We’ve looked at 6A South, time to look at the North. On paper, this looks like a down year for northern teams, but we’ll let you know who some of the key players are from last year to this year for the trip to Auburn.

Clay-Chalkville begins this as the reigning two-time state finalist from the northern half. The addition of 7A had the most direct effect on the Cougars. With Hoover out of the way, Clay rose to power immediately with quite a bit of help from the three-headed monster of Ty Pigrome, TJ Simmons, and Nico Collins. Collins is the only one back for 2016, and Clay-Chalkville is heavily undermanned from previous seasons. Still, they’re the champ of the north and the road goes through the city of Clay to get to Auburn. Austin came close to knocking off Clay last year in the semi-finals, but there is a lot of talent gone that improved Austin’s win total by eight last year. When it comes to Clay’s region, Gardendale stands out as the biggest threat though the Cougars have brought the Rockets back to earth hard their last two meetings. Minor also joins Region 6 along with Walker, and the Tigers are coming off a surprising quarterfinal run before losing to Clay while the Vikings lost to Gardendale in the second round.

Muscle Shoals was thought to be staying home this November for violations, but the AHSAA allowed the Trojans back in to the playoff mix while punishing the guilty assistant coach. They’ll look to rectify the second round loss to Minor. Homewood gave Clay it’s toughest win all year, losing 40-39 after a failed two-point try. The Pats have been steady the last four years, but they’re looking to finally get back to the glory days not seen in over a decade. There was no bigger disappointment in the postseason than Park Crossing. The Thunderbirds won a region title in their second season of existence only to ousted by Bessemer City in the shocker of the first round. They’ve had a great summer in getting ready to correct that error.

You’ve seen the state contenders. Let’s look at some of the challenges they’ll face in their region play, starting with Region 5.


Contenders

Homewood: The Patriots were once the measuring stick of Class 5A, making three state finals under Gerald Gann and winning five state titles in six tries under Bob Newton. However, things haven’t been near as good in the last decade. After six years with a combined record of 30-32, the Pats have turned it around a little with four straight nine-win seasons. After three straight region titles, Homewood fell short of the crown last year with a tight road loss to Walker. Their biggest takeaway from the year was the performance they put up against state finalist Clay-Chalkville, taking the Cougars to the wire in a 40-39 loss. The Patriots are a clear Region 5 favorite, and Ben Berguson enters his third season with a team that knows they can compete with anyone in the state. For them, it will be about finally putting up the results in November to back that belief up.

Parker: Oh what a small world we live in. Parker enters 2016 with Andre Robinson in his third year…of his second stint with the Herd. The last time Parker was a member of Class 6A was 2003. Their coach? Yep, Robinson. He left after the 2003 season to take an assistant job at Grambling, his college alma mater. After spending nearly a decade in Louisiana, Robinson came back to Birmingham and the Carver Rams. Fortune found Robinson when Minor hired then-Herd coach George Bates leaving the door open for Robinson to come back to his first head coaching job. The tenure started well with a 10-2 season but fell to 7-5 in 2015. Now, with the classification change Robinson will be forced to prepare his players for plenty of competition they haven’t faced before. Good thing for them he knows what to expect.

Ramsay: Can you remember everything that happened in high school football between 1976 and 2011? How about the most significant? All the wins accumulated by Buddy Anderson at Vestavia and Jamie Riggs at T.R. Miller? All state titles won by Hoover, Leroy, Prattville, and Sweet Water? State champions like Banks, Hazlewood, Millport, Gadsden, Litchfield, and Emma Samson desolved or consolidated? The creation of state champions American Christian, Daphne, Clay-Chalkville, and Spanish Fort? All of that happened between the last season of Ramsay’s original football team and the beginning of their new one. Hard to believe. But this version of the Rams is looking a lot better than how the old team faded away. The Rams have taken 5A by storm the last two years, looking to be ahead of schedule for resurgence. With the change to 6A, they’ll have to adjust, but that’s not an issue for head coach Reuben Nelson. Nelson led Midfield from 3A to 4A and started his time with Ramsay in 5A. He’ll have the Rams ready for the challenges and with region games against Homewood and Parker as well as non-region dates with nationally ranked #2 Grayson (GA), Pinson, and Mountain Brook, they better be.

