There are some things we already know about the upcoming football season.
Lee County is no longer in the conference with western Wake teams.
The season’s first games are Aug. 23.
And it might be tough to remember to say “Southwest Wake Athletic Conference” instead of “Tri-9 Conference,” even if it’s shortened to SWAC.
Here are five things we don’t know. The answers can only play out over the coming months.
Q: How will the new coaches at old programs fare?
Sometimes, new coaches don’t miss a beat. But many more find their first year at successful programs to be more difficult than many thought.
Former assistant coach – and athletics director before that – Kurt Glendenning steps in at Cary, where the Imps have a conference-best 11 consecutive trips to the postseason. Jeb Hall was promoted at Fuquay-Varina, where the Bengals are 72-19 over the last seven years.
Q: Which middle-of-the-road team from last year will step forward?
Holly Springs (4-6, 3-5) finished seventh in last year’s conference standings. The difference between the Golden Hawks and third-place Fuquay-Varina (7-5, 5-3) was two games, which feels more like two touchdowns after seven-point losses to both Cary and Lee County (9-4, 6-2).
Likewise, Cary (5-6, 4-4) lost two conference games by a field goal. Athens Drive (5-7, 4-4) lost four conference games by five points or less.
Green Hope (6-6, 4-4), lost two four-point games in the conference.
Although those close games were fun for fans, they only provided motivation for coaches and players to get more out of their year.
With that many teams so close to breaking through, this offseason could be the difference in a team enjoying an 8-3 season or another .500 year.
Q: Will the Creeks be able to navigate the nonconference?
Reigning conference champion Middle Creek (11-2, 8-0) plays four out-of-conference teams, and the top three went a combined 36-5 last year. They play rival Garner on the road to start the year off, then play the best team in Fayetteville last year – E.E. Smith – then visit a Smithfield-Selma team that won one game in 2012 but had to forfeit it before a bye week separates the Mustangs from hosting Wakefield.
Wakefield, like the Mustangs, has never missed the playoffs.
The top three nonconference teams Panther Creek (1-10, 1-7) will face went 24-10 last year, but Heritage is expected to improve on its 6-6 standing while Leesville Road and Wake Forest are consistently among the top Wake County teams, along with Garner. That leaves only Durham Jordan (2-9 last year) as a 2011 Catamounts nonconference opponent that didn’t make the 2012 postseason.
Both of the Creeks entered the summer with very different situations, but getting beat up in nonconference play isn’t fun whether you’re a defending champ or one of the last teams in the league.
Q: Can Panther Creek’s offense catch up?
Panther Creek’s defense last year allowed fewer points in league play than Holly Springs, Apex and Fuquay-Varina. It also allowed a steady 22.1 per game throughout the year. But it couldn’t overcome a stagnant offense that scored more than 20 points just twice (averaging 14.2).
With 10 returning starters on defense, the Catamounts could be tough to score on again, but it can’t take but so many 3-and-outs.
The Catamounts return six starters on offense. If they can gel in the second year of coach Sean Crocker’s spread offense that worked wonders at his prior stop at Middle Creek, then they’ll leap out of the SWAC cellar.
Q: Which playmaker from last year will have the best season?
Sometimes it seems like everyone from the conference who played well the prior year was a senior. But not this year.
Take your pick of any of the following to continue putting points on the board: Athens Drive senior running back Dominique Lynch (1,537 yards, 17 TDs), Middle Creek senior wide receiver Curtis Burston (813 yards, 10 TDs), Fuquay-Varina senior quarterback Tyler Williams (1,240 yards rushing, 7 TDs), Green Hope senior quarterback Chris Tutwiler (2,428 yards passing) or Holly Springs running backs Nehemiah Harris (808 yards, 11 TDs), a junior, and senior Kelvin Wilson (715 yards rushing, 6 TDs).
If Apex (2-8, 1-7) can get sophomore quarterback Ian Boyd (567 yards passing, 660 yards rushing) healthy after an offseason injury, he could make big waves too.
Q: Can a team that’s not Middle Creek or Fuquay-Varina win the title?
It’s still puzzling how two teams can win co-championships in football when there is a clear head-to-head tiebreaker, but ignore that for a second.
The last year neither Middle Creek nor Fuquay-Varina won the conference title in football or claimed a “co-championship” was 2004 when Green Hope claimed it outright.
This isn’t to say other teams haven’t made their move.
Cary was a co-champ in 2005 (despite losing to fellow co-champ Fuquay-Varina) while Panther Creek won the league in 2010 (Fuquay-Varina also claimed co-champ rights despite losing to PC).
In 2007, Fuquay and Middle Creek formed a three-way tie for first with Athens Drive. Now that’s a true co-championship.
There’s only one way to find out if the path to the SWAC title won’t have to go through the Mustangs or Bengals.
Let the games begin.
Blake: 919-460-2606; Twitter: @JMBpreps