MORE from our HomeTeam writers.
The football regular season is right around the corner, and while a few teams made us scratch our heads with their kickoff classic performances, we’re sure they were just working out a few kinks. So before everyone takes to the field for real Friday night, here are our top 20 preseason teams.
Case for ranking higher: Uhhhh …
Case for ranking lower: Ummm …
Our decision: This could be a national championship team, if things fall right. The Hawks have more than a dozen Division I-A prospects and zero weaknesses. Their toughest game of the season was probably the one they already played. See Friday’s 20-17 win over Bishop Gorman in Vegas. This might be the easiest No. 1 team we’ve ever picked.
Case for ranking higher: None. The Eagles should be very good this year, with all the pieces in place, but they aren’t ready to be in any argument about best team with Armwood.
Case for ranking lower: Still some questions up front on defense, and the loss Friday to Charlotte is cause for unease.
Our decision:We still like the Eagles. They have a solid quarterback in Pete DiNovo, running back Tyler Lane is steady, there’s good pass catchers, and they all play behind one of the better offensive lines in the area. This should be the Eagles’ best season ever.
Case for ranking higher: It’s Plant! Oh, sure, the Panthers didn’t land any big stars in the offseason, and there’s not a really big name on the roster. But this is a good team, with a solid offensive line, stout defense and one of the best defensive backfields in the area. And did we mention, it’s Plant!
Case for ranking lower:There is a lot to replace, especially at quarterback. While James Few and Aaron Banks are both capable, the fact that neither has been able to pull away and secure the starting job makes one wonder. And the Panthers were handled by by Miami Columbus on Friday in their own stadium. That rarely happens.
Our decision:Plant is still Plant, but it will be interesting to watch them try and win games without a true game changer and game saver like Orson Charles and James Wilder Jr., something they haven’t had to do in a while.
Case for ranking higher: The Tigers should continue the success they had last year. They have multiple options at quarterback — and can’t go wrong either way — a good offensive line and arguably the best group of wide receivers in Hillsborough County, led by Travis Johnson. The defense, as usual, will be tight.
Case for ranking lower:The surprising shift from Tommy Eveld, the starter all summer, to Aaron Paulsen at quarterback could blow up, though it didn’t seem to have any effect in the preseason victory. And the Tigers need to find a running game.
Our decision:We loved the way Eveld played all summer, and have been high on the Tigers for a while now, and Paulsen is good enough that we are standing firm. We’ll know awfully quick how good the Tigers are when they meet Plant in Friday’s season opener.
Case for ranking higher:Raiders are heavy will talent and senior-laden. They have a swarming defense led by safety Sam Green, who is near every play. And we think senior QB Bennie Coney, a Cincinnati commit who can beat you with his arm and his legs, will prove why he’s seen as the area’s top quarterback.
Case for ranking lower:In the past, the Raiders have been stymied by turnovers, penalties and dropped passes, and they haven’t proven they can avoid costly mistakes, which is even more important given their desire to run a fast-tempo game. Their best players haven’t been able to stay on the field.
Our decision:With all of its athleticism, it’s hard to bet against Plant City being among Hillsborough County’s best. Experience should come into play with fixing the mistakes of the past. We’d like to think this is their year for district dominance and a deep postseason run.
Case for ranking higher:This is a team we’ve had a close eye on for years now, and with juniors Juwan Brown, Harry Brown, Derrick Doss and sophomores Jarvis Stewart and Raheem Harvey coming into what should be golden seasons, the Packers are gearing up for something special.
Case for ranking lower:Still lots of youth out there for Largo, which will only start a handful of seniors. And the roster is not especially deep. Keep an eye on the transition from former defensive coordinator Matt Lepain to the more aggressive Jeremy Frioud.
Our decision:We’re trying not to get too excited about the Packers. Armwood is in their way in the postseason, but that won’t be as daunting a dead end next year when the Packers are primed to make a state title push. There we go again, getting all excited.