Darkhorse

Jackson-Olin: Tim Vakakes is one of a kind. Son of former Fairfield coach Jim Vakakes, Tim had one of the more memorable moments last year when he danced to Silento’s “Watch Me” after the Mustangs’ first win of the season over Briarwood. The fun and games will turn a little more serious the next two seasons as Jackson-Olin is in position to make the playoffs, something they haven’t done since 1999. Vakakes has been close the last two years. This year will give him his best shot with what is perceived as just Hueytown in the way. Shades Valley has lost its way with David Partridge and John Carroll is John Carroll. What would be even more remarkable is if Jackson-Olin could make a run at the region title. It’s a longshot but not out of the realm of possibility. If they could do that, it would show some of the greatest any 6A program has seen in quite a while.

Dreamers

Hueytown: Seems like a long time now since Jameis Winston was the quarterback at Hueytown. Those were good times for the Gophers. They were also fortunate be in 5A. Their time in 6A since the departure of Jeff Smith have been underwhelming to say the least. Last year, Goldy Gopher only scored an average of 15.7 points a game while giving up 24.3. Hueytown will need to win the head-to-head matchup with Jackson-Olin, Ramsay, or Parker and hope for a tie for fourth or a slight edge in the record column. There’s no hope of a region title.

Shades Valley: I don’t know if it’s karma, fate, or just bad coincidence, but the way Shades Valley kicked Bill Smith to the curb came back around last year in David Partridge’s first season. In 2014, the Mounties outscored opponents 407-294. Last year, they were beaten 216-301. With as talented a bunch as Shades Valley has had, that shouldn’t happen. There’s not much optimism about Shades Valley’s 2016 prospects, but there is a chance to have a better record being away from Region 6.

John Carroll: The Cavs have been on a painful decline since 2010. John Carroll has won a grand total of six games in the last four years. The truth is aside from John Carroll’s state title season in 1973, the Cavs have rarely stood out from being average or mediocre. Logan Colafrancesco has got a lot on his plate with this group.

our picks

# Aaron Daniel Jon Lunceford
1 Homewood Homewood
2 Parker Jackson-Olin
3 Ramsay Ramsay
4 Jackson-Olin Parker
5 Hueytown Hueytown
6 Shades Valley Shades Valley
7 John Carroll John Carroll

Contenders

Clay-Chalkville: The 2015 state runner-up makes it in because of their dominance from the last two seasons. But this squad is nothing like those. Ty Pigrome was a special player in Cougar history and will be hard to top anytime soon. In his place, Jerry Hood will turn to a sophomore in Willie Miller. Miller will go through the advanced course of learning the offense having to take on one of the toughest schedules in the state. He’ll have some relief with 6’5” receiver Nico Collins as his primary weapon. We also don’t really know Miller’s true capabilities when it comes to his feet, something he couldn’t show off in 7-on-7 competition over the summer. If Miller is a quick study, the rest of the region could be in for a rude awakening. Still, this is the year to knock off Clay as region champs. Don’t expect it to happen as Miller matures.

Gardendale: The Rockets have been on a surge under Matt Plunkett. After a 5-5 first season, Gardendale has been to two quarterfinals in these past seasons with win totals improving to 8 and 10. Still, there were glaring results last year that need addressing. First, an eight-point win over Minor. Also, a two-point win over Shades Valley, 25-point loss to Clay-Chalkville and 15-point loss to Austin. There are improvements still to be made, but make no mistake. This is probably the best Gardendale team under Plunkett. He’ll bring back lineman Andrew Freeman on the defense, which is something they could look to get better after giving up 24 points a game. The date that Gardendale has been waiting on most of all in September 30th when they welcome Clay to Driver Stadium. If they win that, they’re on their way to potentially greater things. If not, it could be a big “what if.”

