The Friday Night Live football season is about to kick off. We answer 10 questions to help you get ready.

1. Which teams from central Ohio will be state title contenders?

Pickerington Central won the Division I state title in 2017, but the only Central District team to reach a state final last season was Division V runner-up Johnstown.

The Johnnies have an established program but endured major losses to graduation, while the Tigers should be in the state-title discussion again this fall.

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Central, which was a state semifinalist last season and in 2016, returns third-year starting quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw, an Ohio State commit in senior Ty Hamilton (LB/DL) and one of the area’s top recruited juniors in Lorenzo Styles (DB/WR/RB).

Also in Division I, Dublin Coffman again looks strong after reaching a regional final last year and figures to be among a group of teams along with Pickerington North and all three Hilliard programs – Bradley, Darby and Davidson – that could emerge as contenders.

Hartley was the Division III, Region 11 runner-up last season and returns a slew of talented players as it pursues its fourth state title under coach Brad Burchfield.

In Division V, West Jefferson returns one of the area’s top running backs in Gabe Jones, a veteran offensive line and several defensive players after going 8-3 and reaching the playoffs last season.

2. Who are the top players in central Ohio?

In addition to Crenshaw, Hamilton and Styles, the Pickerington school district has the nation’s No. 1-rated recruit in the 2021 class, according to 247Sports.com, in North junior and Ohio State commit Jack Sawyer (DL/TE/WR).

Among skill-position players, Crenshaw is the quarterback with the shiniest résumé.

Jones is one of a number of talented running backs in central Ohio along with Hartley senior Jalan January, Ready senior Jack Foley and Darby junior Connor Jones.

Coffman senior Mike Drennen, who is considered a four-star recruit, should shine at a combination of running back and wide receiver.

Other standouts at wide receiver include Grandview senior and Iowa recruit Luke Lachey and Pickerington North senior Chris Scott.

The top returnees in the City League might be Northland senior and Kentucky recruit Kalil Branham (WR) and Walnut Ridge senior Qian Magwood (WR/DB).

Other senior college recruits include Bradley’s Chris Mayfield (Michigan State), DeSales’ Cole Potts (James Madison), Groveport’s Terah Edwards (Northwestern) and Olentangy Liberty’s Ben Wrather (Northwestern).

3. Why does football start so late this year? Last year, the first games were on Aug. 23.

For starters, blame Thanksgiving, which this year falls on Nov. 28, the latest date possible.

Federal law has designated Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November since 1941. That means Thanksgiving cannot be any earlier than Nov. 22 – the date on which it was observed last year – or later than Nov. 28.

A while back, this wouldn’t have mattered. State championship weekend occasionally began on Black Friday, most recently in 2008, but the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s board of directors voted the next year to have the football finals always take place the weekend after the Ohio State-Michigan game.

“When the OSU-Michigan game was moved to Thanksgiving weekend (in 2010), that effectively moved our season a bit,” OHSAA director of communications Tim Stried said.

The addition of a seventh division in 2013 assured that one state final would have to be played Thursday night. While practicing on Thanksgiving always is a goal, actually playing that day is something players and coaches probably are willing to sacrifice.

The beginning of football season slowly will rotate earlier until 2023, when Thanksgiving is on Nov. 23. It then falls back to Nov. 28 in 2024.

4. How will the OHSAA’s latest regional alignments affect central Ohio?

The OHSAA has realigned its playoff regions significantly, particularly in Division I where there are programs mostly from northeast, southwest and central Ohio with a few from northwest Ohio.

All but six of the Central District’s big-school programs will now compete in Region 3, with five schools now in Region 2 and Newark, the school furthest east in the district, competing in Region 1.

Liberty had won three consecutive Region 2 titles but has been moved to Region 3 along with 2018 playoff qualifiers Gahanna, Olentangy Orange and Westerville Central. Region 3 is now comprised solely of Central District programs after featuring some teams from the Dayton and Springfield areas last season.

While 10 teams from the Central District made the Division I playoffs last season in Regions 1 and 2, there will be eight guaranteed spots for area programs in Region 3 while perennial playoff contenders such as Coffman and Bradley are among the Region 2 programs.

Another big change was in Division II, which features area teams in Regions 7 and 8. The only teams from the district to make the playoffs among 14 that competed in Region 7 last year were Whitehall and Walnut Ridge, and both have moved to Region 8 along with teams from the Dayton and Cincinnati areas.

Twelve area programs remain in Region 7, which now also includes a group of schools from northwest Ohio rather than from the northeast portion of the state.

5. Of the area teams that missed the postseason last year, which are a good bet to make the playoffs?

Three teams quickly come to mind: Canal Winchester, Columbus Academy and Pickerington North.

Canal Winchester might have as good of a case as any team in the state to question the current playoff format. The Indians finished ninth in Division II, Region 7 last season, one spot from the playoffs, despite a 9-1 record.

Seniors Jack Beeler (1,433 yards passing, 4 TDs, 4 INTs) and Tyler Toledo (70 carries, 507 yards, 7 TDs) and sophomore Stephan Byrd (217 carries, 1,258 yards, 10 TDs) are among several returnees expected to pace the offense.

Academy went 6-4 and finished ninth in Division V, Region 19. Its losses came against Division II playoff-qualifier Whitehall, Division V Ready and two Division IV playoff teams in London and Cincinnati Wyoming, which won the state title and went 15-0.

The Vikings’ attack will be led by junior Brady Hess (1,819 yards passing, 21 TDs, 4 INTs) and senior Carter Warstler (67 carries, 466 yards, 7 TDs).