Case for ranking higher:Dragons are the defending 3A state champs, haven’t lost a game in nearly 21 months and have re-established themselves as one of the area’s top programs. J-boys have a game-changing defense led by DE Tyriq McCord and CB Will Watson, who both might be the county’s best at their positions.
Case for ranking lower:All five offensive line starters are new. There’s no Quentin Williams to carry the offense through tight games and his replacement at QB has never played a varsity down. Last year’s success could lead to complacency. Oh, and they play in the toughest district in the universe.
Our decision:Again, they’re the defending champs, and while there might be many new faces, they’re still one of the area’s teams to beat. Until we see otherwise, the J-boys will be a top-10 team.
Case for ranking higher:This is the most athletic team in Pinellas County that has experience and size on the line and an aggressive defense led by sack specialist Dante Fowler.
Case for ranking lower:Tracy Johnson is a first-year starter at quarterback, though he had some bright spots against Countryside on Friday, and the Spartans have a lot of transfers that need to develop cohesiveness.
Our decision:This could be a top-five team, but we’re taking a wait-and-see approach because of so many new faces and a tough district schedule.
Case for ranking higher:The Cougars have a Division I-A quarterback in Gray Crow who got better as the season went on last year, top rusher Diomi Roberts is back and the Cougars are pretty well situated on defense.
Case for ranking lower:Do you know how good Tyler Moore was? How incredibly valuable? We didn’t think so. The big tackle will be missed, as will his buddies from what was the best offensive line in the county.
Our decision:We like the offensive weapons, we like the defense, but until that offensive line jells its hard to see the Cougars cruising through another regular season. But this is still a top 10 team.
Case for ranking higher:Great game breakers all over the field. Senior Purdue commit Anthony Brown can beat you many ways in all facets of the game. Grounded in the typical Terriers way of playing run-heavy offense and a stingy defense, they aren’t the prettiest team to watch, but they still win under longtime coach Earl Garcia.
Case for ranking lower: They play in the same district as Armwood and Jefferson, teams that have owned the Terriers recently. Can their top players continue to make clutch plays late in tight games? And will all those players going both ways hurt them against the district heavyweights.
Our decision:We really like the Terriers this year. Athletes like Brown, RB/DB Jeremiah Davis, DE/TE Jordan Sherit and DT Earl Moore will all be playing on future Saturdays. We’re just not sure if they can turn the tables on Armwood and Jefferson.
Case for ranking higher:Quarterback Jacob Guy is a future D-I player. So are athletes Trey Dudley-Giles, Janarion Grant and David Emmanuel. The tradition isn't bad, either.
Case for ranking lower:Five new starters on the offensive line is a scary thought. And what if one of the Pirates' two-way starters gets injured?
Our decision:No North Suncoast team has as much talent, but questions surround a new offensive line has the Pirates just on the outside of the top 10.
Case for ranking higher: A new transfer quarterback in Aaron Midthus who can throw, solid stable of running backs and a beefy offensive line, and that's not even the strength of the Titans. The defense is.
Case for ranking lower:The Titans laying an egg against Jefferson in the preseason classic was an eye opener. Special teams play was horrible, and if surrendering kick returns is going to be an issue, the Titans are in trouble. The transition to new and more low-key coach Jayson Roberts has to go smoothly.
Our decision:The Titans should be able to run on anyone, and the ability to pass makes them more versatile, but the defense really solidifies their spot in our poll. Big line, fast linebackers and a bunch of college prospects in the defensive backfield.
Case for ranking higher: The Lions, who just missed out on the playoffs a year ago, had no returning starter transfer in the offseason. D-I QB Greg Windham threw for more than 1,000 yards last season.
Case for ranking lower: Their district is BRUTAL (Armwood, Hillsborough, Jefferson) and the O-line is a bit green.
Our decision: If the Lions can get the youngsters up to speed in the first half of the season, they'll be in better shape to match up with the district heavyweights when they come calling in October.
