The season is only three weeks old, but that's plenty enough to discover some teams that have made huge strides from 2018. Here are the 10 most improved teams so far:
*Bowdon: Coosa coach Todd Wheeler called this one in a preseason email to GHSF Daily: "Here is your sleeper in Single A. We scrimmaged them this past week, and they will make some noise. I will be shocked if they do not make the playoffs, and it would not surprise me if they do not win a game or two in the playoffs. I would go as far to say that I would not be shocked if they win the region. Surprised but not shocked. Very impressive young team." Coach Rich Fendley had only five seniors in his first season in 2018 and went 1-9, winning only the final game against King's Ridge Christian 14-7. Now, the Red Devils are 3-0, having avenged losses to Valwood (21-20), Bremen (41-7) and Monticello (13-12). Bowdon's Region 6-A is pretty tough. North Cobb Christian, Darlington, Trion and Fellowship Christian are ranked. But so too now is Bowdon for the first time since 2016. The Red Devils are 17.8 points better than expected, according to the computer Maxwell Ratings, and the most improved team in Class A.
*Brantley County: One of the state's best nicknames - the Blue Herons - flies under the radar, perhaps because the football team historically doesn't win enough to put them in view. Brantley last made the playoffs in 2016, last won a round in 2006 and has never made a quarterfinal. In the second season under Geoff Cannon, the Blue Herons are 2-0 for the first time since 2009 after avenging victories over Charlton County and Atkinson County. Cannon was offensive coordinator at Frederica Academy in St. Simons from 2003 to 2016 and coached for seven seasons prior at Glynn Academy. Brantley is 13.6 points better than projected, according to Maxwell, and the most above-expected team in south Georgia.
*Gilmer: First-year coach Kevin Saunders inherited a team with a 30-game losing streak. That means nobody on the roster had ever been part of winning a varsity football game, until now. The Bobcats are 2-1. They beat Gordon Central 6-3 last week after losing to the same opponent 44-15 in 2018. Saunders came from Pebblebrook, where he took the Falcons to three playoff appearances. He had won a state title while in Virginia. "I like challenges and I like it when someone tells me that you can't win," Saunders told Jon Nelson of GPB. Gilmer is 12.8 points better than expected in 2018, according to Maxwell, and the most improved team in northwest Georgia.
*Hart County: Rance Gillespie, the coach who won two state titles at Peach County, is in his third season in Hartwell, and the program has improved from 1-9 to 3-8 to 4-7 to 3-0. The 3-0 start is the best since 2014 and reversed an 0-3 start to 2018, avenging losses to Elbert County, Stephens County and Commerce. Hart had lost four straight and seven of nine to Elbert, lost three straight and 12 of 14 to Stephens and gone 0-12-1 against Commerce since 1955. Hart had two preseason all-state players - DL Kaimon Rucker (committed to North Carolina) and TE Cane Berrong (committed to Notre Dame). But the most valuable player might be RB Malachi Thomas, who has run for more than 100 yards in all three games. He's an outstanding baseball player too busy to attend football camps, so watch for his stock as a prospect to rise. Hart is 17.0 points better than projected this season, the most in Class AAA and in northeast Georgia, according to the Maxwell Ratings.
*M.L. King: From 2003 to 2012, the Lions won four region titles, produced 20 first-team all-state players and averaged 10.2 wins, 15th-most in the state. Since then, they've averaged 3.1 win with no winning season and no first-team all-state player since 2013. Following a 1-9 season in 2018, coach Deante Lamar has the Lions 2-0 with victories over Villa Rica (26-14) and Arabia Mountain (40-6), reversing the outcome of those games in 2018. They are 2-0 for the first time since 2013. QB Jacobi Haynes rushed for 242 yards against Villa Rica, 141 against Arabia Mountain. WR Dequan'dre Moore has 242 yards receiving for the season. Credit goes to third-year coach Deante Lamar, a former Memphis player and a Lithonia graduate who was his alma mater's defensive coordinator before taking the M.L. King job. A playoff berth in 4-AAAAAA, the region with Tucker and Stephenson, is realistic. According to Maxwell, M.L. King is 20.4 points better than expected in 2018 and the most surprisingly good team in the state.
