Even without Cardinal Gibbons in the conference, the Big 8 has never been as balanced as it is for the 2015 football season.
Chapel Hill changed everything with last year’s upset of top-ranked Southern Durham in the state 3AA football playoffs. Not only did it show that Chapel Hill had its best team of modern times, it also proved to the rest of the league that, as promised so often by coaches, any team could beat any other team on a given night.
After all, during the regular season, Southern defeated Orange by 4 points; Orange defeated Northwood by a touchdown; Northwood defeated Chapel Hill 52-33; and Chapel Hill defeated Southern 39-28 in the 3AA’s third round.
“You’d have to call Chapel Hill the favorite this year,” Southern head coach Darius Robinson said. “But the league is going to be very competitive. Just about any team could win it.”
Sorting out the field
Favorite: Chapel Hill – Southern repeated as conference champ last year, but Chapel Hill beat Southern and was the last team standing in the state playoffs
“Challenger”: Southern Durham – That word has to be in “quotes.” Southern went 26-3 over the previous two years and still has players from the 2013 state champions.
Dark horse: Orange – The Panthers have graduated what might be their best class of athletes, ever, but they’ve got plenty of talent left.
Seven players to know
Jordon Brown, RB, Southern Durham: Verbally committed to North Carolina, Brown rushed for 919 yards and 16 touchdowns last year.
Drew Lemaster, LB, Orange: Lemaster might be the best of what might be Orange’s best-ever group of linebackers.
Bryse Wilson, LB, Orange: ... or is Wilson Orange’s best linebacker? Hard to tell. Wilson was peaking as player as last season ended and might be better than ever.
Dashawn Lewis, TE, J.F. Webb: A crucial link in the Warriors’ offense and a big target at 6-2, 250.
Peyton Pappas, QB, Cedar Ridge: The Red Wolves want to run a sophisticated offense based on reads at the line of scrimmage, and Pappas has the brains and skills to run it.
Michael Queen, LB, Northwood: A top player for a defense that has to carry Northwood through its learning period with a new offense.
Connor Stough, QB, Chapel Hill: Stough is the Big 8’s best passer – completing 247 of 437 passes (56.5 percent) for 3,177 yards and 25 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions.
Mark your calendars
Sept. 4, Hillside vs. Southern Durham: Played at N.C. Central’s O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium. Both teams still have memories of recent state championships. Both are favorites in their conferences. Both have big, loyal fan bases in Durham. The battle of the bands is as good as the football.
Sept 25, Orange at Southern: Orange has yet to beat Southern since the Spartans joined the Big 8. Each of their games have been fierce, physical contests decided in the final minutes.
Oct. 9, Southern Durham at Chapel Hill: The Tigers were the only team to beat the defending state champions last year, knocking them out of the playoffs.
One statement, one question
Southern (13-1, 7-0): Despite sending off 16 players into the college ranks, the reigning champs of the Big 8 still are loaded with talent. Can the offense be as productive without QB Kendall Hinton, now at Wake Forest University?
Orange (12-2, 6-1): The Panthers have more holes to fill than any other contender in the Big 8. Can Orange’s defense keep the team in games until the offense catches up?
Chapel Hill (11-4, 4-3): Coming off their best season ever in NCHSAA football, the Tigers return most of their starters and are plenty talented. How will success affect the team that’s no longer the hunter but the hunted?
Northwood (9-3, 5-2): Brian Harrington is Northwood’s first new head coach in 15 years, after the retirement of Bill Hall. How fast will the Chargers take to Harrington’s pistol offense?
Cedar Ridge (4-7, 2-5): Scott Loosemore has been installing a new offense at Cedar Ridge while first-year head coach Steve Johnson deals with health issues. How long before the Red Wolves master their offense?
Northern Vance (2-9, 1-6): No Big 8 team gave up more points (482, or 43.8 per game) last year than Northern Vance. Can first-year head coach Cory Lea, formerly Riverside’s offensive coordinator, improve upon his predecessor’s 3-30 record over a three-year span?
J.F. Webb (2-9, 0-7): The Warriors averaged less than a touchdown per game in conference games. Can they hold onto the ball long enough to score?