North was on the outside looking in after finishing 10th in Division I, Region 3. The Panthers finished 6-4, but they play in the OCC-Ohio Division, from which Pickerington Central, Gahanna and Reynoldsburg made the playoffs.

According to coach Nate Hillerich, North will find out shortly before its opener whether junior quarterback Gio Thomas will be eligible for the entire season or for only the first five games because of the OHSAA transfer rule. At Washington Court House last season, he passed for 1,887 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions and rushed for 561 yards and nine scores.

North is led by Scott, who had 52 catches for 793 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall and plays in the secondary, and Sawyer, who had six sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

6. Which week has the best slate of games?

As it has the past two years, Week 8 stands out yet again, mostly because there are several rivalry games that also should be key when it comes to league championship and playoff implications.

The biggest games should include Coffman at Davidson, Hartley at Watterson, Liberty at Olentangy, Pickerington Central at Pickerington North and Walnut Ridge at Marion-Franklin.

As far as an early choice for the game of the week, it might be easy to say the battle of Pickerington, which has become one of the area’s most heated rivalries and features a plethora of top-tier recruits. Liberty-Olentangy always goes a long way toward determining the OCC-Buckeye championship, and emotions run high on both sides.

One couldn’t go wrong with Coffman-Davidson, either, which usually helps sort out the OCC-Central race.

Week 8 does have a slightly different look this year, and not only because Ohio State is playing Northwestern at 8:30 p.m. that Friday, Oct. 18.

Two OCC-Buckeye games will be on Thursday, Oct. 17, as Westerville Central visits Orange and Westerville North travels a few miles to Westerville South.

DeSales at Hartley, which has been in Week 8 each of the past two years, will kick off Week 10 as a Thursday night game on Halloween.

7. What should we expect from the newly aligned MSL-Ohio?

With London leaving the MSL-Ohio, the league has added Buckeye Valley, formerly from the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference, and Harvest Prep, which moved from the MSL-Cardinal.

The MSL-Ohio is one of the most diverse leagues in the area in regards to enrollment considering that Harvest Prep is in Division VII and defending champion Whitehall is in Division II.

Harvest Prep has won 32 consecutive league games and figures to be capable of hanging with the larger programs.

Buckeye Valley’s ability to compete in this league, though, is a question mark. The Barons are a Division III, Region 11 program that went 5-5 last season while facing a schedule that included six opponents in either Division IV or V. They went 1-3 against Division I or II programs.

Grandview was a Division VI playoff team last season and Columbus Academy went 6-4 and just missed the Division V, Region 19 postseason, and both teams figure to be strong again.

8. Can Olentangy Berlin rebound after going 1-9 in its inaugural season?

Of course, Berlin can expect to do better than its one-win performance last season. In fact, if history is any indication, the Bears will do a lot better than that.

Both of the previous “new” schools in the Olentangy district – Liberty and Orange – thrived in their second season.

Liberty defeated Licking Heights 14-0 in its inaugural contest in 2003, but lost its final nine games. Berlin suffered the same fate, defeating Briggs 53-22 in its opener only to drop the next nine.

The Patriots went 8-3 the next season, reaching the Division II, Region 6 playoffs but losing to Maumee 24-14 in the first round.

Orange went 3-7 in 2008 but qualified for the Division II, Region 7 playoffs in its second season. The Pioneers finished 9-3, winning their first playoff game 28-21 over Dresden Tri-Valley but then losing to Marion-Franklin 36-25.

For Berlin, however, making the playoffs will be a tall order, as they play in an OCC-Cardinal that features 2018 playoff qualifiers Bradley and Darby and three other teams that contended for the postseason last year in Delaware, Dublin Jerome and Dublin Scioto.

9. Which area programs will be the surprise teams this season?

While perennial powers such as Pickerington Central, Coffman and Hartley are expected to remain among the area’s elite, several other programs hope to join them.

Liberty has won the OCC-Buckeye championship each of the past three seasons, but Westerville Central could contend for the title this year.

Central coach Brent Morrison believes this might be the Warhawks’ deepest team during his 15 years with the program.

The Warhawks should be led by 6-foot-6 junior quarterback Judah Holtzclaw and senior running back and defensive back Rickey Hyatt Jr.

Berlin went 1-9 in its inaugural season last year playing without any seniors, but Jerome coach Bob Gecewich believes the Bears have the potential to contend for the OCC-Cardinal title this year.

Berlin should be led offensively by senior running back Johnny Spinner and junior quarterback Jacob Moeller.

Whitehall is the defending champion in the MSL-Ohio, but coach Rod Lightfoot believes Columbus Academy might be the team to beat in the league.

10. Where is the best high school football coverage?

On the Friday Night Live page at ThisWeekSPORTS.com/FNL, of course. There is something new on the site each day of the week. Monday: Our weekly Super 7 poll ranking the top teams regardless of division as well as Dave Purpura’s “5 things we expect Friday night;” Tuesday: Game previews, Player of the Week and our Facebook Live with a coach from one of the top games of the week; Wednesday: 5 Must-See Games highlighting the top games of the week; Thursday: The staff and a few guests predict the top games of the week; Friday: Coverage of the area’s top games with stories and photos; Saturday: Jarrod Ulrey’s “5 things we learned Friday night;” Sunday: Did we say “photos?” We will have a slideshow of the week’s best from the ThisWeek photographers.

Whew, and we’re going to do this every week of the season. Hang on. Football is here, and it promises to be a fun ride!

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