ROCKINGHAM — The coaches and the media have placed the bull’s-eye squarely on the backs of the Scotland football team once again.
After winning three straight Southeastern Conference championships, no one thought the Scots wouldn’t be near the top of the pre-season rankings.
With last week’s news coming out of Laurinburg and the injury to Jaylend Ratliffe, the two-time SEC Offensive Player of the Year, Scotland may take a small step back, but how far back remains to be seen.
Coming out of Sunday’s annual coaches meeting at Bayonet at Puppy Creek, here are five big questions surrounding the contenders for the conference title and the pretenders.
What team or teams can pose a challenge to Scotland’s recent run atop the SEC?
Before Ratliffe’s injury, the chances for Richmond Senior, Pinecrest or any of the other conference schools was very small. Scotland has been that good and appeared poised to get Richard Bailey his first state championship.
Now Bailey is the first to admit the margin of error this year for his team isn’t as big without the services of Ratliffe. The Georgia Tech commit accounted for 52 touchdowns last season.
As good as Scotland was on offense, it was also pretty good on defense. Before the season, Bailey talked about how good the defense despite being relatively young across the board. Despite losing players like Trejon Monley expect Bailey to rely more on his defense this season.
Richmond or Pinecrest should be the biggest obstacle between Scotland and a fourth straight championship. Just as in years past, the title should be decided between the Raiders and the Scots in the regular season finale.
Is Pinecrest a flash in the pan or can it duplicate last season’s success?
Everyone last year wasn’t too surprised when Pinecrest rolled into its SEC opener sporting a 6-0 mark after playing a relatively weak non-conference schedule.
Those same people were forced to give coach Chris Metzger and his team credit when it finished second in the conference behind Scotland.
Some will point to the blowout loss to Scotland (75-28) and say how good could Pinecrest really have been. The opening minutes for the Patriots was a perfect storm of miscues and errors that helped the Scots take a very comfortable lead.
Putting all of that aside, Metzger has built a solid program during his time at Pinecrest. It may come up short in the race for the SEC title, Pinecrest will be back in the playoffs this season.
How will the new coaches at Hoke and Lumberton do this season?
There will be two “new” faces on the sideline at Hoke and Lumberton, but neither are strangers to the SEC.
Tom Paris takes over in Raeford from Milton Butts, while Mike Setzer heads the program in Lumberton. Paris was an assistant at Richmond and Scotland as well as the head coach at Southern Lee. Setzer served as an assistant at Lumberton.
Paris may be in the best position of the two to have a successful season, but there is no where else for Setzer and his team but up. Hoke was 2-9 overall and 1-4 in the SEC, Lumberton was 1-10 and also 1-4 in conference play.
Both programs may struggle in the beginning as players and coaches attempt to get to know each other. At the end of the year, if either can post four wins, Paris and Setzer should be proud of their accomplishment.
Will Purnell Swett bounce back?
Several years ago, Purnell Swett was a scary team on anyone’s schedule. Mark Heil’s bunch weren’t affraid to stand toe-to-toe against anyone in the state and happily traded punches.
It even took a Vlad Lee-led Hillside squad to the final possession in a playoff game a few years ago.
But recently the Rams have struggled as Heil said his teams have “lost their aggressiveness.”
Heil believes he has seen the spark back in his group this summer. If so, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see Purnell Swett still hanging around in the second half of games, but don’t expect a postseason appearance.
Can the SEC place more than three teams in the playoffs?
Last season only Scotland, Pinecrest and Richmond sported winning records of the six SEC schools. And those three were the only ones to represent the league in the playoffs.
For a conference that prides itself on being the best in the state, it was a bleak season.
It will be a long time before the SEC can repeat its success from 2011, when all six schools advanced to the postseason.
The conference should have a better result this year, placing four teams in the playoffs.
Reach sports editor Shawn Stinson at 910-817-2671 or on Twitter @scgolfer.