Football practice started Friday, and with it comes anticipation and renewed hopes.
There is a belief at every school across the state that with enough hard work in the offseason this could be their big year.
Whose year is it in the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference? That will depend on a few questions that will need to be answered.
Q: Which team puts heartbreak in the rear-view mirror?
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It seems like there is always that one team that comes out of nowhere. By now, we should see this coming.
Teams that had close losses the year before but return a strong group of seniors are poised for a breakout.
That’s how Panther Creek went from 1-10 to 9-3 in 2013. The Catamounts were a field goal away from a true worst-to-first turnaround.
In 2012, that team was Lee County – then a member of the old Tri-9 – as it went from 4-6 to 9-4.
Panther Creek also went from 5-7 to 13-2 in 2010. Athens Drive jumped from 2-9 to 9-3 in 2006.
Green Hope (5-7), Athens Drive (4-7), Cary (4-7) and Apex (2-9) will try to be the next team to make the leap.
Q: Can Middle Creek be stopped?
Middle Creek (12-3) hasn’t lost in conference play since 2011. Including the playoffs, the Mustangs own 22 straight wins against conference opponents.
Since 2009, Middle Creek has a stellar 36-3 mark in league play.
The SWAC is traditionally more competitive than its fellow Triangle 4A conferences, where there are clear lines drawn between competitors and cellar-dwellers.
But if Middle Creek can win it this year, that would make four straight conference titles and at least a share of six in the last eight years. That would draw a new line – to win the SWAC, you’ve got to get through the Mustangs.
Fuquay-Varina (6-6) was the last team you could say that about. The Bengals won at least a share of six conference titles in a seven-year span (2005-2011).
Q: Which spread offense cuts down on interceptions more?
Here’s a scary thought: Green Hope and Middle Creek had great passing offenses last year despite throwing more than 36 interceptions.
You can bet that Middle Creek’s Brant Grisel (3,385 yards, 35 TDs, 17 interceptions) and Green Hope’s Luke Massei (2,860 yards, 29 TDs, 19 interceptions), both seniors, improved on their decision-making from a year ago.
Turnovers can decide close games, and both teams like to put the ball in the air. Middle Creek and Green Hope could be playing for the SWAC title Oct. 3. Whichever quarterback cuts down on his interceptions more may be a crucial part in determining who wins the SWAC.
Q: With changes in coordinators, who leads the way in rushing?
The league brings back three runners who broke the 1,000-yard mark, but some changes in offensive schemes may provide a new rushing champ.
Fuquay-Varina fullback Damarus Williams (1,574, 12 TDs) led the league, and Holly Springs’ Tray Staten (1,504, 21 TDs) was third. Cary’s Isaiah Gibbons (1,142, 8 TDs) was fifth.
But Cary’s double-wing attack is gone. Holly Springs (6-6) will run a pro-style offense, and former coach Will Orbin took his power-run offense to Apex as offensive coordinator.
Maybe none of these runners leads the league. Last year proved that those teams who use the spread to pass aren’t exempt from strong running games. Panther Creek and Athens Drive each graduated 1,300-yard rushers who combined for 44 touchdowns.
Q: What can we learn from nonconference play?
First, let’s hope it’s not a repeat of last year. The SWAC took its lumps against area teams, and that was a big reason why only Middle Creek and Panther Creek ended the year above the .500 mark.
The tough start didn’t stop Middle Creek, which was 2-2 in nonconference, from reaching the state semifinals.
Kudos to the area’s athletics directors: No one has piled up on cupcakes. If any SWAC team starts the year 4-0 – and to a lesser degree, 3-1 – that’s a team you’ll need to watch out for.