As high school football begins Wednesday night, here are 10 things to watch this season

Georgia high school football returns Wednesday night with the first two of nearly 200 season openers.

Games this week between top-10 teams around the state include Lee County at Warner Robins, Mill Creek vs. Walton, North Oconee at Oconee County, Irwin County at Fitzgerald, Woodward Academy at Trinity Christian and Thomasville at Brooks County.

The largest event is the Corky Kell Classic, a slate of 11 metro Atlanta games culminating in a full day of football Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Here are 10 storylines to follow this year as the 2022 season dawns.

1. The Big Bad Wolves: Buford has won 13 state titles this century, at least one in each classification from A to 6A. Now, the Wolves are in the highest class, 7A, for the first time and ranked No. 1 out of the gate, aiming for their fourth consecutive championship. Running back Justice Haynes, a transfer from Blessed Trinity, is the state’s highest-rated running back. The Alabama pledge is one of many Wolves headed to major Division I football. Others are quarterback Dylan Wittke (Virginia Tech), tackle Paul Mubenga and defensive back/wide receiver K.J. Bolden, the state’s No. 1 junior prospect.

2. What are you doing here? That question is for Eagle’s Landing Christian and Prince Avenue Christian, among others. Last summer, Class 2A public schools started a movement ahead of reclassification to free themselves of private schools after Lovett and Westminster dominated the class in all sports in 2021-22. They thought they’d done it with the GHSA’s new 3.0 enrollment multiplier, which kicked the Buckhead boys into Class 4A, but the plan backfired in the final chapter of reclassification when about 15 small private schools left the GHSA, forcing the association to abolish the Class A private-public split and re-integrate. So six-time former Class A private champ ELCA is now in 2A and ranked No. 1 this week. Prince Avenue, another Class A Private power, is still in A but is mixed in with Class A public powers Brooks County and Irwin County. Of course, Brooks County, Irwin County and Fitzgerald aren’t afraid of anybody, but if they had their choice? Well, there’s a reason that the GHSA considered segregating private schools from public schools in all classes last year.

3. Welcome to the neighborhood: New classes and new regions, which come about every two years, bring on fun, new rivalries. Here are some enticing 2022 region games that weren’t happening in 2021: Lowndes vs. Valdosta in Region 1-7A, Carrollton vs. Westlake in 2-7A, Buford vs. Collins Hill and Mill Creek in 8-7A, Marist vs. St. Pius in 4-6A, Blessed Trinity vs. Roswell in 7-6A, Warner Robins vs. Jones County in 2-5A, Trinity Christian vs. Whitewater in 4-4A and Carver-Columbus vs. Crisp County and Thomasville in 1-3A.

4. Private enterprise: The GHSA in the offseason increased its reclassification multiplier on out-of-zone students to 3.0 in a move designed to move private schools and some city schools into higher classifications for competitive-balance reasons. That put Blessed Trinity, Marist, Woodward Academy and St. Pius into Class 6A for the first time. Woodward Academy, Blessed Trinity and St. Pius went up one class; Marist went up two. All have preseason top-10 rankings in at least one poll. Also in the spotlight will be 2021 Class A Private champion Trinity Christian, which volunteered to move up to 4A, where the Lions will find more upward-bound private schools such as Westminster, Lovett and Holy Innocents’. As previously noted, ELCA is in 2A. City schools moved up were Buford and Carrollton to 7A, Jefferson to 5A and Thomasville to 3A.

5. Coaching them up: Josh Niblett and Jonathan Gess have won six state championships as coaches since 2009, Niblett at Hoover in Alabama and Gess at Eagle’s Landing Christian. Each is now coaching at a school that didn’t win six games last season, Niblett at Gainesville (5-5 in 2021) and Gess at Hebron Christian (4-7). Another winning coach open to challenge is Jaybo Shaw going from Rabun County (35-5 in Shaw’s three seasons) to Wayne County (0-10 in 2021).

6. Written in the stars: There will be a state player of the year named in December. For the past seven seasons, a five-star recruit has been the consensus choice, players such as Cartersville’s Trevor Lawrence and Collins Hill’s Travis Hunter, even though the award is based on high school performance only. If the trend holds, that’s good news for Mill Creek safety Caleb Downs, the only consensus five-star recruit from Georgia in the senior class, although Buford running back Justice Haynes and Warner Robins defensive lineman Vic Burley are within striking distance of the honor, which becomes official after the February signing day. There are six five stars in the junior class led by Buford athlete K.J. Bolden. The last consensus state player of the year who wasn’t a five-star was Washington County quarterback/defensive back A.J. Gray, a 2014 three-star player who signed with Georgia Tech.

7. Going to make history: There were two first-time state champions in 2021 (Collins Hill, Trinity Christian). It has been 18 years since a season didn’t produce a first-time winner. So it’s just a question of who, right? Hughes, the Class 6A runner-up to Buford, is one to watch. The Panthers possess as much high-end talent as anyone with Bo Hughley (committed to Georgia) and Jelani Thurman (Ohio State) leading the pack. Another to watch is Schley County, ranked No. 1 in Class A Division II. Other contenders include North Cobb, Mill Creek, Jones County, North Oconee, Appling County and Perry.

8. A matter of record: Some of the state’s more prestigious offensive records could be challenged this season. Prince Avenue Christian’s Aaron Philo passed for 4,540 yards as a sophomore, 201 short of Tylan Morton’s single-season record. Rabun County’s Jaden Gibson had 1,860 yards receiving as a sophomore, 196 short of Marcayll Jones’ record. Gibson is 1,303 yards short of Stan Rome’s career record of 4,477 set in 1973. Buford’s Justice Haynes is 2,965 yards short of Monte Williams’ career record of 8,884 set in 2000.

9. Looking up down south: Colquitt County and Lowndes, the Class 7A powers of South Georgia, have new coaches. They are Sean Calhoun at Colquitt County and Zach Grage at Lowndes. They are former Colquitt County offensive coordinators. In fact, they essentially teamed up in that capacity on Colquitt County’s 2014 Class 6A championship team, and Calhoun remained for the 2015 championship team. Grage led Thomasville to the Class 2A finals in 2021 while Calhoun was in Alabama a year removed from a five-year run at Carrollton. Lowndes and Colquitt County open the season Friday with a doubleheader at Lowndes’ Martin Stadium with the Packers playing Deerfield Beach and the Vikings playing American Heritage in the Georgia-Florida Challenge.

10. A class divided: Class A will have two champions again, but instead of public and private divisions, the GHSA has introduced Division I for bigger Class A schools and Division II for smaller ones. As noted earlier, that means the reintegration of public and private schools, but it also means renewed hope for schools with less than 400 students. That’s exciting news for Schley County, Washington-Wilkes, Turner County, Bowdon and many more that were outnumbered in the old setup.