It's hard to believe we've reached the halfway point of the 2023 prep football season already.
Didn't it just kick off?
For the majority of Chattanooga-area programs in both Tennessee and Georgia, the regular season has reached its critical point with key region games coming up to decide playoff berths and seeding.
While there's still plenty of football to play — after all, the state titles won't all be decided until December — there is a lot to dissect already. With that in mind, the Times Free Press takes a closer look at what transpired through the first five weeks of the schedule, what it means and what to watch for moving forward.
Not only are Baylor and McCallie the best teams in both the area and their own division, there is very little doubt the Red Raiders and Blue Tornado are also the best teams in Tennessee — across all classifications.
Both programs have come a long way since struggling to compete in TSSAA Division II initially — neither had a winning league record through the first three seasons after the public-private split more than a quarter-century ago — to the point they are now considered the standard across the Volunteer State.
The Blue Tornado won three straight DII-AAA state titles from 2019 to 2021 and Baylor won last year's championship, with McCallie coming within a whisker of joining the Red Raiders in the BlueCross Bowl title game. This season, those two sit atop the DII-AAA East Region standings and have also been 1-2 each week in the state rankings.
The Blue Tornado (5-0) are currently ranked No. 24 in the country by ESPN — the only team in the state in the national rankings — and have beaten 19 of their past 22 region opponents.
Meanwhile, since blowing a double-digit lead in the second half of a season-opening loss to Georgia's Rabun Gap, the Red Raiders (4-1) have scored an average of 44 points per game and are riding a six-game region winning streak into Friday's matchup with Brentwood Academy. Dating to last season, Baylor has won nine of its last 10 league games, avenging the loss by beating Montgomery Bell Academy in the BlueCross Bowl.
The longtime Chattanooga rivals will get their first shot at deciding who's better this season when they face off at McCallie next Friday. That game could merely be a preview for a potential postseason rematch with much more than bragging rights and region standings at stake.
› Bradley Central (4-0): Not since rival Cleveland was in the midst of its three-year run of state titles in the mid-1990s has an area school been considered a legitimate threat to win a championship in one of Tennessee's large public-school classifications. But after defeating perennial power Maryville in the third game of the season, the Bears catapulted to the No. 1 spot in 6A and have been equally impressive on both sides of the ball while outscoring opponents by an average of 34-10.
There is no shortage of playmakers on offense, beginning with all-everything athlete Boo Carter, who has touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a punt return. The Bears also feature quarterback Kaleb Martin (accounting for an average of 250 yards and four touchdowns per game), running backs J'Alan Terry and Jackson Wilson and speedy receiver Jarrius Rogers (9.9 yards per catch).
› Boyd Buchanan (5-0): In only his second season since taking over, legendary coach Gary Rankin has already transformed the Buccaneers into a team that can compete with anyone in DII-AA. The defense has allowed just eight points all season with four shutouts, and the Bucs have outscored opponents by a total of 196-8.
› Marion County (5-0): Any lingering doubt that Class 2A's Warriors have the ingredients needed to return to the BlueCross Bowl for the first time since 2016 has been erased. After struggling to find their footing in narrow wins over Dade County (10-6 after a late Wolverines touchdown was erased by a penalty) and Fayetteville (21-14 after scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns), Marion finally hit its stride in taking apart state-ranked 3A foe Sequatchie County last week.
With the return of speedy Sam Pickett, who missed the better part of two games with a thigh bruise, the Warriors posted 45 first-half points and now face a second-half schedule with only one opponent (at Forrest on Oct. 6) that has a winning record. That means they could reach the playoffs with a 10-0 record for the first time since 1995, when they won their most recent state title.
› South Pittsburg (5-0): The Pirates have stood atop the 1A rankings since the second week of the season and have outscored their opponents — including two from a larger class — by an average of 51-5. Even with the TSSAA's 30-point mercy rule in effect, South Pittsburg has beaten the three 1A teams it has faced by a combined 197-0, scoring 163 of that total in the first half.
› Calhoun (4-1): Class AAAAA's Yellow Jackets have four wins over teams that made the GHSA state playoffs in 2022, and their only loss is to AAAAAA private school power Blessed Trinity in the season opener. Quarterback Trey Townsend has started to fulfill his potential and has found a weapon in tight end Emaree Winston, while running back Caden Williams is having another strong season.