Minor: Minor has been a program where teams had the potential to wow in the regular season but faltered early in the playoffs. Last year, George Bates’ Tigers flipped the script, going 6-4 in the regular season before pulling off a massive upset of Muscle Shoals in the second round. Alas, they ran into Clay-Chalkville in the quarters and were blasted by a nearly identical margin to the regular season encounter. But Bates has the Tigers believing, and that’s what matters. With All-State athlete Jaylond Adams back, Minor will look to make even bigger strides in his third season. One of the biggest issues for Minor was closing games against region foes, particularly Homewood. They’ve beaten Pinson the last two years, have lost to Walker and Clay, and split with Gardendale. It’s an odd recipe, but the Tigers will definitely need to be much improved for the region crown. It’s invaluable though how much experience the Tenacious Tigers have gotten from playing future region competition. Little did they know it at the time.

Walker: After the disgraceful exit of John Holladay in 2013, Walker could’ve imploded. They didn’t, instead rallying around Heath Brunner. He earned the job that year as an interim coach and has held it since. Last season, Walker beat Homewood and Minor on their way to a region title but made a second round exit in a lopsided loss to new region foe Gardendale. But there’s progress and hope for the future of Walker (Jasper by 2017) Viking football. Losing all three All-State members will hurt, but the Vikings are a tough bunch that can make life difficult for the rest of Region 6. Aside from the postseason ban in 2013, Walker has made the playoffs each year since 2007.

Darkhorse

Pinson Valley: Pinson is a 5A team thrust into 6A but has made the best of a tough situation. Matt Glover has instilled a consistent drive in this program not seen in a while. The Indians have made six straight playoffs, but it is arguable that Pinson benefitted from playing in a region with Huffman, Shades Valley, Center Point, and Woodlawn. True but they finished third last year and beat Bill Smith’s Shades Valley two years ago. Pinson is the fly in the ointment, a team that will always find the wins it needs to just get into November. With their situation, that’s all most can ask for from them. But this year will be a down year for Clay and possibly Walker. Minor and Gardendale have had times to gag up games in the past. Perhaps Pinson could sneak their way to more than just a postseason berth this year.

Dreamers

Carver-Birmingham: The Rams aren’t in line for a region title, but they present quite the defensive problem with two stout linebackers in Tadarrius Patterson and Ramsay transfer Cardell Jones along with All-State defensive back Dedrick Powell. The Rams gave up 18.5 points a game last year, a mark which should improve. The issue will be getting the offense to correct their flaws and get average much higher that 19.4 a game.

Center Point: Center Point is just plainly the odd man left out. The Eagles scored just under 70 points total last year and was shut out three times. Bennie Hall couldn’t make the transition from 5A to 6A and it showed with a combined 2-18 over two seasons. Now, Shawn Gregory will come in. His only head coaching stint in Alabama was a 3-7 season at Jackson-Olin in 2008. It could be a long three months for Center Point.

our picks

# Aaron Daniel Jon Lunceford
1 Gardendale Gardendale
2 Minor Clay-Chalkville
3 Clay-Chalkville Walker
4 Pinson Valley Minor
5 Walker Pinson Valley
6 Carver-Birmingham Carver-Birmingham
7 Center Point Center Point

Contenders

Fort Payne: A longtime member of Class 5A, the Wildcats have made a sound transition to 6A, winning 15 games in the last two years. But the fact is they’ve been fortunate to have the region schedule they were dealt, and it’s showed. Fort Payne went a combined 11-1 in region play while going 4-6 in non-region and playoff games. That doesn’t bode well with three new teams entering Region 7. But Paul Ellis has created a winning culture in northeast Alabama that won’t go away easily. The ‘Cats will fight to keep their spot at the top of the mountain. Fort Payne will return All-State lineman Reid Hulgan to their offense.

