July 13, 2016 11:56:10 AM
Editor's Note: Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters will share five questions each Wednesday through Aug. 17, as we count down to the start of the prep football season.
As we look toward the end of July, it is time to think about back to school sales and the return of the prep football season.
Once again, the Mississippi High School Activities Association and Mississippi Association of Independent Schools feel the need to start the football season with jamboree games on the weekend of Aug. 12-13. Hopefully, we will soon skip the summer and start the season in late June.
That being said, players have been hitting the weight room hard and it is time for coaches to put their practice plans together for their two-a-day workouts.
Let's look ahead to the season and try to answer some of the area's most pressing questions for the 2016 campaign:
1. What can we expect from the local teams this season?
On paper, several teams have the potential to play on state championship weekend in December at Davis Wade Stadium.
In Class 6A, Starkville returns the bulk of its defense from a state championship team. Noxubee County has won three of the past four Class 4A titles, so it stands to reason certain holes will be plugged and the Tigers will be in the mix at the end.
In Class 5A, West Point will field its best team since 2010. Back in Class 6A, Columbus is poised to have its best season. West Lowndes advanced to the second round of the Class 1A playoffs, but it had to overcome some late injuries to do just that a year ago. The Panthers should be healthy and better.
New Hope will be better. Caledonia has the answers at the skill positions, and Aberdeen should make another run in Class 3A.
In the academy ranks, Starkville Academy will count on young players and Heritage Academy will break in a new head coach. Oak Hill Academy also will have to overcome some huge graduation losses, while Columbus Christian will be much better.
2. Which team do we look forward to watching the most?
That's a tough question. Several area teams should draw well and win their fair share of home games.
However, for the sake of this question, let's go with West Point.
In each of the past two seasons, West Point has waited patiently for its turn back on top, as Oxford has dominated Class 5A play in the north. Oxford has beaten the Green Wave in the regular season and postseason in each of the past two seasons.
Look for that change this season when West Point puts together a lineup with a legitimate shot to go undefeated. Starkville, Columbus, and Noxubee County highlight the non-region schedule, while Oxford is up first in region play. However, the Green Wave will be ready for the challenge.
Transfer Clayton Knight will give West Point another option at quarterback. We all know Marcus Murphy is in line to be the player of the year in the state in either of the next two seasons. Chris Calvert is an excellent running back. The losses on defense were big but manageable.
3. What is the best game in the opening week?
There are several good candidates, but we have to go where we go every year to answer this question: Noxubee County at Starkville.
Last season, Noxubee County beat Starkville 26-20 in double overtime in Macon. The Yellow Jackets then won their next 14 games on the way to the MHSAA Class 6A State championship.
Noxubee County hit a lull and suffered through a four-game losing streak before winning its final 10 to take the Class 4A crown. Coach Tyrone Shorter said Noxubee County relied on the victory against Starkville to keep the team confident through its tough times.
The year before, Starkville took a 51-19 victory at home. The Tigers also used that game for other lessons. Noxubee County practiced harder, found a new identity, and rolled to the first of consecutive Class 4A crowns.
The game might have a little less star power than it has had in each of the past two seasons. However, it doesn't make it any less attractive.
4. Who is the best bounce-back candidate for the area?
Let's go with New Hope.
Coach Kris Pickle's squad turned heads when his first New Hope squad posted a 10-3 record in 2014. That ledger even included a win against West Point.
With that success, the Trojans built the numbers in the football program. They also have broken in a new field house that includes expansive weight lifting facilities.
But last season proved a difficult bump in the road, as New Hope struggled to a 3-8 finish. However, the Trojans won two of their final three games. You can also see on film a competitive team that battled to the end almost every Friday night.
New Hope lost by two touchdowns or less four times and by one touchdown or less twice. This will be a transitional season with several key losses on offense and defense from a season ago.
However, the Trojans lost their confidence early and had a difficult time getting it back. This season, a fast start would be huge and would give the team hope in Class 5A.
5. Do you have a player we need to know more about?
Caledonia senior Zion Ford.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Ford barely missed a 1,000-yard rushing season last year when Caledonia finished 5-5. The Confederates like to throw the ball and could give senior quarterback Spencer Unruh more opportunities.
However, don't sleep on Ford, who continues to work hard and is especially good when getting extra yardage after contact.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for The Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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