Back by popular demand is Brad Crawford's Robeson County Power Rankings. In preseason form, rankings are based on returning talent, last season's success and projected conference finish. During the season, a variety of factors are reflected in the rankings including strength of schedule, quality wins, talent on both sides of the football and a personal eye test.
6. SOUTH ROBESON
OPENER: Friday at West Bladen
ANALYSIS: Coach Stephen Roberson prefers being picked to finish last — in this case next to last — because there's no pressure on his Mustangs to succeed. But that's not the case this season with a slew of returning starters, two additional transfers and a defensive line that could be the Three Rivers Conference's most underrated. South Robeson should pile up the wins during its soft non-conference slate, but it doesn't prepare the Mustangs for what they'll face early when league games kick off Sept. 27. The loss of leading rusher Deshawn Hamilton for eligibility reasons will hurt, but Roberson's backfield has several yet to be revealed options welcoming the opportunity. Andrew Hill's been given a final warning from the coaching staff after his actions this summer and the Mustangs will need his talents to challenge in the Three Rivers.
OPENER: Friday vs. Douglas Byrd
ANALYSIS: One of two “expansion” programs in Robeson County under the direction of a new coach, Lumberton's 2013 season will be a challenging one going up against one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the state. Before the Pirates begin Southeastern Conference play in October, they'll have to take on two preseason Top 5s — Douglas Byrd and New Hanover — and play several teams from Cumberland County who will be much-improved. The transition to a new offense should have its early problems, but Lumberton's defense will keep the Pirates in games and ultimately within striking distance in the fourth quarter.
4. PURNELL SWETT
OPENER: Friday vs. Pine Forest
ANALYSIS: Locker room intensity has been Swett's calling card this summer, a program amped on getting back to “Ram Football” as coach Mark Heil called it after a recent practice. Swett's numbers are back and the Rams have more athletes on offense than they did last season, a tumultuous eight-loss year that may have been the school's worst stretch in a decade. Players, especially Swett's seniors, have said all summer that they're not going to let another 2-8 campaign happen this season. A .500 finish is manageable, but it'll take some heavy lifting down the stretch with games against Richmond, Scotland and Lumberton. Wide receiver Tyler Maynor is one of the SEC's best weapons on offense, but will Swett have a quarterback and offensive line that can get him the football?
3. ST. PAULS
OPENER: Friday at Gray's Creek
ANALYSIS: The Bulldogs are the sleepers in the Three Rivers Conference, a team with excellent athletes and a star-studded coaching staff surrounding veteran Trey Sasser. St. Pauls won nine games last season with the county's worst defense, so that should tell you the Bulldogs are capable of much more. What remains to be seen is how soon that restructured defense will make an impact under new coordinator Mike Paroli and can quarterback Malik Livingston and Co. have similar success on offense like Scott Barbour's group last season? Those are the questions entering Friday's opener and ones that will linger throughout should the Bulldogs see themselves as a contender in the 2A ranks.
OPENER: Friday vs. East Bladen
ANALYSIS: Cautious optimism is a safe phrase to describe Randy Ragland's expectations in his first season with the Golden Tornadoes. He's spoke highly of senior quarterback Jarrod Neal this summer but realizes depth could be a concern on the other side of the football. With a senior-heavy starting rotation, Fairmont could have twice as many wins as it mustered during the 2012 campaign, but a lot of that success falls under how quickly the Golden Tornadoes accept the regime change and philosophy from Ragland. Fairmont is solid up front and at the 2A level, that's the most important personnel grouping on the field. County fans should know the Golden Tornadoes' potential early after Friday's bout with East Bladen.
1. RED SPRINGS
OPENER: Friday at White Oak
ANALYSIS: Immense pressure comes with consecutive 10-win seasons especially when your leader on offense is the state's reigning 1A player of the year with three years of varsity experience under his belt. Blake Greene's the headliner at Red Springs, but running back Jedarian Lesane and wideout CJ McGeachy on the outside are the keys that will make the Red Devils' offense go this season. It's coach George Coltharp's job to find production outlets to fill gaps in his offense left by an all-state pass-catcher and all-county tight end. Red Springs isn't 2A state championship caliber at this point with question marks within certain levels of the defense but could be by the end of the conference season if the Red Devils take care of business in a loaded league.