We debated Plant.
We argued about Armwood, and how far the Hawks might have fallen, until we determined hardly at all.
We fought over Lakewood over Largo, or Largo over Lakewood?
East Lake ahead of Clearwater Central Catholic, or CCC in front of the Eagles?
We were flummoxed on how high to rank Jefferson. Should the Dragons be ahead of Tampa Bay Tech? Should either team be ahead of Sickles? And wait, is Pasco better than all those guys?
Then we moved on to Alonso and Tampa Catholic and Gaither and on and on and on we went.
Finally, we came to this conclusion: let’s take all of our notebooks and video memory cards with notes from the combines we covered, the spring practices and games we sweated at, the 7-on-7 tournaments that gave us sunburn, the transcripts of the interviews we did for our football tabs and let’s set them afire at the 50-yard line of the nearest football field (we can’t tell you where, legal reasons) and just read what the smoke signals tell us. Then afterward, we can roast marshmallows.
Preseason top 25
Last year: 10-2
Biggest question: Will the quarterback play be strong enough to win a state title? Colby Brown performed well in the offseason, but he has a high bar to meet.
What we like: The Panthers may not have any big names, but they have talent all over the field. The offensive line will be a major strength, and running back Patrick Brooks should do big things behind it. The Panthers have kids committed to BCS schools starting at receiver (Austin Hudson), defensive back (Mazzi Wilkins), linebacker (Andrew Beck) and offensive line (Ray Raulerson), and as always the coaching staff is top notch.
Season opener: at Sandy Creek, Aug. 29.
Last year: 10-1
Biggest question: Can the offensive line block? This has been the concern since last season ended, and the main reason the undersized Packers may not be built for a long postseason run.
What we like: Everyone in Largo thinks new quarterback Donavan Hale is a star in the making, but he won’t have to carry too much of the load this year. Running back Jarvis Stewart and receivers Reggie Campbell and Raheem Harvey lead what should be an explosive offense, and the defense might be even better. Linebacker Frankie Hernandez heads up a unit that is always one of the most ferocious around.
Season opener: at Northeast, Aug. 30
Last year: 10-2
Biggest question: Can a team that has struggled to win the big one (Robinson last year; Jesuit the year before; Pasco and Jefferson, respectively, the years before that) finally win, well, the big one?
What we like: There is no denying the wealth of talent Lakewood has stockpiled, most of it homegrown and complemented with an influx of key transfers. They are stocked at receiver and defensive back, and Georgia commit Isaiah Wynn is the leader of a strong offensive line. Transfer Ryan Davis will take over at quarterback, and if the linebackers and defensive line are capable, the Spartans should contend for a state title.
Season opener: at Countryside, Aug. 30
Last year: 9-4
Biggest question: How long before the offense catches up to the defense?
What we like: Kyle Gibson, Aaron Covington, Byron Cowart and Jordan Griffin all made the top half of our HomeTeam 100, so the Hawks’ defense, even with a new coordinator (Matt Thompson left for Jesuit) shouldn’t miss a beat. In fact, it might have more talent on that side of the ball than anyone. Noah Johnson takes over at quarterback, and has plenty of weapons to give the ball to and while a work in progress early, should be clicking by midseason. So we expect the Hawks again to win eight games or so and head back to the playoffs.
Season opener: at Durant, Aug. 30.
Last year: 6-4
Biggest question: The Dragons have a 2010 feel about them, but is there That Guy on the squad? Is there a Quentin Williams or Ramik Wilson or Andre Davis to lead and inspire?
What we like: If we were ranking just offenses, we’d have a hard time not putting Jefferson No. 1. The RB position has loads of young talent and just needs to develop, but everything else is outstanding, from quarterback Deiondre Porter to receivers Ventell Bryant and Derrick Ingram to an offensive line that returns just about everyone. The defense is strong (linebacker Juwuan Brown and defensive back Chavez Pownell lead), and if the Dragons can avoid a third straight terrible start, look out.
Season opener: at Alonso, Aug. 30.
