Two things happen every year that lets high school football fans know the season is just weeks away; fall practice begins and Murphy Fair releases his Tennessee High School Football magazine.
Now that both have happened it can only mean that 7-on-7 passing camps, controlled scrimmages, and putting on the pads for the first time are just around the corner. And it means we now have solid information to do a quick preview of District 8-AAA.
During its first two years of existence after the TSSAA reclassification in 2009, the district was a powerhouse in the Class 5A playoffs. The first year Columbia finished runner-up in the state, while Lawrence County advanced to the second round.
The 2010 postseason was even better with Columbia winning the BlueCross Bowl, Tullahoma advancing to the quarterfinals, and Lawrence County once again winning its first playoff game before falling in the second round. All six teams from the district qualified for the playoffs.
However last season was not so kind to the district as Columbia, Tullahoma and Shelbyville, the only three teams to qualify for the playoffs, all lost in the first round. The Lions fell to Lenoir City 34-30, the Wildcats were shut out by Centennial 24-0, and Shelbyville got hammered by Ooltewah 42-20.
The primary question heading into the 2012 season is can District 8-AAA return to its former position as one of the toughest 5A districts in the state, or will it once again be a postseason pretender unable to escape the first round. We will know the answer the first weekend in November.
For now though all we can do is speculate, and the coaches in the district have speculated that Columbia is once again the preseason favorite, as they were two years ago. Tullahoma was the preseason coaches pick last year, ultimately finishing second behind the Lions.
Columbia returns all-state quarterback Matthew Markham and all-district wide receiver Dre Hall, as well as 1,000 yard rusher Chris Martin. All three have started for three years and were key ingredients on the 2010 title team. The Lions are 18-2 since Markham became the starter in 2009.
Howard Stone takes over for departed coach Vance Belew and will have seven starters to replace on the defensive side. Expect there to be an adjustment period for Columbia with a new head coach on board, even though Stone was an assistant on Belew’s staff.
For the first time in its four-year existence, someone other than Tullahoma or Columbia is picked to finish second. The Shelbyville Golden Eagles were just one vote away from sharing the top spot with the Lions, and Shelbyville features the only preseason all-state selection in running back Marquis Morton, last year’s district MVP with almost 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
The Golden Eagles return three starters from the offensive line, including all-district selection Luke Dickson, and have a number of talented sophomores who will make in impact, especially Will Trice.
John Olive heads into his 20th season at the helm of the Tullahoma Wildcats with one of his least-experienced squads, and the district coaches recognize that yet still pick the Cats third. Replacing a three-year starter at quarterback is only the beginning of Olive’s challenge, as all but two starters on the defense must also be replaced.
Franklin County and Lincoln County, the district’s two Class 6A members, are picked to finish tied for fourth place, although both of them have the talent to challenge for an upper-half finish and a playoff berth.
Franklin County returns extraordinary running back Kelton Nunley, along with fellow backfield mates Layton Wells and Caleb Limbaugh. Nunley and Wells have combined for 4,000 yards rushing in two years, while Limbaugh has a season under his belt at QB. With three starters back on the offensive line, expect the Rebels to try and wear down their opponents with a punishing ground game.
Don Thomas begins his second season at Lincoln County with a number of challenges in front of him, not the least of which is the continued growth of the new Fayetteville City High School. Experience in the skill positions is lacking for the Falcons, although they return four linemen who tip the scales at 270 pounds or more.
Lawrence County is picked by district coaches to bring up the rear in the standings for the second consecutive season. Head coach Davis Marston enters his tenth season in Lawrenceburg with some quality size returning up front, while at the same time a lack of overall team speed is apparent.
If the coaches are correct in their prognostication, then the game-of-the-year should fall in week four on Sept. 14 when Shelbyville travels to Columbia. Both teams have an excellent chance to be undefeated when they meet.