Stuttgart has the lowest number of returning starters of any team in the conference and returns less than half of its defense from a 2002 state-title run, but the next wave of Coach Bobby Bolding's program is coming and this crew has a bird's-eye view of the AAAA-Southeast Conference trophy.
Stuttgart ripped off 14 consecutive victories to win its first football state championship since 1982. The Ricebirds scored 534 points, averaging more than 38 per game, and allowed 192. They dodged a bullet with a 35-34 overtime victory against Crossett and, the following week, were able to hold off Sylvan Hills, 18-13.
Nobody else came close to the Ricebirds and, when they were finally done rolling up more points at War Memorial Stadium, they had beaten Sylvan Hills a second time, 49-32, for the championship.
It doesn't look like much will change this year.
Bolding had the same kind of success at Marked Tree, posting a 28-7 record as the Indians' chief, and is 24-4 in two years at Stuttgart.
The prime contender, again, is Sylvan Hills. In the middle of enjoying a two-year escape to a lower classification, the Bears are in a position where they may be facing their last chance to compete for a football title. Next year, according to numbers released by the Arkansas Activities Association, Sylvan Hills will be among the state's 32 biggest schools again, ranking 29th.
Crossett, West Helena Central and Monticello were all in pursuit last year, but the gap between this trio and the league's top two ballclubs has only expanded. It's another good way back to White Hall and the league's basement dwellers.
One of the most interesting teams in this league, though, has been one of the two teams picked to finish lowest in the standings. Little Rock Mills University Studies had finished as the AAAAA-East runner-up to Cabot in the AAAAA-East Conference in 2001. Former Fayetteville graduate Jimmy Withrow had said prior to the 2002 season that his team was only going down in classification – not in competition.
He was right.
In spite of a stunning upset of Fort Smith Southside in a preseason scrimmage, Mills never got the handle on the attitude it takes to win with regularity and is now viewed as no better than an also-ran by the AAAAA-Southeast coaches.
With a return to the magic of 2001, the Comets are capable of moving right into the mix with Crossett, West Helena Central and Monticello in the league's playoff picture.
Here's how RPS sees the AAAA-Southeast race stacking up:
6-1 Sylvan Hills
4-3 West Helena Central
2-5 White Hall
1-6 LR Mills
0-7 North Pulaski