6. Clearwater Central Catholic
Last year: 11-2
Biggest question: Is the hype too much? Ranked No. 3 in the country for small schools, and it’s already Class 3A state title or bust for the Marauders.
What we like: Last year’s state semifinalists picked up 37 transfers this offseason …okay, well, maybe more like 11, but the new guys merely fortify what was already hailed as a state contender. The defense is anchored by BCS commitments Justus Reed (Florida) and Caanan Brown (Virginia) as well as returning defensive MVP Ethan Thompson. Offensively, the line is very good and RB Diquan Walker is back after a 1,000-yard season. CCC could be the first Pinellas County school to win a state title.
Season opener: at Naples Lely, Aug. 30
7. Tampa Bay Tech
Last year: 7-4
Biggest question: Are the Titans ready to make the leap? Three second-round playoff losses in five seasons is a stretch the Titans would rather forget.
What we like: Last year, TBT’s worst season since 2007, was a disappointment. But coach Jayson Roberts thinks his team learned from it, and the experience will pay off. Quarterback Deon Cain is better, running back Deon Thompson is healthy and cornerback Tajee Fullwood is determined. Linebacker Fred Russ heads up another nice looking defensive unit, and both lines look big and nasty. The Titans have another nice blend of size, speed and athleticism, so let’s see if they can finally make it work for them beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Season opener: vs. Newsome, Aug. 30
8. East Lake
Last year: 11-2
Biggest question: Easy one — quarterback. Or rather, quarterback? Pinellas’ all-time leading passer Pete DiNovo has graduated, leaving behind an inexperienced starter, whoever that may be.
What we like: Well, the Eagles have three — Artavis Scott, George Campbell and Mason Cole — of the top four players in Tampa Bay, according to our HomeTeam100, but that’s not all. They are solid in the defensive backfield with Devin Abraham and Keon Brown, and at linebacker with leading tackler Brendan Goettel, and both lines should be strong. Running back Weston Fordham has 1,000-yard potential, though Scott will be a jack-of-all-trades and help carry the ball. Come playoff time, with 10 games of experience under the new QB’s belt, the Eagles should make some postseason noise.
Season opener: at Palm Harbor University, Aug. 30
Last year: 12-1
Biggest question: Will a tougher district and tougher schedule slow the Pirates down?
What we like: The Pirates will be without Janarion Grant, who is wowing coaches at Rutgers these days, but as usual, Dade City merely reloads. Malik Johns and a bevy of athletes will cover for Grant’s absence, and run behind what could be an excellent offensive line. We say receiver Nate Craig is the area’s third-best player, and a top defender as well. If quarterback Ben Chandler improves, the offense will remain prolific, and the defense is always superb under coach Tom McHugh. So another 10-0 season wouldn’t surprise us, even if it will be tougher to reach.
Season opener: at Sunlake, Aug. 30
Last year: 7-3
Biggest question: Is Issac Holder ready to run the Sickles offense?
What we like: Holder, actually. We think he’ll be great in the Gryphons’ run-first attack because of his athleticism, but he can throw the ball, too. With Ray Ray McCloud lining up behind him and running behind guys like Zach Hudson, Deandre Mclean and Chett Levay, will he need to pass, though? Defensively, Josh Black is fantastic and heads up an underrated unit that allowed fewer than 20 points a game. Sickles should surprise some people this season.
Season opener: at Robinson, Aug. 30
Last year: 5-5
Biggest question: Is Chris Oladokun, the only new starter on the Ravens’ talented offense, the real deal?
What we like: Great experienced offensive line, great RB, fleet WRs, if the defense is half as good the Ravens will be playoff bound.
Season opener: vs. Jefferson Aug. 30
12. Pinellas Park
Last year: 6-5
Biggest question: Can the Patriots pass the ball? Their running attack will be one of the best around, but to really make a big move this year, offensive diversity will be paramount.
What we like: Quietly, the Patriots have built up to this point. Our preseason sleeper pick is about to wake everyone up, and might we see the advent of Air Crawford?
Season opener: vs. Boca Ciega, Aug. 30
13. Tampa Catholic
Last year: 8-4
Biggest question: The same as it’s been the last decade — is this the year the Crusaders finally beat Jesuit?
