The first games of the 2019 season are just three days away. Here are 10 of the most intriguing storylines before first kickoff.
*Marietta: The Blue Devils start No. 1 in the rankings in the highest classification despite a losing record in 2018 and no advancement beyond the quarterfinals in 25 years. The reason is simple: Talent. Marietta has seven players ranked among the consensus top 100 senior recruits in Georgia. Those include quarterback Harrison Bailey and lineman B.J. Ojulari, both committed to Tennessee, and tight end Arik Gilbert, an AJC Super 11 pick. Marietta's struggles last season were partly attributable to Bailey's late-season injury and a challenging schedule. Marietta is the only Georgia team ranked in the top 25 by USA Today (No. 9) and MaxPreps (No. 24), the two most widely known national polls. ESPN announced last week that one of its networks will be televising its Aug. 30 game against St. Joseph's Prep of Pennsylvania. Marietta opens on Thursday at Rome, the No. 2 team in AAAAA.
*Who's next? Milton and Heard County won their first state titles in 2018. North Gwinnett, Lee County, Blessed Trinity and Hapeville Charter won their firsts in 2017. Cedar Grove and Rome won their firsts in 2016. There was Allatoona and Pace Academy in 2015; Benedictine and Mount Paran Christian in 2014; Creekside, Aquinas and Marion County in 2013; Norcross, Gainesville and Jefferson in 2012. The last time there were no first-time winners was 2001. Best suspects this year? Callaway is the only preseason No. 1 team that has not won a state title.
*ECLA's drive for five: Eagle's Landing Christian can become the first school in Georgia history to win five consecutive state titles. West Rome (1982-85) and Buford (2007-10) are the only schools to win four straight. West Rome finished 5-5-1 in its quest for a fifth straight. Buford reached the AA final but lost in overtime to Calhoun; otherwise the Wolves would've won eight straight championships. ELCA opens the season No. 1 in the Class A private-school division.
*Big cleats to fill: Tradition might not graduate, but star players eventually do. How will their teams manage? Warner Robins was 3-8 before Dylan Fromm transferred in, then 28-2 with him behind center. Will the Demons revert? Cedar Grove and Clinch County each won two state titles over the past three seasons with two-way blue-chip starters Jadon Haselwood and Trezmen Marshall. They're playing major Division I football now. Blessed Trinity won back-to-back Class AAAA titles with arguably the most versatile, productive multi-sport foursomes in state history - QB/DB Jake Smith, RB/LB Steele Chambers, WR/DB Ryan Davis and LB/TE J.D. Bertrand. All were four-year football starters. "We will miss them in more ways than the obvious," Blessed Trinity coach Tim McFarlin said. "Their presence in the locker room and the halls of the school were most significant."
*Big whistles to blow: There have never been more coaches following great coaches than in 2019. How do you follow a coach that reached 10 consecutive semifinals and won two championships in the highest class? That's Justin Rogers' assignment at Colquitt County, which forced out Rush Propst. Or what about 16 straight region titles and three state championships? That's Clay Stephenson's challenge at Calhoun, where Hal Lamb has retired. Also stepping into high expectations are Conor Foster for Joey King at Cartersville, Don Tison Jr. for Jim Dickerson at Clinch County, Jaybo Shaw for Lee Shaw at Rabun County, Steve Boyd for Kevin Whitley at Stockbridge, Russ Murray for Rich McWhorter at Charlton County, Miguel Patrick for Jimmy Smith at Cedar Grove and Marquis Westbrook for Mike Chastain at Warner Robins.
*Whose records will fall? Offense is at an all-time high, so it's a near certainly that someone will break or threaten major state records. We just don't know who. In 2018, hardly anyone outside of their local areas knew Haralson County running back Treylon Sheppard or Warner Robins WR Marcayll Jones. Sheppard rushed for 2,874 yards in the regular season, breaking a record held by Nick Chubb, and finished with 2,944, good for third all-time in a Georgia season. Jamious Griffin was fifth all-time with 2,815 yards rushing. Jones had 2,071 yards receiving - more than 400 yards better than the previous record. And his quarterback, Fromm, passed for 4,374 yards, fourth in state history.
*Reclassification: For the first time in four years this fall, the GHSA will fully reclassify its 450-plus schools. The new region and class assignments won't be ratified until January, but the writing should be on the wall before football season is over. The executive committee voted last spring to maintain the current seven classifications and to break Class A into 16 regions (eight public, eight private). That's essentially settled. But there remains the issue of a multiplier to deal with city and private schools and more. The reclassification subcommittee will meet next week ahead of the executive committee's September meeting. Things should speed up from there.
*The official story: Several 2018 games were rescheduled in midseason because of a shortage of referees. The average age of officials continues to rise with retirements outnumbering signups, and more and more schools and teams (including JV and ninth-grade) need them. Friday night lights could continue to expand into Thursday and Saturday games.
*The move to Georgia State: Georgia State Stadium is the new home of the state finals. It's a move from an indoor NFL stadium that seats 70,000 to an outdoor college stadium that seats 24,333. How will it be for parking, or for accommodating a revolving door of fan bases over eight games and two days? It's expected to be a financial boon to the participating schools as the 16 state finalists could stand to divvy up another $500,000 at the low-rent venue, according to the GHSA.
*Recruiting trail: Only 11 of the state's top 50 college prospects remain uncommitted, but that list will change. Remember that Haselwood was committed to Georgia this time a year ago and ended up at Oklahoma. The early signing date is Dec. 18, or four days after the state finals. The biggest names on the market are Marietta tight end Arik Gilbert, Lanier linebacker Phillip Webb and Schley County defensive end Zykeivous Walker, but the recruiting story is much bigger than them. Some 700 Georgia players sign to play at the next level each year.
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