*Marietta: The Blue Devils aren't the most surprising team. They were ranked No. 1 in preseason for Class AAAAAAA and made several national rankings. But remember that they were 5-6 last season. Yes, there were injuries, but the fact remains that a first-round playoff loser needs to get better to win a state title. That's the plan here. Marietta is 3-0, and its 21-17 victory over St. Joseph's Prep of Philadelphia on ESPNU last month legitimizes the Blue Devils' No. 5 national ranking by USA Today. That's the highest of any public school in the country.
*Ola: The Mustangs are 3-0 for the first time in school history, which dates to 2006. They opened with a 58-21 victory over reigning 4-AAAA champion Eastside. They had three 100-yard rushers and never punted. Then they reversed a 28-0 loss to Chapel Hill by winning 24-14. Ola quarterback Hunter Kautz has emerged as a star. He's 37-of-58 passing for 421 yards and five touchdowns and has rushed for 320 yards and seven touchdowns on 47 carries. LB Baylen Sanders has 20 solo tackles, three for losses, and 21 assists. DL Devin Lee has four sacks. WR Kas Stephens and DB Legend Doggett have also been big. This is a program that has never won a playoff game but now is the 15th-best team in AAAAA, according to the Maxwell, which rates Ola 16.2 points higher than in preseason.
*Shiloh: The Generals haven't had a winning season 2003 or won a playoff game since 2000, when David Pollack was on the Generals' roster. Enter new coach Tino Ierulli, who won three district titles at Palm Beach, Fla., and now the Generals are 3-0, having outscored Duluth, Discovery and Wheeler by a total of 127-8. Granted, that's not Grayson and Archer, which await in 8-AAAAAA, but it's the best start for Shiloh since 2012. Despite a 2-8 finish last season, the cupboard was not bare. Defensive lineman Jasheen Davis (12 tackles for losses in three games) is committed to Wake Forest. Linebacker Isaac Dowling has 10 stops behind the line. Arthur Rodgers has rushed for 116, 148 and 138 yards, scoring two touchdowns in each game. Vince Goffney has thrown for 391 yards and six touchdowns. Shiloh is 13.6 points better than in 2018, the most surprisingly good team in the highest classification, according to Maxwell.
*Wesleyan: The Wolves have been a perennial playoff team since winning Class A in 2008, but they've won only three playoff games over eight seasons. The 2019 team showed last week that it's ready to break through as Wesleyan defeated then-No. 3 Prince Avenue Christian 24-14. That's the highest-ranked opponent that Wesleyan has beaten since No. 1 Emanuel County Institute in the 2008 Class A final. Prince Avenue had beaten Wesleyan twice last season, each by 15 points or more. Wesleyan quarterback J.C. French threw for 1,901 yards last season as a freshman. He's protected by preseason all-state lineman Tanner Bivins, a junior with Division I offers, and seniors Collin Conduah, Chris O'Sullivan and Josh Aspinwall, who play considerably on defense. The Maxwell Ratings put Wesleyan at 9.6 points better than projected, enough to move from No. 6 to No. 3 in the Class A private-school ratings, more than capable of going deep in postseason.
*Woodward Academy: Woodward had won four consecutive region titles before slumping to 7-5 last season, the War Eagle's worst finish since 2007. Woodward is back in 2019 with a 3-0 start that includes a 13-10 victory last week over two-time Class AAAA champion Blessed Trinity. Coach John Hunt says maturity of young players and a re-commitment to the weight room are the key reasons for the defense's improvement from 27.9 points allowed in 2018 to 5.7 now. The team also is healthier, Mike Wright in particular. He's a quarterback committed to Central Florida and is 43-of-78 passing for 635 yards. Woodward is 16.1 points better than projected this season by the Maxwell Ratings, the most in Class AAAA, and the team to beat again in Region 4.
Produced by Georgia High School Football Daily, a free e-mail newsletter. To join the mailing list, click here.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.