Pardon me while I just steal a little from past intros on how we picked Tampa Bay’s best football team. The ones that mention how once again our choices for No. 1 came down to Plant and Armwood, how one team had the tiniest of advantages over the other. Throw in a crack about it being this way since 2007, and follow that with something about East Lake making a charge, Largo having title hopes, Lakewood boasting so much talent, and Tampa Bay Tech looking to the make the leap. That’s right: the usual suspects have taken over our top 25 for 2014.
Last year: 14-1, Class 6A state runnerup
This week: vs. Durant, 7:30
Lowdown: Yes, Armwood lost in the preseason to Plant; but this is still Tampa Bay’s best team. The loss of receiver Trevor Laurent (transfer to Charlotte last week) puts a sizable dent in the passing attack, but the running game and defense should get the Hawks through.
Last year: 10-2, Class 8A state semifinalist
This week: at Lowndes (Ga.), 9
Lowdown: Mixed reviews for new starting quarterback Rex Culpepper, but the Panthers are strong enough in other areas to bring the new signal caller along.
Last year: 11-2, Class 7A region finalist
This week: vs. Robinson, 7:30
Lowdown: A rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and an interception? If Friday’s preseason win was any indication, Ray Ray McCloud III is going to have one of the greatest seasons in Tampa Bay history.
4. East Lake
Last year: 13-1, Class 7A region finalist
This week: vs. Palm Harbor University, 7:30
Lowdown: For a team that graduates its MVP every season, the Eagles sure do a bang-up job of restocking the cupboard with new stars.
5. Clearwater Central Catholic
Last year: 11-3, Class 3A state runnerup
This week: vs. Naples Lely, 7:30
Lowdown: Scored 43 points against a very good Countryside team. Without C.J. Cotman. Need we say more? (Well, maybe we should mention the defense gave up 35, but for now, let’s focus on the positive).
Last year: 8-3, Class 6A region quarterfinalist
This week: vs. Northeast, 7:30
Lowdown: The Packers may lack the running game they have featured the past decade, but Jonathan Crawford is going to catch a whole lot of passes from Donavan Hale to probably make up for it.
Last year: 10-4, Class 5A state semifinalist
This week: vs. Countryside, 7:30
Lowdown: The Spartans gained, then lost a couple of key pieces, but quarterback Ryan Davis returns and that’s enough to convince us there will be another Oscar-winning season at Hollywood High.
8. Pinellas Park
Last year: 10-2, Class 7A region semifinalist
This week: at Boca Ciega, 7:30
Lowdown: The Patriots unveiled an Air Crawford-esque attack Friday, but we think the coach was just having some fun. Look for the area’s most productive rushing attack to hit the ground running this week.
Last year: 7-4, Class 5A region quarterfinalist
This week: vs. Sunlake, 7:30
Lowdown: The Pirates have two Division I commitments (Bowman Archibald, Andrew Ivie) anchoring what will be a top defense, and look for new weapons to emerge on offense. We’re pretty sure the Pirates will be better than you think they are going to be.
10. Tampa Bay Tech
Last year: 6-4
This week: at Newsome, 7:30
Lowdown: We vowed not to buy into the Titans again this season. We’ve been hurt too many times. But here we are again, front row, bandwagon, excitedly watching quarterback Deon Cain scramble for a first down.
Last year: 6-4
This week: at Lakewood, 7:30
Lowdown: Another very good offensive line will steer the Cougars forward, but the defense will need to catch up. If it does, Countryside can challenge for a playoff spot in a district that has three of our top 11 teams.
Last year: 10-2, 6A region semifinalist
This week: vs. Alonso, 7:30
Lowdown: Nobody lost more in the offseason than the Dragons, but history tells us Jefferson is again a team to reckon with. The defense, especially in the back, will be solid, and the offense will score points.
13. Plant City
Last year: 8-3, 7A region quarterfinalist
This week: vs. Steinbrenner, 7:30
Lowdown: The Raiders have all kinds of talent on offense, and defensively, linebacker Sawyer Dawson makes things happen. If the Raiders can put it all together, they will be tough.
Last year: 7-3
This week: Bye
Lowdown: We try not to put too much stock in preseason games, but the Terriers made it hard for us. Quarterback Dwayne Lawson is one of the most exciting players around, but teams will be going all in to stop him.
Last year: 6-4
This week: at Strawberry Crest, 7:30
Lowdown: We’re pretty high on the Bulls this year. The running and passing game will be better, and so will the defense. There’s a lot to like here.
Last year: 5-5
This week: at Jefferson, 7:30
Lowdown: Chris Oladokun can hum the ball, but the offensive line and emergence of potential offensive stars like running back Zantavius Showers and receivers Terryl Scott and Josh Elias will determine how good the Ravens can be.
Last year: 8-4, 5A region semifinalist
This week: vs. Hardee, 7:30
Lowdown: The Tigers’ performance against Palm Harbor University shook us up a little, then we remembered coach Matt Thompson is something of a defensive ace, so we feel better.
18. Berkeley Prep
Last year: 5-4
This week: at Middleton, 7:30
Lowdown: Experienced quarterback, big offensive line, stopper in the middle on defense and great coaching. Yeah, we’re digging the Bucs, who we think can win the district.
19. Tampa Catholic
Last year: 10-3, Class 3A state semifinalist
This week: at Madison County, 7:30
Lowdown: The offensive backfield is one big question mark, and maybe the answer ends up being Nate Craig, but we’ll be interested in how this team looks at midseason.
20. Land O’Lakes
Last year: 8-2
This week: at River Ridge, 7:30
Lowdown: The “don’t blink attack” is back and should put up some significant numbers. A better defense will mean bigger things for a team that just missed the playoffs last year.
21. Indian Rocks Christian
Last year: 10-4, Class 2A state semifinalist
This week: at St. Petersburg Catholic, 7:30
Lowdown: With so many weapons, we would not be surprised to see the Golden Eagles petition the Florida High School Athletic Association so it can play with two footballs. Keeping everyone happy might be the toughest part of Mark Buchanan’s job this season.
22. East Bay
Last year: 8-4, Class 7A region semifinalist
This week: vs. Lennard, 7:30
Lowdown: After winning so many close games last year, the Indians will look to create a little space this year. The defense will be top notch. The offense? That may take some time.
Last year: 5-5
This week: at Tampa Bay Tech, 7:30
Lowdown: Bruce Anderson did last Friday what we expect to see him do this Friday, and the next Friday, and the next… the Wolves’ rushing attack should be nice this season.
Last year: 4-6
This week: at Sickles, 7:30
Lowdown: There’s a chance for some special things here, but Robinson has to be injury-free to pull it off. While there’s not a lot of depth, there are some stars-in-the-making on the roster ready to pop.
(tie) 25. Springstead
Last year: 11-2, Class 6A state semifinalist
This week: vs. Citrus, 7
Lowdown: The Eagles are coming off their first Associated Press preseason state ranking, and while they do have some big shoes to fill, players like running back Daniel Wright return to try and get Springstead back to the postseason.
(tie) 25. Tarpon Springs
Last year: 7-5, Class 5A region semifinalist
This week: vs. Clearwater, 7:30
Lowdown: The Spongers expect to have an explosive offense, and the addition of Daniel Davis, who was electrifying in the preseason classic, should put them in the district title hunt.
Also considered: Admiral Farragut, Gibbs, King, St. Petersburg, Sunlake, Wharton, Zephyrhills