› Dalton (4-0): The forward pass has taken hold in Dalton, where junior Ethan Long has twice eclipsed 300 yards while working with the area's deepest receiver corps. The ground game is still strong with Adriel Hernandez and a veteran line pushing forward for Class AAAAA's Catamounts.
› Trion (4-0): Could this be the best team in Trion history? Through their first four games, the Class A (Division I) Bulldogs have not done anything to dissuade the possibility. With an offense paced by quarterback Kade Smith, the versatile Toby Maddux, a physical line and a bevy of athletes, Trion has outscored its opponents 179-32. The defense, led by Lucas Stoker and Logan Stokes, is suffocating.
› Hixson (3-2): At a program that hasn't experienced a winning season since 2016, expectations were not high for a quick turnaround in Nick Rivers' first season as head coach at his alma mater.
But after opening the season with back-to-back losses to East Hamilton and Meigs County — currently ranked No. 4 in 3A — the Wildcats have won three straight games, including two in Region 3-4A. The most impressive of those came last week, when Hixson handed Loudon its first loss of the season, 31-27, thanks to a pair of kickoff return touchdowns of 90-plus yards and an interception returned 28 yards for another score.
Of their remaining five regular-season opponents, only Red Bank has a winning record, which means the Wildcats could be in line for their best win total since 2014, when they won nine games and reached the state quarterfinals.
› Baylor 34, Lipscomb Academy 31: There was more combined talent, in terms of star-rated college prospects, on the field for this one than any game in local history. As multiple college coaches watched, Lipscomb — which won the past two DII-AA state titles before opting to move up — and the Red Raiders combined for nearly 800 yards of offense.
After trading the lead three times in the first half, momentum continued to swing in the fourth quarter as both teams made big plays. After the Mustangs closed within seven early in the fourth, Baylor needed just three plays to respond as Whit Muschamp connected with Amari Jefferson on a 33-yard touchdown pass that essentially gave the Red Raiders enough cushion to withstand one more late Lipscomb surge.
› Bradley Central 21, Maryville 13: The Rebels had won 13 straight in the series and 146 of their last 147 region games, but none of the previous numbers mattered as the Bears averaged 9.7 yards per snap in piling up 475 yards and building a 21-3 lead. After Maryville cut the deficit to eight points and regained possession late, Kaleb Martin intercepted a pass to seal the monumental win.
› Northwest Whitfield 38, North Murray 35: GHSA Class AAAA's Bruins rallied from a 28-0 deficit to stun AA's Mountaineers on JJ Plaza's 36-yard field goal with two seconds remaining. Myles May, Caden Ramsey and the Northwest defense ignited the rally by forcing four turnovers.
› Dalton 21, Rockmart 14 (OT): The Catamounts' strong start was highlighted by the win over the Yellow Jackets, a state power who tied the game late to send it to overtime. Long found Bubba Tanner on the extra session's first play, and RJ Storey sealed it with an interception.
› Boo Carter (Bradley Central): It should have been nearly impossible to live up to his preseason hype, but somehow the versatile senior has done just that, averaging 26.9 yards on 16 receptions. Carter has produced a new highlight-reel play in all four games, with video of each going viral on social media. In the Bears' win over Maryville, he produced 169 total yards, including an electric 61-yard touchdown reception and the game-clinching 16-yard run on a third-down play in the fourth quarter. On both his 46-yard scoring sprint on the first play from scrimmage against Tyner and his 94-yard punt return for a score at Walker Valley, Carter flashed the speed and athleticism that has made him one of the most sought-after players in the state.
› Amari Jefferson (Baylor): Similar to Carter, the Red Raiders receiver had plenty of hype surrounding him after committing to Alabama in the preseason. He leads the area with 28 receptions, and when matched up against Lipscomb Academy cornerback Kaleb Beasley, who has committed to Tennessee, Jefferson won the battle by finishing with six catches for 83 yards and a pair of scores.
Baylor quarterback Whit Muschamp and tight end Max LeBlanc have been equally impressive. Muschamp, who has committed to Vanderbilt, has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards already with 17 touchdowns against just one interception. LeBlanc, committed to Ohio State, has averaged a whopping 20 yards per reception with seven scores.
› Carson Gentle (McCallie): Against arguably the toughest schedule any area team has faced to this point, Gentle has been unblockable. He has made 21.5 tackles, including three for loss for a defense that has allowed an average of 19 points per game. Last week, in a nationally televised game against Brentwood Academy, Gentle was singled out multiple times for the pressure he was able to put on Eagles quarterback George McIntyre, who is a five-star college prospect, while disrupting the entire offense.