Case for ranking higher: They have the best athlete in the state in senior Nelson Agholor, who -- especially at the small-school level -- is a man among boys. The Bucs' defense, led by underrated LB Schyler Myles, can dictate the pace of a game for coach Dominic Ciao, who has built a winner from the ground up.
Case for ranking lower:We're not sure if they would be able to hang with a team with superior athleticism. And we're also not that sure that they're that much better than surging new district rival Tampa Catholic. Playing second dog to former district rival Fort Meade for so many years, being a favorite is new for the Bucs, so who knows how they handle it.
Our decision:We think Berkeley can compete, mainly because of Ciao, who always has his teams ready to play regardless of the opponent. If they avoid injuries, the Bucs could be playing into December.
Case for ranking higher:Tight end Kent Taylor is one of the area's top recruits. Linebackers Jackson Cannon and Shadow Williams are studs on perhaps the county's top defense.
Case for ranking lower:Quarterback Ryan Bird has looked great at times. He's also looked not-so-great at times. It's a cause for concern.
Our decision:The Gators have plenty of weapons, but an unproven ground game and first-year starting quarterback keep them as the North Suncoast's No. 2 team for now.
Case for ranking higher:Linebacker Darren Hambrick leads a quick defense, and athletes like Tyrail Hawkins will thrive on a quick offense. Speed kills, right?
Case for ranking lower:Losing star running back Alvin Delaine is a big hit, and quarterback Cleve Pope has been inconsistent.
Our decision:The Leopards can battle Land O'Lakes for a district title, but we're not ready to move them above the Gators yet.
Case for ranking higher:Coach Mike DePue has said this year's unheralded lineup reminds him of his 2009 bunch, which entered with few expectations and finished 10-3. And the Knights' stiffest district tests will come later in the season after the team has had a chance to jell.
Case for ranking lower: Did we mention the 2011 Knights are unheralded? Robinson lost a ton of playmakers to graduation.
Our decision:The Knights may be inexperienced and may suffer a few growing pains, but we never bet against DePue's chances of getting his team in playoff shape quickly.
Case for ranking higher:A big summer for sophomore quarterback Chase Litton has him poised for a big season, the offensive line is experienced, Darius Page could be a 1,000-yard back and defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves and John Tyler are as good as any around.
Case for ranking lower: Litton is only a sophomore and will be playing his first full season. While talented, there could be ups and down. The defensive line is a big question mark, and the linebackers are still a work in progress. Run defense will be key because teams won't want to throw on Wharton.
Our decision:We think this is a playoff team. They have all the pieces offensively and should put up some big numbers, and the defense is only going to get better.
Case for ranking higher:In terms of skill-guys, might be best equipped passing team in the bay area. Louis Pappas threw for more than 1,700 yards last year. Runaldo Wright and Kenyatta Merriex are back as receivers. And big-time target Dondre Daley transferred from Anclote.
Case for ranking lower:Defense was very suspect last year and offensive line is a work in progress, especially upfront, And Pappas getting sacked seven times Friday night has us wondering if 19 is too high for the Spongers.
Our decision:Spongers have potential to be district title contender. And they'll need at least six wins to community happy. We believe they can get that done, but the line woes are serious business.
Case for ranking higher:New coach Jason Stokes is instilling a new sense of responsibility at Gaither, which has always been high on talent. The main obstacle has been keeping the talent. The Cowboys have size and senior leadership, led by LB Josh Scarberry, DE Mikail Reece and ATH Shug Oyengunle, which should help with the transition of having a new coach. A solid summer of 7-on-7 success should serve as a springboard.
Case for ranking lower:They're the consummate underachievers. The line needs big-game experience. We're not sure they're good enough to win a hodge-podge district dangling for a leader.
Our decision:We lose sleep thinking about where to rank Gaither. We're not sold either way. So we see it this way: We think the pieces for success exist under Stokes. But they will need to prove that they're more than preseason hype.