The teams have changed. Some coaches, too. Players have come, transferred or graduated.
But no matter how you break it down, how many practices you watch, how many stats you grind, the argument for the top high school football team in Tampa Bay is the same as every year since 2007:
Plant or Armwood?
Armwood or Plant?
This year, it comes down to stability as much as talent.
The Panthers return players at most key positions, and even at those they don’t — like quarterback — they can put a guy like Aaron Banks, who has been fighting for the starting spot for more than a year now, under center.
The Hawks, meanwhile, have an offensive line to replace. They have holes left by running back Matt Jones and linebacker Eric Striker to fill. And they have to shake off a troublesome offseason that resulted in the loss of 2011’s state title.
I have no doubt there are players we have yet to hear about who will make us forget some of the names I just mentioned.
But despite the return of Tampa Bay’s most unstoppable offensive player in Alvin Bailey, Armwood has a few question marks. When was the last time anyone was able to say that?
These teams will settle the debate Oct. 26. If I had to pick a winner today, I’d take Armwood.
But until then:
Here’s the rest of the preseason top 25:
The Cougars are 20-0 in the past two regular seasons. This is a coaching staff that commits to the team’s strengths, and you have to like that in big games. Defensive Player of the Year Mike Love is one of 18 returning starters, and he is surrounded by mashers, the offensive line is huge and the backfield is filled with a committee of potential 800-yard rushers.
There’s much to like about this team, except for the lack of beef on the offensive and defensive lines. But Largo has made it work in the past and is overflowing with talented skill-position players. I’ll take the Juwan Brown-Jarvis Stewart-Derrick Doss-Harry Brown backfield over anyone.
5. East Lake
Do I think losing 27 seniors will hurt? Yes. Do I think the Eagles could struggle with their early-season schedule just like last year? Yes. Do I think they will make it back to the region final anyway? Yes.
The Pirates will run Pasco County again, with or without an experienced quarterback. Running backs Janarion Grant and David Emmanuel pack a big offensive wallop. I don’t expect the Pirates to be as dominant, which is to say they won’t beat everyone by 40. Just 30.
The Tigers put more kids in the HomeTeam100 than anyone, but they did not put a quarterback in there. That’s a major concern. Kind of like the Tigers’ defense will be to opponents.
“Peppy for DePue.” Yes, this is the working title of my book about how the Knights send coach Mike DePue out a state champion behind running backs Michael Duclos and Martin Ruiz and USF’s 2016 and 2017 starting offensive line. Could happen.
9. Tampa Bay Tech
This is my “Did He Really Rank Them That High?” team for 2012. Kind of like when I ranked East Lake No. 2 last year. How’d that turn out? You can thank me later, Titans.
If I had to rank backfields, Shaquille Speights and Trevor Register would be near the top of my list. Wouldn’t be surprised if they both went over 1,000 yards. The schedule is a brute, but the Dragons should be more equipped to handle it.
The Terriers have a Division-I stud at every layer of their defense, and then some. Offensively, there may be growing pains, but the Terriers always move the ball. Look out late in the season for this bunch.
12. Clearwater Central Catholic
I was trying to explain to someone the Marauders’ goodness like this: they have a few A players, but what makes them good is that they fill every position with a B or a B+, unlike other Class 3A schools covering for their Cs and Ds.
If the Spartans show significant improvement on the lines and develop a running game, they’re good enough everywhere else to make the playoffs. The coaches have more talent than they know what to do with.
For the first time in his young coaching career, Jason Stokes has a proven quarterback, running back and defense. Oh, yeah, and this: expectations.
I think the Gryphons have top-10 potential. They are an improved bunch with newfound versatility on offense, but that district …oh that district.
16. St. Petersburg
Probably the one team that is still unsettled at quarterback that I don’t worry about. Running back Maurice Hemingway has 1,500 yards written all over him.
The Wildcats have the best player in Tampa Bay in safety Vernon Hargreaves. There are still a few holes to fill on both sides, but that’s a good start.
18. Pinellas Park
Beefy offensive line, good running game and a quarterback to keep teams honest. Now, about those caverns left by Jeremi Powell and Iman Smith on defense …
Tyrail Hawkins is the most exciting football player in Tampa Bay you’ve never heard of. Or is it Darren Hambrick? Either way, they both play for the Leopards.
A solid quarterback, strong lines and a few playmakers, the Ravens definitely have potential — to make the playoffs, and to wreck my poll.
Mike Gottman, you had me at “salty.” Yeah, that’s how the coach described his defensive front, and it is backed by a great set of linebackers.
Anytime a coach promises to get Eric Moate the ball more, I’m good with that. Depth, though, will hamper the Spartans.
New coach, but coming off a great summer, and yes, playoff potential. The Warriors got a little something going on out there in the sticks (FYI: I’m just referring to the location of the team’s practice field).
24. Nature Coast
Matt Breida, if he doesn’t have to play both ways, could approach 2,000 yards. But he may be too valuable to let sit on the bench. Like, ever.
This is my “Wow, That Guy Really Reached for That One” pick. Yeah, Gibbs has to have a lot of things go right, but it’s about time it did, isn’t it?
Other teams I thought long and hard about ranking: Chamberlain, Fivay, Newsome and Land O’Lakes. Zephyrhills, a little.
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com.