With the non-conference season already completed in two Western North Carolina leagues and about to wrap up in two other conferences, let’s take a look at teams that figure to be the favorites and contenders for regular-season titles and top seeds in the playoffs.
The Western Mountain Athletic 3-A Conference
The discussion here begins about second place and beyond, because it appears that Reynolds is once again the class of its league.
The Rockets (4-1, 2-0) have dominated mountain football for several seasons, and the streaks (27 in a row against WNC schools, 20 straight against conference foes, surges that date back to 2014) seem to have no end in sight.
Perennial contenders Asheville High and Erwin have struggled early and are a combined 2-7, though the Cougars (2-3, 2-0) have bounced back impressively from a slow start with back-to-back league wins against Roberson and Erwin.
A preseason coaches poll had Roberson finishing second behind Reynolds, but the Rams (1-4, 1-1) have been unable to win close games.
Tuscola (3-1, 2-0) is currently tied with Reynolds and Asheville atop the standings and gets a shot at home against the Rockets in the next “Thursday Night Lights” battle Sept. 28, a 7 pm start on MY 40.
A key matchup for conference position comes Friday night when West Henderson (3-1, 1-0) hosts Roberson.
The rest of the league – Enka (1-4, 0-2), Erwin (0-4, 0-2), North Buncombe (0-5, 0-2) and North Henderson (0-1, 2-2) appear likely to struggle and may be limited to winning conference games only against each other.
Games to watch – Tuscola at Asheville (Oct. 6), Asheville at Reynolds (Oct. 13), Roberson at Tuscola (Oct. 27), Reynolds at Roberson (Nov. 3).
Mountain Six 2-A Conference
The top half of this league is loaded with quality teams, and a couple picked for second-division finishes could surprise.
With two weeks of non-conference games left before the hostilities begin Oct. 6, the Mountain Six is an impressive 18-9 collectively, and four of the six have been ranked in the WLOS WNC Top 10 Poll this season.
No. 1 Franklin (4-0) plays basic block and tackle football as well as anyone around and opened the season with strong wins at Asheville and against No. 4 Murphy. Hendersonville (4-1) hasn’t lost to a WNC school and features a big-play offense capable of busting a long touchdown at any time.
Pisgah (3-2) has survived a rugged early schedule and appears to be a contender.
No. 8 Brevard (4-1) is on a four-game roll and has real talent at the skill positions, while Smoky Mountain (2-2) has been up and down but is dangerous with a talented passing game.
Even East Henderson (1-4), which has struggled with defense and self-inflicted wounds, is a dangerous offensive team.
Preseason pick Franklin is the favorite, but no one should call it an upset if Hendersonville or Pisgah – or even Brevard – wins the league.
Games to watch – Franklin at Hendersonville (Oct. 6), Pisgah at Hendersonville (Oct. 20), Franklin at Pisgah (Oct. 27).
Western Highlands 2-A/1-A Conference
Top half of the league is unbeaten, Madison is intriguing in the middle and Avery County and Owen are likely to struggle against rugged competition.
Mitchell (5-0), No. 5 in the WLOS Poll, No. 2 Mountain Heritage (4-0) and No. 10 Polk County (4-0) beat their opponents last week by a combined 148-5.
The Mountaineers and Cougars appear destined for double-digit wins for a third straight season, thanks to great quarterback play from Ben Young of Mitchell and Heritage’s Trey Robinson.
They are on pace to finish 1-2 all-time in career yardage among WNC players.
The Wolverines are revitalized under coach Bruce Ollis, who returned to the program after directing the team from 2002-13.
In a league of really strong multi-talented quarterbacks, Madison (2-2) features Clark Gray, who has 1,303 total yards and produced 14 touchdowns in four games.
Avery (1-4) and Owen (0-4) don’t appear ready to challenge for a first-division finish.
Mitchell is 22-3 against WNC opponents since the start of the 2015 season, and two of those losses have been to Mountain Heritage (the other was to Murphy in the semifinal round of the state playoffs last season).
The Mountaineers and Cougars have shared the last two WHC regular-season titles and their Oct. 6 meeting in Burnsville will likely determine the 2017 champion.
Games to watch – Mitchell at Polk County (Oct. 19), Polk County at Mountain Heritage (Oct. 27).
Smoky Mountain 1-A Conference
Through the first five weeks of non-conference action, there seems to be a clear line between the haves and have nots.
Murphy (4-1), No. 4 in the WLOS Top 10 Poll, No. 9 Cherokee (4-0) and Robbinsville (3-1) all look solid.
Swain County, Andrews, Hayesville and Rosman are a combined 3-13 and don’t look to be contenders.
The top three have played a combined six games against out-of-state competition, and it’s a little tough to gauge their early success.
But Murphy has a quality win against Pisgah, Cherokee has knocked off Asheville School and Robbinsville has outscored its opponents 127-3 in its three wins.
The frontrunner for the league title is likely the winner of this week’s battle when Murphy hosts Robbinsville.
And you might want to make book on the state playoffs. Since 1972, 31 state 1-A and 2-A champions came out of the Smoky Mountain Conference.
Games to watch – Robbinsville at Cherokee (Oct. 20), Murphy at Cherokee (Nov. 3).
N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association
Christ School (3-0) and Asheville School (3-1) are both off to solid starts, and the Greenies are the favorites to repeat as champions.
Since coach Mark Moroz took over in 2011, Christ School – No. 6 in the WLOS Top 10 Poll - is 58-15 and has become a consistent winning program.
The Blues have shown some offensive promise this season, with 130 points in four games.
The Asheville School vs. Christ School annual rivalry game is Oct. 28. The Greenies has won five straight and six of the last seven in the series.