High school football teams hit the gridiron for the first time on Monday, gearing up for the 2003 season.
In Southeast Missouri, the three divisions of the SEMO Conference appear to be up for grabs. Last week, I predicted Cape Central would successfully defend its SEMO North crown.
This week, we move on to the SEMO Central.
Up until last year, the division was owned by New Madrid County Central. The Eagles had won the conference five years in a row, but were unable to extend the streak in '02 as Dexter took top honors.
Look for the Eagles to return to the top of the pack this season.
They return virtually everything from last year's 2-8 team, most notably Division-I prospects Remond Willis and Edgar Givens.
Last year the Eagles lost four games by a touchdown or less. With so much talent and experience returning, they should turn those into wins this season.
A tough non-conference schedule should also prepare NMCC for both conference and district opponents. They have road games against Jonesboro, Ark., Cape Central and Illinois power Mater Dei.
If the Eagles can stay healthy, they should win both the conference and district and be right back in the playoffs. Their biggest conference challenge at this point appears to be Dexter. The Bearcats put together one of their best seasons ever last year, winning their first outright SEMO Central title since 1987.
But most impact players from that team were lost to graduation. No more Matt Burnett, Drew Wethington, Willie Dooley, Ryan Hyslop or Preston Clark.
Most of the line returns though, and Aaron Pixley will definitely find replacements competent enough to make the Bearcats decent.
Dexter will be tested in the first half of the season, hosting Sikeston and playing road games at Poplar Bluff, Cape Central and Gosnell, Ark.
If they can get through that stretch with a winning record, the rest of the Central Division has something to be concerned about.
Behind NMCC and Dexter, I think Kennett is the conference darkhorse. Longtime NMCC coach Ronnie Jones takes over for Roland Johnson down there and will make an immediate impact.
If his new players respond to his system quickly, Kennett could make a run at the conference title this year.
If not this year, the Indians will be a contender soon.
Caruthersville also had a coaching change this season, replacing Jackie Johnson with former Hayti coach David Gilmore.
Gilmore brought his offensive coordinator with him, hoping to open up Caruthersville's offense.
With several returners, including do-everything tailback Jimmy Jackson, Caruthersville might be the most improved team in the SEMO Central this season.
Charleston should also be in the mix...if they can find somebody to replace Orrice Stanback in the backfield. And that's a big if. Obviously finding a player of that caliber will be next to impossible, but the Bluejays will find somebody I'm sure.
Who was the last bad running back they had? Have they ever had a bad one?