The 2017 football season got under way Thursday with five games. This is the first of 12 regular-season weeks. After five playoff rounds, the season culminates with eight championship games Dec. 8-9 at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Here are 10 story lines to watch:
*Purple reign: Cartersville, its quarterback and its head coach are chasing significant history. The Purple Hurricanes can become the third team to finish 15-0 for three consecutive seasons, first since Buford in 2001-03. QB Trevor Lawrence needs 2,477 yards and 40 touchdowns passing to break the Georgia career records of 13,077 and 159 held by Deshaun Watson. Lawrence threw 51 TD passes last season, five short of the single-season mark set last year by Macon County’s K’hari Lane. Lawrence is 40-1 as a starter and almost certain to establish the record for most career wins as a QB starter, though the specifics on any current record-holder (if it isn’t already Lawrence) haven’t been nailed down. Cartersville head coach Joey King can become the fastest Georgia coach to 50 victories with an 8-0 start. King’s record is 42-2. The record is held by former Warner Robins and Westside of Macon coach Robert Davis (50-3).
*Chadwick’s chase: Marist head coach Alan Chadwick has 350 wins. He can pass Robert Davis for No. 2 all-time in Georgia victories. Davis retired in 2009 with a 354-74-1 record. Steve Pennington of Southeast Bulloch is two wins from 200. Calvary Day’s Mark Stroud (191) and Westminster’s Gerry Romberg (190) also are closing in.
*Tough acts to follow: There’s just one downside to getting your dream coaching job in Georgia. You might get compared to the guy who came before. John Ford comes to Buford with great credentials – a 40-8 career record, the triumph of restoring Roswell to glory and the experience of back-to-back state-championship appearances. Now, he’s at Buford, which has reached a state-record 10 consecutive state finals, winning seven. All that took place under coach Jess Simpson, who left for a coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons. Ford is not the only first-year coach whose challenge is living up to the legacy set by someone before him. In fact, five of the 16 state finalists in 2016 have new head coaches. The others are Roswell (Matt Kemper), Grayson (Christian Hunnicutt), Fitzgerald (Tucker Pruitt) and McIntosh County Academy (Terel Toomer). Others who got great jobs – but might be compared to a successful predecessor – are Bob Sphire at Camden County, Bill Stewart at North Gwinnett, Brad Harber at Crisp County, Ryan Crawford at Houston County, Gene Cathcart at Jefferson, Brett Sloan at Kall, Brett Garvin at Sandy Creek and Bryan Love at Woodland of Stockbridge.
*Fields good story: Harrison QB Justin Fields was plenty good last season, when he threw for 2,278 yards, rushed for 851 and led Harrison to a 10-2 finish. But rarely has a Georgia player ascended so rapidly between seasons. Fields has emerged as the No. 1 dual-threat QB in the country and the No. 1 recruit, period, according to some. His college decision – probably among Georgia, Florida State and Auburn – is a national news story. So then is his senior season, which could reveal how close the recruiting pundits are about this rising star.
*Grayson didn’t go anywhere: Grayson won a state title last season with one of the most talented rosters in state history. Graduation wiped out most of it, but the Rams start No. 1 in the rankings not simply because they are the defending champions. Grayson has nine of the top 55 junior recruits in Georgia, according to 247Sports. That’s even more than the wildly talented Grayson class of 2017, but younger. They are LB Owen Pappoe (No. 1 OLB prospect nationally among juniors), OL Wayna Morris (Florida State), OLB Kevin Harris (four-star recruit), Ronald Thompkins (Florida State), WR Kenyon Jackson (LSU), DB Kenyatta Jackson (Florida State), DT Trente Jones (three-star recruit), DT Tru Thompson (Florida State) and DB Jalen Alexander (three-star recruit).
*Parity on high: For the past few seasons in the highest classification, Georgia teams have flirted with national titles. Reigning champion Grayson and runner-up Roswell took top-10 national rankings into the 2016 championship game, and Grayson finished in the top five in all. Colquitt County got a national title (High School Football America) in 2015 with its second consecutive 15-0 team. Norcross’s back-to-back state champions in 2012 and 2013 also garnered top-five national acclaim. This season, there is no expectation of that. Colquitt County coach Rush Propst summed it up well last month to Daniel Brown of the Moultrie Observer: “I think it’s more wide open. I don’t think there is a Grayson or a Roswell like last year. Or McEachern or Mill Creek. Those four squads were so far ahead of everybody last year that you played knowing the best you could be was fifth. This year, I think you can jumble it up. It could be one of eight, 10 teams or more that could emerge.”
*Filling the Dome’s void: The Georgia Dome opened in 1992 with high school football as its first regular-season contests. That was the first Corky Kell Kickoff Classic. Nearly 200 Georgia high schools – or about 40 percent of the GHSA’s membership – got to play football inside the Dome over its 25-year history that is about to end in demolition. The Dome had been home to the Kell Classic, the GHSA semifinals, then the finals, and a smattering of other smaller high school events. This season, the Kell Classic is playing most of its games this weekend at the Braves’ old Turner Field, newly christened as Georgia State Stadium. The state championship games on Dec. 8-9 will be played at the Falcons’ new home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
*New chief, old issue: The GHSA has a new executive director. Robin Hines, a former superintendent of Houston County Schools, took over for Gary Phillips this summer. Unlike all previous GHSA executive directors, Hines had no previous GHSA affiliation upon getting the job, which probably suited the Georgia legislature, which pressured for Phillips’ retirement. Hines had also been a coach and athletics director. As that transition was occurring, the GHSA tabled a proposal to require that transfer student-athletes sit out 50 percent of the seasons at their new schools. Hines applauded the decision, saying such a radical move needed more study. The GHSA’s board of directors meets in October.
*Who’s up: That’s anybody’s guess, but here are 10 teams that pundits feel confident will be much better in 2017, some that were already pretty good – Marietta, Brookwood, Tucker, Peach County, Clinch County, Hapeville Charter, Screven County, Warner Robins, Taylor County and Alpharetta.
*The unexpected: A year ago, Valdosta was ranked No. 9 in preseason – behind four other Region 1-AAAAAA teams – but won its first state title in 18 years. Houston County was ranked No. 1 in one preseason poll but didn’t make the playoffs. No one outside of Griffin had heard of Tylan Morton. The lanky senior quarterback went on to break Deshaun Watson’s record for passing yards in a season. Those things we don’t see coming are the fun of Georgia high school football. Or as the old cliché goes, it’s why they play the games.
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