Oxford: Oxford made some of the biggest coaching splashes in the offseason when it comes to the assistants. The Yellow Jackets brought in Glencoe’s Lee Ozmint then followed it up a couple months ago with the hiring of Scott Peavy from Madison County. Oxford returns linebacker K.J. Britt to lead the way for a group that has had to deal with a decline over the last three seasons under Ryan Herring. The intrigue now is to see if Herring can right the ship with a couple of more accomplished coaches at his side. There will be little excuse for the Jackets not to win now. That’s when the pressure reaches its peak.

Pell City: Oxford may have made big moves in terms of the whole coaching staff, but no one had a more meaningful hire in the offseason than the Panthers. Pell City said farewell to Brooks Dampeer and hello to Leeds’ Keith Etheredge. Etheredge became a legend at Leeds over the last 10 years, but that begged a new challenge to come along. That opened up in the form of Pell City and Class 6A. Etheredge is itching to test his coaching acumen against some of the state’s best. He’ll also do it with a Panthers’ squad that was 15 points away from an 8-2 regular season instead of 4-6 and took the eventual state champion Spanish Fort to the wire in the first round. This is a team that has the potential to be dangerous quickly, make no mistake about it. In three years, the Panthers could be in the mix for the state crown. Etheredge has shown that kind of ability once before.

Darkhorse

Cullman: Like Fort Payne, Cullman was a longtime 5A program. But the transition to 6A hasn’t been as smooth for the Bearcats, going 5-5 and 6-5 the last two years with a missed postseason. Mark Britton is certainly capable of more having taken the Bearcats to two straight semi-finals and 13 playoffs in his 15 years at Cullman. Cullman will bring back offensive linemn Hunter Brannon and avoid having to play tough teams like Muscle Shoals, Hartselle, Austin, and Florence. The Bearcats had a combined opposing record of 88-54. That should soften from region standpoint, but they still want to test themselves in non-region play with Hartselle, North Jackson, Fayette County, and Chelsea.

Dreamers

Albertville: The Aggies certainly showed great improvement in Dale Pruitt’s first season. Albertville went from 4-5 in 2014 to 7-4 last year. A two-point loss to Minor in the first round upset chances of a playoff run, but there was some to be optimistic about. Their two region losses to Fort Payne and Southside were by three each. Still, this team benefited from a soft region schedule, something that is not in the cards for 2016 and 2017. With newcomers Oxford, Pell City, and Cullman, Albertville must step up their game even more to make the playoffs.

Southside-Gadsden: Southside brings in one of the better names to the season with running back Alaric Williams. But this team played subpar ball against a subpar schedule. They took lopsided beatings at the hands of Chelsea and Fort Payne and lost headscratchers to Oxford, Lee-Huntsville, and Scottsboro. The Panthers also beat Albertville to make this even more puzzling. They’re good enough to win against tougher competition, but they’ve been sliding since Ron Daugherty’s 5A semi-final run.

Brewer: The Patriots haven’t made the playoffs or had a winning season since 1999. It’s been all bad for Brewer as they’ve never had the best of programs. Three of their four playoff appearances were consecutive from 1997 to 1999.

our picks

# Aaron Daniel Jon Lunceford
1 Oxford Fort Payne
2 Pell City Pell City
3 Fort Payne Cullman
4 Cullman Oxford
5 Albertville Albertville
6 Southside-Gadsden Southside-Gadsden
7 Brewer Brewer

Contenders

Muscle Shoals: Muscle Shoals has been a defensive stonewall for about seven years now. The Trojans pride of defense and their ability to make life miserable for opposing offenses. In 2013, they put on a clinic as a member of 5A, averaging just 6.7 points allowed with six shutouts. Last year it was 9.3 points with four shutouts in 6A. But it came crashing down in the second round with a stunning loss to Minor. Offseason turmoil had postseason prospects null and void until a recent ruling allowed the Trojans back in to November. Muscle Shoals will be hungry to prove themselves by avenging the playoff loss and to silence critics. It’ll be interesting to see them replace two defensive All-State players and their starting quarterback from last year, Landon Smothers.

