With things slowing to a crawl here outside of snarky replies to coaching changes and over-reactions to snarky replies on coaching changes, I thought I'd step up and try to get some conversation rolling. Today I'm doing my early 2016 preseason rankings for 5A because 1) I think it's the most "balanced" of the new divisions; 2) I think I have greater familiarity of the major players here; and 3) it's Centennial's conference and that's primarily what I care about. I do plan on working through Class 6A at some point but the reality is there are likely parties out there that are more qualified and have more time to dedicate to such an endeavor. So with no further adieu:
1. DESERT EDGE SCORPIONS
What's to like: Nearly everyone returns to the 2015 D-3 champions, including an athletic, strong-armed quarterback, a series of big-bodied offensive linemen, and three backs with over 600-yards rushing on the year (including said quarterback).
Cause for concern: Depth showed to be a concern early in 2015 when QB Tehran Thomas went down and saw the Scorpions lose their only two games of the championship campaign (albeit to two very good opponents). Transitioning from being one of the larger schools in D-3 to a mid-sized enrollment school in the new 5A.
Verdict: Scorpions will learn a lot about how they stack-up right away, as 2015 D-1 champ Centennial is slated as their opener. An early win over the Coyotes could signal the beginning of a wrecking-ball campaign by a defending champ.
2. CHAPARRAL FIREBIRDS
What's to like: 2016 will essentially be QB Grayson Berry's third as Chaparral's starter, and has a quality, lanky target in Gianni Tomasi. LB Parker Walton and DB Jack Moyes had great junior seasons, while DL Johnston Hunter proved to be a load in an injury-shortened 2015 campaign.
Cause for Concern: The 2015 squad's lanky, explosive pass rusher (Brandon Jamison) and two-way heart-and-soul (Kurt Shugart) pick up their diplomas this May. While there's plenty of front-seven experience to offset the former Shugart's impact on the offensive side of the ball has no clear heir apparent.
Verdict: At worst the 'Birds will feature a solid defense that will be enough to win most of the games on their slate. The offense's ability to unearth an explosive playmaker will likely determine if has enough to get-over in their championship pursuit.
3. CENTENNIAL COYOTES
What's to like: Two-way stud Andrew Nichols returns as an elite pass-rusher and big, athletic target at tight end while classmate Taylor Fiame (422 yards in 2015) and junior-to-be Alex Escobar (7.6 yards a carry in 2015) stand as the logical picks to keep up the Coyotes' long string of 1000-yard rushers. LB Marcus Wakeham and safety Isaac Haney join Nichols to give Centennial a solid base to build another buzz-saw defense around.
Cause for concern: D-1 POY John Rincon has exhausted his eligibility, as has run-stopper extraordinaire Bozton Sanders, two-time champ QB Isaac Steele, and four massive blocks of humanity on the offensive line that helped the Coyotes bully their way through the D-1 playoffs.
Verdict: Early-season contests versus Desert Edge and Chaparral were masterfully placed, as Centennial wins in those games serve as confidence builders for a young squad while any losses would happen early enough for the team to right the ship. Hard not to see Centennial playing into mid-to-late November.
4. WILLIAMS FIELD BLACKHAWKS
What's to like: Defense has good experience to build around, while offense returns pair of receivers that combined for 18 of team's 20 passing scores in 2015. Plenty of size can be found in the upcoming senior class.
Cause for concern: Departed quarterback Weston Murphy attempted all but three of team's passes last year. San Tan Region looks tough on-paper.
Verdict: Eases into 2016 with a semi-soft opening before facing off against an experienced, improving Verrado squad and always-stout Chaparral in back-to-back weeks. Season finale versus recent rival Queen Creek decides the region.
5. QUEEN CREEK BULLDOGS
What's to like: Senior class will have good size and also features 2015's top two receivers and the next in a strong line of stout, hard-nosed running backs. Consistently well-coached and usually gets most out of talent.
Cause for concern: Graduation cleans-out the bulk of the defensive experience. None of the returning quarterbacks attempted a pass in 2015.
Verdict: A strong showing in week two matchup versus Hamilton could springboard Bulldogs through remainder of slate.
6. IRONWOOD RIDGE NIGHTHAWKS
What's to like: Tucson's perennial top squad returns their quarterback, their next uber-productive running back, and a handful of potential stalwarts to anchor their defense around. Annually are one of the state's best-coached squads.
Cause for concern: Lack of top-tier matchups aside from mid-season contest versus Queen Creek could leave Nighthawks ill-prepared for playoff competition.
7. VERRADO VIPERS
What's to like: The return of five backs with at least 100-yards rushing in 2015 (including leading rusher Jatai Jenkins) setup the Vipers to develop a grind-it-out element that has not been present in East Buckeye. Experienced secondary of ball-hawks gives the defense a good base.
Cause for concern: Non-region slate featuring games against Williams Field, Liberty, and Paradise Valley is a significant step-up from 2015. Quarterback position appears to be wide-open after graduation of senior starter Lathan Lax.
Verdict: Narrow loss versus district rival Desert Edge in state semifinals showed that the gap between the two is narrowing. If that gap closes entirely in 2016 Verrado will be amongst 5A's elite.
8. LIBERTY LIONS
What's to like: Senior back Colton Newton is a multi-faceted threat that amassed over 1100 total yards as a junior. Quarterback Andrew Magri completed over 50% of his passes in part-time action, while safety Ryan Puskas was a strong contributor as a freshman.
Cause for concern: The Lion defensive line and pass-rush took a step back after being a strength during the 2014 state runner-up campaign; contests versus Chaparral, Centennial, and Verrado could turn into dicey affairs if not corrected.
Verdict: You'll struggle to find a team that will benefit more from the most recent realignment than the Lions. Expect Liberty to re-emerge as a contender after spending the second half of 2015 in a spoiler role.
9. SUNNYSLOPE VIKINGS
What's to like: 32 wins over the last three seasons, and several experienced defenders from a stingy 2015 unit. Junior Marlon Noralez contributed over 400-yards rushing as a sophomore and looks poised to be the 'Slope's next workhorse runner.
Cause for concern: 30 seniors depart after a strong 2015 campaign, including all-state picks Jeff Goebels and Ian Reed.
Verdict: The division as a whole sees a drop-after the first eight squads; that being said a winning, work-horse program like Sunnyslope fits nicely here. A non-region slate featuring road contests versus Ironwood Ridge and Chaparral points to a program growing more comfortable with their recent strides.
10. CIENEGA BOBCATS
What's to like: Coach Pat Nugent is one of Tucson's more esteemed names, and his Bobcats return several key offensive contributors. Finished 2015 on a three-game winning streak.
Cause for concern: I don't like ranking teams following a 4-6 season-I'm putting a lot of faith in their strong finish in Nugent's first year in Vail.
Verdict: Possibly the second-most consistent program in southern Arizona over the past decade aside from Ironwood Ridge. Look for a bounce-back year.