Daphne at Spanish Fort (Aug. 31)
Who could forget the stonewall battle these two had last year with Spanish Fort coming out with an 8-7 victory over the Trojans? The winner was going to be in the driver’s seat for the 6A Region 1 title and lo and behold the Toros went 8-0 in region play to claim the crown while Daphne won their other seven league games. Both teams seem to be built around defense which is no surprise for Daphne and head coach Kenny King, a former Alabama defensive lineman. But with Spanish Fort, fans are used to when the Toros had stellar quarterback play and could move the ball at will. That could take a back seat as Spanish Fort breaks in a new quarterback in three-star junior Jackson Burkhalter. In fact, Region 1 is full of first-year starting QBs including Daphne’s Gage Bonner.
The focal points when it comes to the talent lie in the defensive backfields. Alabama commit Christian Williams of Daphne and Mississippi State commit DJ James of Spanish Fort will look to shut down one side of field for the other team’s passing game. Throw in Saraland’s Cordale Flott (LSU commit) and St. Paul’s Yates Grehan (uncommitted) and it could be the Year of the DB in 6A’s Gulf Coast region if QBs aren’t careful. Spanish Fort is ranked #3 in the 6A preseason Top 10.
Clay-Chalkville at Pinson Valley (Sept. 14)
This was a thriller in the regular season showdown at Clay with Pinson turining a small halftime deficit into a 34-32 victory. The win propelled the Indians to a region title, their first since 1999. The second game at Pinson in the semifinals was a second half beating from the Indians that led to them winning their first ever state title the next week. Looking ahead to this season, things look to run through this rivalry again. The Indians have a three-game winning streak over the Cougars, something that was unthinkable just a couple years ago when Pinson won over Clay for the first time in school history. But with the Nix family in town, the landscape changed quickly.
Both teams come in with an array of talent. Obviously, Bo Nix is the centerpiece in the picture. However, Pinson also returns 2019 inside linebacker recruit Joel Parker and 1st Team All-State junior defensive back Deshazio Williams. The identity changed for Clay-Chalkville last year in Drew Gilmer’s first season at the helm as the Cougars became more concerned with shutting opponents down than outscoring them. Clay shutout five teams last year, a school record. They were the only team to sack Nix last year. The Cougars return four-star Alabama commit DJ Dale on the defensive line and three-star corner Jaylin Mack. To add a little more spice in the mix, former head coach Jerry Hood returned in February as a defensive analyst for the team. The offense is still servicable with senior quarterback Willie Miller and a normally reliable ground game. Oh, and did I mention this is a preseason Top 5 showdown?
Opelika at Wetumpka (Sept. 14)
Wetumpka had a year to remember as the Indians put in their best record since 1995, won the Region 3 title, and made their first state title game in school history. Wetumpka would fall to Pinson Valley in Tuscaloosa, but this team was as dynamic as they came. There was just one more blip in the season. The Indians couldn’t beat Opelika once again. Wetumpka is now 0-for-4 against the Bulldogs. Three of the losses have occurred since 2014 and the last two were region contests decided by one point. Things don’t change as these two are once again in Region 3 with a similar face in Benjamin Russell along with new faces like Calera, Selma, and Stanhope Elmore. The Indians return explosive quarterback JD Martin and Ole Miss commit Patrick Lucas at defensive tackle.
Meanwhile, Opelika lost their head coach Caleb Ross to Prattville in short order after just one season. Erik Speakman takes over after being an assistant to Ross while also in the role of athletic director. Speakman doesn’t has a few names to work with starting with Samford commit Cade Blackmon at quarterback. Blackmon will have 2nd Team All-State offensive lineman James Dawson to work behind. Both teams are ranked in the preseason Top 10 with Wetumpka at #2 and Opelika at #6.
Muscle Shoals at Mae Jemison (Sept. 21)
The only game on this list not to involve two Top 10 teams features two North Alabama teams occupying regions 7 and 8. The Trojans have been one of the only consistent teams near the top when it comes to the northern-most regions in the higher classifications over the last decade. But playoff success has eluded Muscle Shoals since their move to 6A in 2014. The Trojans have bowed out in the second round three of four years with a quarterfinal finish in 2016. Still, with Austin now in 6A, it is the Trojans who are the gatekeepers to show who is great in North Alabama. Enter Mae Jemison.