Hartselle: Hartselle was another team that fell victim in the move from 5A to 6A. A team once known for double-digit wins and long playoff runs, Hartselle has gone 7-4 back-to-back and lost in the first round each year. The Tigers are five years removed from a state title in 5A, but that isn’t translating now. Robert Godsey will have quite the task on his hands with Region 8, but the Tigers find ways to make the postseason.

Darkhorse

Hazel Green: The Trojans have simply never had the chops to be a yearly playoff contender. There’s now hope in Hazel Green after Will Wagnon led them to a 7A playoff berth. There will be a target on their back coming from 7A, but Wagnon should have the Trojans prepared. Hazel Green beat Region 7 champions Fort Payne in non-region action, but they also lost badly to Muscle Shoals and close to Hartselle. But in the end, the made the playoffs and shocked many familiar with Hazel Green’s history. Now, they leave the daunting Class 7A for a class just as challenging but without James Clemens and Bob Jones. In order to take control of region action, Wagnon needs some tougher defense from the Trojans.

Dreamers

Austin: The Bears lose all of their All-State members, including a First-Team offensive lineman (Deonte Brown), Second-Team athlete (T.C. Lowe), and honorable mention quarterback (Victor Garth). They also lost junior running back Asa Martin when Martin decided to transfer to IMG Academy in Florida. Unlike his peer from Buckhorn Will Ignont, Martin seems to be content there right now. That feels like way too much to have to build back up, and again this is a team that was 2-8 just two years ago. There’s no guarantee they couldn’t fall back into that with opponents like Walker, Bob Jones, and James Clemens in their non-region schedule.

Decatur: The Red Raiders are the much more consistent bunch in their city compared to rival Austin. So we’re sure it was a little painful for Decatur to see Austin’s success when the Raiders haven’t made the semi-finals since 1977. Jere Adcock enters his 21st season, and he’s definitely seen better days. Decatur hasn’t won a region since 2007, but they at least have done well competing before. They need to get back to that form.

Florence: The creation of bringing together Bradshaw and Coffee has been an up-and-down battle for the city of Florence. The Falcons haven’t been able to get a consistent winner going. It looked like they had a shot to do that with Jamey Dubose before he headed to Phenix City. Jason Wallace started hot picking off Dubose’s scraps, but went from 11 wins in 2014 to 4-6 last year. The Falcons aren’t without talent. They’ll return their First-Team All-State defensive back J’Marick Woods. But this was a team that was blindsided with beatdown losses to Muscle Shoals, Austin, Hartselle, and Decatur that kept them out of the postseason.

Columbia: The Eagles have just been bad through their first decade with no playoffs and no winning seasons, overall or region. Now Columbia comes to 6A and there are no expectations that standards will change from the outside. Internally, Columbia will need to come together and find a new attitude to deal with the stiff tests they face.

Athens: Athens is known as the home of the Rivers: Phillip, Stephen, and their father Steve. And to most outside of north Alabama, that’s about it. But this is a program that won a 5A state title in 2006 with no one named Rivers involved. Rob Ezell (name should sound familiar to Alabama fans) was the quarterback and Alfred McCullough, Carlos Jones, and Jacques Pride were on the defense. But aside from that, the Golden Eagles have fallen short of where they’d like to be. The last two years have been especially bad as Athens hasn’t adjusted well to the tougher Class 6A with a combined record of 4-16.

our picks

# Aaron Daniel Jon Lunceford
1 Muscle Shoals Muscle Shoals
2 Hartselle Hartselle
3 Hazel Green Hazel Green
4 Decatur Austin
5 Florence Florence
6 Austin Decatur
7 Athens Columbia
8 Columbia Athens

state finals block

North Finalist

Aaron: Gardendale def. Muscle Shoals
Jon: Muscle Shoals def. Gardendale

State Champion

Aaron: Blount def. Gardendale
Jon: Muscle Shoals def. Park Crossing