ending their 17-game winning streak and bid for a second straight state title, the Eagles return their best player, Lorenzo Smothers, as well as a slew of other talented players on both sides of the ball.
There is no reason to think this team won’t be back in the mix once again this season.
3. Harris County
2014 record, result: 9-3, lost in Class AAAAA second round to Gainesville
Reasons for optimism: It’s true Harris County lost the majority of its offensive and defensive firepower. Only six returning starters return from a club that put together one of the best seasons in program history. But that isn’t to say the cupboard is bare up in Hamilton.
The Tigers are still one of the favorites in Region 1-AAAAA, and where they lack in pure talent, they will make up in discipline and understanding as they enter Year 2 in coach Dwight Jones’ system.
There are plenty of question marks entering the season, but Harris County has earned the benefit of the doubt over the past three seasons.
2014 record, result: 8-3, lost in Class AAAAA first round to Jones County
Reasons for optimism: Look, last year was not ideal for Carver. It failed to win 10 games for the first time since 2005 and couldn’t live up to lofty expectations in its first season in Class AAAAA.
All of that is true. And yet, this still looks like a team that can make a lot of noise this season. The talent is there on both sides of the ball, led mainly by quarterback Jawon Pass, a Louisville commit who is considered one of the top passers in the entire country.
There are many things the team will have to improve on this year in order to reach its potential, but the potential is certainly there.
Contending for a state championship is — and should be — the goal for the Tigers.
2014 record, result: 10-2, lost in Class 7A quarterfinals to Prattville
Reasons for optimism: Quite simply, this is the most talented team in the Bi-City, and one of the most talented in the entire state of Alabama.
After an emotional roller coaster in 2014 — winning a host of challenging games, finishing the regular season 9-1 and then suffering a loss in the second playoff game after an injury to their best player — the Red Devils could be even better this time around.
The key will be the defense, which had the same type of talent a year ago, but gave up a team record 319 points. That won’t be acceptable with a unit as talented as this one, and the strides it makes on that side of the ball could make all the difference this season.
At its best, Central is without doubt on the short list of teams that can win a state championship this year. Anything less will likely be a disappointment.