Anticipation, like the summer temperatures, continues to gradually rise as the start of high school football two-a-days is just eight days away. In recent weeks, preseason football publications such as Dave Campbell’s Texas Football and TheOldCoach.com’s Friday Night Football magazines have offered their predictions on how the 2016 season will develop.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five preseason questions that could be answered as early as September, or as late as December.
• How will the Brownwood Lions perform under first-year head coach Kyle Maxfield?
Maxfield takes over the reins of the Brownwood program after compiling a 72-18 record in seven seasons at Class 3A Shallowater, where the Mustangs posted a winning record every year during the Maxfield era and won at least 10 games in each of the last five seasons.
The Lions, meanwhile, are coming off an 11-3 campaign — their best since 2010 — but several keys cogs are missing from last season’s team. Still, the Lions were ranked No. 6 in Class 4A Division I by FNF and No. 11 by DCTF. Both magazines also predict Brownwood to finish second in the District 3-4A Division I race to Abilene Wylie, yet advance to the Region I-4A Division I final to face Argyle.
Brownwood returns six defensive starters, but just four on the offensive end. The Lions are replacing their starting quarterback, two leading receivers and three starting offensive linemen from a unit that averaged 31 points and 373 yards — 232 on the ground and 141 through the air — in 2015.
Defensively, the Lions are missing a trio of all-state defenders, including last year’s 3-4A defensive player of the year and a middle linebacker with 200-plus tackles, from a unit that allowed 18 points and 322 yards — 178 through the air and 144 on the ground — per outing, with 22 takeaways.
The Lions are also still grasping the new schemes that were installed during the summer — and will continue to be tweaked during the preseason — by new offensive coordinator John Contrucci and new defensive coordinator Sam Gillispie.
Brownwood faces another daunting schedule before district with games against Class 5A Canyon, Graham, Liberty Hill, Alvarado and Giddings. The 3-4A slate remains the same with Abilene Wylie, Stephenville, Snyder and Big Spring.
On paper, the Lions face several challenges in their quest to match or exceed last season’s success. But heading into the first practices of last season, few people outside of those within the Lions program felt the 2015 campaign would be as fruitful as it proved.
Based on what Maxfield accomplished in his time at Shallowater, and the work ethic the Brownwood Lions football program is known for, the time it takes for all the parts to mesh together will likely determine how the 2016 season turns out.
• Can Richland Springs repeat and add an eighth state championship?
The Richland Springs Coyotes collected their seventh state championship — all of which have been earned since 2004 — this past December. Though Richland Springs must replace the state’s player of the year in 2015, the cupboard is far from bare with five starters returning on each side of the ball.
The Coyotes have won 170 of their 178 games since Jerry Burkhart took over as head coach, so another deep playoff run is almost guaranteed. Richland Springs enters another season ranked No. 1 in Class A Division II by DCTF.
Richland Springs has lost a district contest in well over a decade so District 13-A Division I rivals Rochelle, Cherokee and Lohn will have their work cut out for them to end that streak.
Once the playoffs began, old nemesis Calvert, along with Mount Calm and Milford, are early hurdles. Should Richland Springs reach the state semifinals, two-time Division I state champion Crowell — which has played in the last three Division I finals — could be waiting.
Guthrie, Valley and Follett — all teams the Coyotes have defeated for state titles — as well Balmorhea, which Richland Springs owns wins over in recent years, are the top contenders in the other half of the state bracket.
However, Burkhart will be quick to mention staying healthy is the biggest key for the Coyotes, along with approaching the season one game at a time.
• Can the Zephyr Bulldogs make a state push?
The Zephyr Bulldogs have steadily improved since Shannon Williams took over the program, peaking last year with an 11-3 record — one victory away from playing for the Class A Division I state championship.
With five offensive and four defensive starters back from last year’s squad, DCTF ranks Zephyr at No. 3 in the Class A Division I preseason rankings. The Bulldogs, however, are not District 10 favorites as that honor belongs to No. 1 Jonesboro — which competed in the Class A Division II ranks a year ago.
Two of the top three teams in the state, along with the additions of Blanket and Evant, should make District 10 one of the toughest six-man leagues in Texas.
Zephyr will have plenty of opportunities to see where it stands throughout the season as, along with visiting Jonesboro on Oct. 28, the Bulldogs will host defending Class A Division II state champion Richland Springs on Sept. 9.
The results of those two games will not define the Bulldogs’ season, but Zephyr and Jonesboro could cross paths again in the playoffs. And if they do, a regional championship and state semifinal berth will be at stake.
• Will the Early Longhorns and Bangs Dragons make a turnaround?
After combining for a 2-18 record last season, the Early Longhorns and Bangs Dragons have gone their separate ways and will no longer be district rivals in 2016.
The Longhorns, who were 2-8 under first-year head coach Blake Sandford in 2015, find themselves in District 3-3A Division I along with Brady, Clyde, Comanche, Jim Ned and Merkel. Early’s non-district schedule includes Bangs, Roscoe, Bruceville-Eddy, Tolar and Paradise as the Longhorns look to build momentum for a playoff push.
Early is attempting to end a playoff drought that extends to 2008.
Dragons head coach Jim P. Bird is seeking his first victory in Bangs following an 0-10 campaign a year ago. Despite being moved to District 4-3A Division II, the Dragons received no favors in a league that consists of Top 25 programs Cisco, Coleman, Eastland and Tolar, along with a Dublin team coming off its greatest success in years. In pre-district action, Bangs will tangle with Early, Hawley, Winters, Coahoma and Jim Ned.
Bangs is targeting a seventh playoff trip in nine years.
Both Sandford and Bird were summer hires a year ago, giving them little time to prepare for the season. With a full year under their belts, preparation for the 2016 campaign should be considerably easier.
• Who will be the sleeper team in the area?
Though Goldthwaite is picked to finish behind the Crawford Pirates in District 7-2A Division I, the Eagles are still a Top 15 team according to both publications, so therefore considering them a sleeper doesn’t seem fair.
The same could be said for 3A squads Coleman and Comanche, as both teams are expected to make the playoffs. Now if the Bluecats or Indians find themselves playing in December, that’s another story.
One team that’s proven it can’t be counted out is May, where the Tigers in 2013 went from picked to miss the playoffs to playing for a state championship. The Tigers returned to Arlington in 2014, but fell short of that goal last year. May is tabbed to place second in District 11-A Division I behind No. 9 Gorman, but never sleep on the Tigers.
Santa Anna has been shifted east into Region II of Class A Division I as the Mountaineers will reside in District 8. While Santa Anna is picked to finish behind Water Valley in the district race, the Mountaineers should face an easier postseason draw, assuming they reach the playoffs, that in recent seasons.
Another team under the radar is the Sidney Eagles, where former Blanket and Mullin head coach Darin Barrow returns to the area. Sidney hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2010, but Barrow is known for building winning programs.
There are plenty more questions that could be posed — and will — before the season ends. For more in-depth previews on the 18 football teams in the Bulletin coverage area, make sure and pick up the Bulletin’s Pigskin Preview, available Aug. 21. Also, follow the Bulletin throughout the season for previews in the Blitz each Thursday and game recaps in the Saturday and Sunday papers.