A year after the latest OCC realignment led many observers to call the Central Division the strongest within the conference, that moniker is expected to remain.

A year after the latest OCC realignment led many observers to call the Central Division the strongest within the conference, that moniker is expected to remain.

What hasn't stayed the same is the amount of conference games. The failure of the South-Western City Schools levy on Aug. 4 eliminated fall sports and, as a result, Central Crossing and Westland were wiped from the schedules.

What remains is a six-team division where five teams are coming off winning seasons, three of which made the playoffs.

"It's going to come down to the usual suspects," Upper Arlington coach Mike Golden said, referring to UA, Dublin Coffman, Hilliard Davidson and Worthington Kilbourne. "They're all good, solid programs."

At one point early last season, all four aforementioned teams and Hilliard Darby were in the top eight in the Division I, Region 3 standings. Upper Arlington finished first in the conference at 7-0 ahead of Davidson (6-1), Kilbourne (5-2), Coffman (4-3), Darby (3-4), Thomas (2-5), Central Crossing (1-6) and Westland (0-7).

Only Davidson, Kilbourne and UA advanced to the playoffs, however, while Coffman (7-3 overall) and Darby (6-4) failed to qualify.

"Eventually we all started beating up on each other and somebody had to lose," Kilbourne coach Vince Trombetti said. "I don't think you have the caliber of those five teams in any other division. I know Thomas Worthington is getting better. I feel so bad for the kids in Westland and Central Crossing, but the reality was they weren't a factor and they were still struggling. Now it's a six-team league and anybody's got a shot."

Upper Arlington's conference title was its first since 2005. But if the Golden Bears are to repeat, they must do so without a trio of running backs who combined for more than 3,100 yards rushing, led by co-OCC-Central Player of the Year Tommy Farwick.

UA does return four starters on offense and four on defense. Senior Kyle Cassady takes over at quarterback after missing last season with a broken arm.

Davidson was one game away from appearing in a state semifinal last season before losing to Pickerington Central 7-3.

The Wildcats, who pride themselves on their ground game, return senior quarterback Jake Trubiano and senior running back Spencer Delande. The duo combined for 1,496 yards on 332 carries.

"I think Dublin Coffman is going to better than they were last year," said Davidson coach Brian White, whose team plays at home against Coffman Oct. 16. "In my eyes, they're the team to beat. I'm sure they and Upper Arlington would say we're the team to beat. I think Dublin Coffman is the team to beat with Upper Arlington right behind them. Hopefully, we will be able to compete with those two."

Coffman finished 10th in the region last season. The Shamrocks return experience throughout, most notably junior quarterback Cole Stoudt, who threw for more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Yet Coffman's season ended in disappointment with three consecutive losses. The Shamrocks' schedule was back-loaded as Coffman did not play the conference's top three teams until the last three weeks. They lost to Davidson 14-10, Kilbourne 30-20 and Upper Arlington 7-6.

In a conference with so many strong teams, week in and week out there will be important games that factor into who finishes first. When those games appear on the schedule also is likely to factor into who ends up as the eventual champion, according to Trombetti.

Last season, Kilbourne's games against Upper Arlington, Davidson and Coffman were buffered by easy wins against Westland, Central Crossing and Thomas. Kilbourne is looking to make it back-to-back playoff appearances for only the second time, but the Wolves return only six starters.

The winner of this year's challenging late-season schedule goes to Darby. The Panthers close at Upper Arlington, at Coffman, home against Thomas, at Pickerington Central and finally at home against Davidson.

"To win our conference, you're going to need to maintain your focus and intensity every week because every one of these teams are tough," Darby coach John Santagata said.

"Because of the difficulty of our conference, the team that wins it and the team that gets second both will have a great chance to go very far in the playoffs."

Inside the division