When you go 7-4 the season before, most high school football teams have expectations that are tempered. At Prattville High School, they are tremendous.
A state title... an undefeated season ... a national title. Prattville feels it is all within reach. So does RivalsHigh, which has selected Prattville as the No. 1 team in its preseason RivalsHigh 100 rankings.
"This is the best team I have ever had on paper," head coach Jamey Dubose said. "But paper doesn't win you football games."
Players do. And Dubose has plenty of them - almost all of which learned crucial lessons a year ago.
"We return (nearly) everyone from last year," Dubose said. "We were junior-laden and now they are seniors. We have to replace a center on offense and two linebackers on defense. Other than that, we are back.
"And we have depth. Our two deep is almost all seniors."
It is more than just the 19 returning starters that help push the team to the top spot in the RivalsHigh 100 - it is the quality of those starters.
"We are going to have 15 of those kids go Division I," Dubose said. "And probably six or seven of them can be ACC or SEC players."
Rivals.com Southeastern analyst Keith Niebuhr doesn't see many weaknesses on this team.
"On paper, there aren't any," he said. "The key here might simply be keeping everyone happy and making sure all the players are on the same page. When a team has this much talent, chemistry is crucial. Without it, even the best squads can get beat."
Prattville learned that the hard way last season, when it took on a tough schedule but kept coming up short.
Three of the four losses were by a combined six points - a 35-34 setback to Millbrook (Ala.) Stanhope Elmore, a 26-24 loss to Wetumpka (Ala.) High and a 26-23 playoff exit also to Wetumpka.
The fourth loss was to Miami (Fla.) Central, which finished with a Florida Class 6A title and the No. 14 ranking in the RivalsHigh 100.
Prattville, as it always does, has another tough schedule ahead - right from the start. It opens at No. 10 Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas on Aug. 27.
Dubose knows from experience that just playing in big games isn't enough. You to have to win them. Prattville is just 1-4 in big-time games since 2007.
Niebuhr thinks this team is ready to reverse those results for one big reason: Its big lines.
"Fact: Most games are won and lost in the trenches," he said. "You're talking about a team with two defensive linemen committed to BCS-conference programs and two more headed to South Alabama. Three-hundred pound tackle Justin Shanks, a Florida State commit, is the best of the group. Not only is he big and strong, but he's pretty explosive off the ball. He can take on multiple blockers, which should free up his teammates. Prattville's line really can come at you from every angle."
The offensive line is just as monsterous.
"We are going to be 6-foot-4 across our front," Dubose said. "Those are big, athletic boys."
Prattville has athletes all over the field. If the game turns into a track meet, Prattville has the guys to compete.
It can get into an aerial battle by sliding Jalen Whitlow , a soft Arkansas State commit, to quarterback. And if the team wants to stay fast and run a Wildcat attack, then Alabama commit Justin Thomas will stay in the shotgun.
"We can handle anything and go with many multiple looks with those two," Dubose said.
A common football clich?ould say that if you have two quarterbacks on a team then you don't have one. Dubose is not concerned.
"They are two different players with different gameplans for each," he said. "They are not competing for the same snaps so we don't have any leadership questions. They bring their own style and a different flavor."
The ball-hawking, hard-hitting defensive backfield is the same way.
Led by Derrick Moncrief and LaRonji Vason, the team can force fumbles as well as turn passes into pick-sixes.
"Moncrief is a big-bodied safety (6-3, 200), who not only covers a lot of ground, but is a big-time hitter who also knows how to make plays on the ball," Niebuhr said. "He also excels at providing run support."
Of course, all the top teams are loaded with talent. Many do not live up to expectations.
Dubose admits the pressure of being No. 1 from the start can be tough: "I'd rather climb the ladder," he said.
But he's not backing away from the challenge. And he's not tempering expectations.
He knows a national championship is within reach; his team just has to go out and get it.
"It's an honor to be in the discussion and we will have to earn it," he said.