Each year, the start of football season coincides with the beginning of a new school year. Which is appropriate because it is around this time every fall that I have flashbacks to being a high school student, having a big history test the next day, and realizing at around midnight the that I didn't know the difference between Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher. (In fact, I still don't…didn't one of them create "The Muppets"?)
I know that I'll get little sympathy for the traumatic stress that I suffer over ranking the 12 Howard County football teams, but the truth is that it can be difficult, and I do want to get it right.
I could probably spend a little more time scouting, crunching numbers and running algorithms, but isn't that what all of those ESPN guys do every March? And where does that get them?
A wise man would wait a few weeks for some things to sort themselves out, and maybe then have a go at ranking the teams, but I've never been accused of being wise, and anyway, I think it's kind of fun to hazard a few educated guesses and then see how they turned out at the end of the season. And if you're not having fun, well then what the heck are you doing anyway?
Is that enough of an intro? OK, here we go...
(Last year's final ranking in parentheses)
1. (2.) River Hill (Last year: 8-2 league, 12-2 overall, 3A state champion, 453 points scored-113 points allowed)
When in doubt, pick River Hill. It's not the most daring move, but the Hawks have won three state titles in the last five years, including their latest last December. They did stumble out of the blocks last year, losing two of their first four games, but they seemed to sort things out. RB/DB Evan Griffin and RB/LB Stephan Osong, along with a solid supporting cast, inspire confidence.
This week: home against Long Reach (all games Friday at 7 p.m.).
2. (3.) Glenelg (8-2, 9-3, 2A South regional finalist, 288-209)
There's just so much to like on Burntwoods Road, with almost all of the skill positions on offense coming back from a team that was 8-2 last year during the regular season with both losses coming in overtime.
This week: home against Hammond.
3. (1.) Atholton (9-1, 10-2, 3A East regional finalist, 438-76)
I never seem to give Atholton its due in the first edition of these rankings. Ever since 2009, when they surprised almost everyone by going 9-1, I've tempered expectations, and every year they exceed them, winning 28 games over the past three seasons. After arguably their best season in school history last year, I think this is a good spot considering that they return only two starters on each side of the ball. And isn't it better to be ranked lower than where you finish, as opposed to the alternative?
This week: home against Wilde Lake.
4. (4.) Howard (7-3, 7-4, 3A East regional semifinalist, 253-213)
With Michael Anderson, the league's top returning rusher, and Brady Curley taking handoffs, the Lions might have the best running back tandem in the league. And Howard always seems to produce solid lines, with Jack Friedman serving as the cement this year. It's hard to find an area of weakness on this team.
This week: home against Glenelg.
5. (6.) Hammond (6-4, 250-170)
After a disappointing 6-4 finish last year, Hammond is out to prove that 2011 was a fluke. After all, the Golden Bears won ten games in 2010. In Dionte Jones, Hammond has one of the most dynamic runners in the league, and even though Player of the Year Devon Paye has graduated, there are still plenty of great players around to make 2011 a distant memory.
This week: home against Marriotts Ridge.
6. (8.) Wilde Lake (4-6, 202-178)
Wilde Lake went from a state championship in 2010 to a losing record in 2011. While it's unlikely that they'll make as drastic of a jump forward in 2012, a return to contention seems like a very real possibility with the addition of D1 two-way lineman Moise Larose and the return of all-county linebacker Eric Handy.
This week: at Atholton.
7. (5.) Long Reach (7-3, 329-218)
Long Reach has never had a losing season. Never. And the Lightning take great pride in protecting that legacy. Strong lines, talented running backs and a deep linebacking corps make me a little unsure of ranking them this low…
This week: at River Hill.
8. (7.) Reservoir (6-4, 249-124)
The Gators will have a new look this year after E.J. Montgomery passed for 3,000 yards over the past two seasons, but with athletic RB Robert Armstrong back to lead the offense and a JV program that pumps out all-county players every year, Reservoir will be a team to keep an eye on.
This week: at Mt. Hebron.
9. (9.) Mt. Hebron (3-7, 91-289)
A new coach (Philip Zacharias), the return of an injured all-county caliber quarterback (Malik Gilmore) and two of the best athletes in the league (RB Jackson Porter, DB Zach Nicholas) make the Vikings an easy choice for the top dark horse candidate of 2012.
This week: home against Reservoir.
10. (NR) Marriotts Ridge (0-10, 86-377)
The Mustangs get the nod over Centennial and Oakland Mills because of their six returning starters on each side of the ball, and a strong senior class, led by RB Marcus Smith, WR David Campbell, LB Lyle Fugate and DE Ryan Austin. Also, junior Byran Barney is the league's top returning receiver.
This week: at Hammond.
On the bubble: Centennial (1-9, 68-332), Oakland Mills (1-9, 83-398).