The year in high school football: Here’s what to expect

The high school football season that almost wasn’t is about to begin this week with 150 games statewide, but don’t lose that eraser.

This week’s schedule is ever-changing as a dozen teams have canceled, postponed or added games just since Monday. It’s the proverbial new normal in a season that has been threatened all summer by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know that the virus is not going away, and each school will have to be ready to deal with positive cases and potential quarantines,’' said Steven Craft, the athletic director at Fulton County Schools, one of several districts that pushed back their season openers until mid-September or longer to buy more time.

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The season’s first two games are scheduled for Wednesday as the Corky Kell Classic and feature Carver-Atlanta at Cherokee and Mays at West Forsyth, both on Peachtree TV.

Entering the 2020 season, here are 10 of the more intriguing story lines:

Will we make it to Christmas? The pandemic forced the GHSA to push back the season two weeks, but unlike neighbors South Carolina and Florida, which trimmed games or weeks from their schedules, Georgia is planning a full regular season and five rounds of playoffs. That will put the first championship game the Monday after Christmas. It’s anybody’s guess if the season can last 17 weeks, but the forecast is for frequent erasures. “There’s going to be weeks where there’s going to be games not played, and you’re just going to have to work through those,” Dublin coach Roger Holmes said.

Valdosta enters the Propst era: Valdosta is the state’s most famous football program and Rush Propst its most famous active coach. Now, they are one. Propst, whose five state titles include two at Colquitt County and five at Hoover in Alabama, took the job in April. A Class 6A school, Valdosta opens a season at No. 1 for the first time since 1999. It’s based largely on returning talent but also some talented transfers, including quarterback Jake Garcia, who moved from California. He’s committed to USC.

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More new coaches: Propst’s hiring was one of several that will be fun to watch. In 7A, Lowndes and Denmark have brought in out-of-state coaches with multiple state titles. Lowndes’ Jamey DuBose won three in Alabama’s highest class; Denmark’s Mike Palmieri won three in North Carolina’s highest. Lee Shaw, who built Rabun County into a state power, has come out of retirement to coach at Lakeview Academy, a struggling Class A private school. Two prominent former 7A coaches left metro Atlanta for rural 2A schools. Hillgrove’s Phillip Ironside is at Worth County, and Mill Creek’s Shannon Jarvis is at Elbert County, his alma mater.

Spotlight on Grayson: Outside of Valdosta, the most interesting team will be Grayson, the preseason No. 1 in Class 7A. Six Rams are among the state’s top 100 senior prospects, according to 247Sports. They include quarterback Carlos Del Rio and AJC Super 11 receiver Daejon Reynolds, who are committed to Florida. Grayson is No. 6 in USA Today’s national rankings released Tuesday.

The impact of reclassification: For the first time in four years, the GHSA did a full reclassification, which resulted in 101 of the GHSA’s 426 football-playing schools moving up or down in class. State champions Harrison (Class 6A), Buford (5A) and Blessed Trinity (4A) went up. Dublin (2A) went down. Other marquee programs playing higher include Benedictine, Calhoun, Carrollton, Cartersville, Hapeville Charter, Jefferson, Kell, Rome, St. Pius and Woodward Academy. Those going down include Bainbridge, Brooks County, Coffee, Lovett, Oconee County, Pace Academy, Sandy Creek, Stephenson and Westlake.

What players will rise up? Each season makes stars of players who weren’t household names in August. Consider 2,000-yard rushers Jahmyr Gibbs of Dalton and JaQues Evans of Dublin last season. Others, such as Marietta’s Arik Gilbert, were predictably brilliant. He became the all-class player of the year. The most reliable 2020 players, if they stay healthy, might be quarterbacks Brock Vandagriff of Prince Avenue Christian and Gunner Stockton of Rabun County. These five-star recruits’ teams will meet in an ESPN-televised game Sept. 11.

What teams will rise up? Harrison won its first state title in history last year. Marietta got its first since 1967, Irwin County its first since 1975. The truer Cinderellas, such as Richmond Hill with its run to the semifinals, are harder to predict. But it will be fun watching Class 2A No. 1 Rabun County, which has never won a state title. Class 4A No. 1 Marist last won in 2003, when now-Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was the quarterback. No. 1 Warner Robins of 5A has lost in the finals three consecutive seasons. Callaway, Crisp County and Athens Academy, all ranked No. 2 in their classes, have never won state championships.

Who’s going where? Forty of the consensus top-50 senior recruits in Georgia are committed, but No. 1 Amarius Mims of Bleckley County and No. 3 Smael Mondon are still on the board. Plus, some flips are inevitable. The early signing period begins Dec. 16. With the high school season delayed, that’s the Wednesday before the state semifinals this year.

How are we doing the playoffs? With nine teams canceling their fall seasons and eight Savannah schools playing intra-district only, three regions already have fewer than four teams playing region schedules. That’s a pickle because four teams in each region are supposed to make the playoffs. And more teams are liable to be limping come mid-November, when the playoffs begin. Benedictine and Southeast Bulloch are the only teams in their regions that are committed to region schedules and could raise region-title pennants without winning a game. The GHSA hasn’t indicated how it will handle that yet.

How’s the bottom line? Gate receipts from football games are the lifeblood of every high school athletic department. This season, some fans will be reluctant to attend because of the pandemic. Others might be restricted by school rules. For example, only 1,000 fans will be allowed at Friday’s North Oconee-Oconee County game between schools just four miles apart. Schools in Gwinnett and Cobb counties are limiting attendance to 30% capacity. Atlanta Public Schools aren’t allowing any fans. A school such as Marietta, which would net $25,000-$30,000 for a sellout, could be losing up to $20,000 a home game, Marietta athletic director Craig McKinney said. “It will definitely have a financial impact,’' McKinney said. “That revenue goes to support the entire athletic program.’'

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