What we like: The Crusaders play Sickles, Madison County and CCC to open the season. So we’ll know really quick what the Crusaders are made of, because some think they might be made of state title material.
Season opener: vs. Madison County, Aug. 30.
Last year: 8-3
Biggest question: Who’s left to help quarterback Alex McGough?
What we like: Graduation dug deep in North Tampa, so guys like Malik Huff and Jalen Cochran will have to emerge as serious offensive weapons. The defensive backfield will be a strength.
Season opener: at Chamberlain, Aug. 30
Last year: 8-3
Biggest question: Can Chase Litton carry the Wildcats on his shoulders?
What we like: Litton throws the prettiest ball around, but he’s going to need help. And right now the Wildcats are still looking, especially on defense and the lines, where youth rules.
Season opener: vs. Spoto, Aug. 30
Last year: 9-2
Biggest question: How many graduated starters are too many?
What we like: The Terriers may start the year here, but we’d be shocked if they didn’t finish higher. Until then, we’ll watch and see how the inexperienced Terriers progress. We expect “rapidly”.
Season opener: at Jefferson, Sept. 6.
Last year: 12-2
Biggest question: Just one? Let’s go with the rebuilt offensive line, the team’s strength last year.
What we like: The Knights return a lot of skill on defense, which will have to carry the team early as the offense finds it’s feet behind new blockers and a new QB. Battering rams Jordan Guyton and Michael Duclos will lead until then.
Season opener: vs. Sickles, Aug. 30
Last year: 4-6
Biggest question: Is this the year the Cougars fall to earth?
What we like: Minus the forfeits, the Cougars have been on a great run, but this would be Jared Davis’ best coaching job yet if he can steer them back to the playoffs. But don’t count the Cougars out.
Season opener: vs. Lakewood, Aug. 30
Last year: 7-3
Biggest question: As with most teams with a new quarterback, that.
What we like: You can always count on the Tigers to field a build brawny offensive line, and if that’s the case Kevin Newman will speed towards 1,000 yards.
Season opener: at Hardee, Aug. 30.
20. Plant City
Last year: 4-6
Biggest question: Will the talent finally pay off in the win column?
What we like: No question this is one of the Raiders’ more talented teams in recent memory, but we’ll wait and see if it comes together on the field.
Season opener: at Steinbrenner, Aug. 30
Last year: 11-1
Biggest question: Can John Hendricks replace Jamarlon Hamilton?
What we like: Hendricks ran for 800 yards last year, so why not? RB Chris Atkins and QB Trey VanDeGrift also return, so the Cougars should be explosive again.
Season opener: vs. Armwood, Aug. 30
22. Nature Coast
Last year: 6-4
Biggest question: Is anybody left to tackle somebody?
What we like: Loss of Jonathan Thomas stung, as does graduation of five of the top six tacklers, but new running back DeShawn Smith is a star in the making and Rohan Blackwood leads the defense.
Season opener: at Crystal River, Aug. 30.
Last year: 8-5
Biggest question: What exactly was Will’s worth?
What we like: We don’t expect the Wolves to fall off the mountain top because we kinda like new QB Spencer Preston, but the climb uphill will be steep.
Season opener: at Tampa Bay Tech, Aug. 30
24. St. Petersburg
Last year: 4-6
Biggest question: Is there enough size and depth to survive the jump to 8A?
What we like: Offensive potential. Quarterback Rob Tribolet is a big, strong-armed senior. He has four capable running backs in Deangelo Reeves, Anthony Foster, Tavon Jones and Jaquel Waller. The Green Devils seem to be balanced on offense for a change.
Season opener: at Gibbs, Aug. 30
25. Berkeley Prep
Last year: 7-4
Biggest question: Are the Bucs all growed up?
What we like: Young last year, Berkeley Prep enters 2013 more seasoned and will be led by quarterback Brad Mayes and tall receiving targets Jared Shimberg and Jacob Mathis.
Season opener: vs. Middleton, Aug. 30