› Emaree Winston (Calhoun): The 6-foot-2, 235-pound junior tight end will be one of the area's top recruits next year, and so far this season he has lived up to his ranking as a top-10 prospect at his position with 25 catches for 459 yards and eight touchdowns through five games. Winston recently narrowed a list of more than 35 college offers to his top six schools: Ohio State, Tennessee, Southern California, North Carolina, Cincinnati and Central Florida.
› Ja'Von McMahan (McCallie): Coming into the season, the Blue Tornado had an established passing game but needed a consistent ball carrier to give the offense the balance needed to compete atop the region. The 5-10, 190-pound senior has emerged as the area's rushing leader with 744 yards and 10 touchdowns.
› Ethan Meadows (Meigs County): In helping the Tigers to a surprising 4-0 start, the senior has contributed in about every way possible. He has thrown for 264 yards, rushed for 544, scored 13 total touchdowns, intercepted three passes and broken up two more while getting in on 12 tackles.
› Jamarion Farrior (South Pittsburg): The team returned an all-state quarterback and had two Football Bowl Subdivision prospects transfer in, but it has been the senior running back and linebacker who has put up the most consistent numbers. He has scored touchdowns on eight of his 13 carries, and he leads the area in solo tackles with 42. He also 6.5 stops for loss and a pair of sacks.
› Brody Leonard (Marion County): While Sam Pickett has been flashier (459 total offensive yards on 42 touches plus an 80-yard kickoff return for a score), Leonard has been steady on both sides of the ball to help his team to an unbeaten start. The senior ranks among the area's top 10 rushers with 438 yards and has picked off four passes on defense.
› Gavin Nuckolls, Northwest Whitfield: Replacing four-year starter Owen Brooker at quarterback was supposed to be difficult, but this sophomore has made it seamless with 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns.
› Ethan Long, Dalton: He played in a handful of games a year ago for the run-heavy Catamounts, but this season he has taken off with 993 passing yards and 15 touchdowns in four games. He threw for 322 yards and five scores in last week's win over Lassiter.
› Some of the area's biggest rivalries and top matchups to determine region titles will be played over the final five weeks of the regular season. That begins Friday with Boyd Buchanan hosting rival Chattanooga Christian, followed next week by Baylor at McCallie.
On Oct. 20, Cleveland hosts county rival Bradley Central and Boyd Buchanan hosts third-ranked Knoxville Webb, while the last week of the TSSAA regular season will feature 1A's sixth-ranked Whitwell at top-ranked South Pittsburg. Both teams are likely to be unbeaten headed into that cross-county showdown. On the final Friday night of the regular season, McCallie travels to face Lipscomb Academy.
› Sale Creek (3-2) is likely to set a program record for wins by the end of the season. The Panthers have never won more than five games, but the combined current record of four of their last five opponents is 5-13.
› Chattanooga Prep is likely to make the playoffs for the first time in program history. The Sentinels (2-3, 1-1 Region 3-1A), whose lone league loss was by four points to Sale Creek, need just one more region win to earn a postseason spot. If they can defeat currently winless Lookout Valley in the regular-season finale, that would earn the fourth playoff berth from the region.
› After a brutal first three weeks of the season — opening with road losses to state-ranked Red Bank and Bradley Central as well as McMinn County — Tyner has reeled off back-to-back Region 3-3A wins to not only ensure a playoff berth but is also very much in the race for the region title. The Rams (2-3, 2-0) will face region foes Sweetwater (2-3, 0-2), McMinn Central (4-1, 2-0) and Meigs County (4-0, 1-0) in the second half of the season.
› Signal Mountain experienced a similarly frustrating and injury-riddled first half of the season, but the Eagles could still challenge for a playoff berth in Region 3-4A. They should be able to regain confidence as their next three opponents — Lookout Valley, East Ridge and Silverdale Baptist — are currently a combined 0-15. Their final two games will be on the road, against region foes Loudon and Soddy-Daisy, with a win over either likely enough to clinch a playoff spot.
› Competition in one of Georgia's best regions, 7-AAAAA, begins next week with a pair of blockbusters as Cartersville visits Calhoun and Hiram is at Dalton. Dalton hosts Calhoun on Oct. 20 in a game sure to fill venerable Harmon Field. And barring something strange, the Region 7-A (Division I) title will be decided on the final Friday of the GHSA regular season, Nov. 3, when Trion hosts Darlington.