The trendy thing to say about the City League-South Division is that the Marion-Franklin High School football team will once again be the team to beat.

The trendy thing to say about the City League-South Division is that the Marion-Franklin High School football team will once again be the team to beat.

With six consecutive championships and five playoff appearances in a row, the Red Devils always seem to reload.

But after three seasons of undefeated runs against league opponents, Marion-Franklin had to share the title with Eastmoor Academy a year ago following a 51-17 thumping it absorbed at the hands of Independence.

The 76ers return plenty of offensive power, including senior all-state running back Devin Clodfelter, who rushed for 2,244 yards and 16 touchdowns, and junior quarterback Eric Pugh, an all-district selection who threw for 1,069 yards.

Some believe Independence could be the team to end the Red Devils' streak. The two meet at Marion-Franklin on Sept. 18.

Last season Marion-Franklin and Eastmoor finished at 6-1 ahead of Independence (5-2), Walnut Ridge (4-3), Briggs (4-3), Africentric (2-5), West (1-6) and South (0-7).

The division's three top teams reached the playoffs, with Eastmoor advancing to the Division III state championship game where it fell to Aurora 21-10.

"The way we see it, the championship goes through Marion-Franklin and Independence," Eastmoor senior running back Carl Washington said. "We feel like we've got to beat those two teams and we still feel like we're one of the teams to beat."

Washington is one of just five returning starters for the Warriors, who must replace many from an offense that gained more than 5,500 yards.

Walnut Ridge has lost two-time, all-state rusher Brandon Rice, who had back-to-back seasons of more than 2,000 yards. But the Scots have 14 returnees, which has them wondering if this is the year they get a piece of the championship.

"Ever since I've been here we've lost to Marion-Franklin and Eastmoor and we just can't seem to get over the hump," Walnut Ridge senior lineman Durrell Douglas said. "This year hopefully we can do that."

Marion-Franklin coach Brian Haffele's roster is loaded with size and speed.

The offensive line features four returning starters in seniors Aaron Shelton (6-foot-5, 320 pounds), Nate Strickland (6-3, 300), Nick Strickland (6-3, 300) and Matt Williams (6-1, 310).

Senior quarterback Verlon Reed helped guide the Red Devils to a Division II regional semifinal against DeSales, where the Stallions won 31-23. He threw for more than 1,200 yards and rushed for more than 800.

"From top to bottom, I think our league this year might be as balanced as it's ever been," Haffele said.

"With the South-Western school levy, Briggs and West are going to pick up some kids from that situation, which will only make them better."

The levy failure on Aug. 4 ended sports at Grove City, Westland, Franklin Heights and Central Crossing.

In the preseason West coach Mike Flusche welcomed transfers, including Franklin Heights starting running back Jonathan Parks and Westland starter Reggie Mclain, who should make senior quarterback Eric Stewart more effective.

Stewart threw for more than 2,500 yards.

Briggs, under first-year coach Derek Katris, also has benefited from South-Western's pain.

It gained as many as 10 transfers. The Bruins haven't had a winning season since 2005.

"The thing we need here is discipline and toughness," Katris said. "Teams like Marion-Franklin know how to harness their athletes and that's where we need to get."

South enters the season with a new coach in Felix Catheline, who has seen the program's numbers grow from 23 to 35.

Africentric once again has the athletes to compete against the best in the South Division, but its depth also makes that a challenge.

"Africentric always does great in those non-conference games, but then they come and play us," Independence coach Alan Jones said.

"I'm not saying that we're much better than them. When they get their numbers up, they'll be competing. We had five teams make it to the playoffs from the City League last year and that says a lot."