The Friday Night Live high school football season is about to kick off. We answer 10 questions to help you get ready.
1. Can Pickerington Central repeat as Division I state champion and does central Ohio have other title contenders?
The Tigers had the season they've been waiting for last fall, beating Mentor 56-28 to capture their first state championship after settling for state runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2011.
Despite losing several college-level players to graduation, Central should be considered a candidate to repeat. The Tigers return junior quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw, who scored six touchdowns in the state title game, and might have the state's best defensive line with senior DeWayne Carter, a Duke recruit, and senior Karter Johnson, a move-in from Gahanna who has committed to TCU.
Also in Division I, Olentangy Liberty, Pickerington North and Dublin Coffman have the talent capable of producing long playoff runs.
Other programs that could end up in the state-title discussion include Johnstown in Division V and Hartley in Division III.
The Johnnies featured underclassmen in numerous roles last season when they lost in the Region 19 final to eventual state champion Wheelersburg. They remain in the same playoff region while the Pirates have moved to Region 20.
Hartley moved up to Division III last season after winning back-to-back Division IV state titles and handled it well, falling to eventual state runner-up Dresden Tri-Valley in the Region 11 final. The Hawks must survive a tough early season slate but should end up in the mix again.
2. Who are the top players in central Ohio?
In addition to Carter and Johnson from Pickerington Central, two other defensive linemen who should draw the attention of college football fans are Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison and DeSales' Rodas Johnson.
Harrison has been offered by Ohio State and is considered one of the nation's top recruits while Johnson has nearly 30 Football Bowl Subdivision offers.
Three quarterbacks who join Crenshaw as returning standouts are Liberty's Mitchell Okuley, Pickerington North's Mike Lowery and Whitehall's Raymell Byrd. All three led their respective teams to the playoffs last year, although Lowery did so at Gahanna.
Eastmoor Academy's Savon Edwards, Gahanna's Justus Harris, Johnstown's Bryce Barasch and Licking Valley's Connor McLaughlin are among the area's top running backs.
For a more comprehensive list, check out our Players to Watch feature in the Friday Night Live Central Ohio High School Football Preview Guide.
3. Which programs will be the surprise teams this season?
Our staff put on its collective thinking cap and decided on Franklin Heights, Big Walnut, Dublin Scioto and Reynoldsburg.
Franklin Heights finished 5-5 last season and returns quarterback Cody Little, who completed 115 of 178 passes for 1,576 yards with 16 touchdowns and just one interception. He was third-team all-state in Division II and could be more prolific with a year of experience in second-year coach Cory Fenner's offense.
Big Walnut, like Franklin Heights, competes in the OCC-Capital Division, which includes a pair of Division II, Region 7 playoff teams from 2017 in New Albany and Canal Winchester. What some may not remember is that Big Walnut went 4-1 in the league to share the title with New Albany after youth and injuries hurt the Golden Eagles during a 0-5 start.
Scioto also carried momentum into the offseason by winning three of its final four to finish 5-5. Quarterback Kyron Rogers returns after throwing for 1,564 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Jordan Penn could have a big season running and catching the ball at slotback.
Reynoldsburg finished 7-3 last, but often is overshadowed in the tough OCC-Ohio. All of the Raiders' losses last season were to playoff teams -- New Albany and league games against Pickerington Central and Pickerington North. But with five Division I college recruits in Jay Amburgey (OL/DL), Jeremiah Burton (DL/OL), Dezman Cooper (DL/LB/RB), Camby Goff (WR/DB) and Mershawn Rice (WR/DB), the Raiders are seeking their first playoff appearance since 2015.
4. Which teams that missed the playoffs last season bounce back and reach the postseason?
Two possibilities, Hilliard Davidson and Upper Arlington, have storied histories and play in the OCC-Central.
Davidson, which finished 5-5 last year and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007, returns several key players.
Coach Brian White expects his defense to play a key role. That unit is led by senior linebackers Evan Annis and Ethan Royer, both of whom have received interest from Division I college programs.
UA, which visits Davidson on Oct. 5, is looking to bounce back from a 4-6 season and is seeking its first playoff berth since 2015. The Golden Bears missed the playoffs in 2016 despite finishing 8-2.
Westerville Central is coming off consecutive 4-6 seasons after qualifying for the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The Warhawks are under new leadership as longtime assistant coach Brent Morrison has replaced John Magistro, who now is an assistant at Olentangy.
After three consecutive playoff appearances, Worthington Kilbourne went 5-5 in 2016 and 3-7 last year but has changed its offensive approach to a power running attack after having a productive offseason in the weight room. Although the defense is younger, the Wolves are expecting a bounce-back season.
Perennial power DeSales is looking to return to the Division III playoffs after losing two of its final three games last season to finish 6-4 and fall short. The Stallions had made three consecutive postseason appearances.
5. What will be the best week of the regular season?
For the second consecutive year, Week 8 looks to be the best considering it features several games that are either rivalries or will be critical when it comes to league championships and playoff implications -- probably both.
Just like last year, the biggest games that week should include Hartley at DeSales, Davidson at Coffman, Olentangy at Liberty and Pickerington North at Pickerington Central. Also on the schedule are Big Walnut at New Albany and Hilliard Bradley at Dublin Jerome, not to mention an always fun rivalry as Westerville South visits Westerville North.
