ROCKINGHAM — There was very little doubt where the coaches and the media were going to place the bull’s-eye for the upcoming football season.
Even though Lumberton received a first-place vote from one of the coaches, the truth is Scotland will remain the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference. Despite the lone coach holding out hope that Scotland will take a tumble, the odds are very slim to see the conference championship anywhere but Laurinburg this season.
If that is the case, then Scotland will be swimming in uncharted territory, winning five straight SEC titles.
What team or teams can pose a challenge to Scotland?
Right now the SEC is top-heavy with Pinecrest, Richmond and Scotland. Those three were the only schools from the conference to qualify for the state playoffs. Hoke, Lumberton and Purnell Swett all beat up on each other to finish in a three-way tie for fourth (or last) with a 1-4 conference record.
Once again this season, expect Pinecrest and Richmond to put up the biggest fight and try to snap Scotland’s 20-game conference winning streak.
After getting spanked by 47 points in 2013, Pinecrest managed to take last year’s contest come down to the wire, falling 29-22. Richmond trailed by eight points at halftime before Scotland pounded the ball in the second half and pulled away for a 34-13 victory.
Pinecrest might be in the best position to dethrone Scotland because of the way the schedule falls. Pinecrest opens with Lumberton before taking on Scotland. Pinecrest will then welcome Purnell Swett to Southern Pines before hosting Richmond. It will close out the conference slate against Hoke.
Richmond will take on Hoke, Purnell Swett and Lumberton in the first three SEC games before closing out with its two biggest games at Pinecrest and Scotland.
Will Scotland continue its winning streak?
Scotland coach Richard Bailey talked about the margin of error being smaller last year when his star quarterback Jaylend Ratliffe was sidelined for the season after his ATV accident.
Even though the Scots are healthy and return players like Zamir White and Jonathan Smith, the margin of error is smaller this season simply because the conference is better.
Pinecrest returns 10 of 11 starters on defense and seven on the offensive side of the ball. Richmond’s offense should be able to pile up points under the new pass-happy offense under Mike Castellano. Plus Richmond’s defense should be better, but that mantra has been repeated for years.
If Scotland does have its winning streak broken, it will have to be either Pinecrest or Richmond that does it.
Will Purnell Swett show improvement?
Under former coach Mark Heil, Purnell Swett was known for its physical nature and leaving it all out on the field every Friday night.
For this reason, Purnell Swett was a scary team to face for the other SEC teams. In recent years, the Rams lost that edge and it showed on the scoreboard, losing games 44-10, 51-0 and 44-6. Of their four wins last season, one was over a 4A team (Hoke), a 3A team (Anson) and two 2A teams (North Brunswick and Red Springs).
New coach Jon Sherman wants to return to the days when teams dreaded facing Purnell Swett for its physical play. Sherman knows victories this season may not be represented on the scoreboard but in the game films the following morning.
How many teams will reach the postseason?
For the last two seasons, the Southeastern Conference has sent three schools into the playoffs. This is after sending five teams in 2012 and all six the year before.
Pinecrest, Richmond and Scotland qualified last year and Lumberton was barely on the outside looking in with a 5-6 record.
The big three should once again be locks for the postseason. Hoke and Lumberton should also be in the hunt heading into the final week of the season. The nonconference schedule appears to favor Lumberton, but Hoke could pull an upset along the way.
Odds say four get in this time and with a little luck, the number might be five.
Who will be the SEC Offensive Player of the Year?
As good as Lumberton’s Josh Sheridan was last season, he wasn’t the best player in the conference on offense. There were three other good choices and one of them is back this year.
But that doesn’t mean he would be the obvious choice either.
Richmond’s Miles Grant, Pinecrest’s Christian Ledbetter and Scotland’s Quadrin Williams also put up eye-opening numbers. Grant and Williams also spent a lot of time in the second half on the bench because their teams had huge leads.
Ledbetter might have an edge this season, but you can’t count out Scotland’s super sophomore Zamir White and Richmond’s Quientel Goodwin.
Reach managing editor Shawn Stinson at 910-817-2671 and follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.