4. North Gwinnett - North Gwinnett lost about half its starters from its state-championship team but returns some star-studded players. Tyler Goodson (committed to Iowa) had 1,385 yards rushing and 356 receiving with 23 touchdowns last season. Josh Downs (four-star 2020 recruit) had 1,181 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Warren Burrell (Tennessee) and Quinton Newsome (Nebraska) are major Division I recruits in the secondary. North could be just as good this season.
5. Walton – Walton is coming off its first region title and 10-win season since 2011. Walton’s marquee player is five-star receiver Dominick Blaylock, who is committed to Georgia. But the Raiders also have one of the state’s least-appreciated top quarterbacks, Austin Kirksey, who is committed to Nevada. Kirksey was 138-of-230 passing for 2,446 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Also back is D.J. Soyoye, who rushed for 1,167 yards. Those three are among eight Raiders who were first- or second-team all-region last year as juniors.
6. Marietta – The Blue Devils were a surprise quarterfinalist in 2017, when they lost 51-41 to eventual champion North Gwinnett. And they were young. Junior quarterback Harrison Bailey threw for 1,885 yards in just six games, three of them in the playoffs. Other mere juniors are two-way starting lineman B.J. Ojulari, the team’s best offensive lineman as a 10th grader, and tight end Arik Gilbert, who had 54 catches. Both are major Division recruits as is Super 11 receiver Ramel Keyton, a senior. Marietta did lose two D-I talents in the off-season forfeit scandal, so that kept the Blue Devils from being ranked a little higher. Marietta plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation with games against No. 3 Grayson (Georgia), No. 7 Good Counsel (Maryland), No. 9 St. John’s College High School (Washington D.C.) and No. 85 McEachern (Georgia).
7. McEachern – Typical McEachern, a talented team that has won a region title or reached the semifinals eight of the past nine seasons. Paris Brown is one of the classification’s best running backs.
8. Tift County – Coming off its best season in years, the Blue Devils feel they can go further than just the quarterfinals (lost to Brookwood 35-28 last year) and contend for the region title. Seven starters are back on defense. One is preseason all-state LB K.D. Jackson. On offense, the Devils have 1,000-yard rusher Mike Jones. With just a little more tradition, Tift County might’ve been ranked a lot higher.
9. Lowndes – The Vikings will be rebuilding with the graduation of classification offensive player of the year Michael Barrett, now at Michigan. They return only three starters on defense. They should run the ball well with a good offensive line and an all-state-calibre running back, Travis Tisdale.
10. Parkview – Any number of teams could’ve wound up in the No. 10 spot. Parkview just appears to be a well-coached program on the rise, and not one taking overwhelming graduation hits, like Brookwood, to name one. Malik Washington, injured much of last season, is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the class.