The countdown is on.
Three weeks from now, nearly two dozen teams from Middle Georgia will have broken in all the pads and torn up some turf with games, off to an early start.
And then a week later, it’s on for just about every high school football team in Georgia.
The first Friday night of the 2015 GHSA season is Aug. 21. It used to be known as “zero week” because teams needed exemptions from the GHSA office to play that early, but a rules change passed earlier this year permitted teams to schedule 10 games in 12 weeks without seeking permission from the association office.
Things get going with nine area teams at home, three head coaches making their debuts with new teams and a state champion opening up in metro Atlanta.
And then there’s the rivalry of U.S. 23, when Bleckley County heads south to visit Dodge County in a battle of teams that made the postseason in their respective classifications.
Bleckley County has made the playoffs four straight years. That hasn’t happened since the program’s infancy, 1978-81, starting in the Royals’ second season.
Dodge County broke a run of six non-winning seasons by going 9-3 in 2014, the most wins since Greg Robinson’s final season as head coach in 2007. The Indians topped Westside in the first round of the playoffs and lost 27-7 at Jefferson a week later.
The teams have played 39 times. It’s the longest-running rivalry for Bleckley County and second-longest series for Dodge County, behind Dublin (52 games).
“It’s a big rivalry game,” Dodge County head coach Rex Hodges said. “They’ve had the upper hand on us the last five years, won four of the last five. That’s a big challenge for us to try to get the swing back in our way a little bit.”
Dodge County won 35-10 last year en route to a 7-0 start.
This will be Dodge County’s fourth straight early opener, and they’re 3-0.
“I like to play,” said Hodges, who opened with Southwest in the two-year cycle before this one. “We’ve been pretty fortunate.”
Crisp Academy actually gets off to the earliest start, visiting Sherwood on Aug. 14. On Aug. 20, Piedmont is at Gatewood. A day later, the full GISA season begins, along with dozens of GHSA games.
Westfield opens defense of its second straight GISA Class AAA title Aug. 21 at home against Southland, and the Hornets carry a 10-game winning streak into the opener.
The Hornets have had plenty of success against the Golden Raiders, having won nine straight in the series. And Westfield has won seven of its past eight openers.
Northside is one of three GHSA champions who will look to defend a title on the first weekend, which includes games that Thursday and Saturday.
The Eagles head up Interstate 75 to Kennesaw for a visit to North Cobb, which followed last year’s season-opening 38-20 loss to Northside with four straight wins en route to a 7-4 season.
Northside went on to win the Class AAAAA title and now must replace All-Middle Georgia and All-State running back Willie Jordan, as well as most of the offensive line.
Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler is mixed on the early start, employing it only to be able to play North Cobb.
He loses a week of practice, but the team benefits pretty quickly.
“It’s kind of nice after the first game, you don’t have to prepare for your next game,” Kinsler said. “You have that week to, sort of, ‘Look at all the things we did in Week 1.’ You go back and address those things.”
A year ago, Northside had a major change at quarterback only days before the opener, when then-senior quarterback Jurmon Weaver suffered an appendicitis attack only a few days before the game. That suddenly put then-sophomore Tobias Oliver in charge.
Oliver passed for 111 yards and ran for 75, part of the Eagles’ 410 yards of total offense.
“It was kind of good for us last year,” Kinsler said. “With our quarterback situation, it gave him an extra week of reps before he had to suit up and play again. That worked well for us last year.”