One of the toughest high school football conferences for experts to handicap is the All-American Conference.
All four tiers of the AAC are made up of the best ball clubs this area has to offer.
While the Blue Tier consists of schools mostly from Trumbull County (only Campbell Memorial rests in Mahoning County), the rest of the AAC is divided by schools from both counties and Ashtabula. Defending champion Brookfield should be the best in the Blue again, but runner-up LaBrae should pose a big challenge for that crown.
Poland is one of two teams (Niles is the other) that compete in both the Red and White tiers.
The Bulldogs blasted the competition in 2015, winning their first nine regular-season games. In week 10, however, Poland was upset at home by archrival Canfield. That win gave the Cardinals the Red title, but Poland's perfect mark against White Tier schools allowed the Bulldogs to take home that championship.
Rookie head coach Ryan Williams takes over for longtime coach Mark Brungard at Poland and he has to combat the loss of a lot of stars who graduated in June.
Sophomore quarterback Cole Kosco was steady when he saw time as a freshman and is expected to do more this year. Poland may not have the type of explosive offense used under Brungard, so look for the Bulldogs to call on their defense a lot more to save some games.
Hubbard and Lakeview are two teams that may pose a problem for Poland this fall, but there is a strong feeling amongst the conference coaches that Williams' Bulldogs should pick up where Brungard's boys left off in the White Tier.
The same might not be said about the Red Tier as far as the Bulldogs are concerned. Canfield returns senior quarterback Jake Cummings, who was steady throwing the ball a season ago, but an absolute force when running with it. The Cardinals also have an outstanding defensive line and defensive backfield, which should create a major problem for any opposing passer.
The Canfield team also possesses a pair of secret weapons, kickers Ryan Teminsky and Ian Kristan, who can control a game with their strong legs.
Howland is about the only other team in the Red Tier that has the talent to take out Canfield or Poland. The Tigers were 6-4 last season and return 18 letter winners. Many of those returnees are at the skill positions as well.
Amazingly, no Boardman football team has ever advanced to the state playoffs two seasons in a row, but that is going to be the task for the 2016 Spartans. Boardman beat Fitch, 10-3, in last regular-season's penultimate week, clinching the Gold Tier.
The crosstown adversaries will battle in week nine again, but before that time, the Spartans will attempt to show off some of the skills they have returning on offense. Senior quarterback J.R. Ryan threw for more than 654 yards last year; running back Kody Adu-Poku demonstrated sick speed en route to a 500-plus rushing season; and giant receiver Travis Koontz displayed the size and skill necessary to get him tons of Division I college offers (he has been recruited to Bowling Green).
As it turned out, the loss to Boardman last year did not damage the Falcons' playoff chances. Fitch finished 7-3 overall a year ago, using a team that was very short on experience. Those same kids now have gotten a year of varsity competition under their belts, meaning Fitch has 19 letter winners returning.
The Falcons have a pair of running backs / linebackers who should help lead the way in Lawrence Harrington and Zach Krohn. Junior Nate Fowler threw for nearly 600 yards as a sophomore first-time starter. He has elusive receiver J.C. Mikovich as one of his main weapons.
Breathing down both Boardman and Fitch's necks will be Warren G. Harding, which, like Fitch, was 7-3 overall last year. The Raiders are always a force to be reckoned with and have amazing dual-threat quarterback Lynn Bowden coming back.
Bowden had 640 yards passing in 2015 and 1,827 yards rushing. He combined for 28 touchdowns. Bowden is possibly the best athlete in the entire AAC, so that should strike fear in the Spartans and Falcons.
Fitch may be extra fearful because Bowden tore up the Falcons' defense last September in a 38-0 Raider whitewash.
Those two teams will get reacquainted in week four in Austintown. Three weeks later, the Raiders will battle the Spartans in Boardman.