The Thursday night game that week, Franklin Heights at Canal Winchester, also could be crucial in terms of the OCC-Capital race and both teams' postseason aspirations.
Let's go with the Pickerington showdown as the early choice for Game of the Week. This has developed into one of the area's greatest rivalries and certainly one of the most heated. Central ended North's season last year in the Division I, Region 3 final on its way to the state championship. It was one of several tests for the Tigers in the already rugged OCC-Ohio, and North's loaded offense might make it one of the most entertaining area teams this season.
6. Olentangy Berlin joins the central Ohio football landscape. What should we expect from the Bears?
The Olentangy school district can have its own Mount Rushmore with a Brave, a Patriot, a Pioneer and now a Bear.
These Bears from Berlin are more like cubs -- no senior class and thrown into the wild of the OCC-Cardinal against the likes of the Hilliards (Bradley and Darby) and the Dublins (Jerome and Scioto).
Berlin will have some talent and did gain some confidence with big plays against Chillicothe in its final scrimmage Aug. 17. That might give it a boost heading into its opener Friday, Aug. 24, against visiting Briggs.
However, history isn't favoring a winning season. Of the seven new OCC schools since Central Crossing went 0-10 in 2002, only one -- Pickerington North at 6-4 in 2003 -- had a winning record. Orange was next at 3-7 in 2008.
Another stat has the seven schools going 3-4 in openers. Orange defeated Marion Elgin 21-20 and Bradley beat Columbus West 19-18. Also, Liberty defeated Licking Heights 14-0 but lost its final nine contests. North lost its opener to Walnut Ridge 26-7.
One factor that can't be overlooked is playing a league schedule. Jerome was the first to do that in its inaugural 2004 season. Since then, the fledgling schools have gone up against opponents with big rosters and big senior classes.
Since the Bears were added to the OCC-Cardinal, which includes seven other programs, the road might be difficult. Probably the best they can hope for is three wins, but hey, anything can happen.
7. There are 16 new coaches in the area this year. Who will see success and who has their work cut out for them?
No two scenarios involving new head coaches are exactly the same, and that again is true this season. A few longtime assistants, including New Albany's Matthew Kidwell and Westerville Central's Morrison, now are leading programs in which they have worked for several seasons and are intimately familiar with the systems in place. Others, such as St. Charles' Deke Hocker and Westerville North's Bryan Johnson, still are getting used to their surroundings.
Newark Catholic's Ryan Aiello is taking over for 16-year coach Bill Franks, who moved on to New Lexington. Beechcroft's Charles Gibson is the Cougars' third head coach in as many seasons.
Given that Kidwell has kept the entire coaching staff and plans to make minimal changes to a team that has been Division II, Region 7 runner-up each of the past two seasons, it might be a safe bet to say he will be the most successful of the first-year head coaches. But sometimes, success comes from intangibles and how much a new coach's system resonates with and rejuvenates players. Still, coaches such as Johnson, Linden-McKinley's Andrew Phillips and Westland's Rick Rios face the task of establishing long-term stability and installing positive, winning cultures.
8. Daniel Bangura is gone. Where does that leave Harvest Prep?
Daniel Bangura left his mark in the record book of not only Harvest Prep but the entire state.
The 2018 graduate is the state's all-time leader in rushing yards (9,650), touchdowns (133) and rushing touchdowns (124). He also was named state co-Player of the Year in Division VII last fall and is a preferred walk-on at Ohio State.
Harvest Prep coach Milan Smith said Bangura is an impressive chapter in the program's history, but the Warriors have turned the page.
"We know who we are," Smith said. "We love Daniel and Daniel is a special person and a special athlete, but our system wasn't designed around Daniel. We had 4,000 to 6,000 yards rushing every year before Daniel and we will do it after Daniel. We fully expect to continue that."
9. Which teams likely will be the best in the City League?
The City League-North Division ended up with tri-champions last season in Beechcroft, Mifflin and Northland, with Mifflin being the only one to make the playoffs.
Northland enters the season with the most experience among those three with the return of senior running back John Branham Jr., who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season; his brother, junior Kalil Branham, a Michigan commit who is moving from wide receiver to quarterback; and seniors Mark Lee and Jesse Prewitt III at both wide receiver and defensive back.
In the City-South, Independence, Marion-Franklin and Walnut Ridge each made the playoffs a year ago and Eastmoor went 6-4, and those four again figure to be the top contenders.
Walnut Ridge returns high-caliber athletes such as seniors Isaiah Murphy (QB) and Julius Wood (WR/DB) and junior Qian Magwood (WR/DB). Marion-Franklin features an experienced pool of talent that includes seniors Ke'Zion Brown (QB) and Deonte' Wade (WR/DB).
10. Bexley followed an undefeated regular season in 2016 with a winless 2017. Where do the Lions stand this season?
Bexley has only one way to go -- up.
As cliche as that sounds, it's also the truth. The Lions may have had their helmets handed to them last fall, but opponents were pushing around a lineup filled with not only inexperienced players but numerous sophomores and freshmen. They're now a year stronger and wiser.
Realistically, Bexley may be a year away from finishing with a winning record, but don't be surprised if the Lions have three or more wins this season. Don't look for them to finish winless for the second time in program history.