Formerly known as J.O. Johnson, the Jaguars enter just their third season under the Jemison name, yet they have taken to new head coach Kelvis White quickly. The Jags are known to have had success on the gridiron, but they’ve not been in 6A since 1997 under the former school banner. A 10-win season last year showed this team may be ready to take some big strides. Their wins included Calera, Brooks, and Lee-Huntsville. Their one regular season loss was in overtime to then-7A Buckhorn. Jemison will get some tests early from Gardendale and Huntsville out of region and Lee-Huntsville in region, but the real moment to see if they’re truly ready will be when they welcome the Trojans to Louis Crews Stadium.
Pinson Valley at Oxford (Sept. 21)
Yet another Top 5 showdown with Pinson in region play as Oxford joins the Indians and Clay-Chalkville in Region 6. The Yellow Jackets took Region 7 by storm the last two years going unbeaten in the regular season. However, the playoffs were unkind as they lost in the first round of 2016 and fell in last year’s quarterfinals to Clay-Chalkville. Now, one of these teams is going to have to travel come November playoff time. This will be Oxford’s second game of the region schedule but also the biggest test to see if they truly are a state title contender. The return of the top recruit for 2019 in center Clay Webb and 1st Team All-State running back Tyetus Smith-Lindsey will help establish the ground game. The defense takes a hit with some key losses, but they return three-star LSU commit Kendall McCallum at linebacker to lead the way for a defense that averaged 7.6 points allowed last year.
Pinson is still the favorite in Class 6A as the preseason #1 but Oxford comes in at #4, so expectations are high for the Jackets to compete for a region and state crown. The good news is they welcome the Indians out in East Alabama at Lamar Field, where they haven’t lost a regular season game since October 2015. Pinson will also be coming off a tough game with rival Clay the previous week. Oxford travels to Clay-Chalkville October 19. Whether that rematch from last year’s playoffs will be for a region title or a battle for a home playoff date could depend on this game.
St. Paul’s at Spanish Fort (Sept. 28)
We’ve all been waiting for this one since reclassification was announced. St. Paul’s has become the top of Class 5A over the last four seasons, winning three state titles. Many would argue that wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the departure of teams like Saraland and especially Spanish Fort. The Toros were the toast of 5A prior to their exit upward in classification. In the four seasons before they exited 5A, they too won three state titles. Twice, they beat St. Paul’s in the playoffs. Now, they’re about to be back at it and the high school football landscape is better for it. Add to it the lawsuit St. Paul’s has brought regarding the new competitive balance rule that sent the Saints up to 6A and you have a recipe for an explosion.
The Toros bring one of the state’s top receivers for 2020 with LSU commit Kris Abrams-Draine while the Saints counter with Ole Miss running back commit A.J. Finley. St. Paul’s breaks in first-year signal caller Jay Greene while I’ve mentioned Burkhalter earlier. This one could come down to younger talent, of which St. Paul’s has plenty with Jordan Ingram, Daniel Foster-Allen, Brady Ward, and Reggie Bracy.
Homewood at Jackson-Olin (Oct. 26)
Region 5 has taken some lumps outside of Ramsay’s 2016 state title win. Last year, all four playoff teams were gone in the second round. In Ramsay’s state title season, the other playoff entrants lost in the first round. In the last four years, only one team aside from Ramsay made it past the second round. That was Minor in 2015. The teams in Region 5 this year don’t scream state title contenders. But if there are any two that are going to contend, it’s the two playing in West Birmingham at the end of the region schedule. There’s no reason Homewood vs. Jackson-Olin shouldn’t be for the region title on paper. The Mustangs have become a very different program under Tim Vakakes and Homewood might have found their stride last year with their first 10-win season since 2005.
Jackson-Olin brings back the best players on the field with senior Clemson linebacker commit Vonta Bentley and junior Auburn linebacker commit Quandarrius Robinson. The Mustangs also have three-star seniors Jammal Abrams (LB, Florida) and Treveon Pickens (OG, uncommitted) as well as 2nd Team All-State athlete AJ Toney. Homewood will need to replace the defensive production of CD Daniels in the secondary, and the rushing game took a hit as David Robertson transferred to Jackson-Olin. The Pats do return senior quarterback Larkin Williams. The defense for Homewood engulfed the Mustang offense last year to win. It could be a low scoring affair this time around.