1. Mayfield - Which was the real Mayfield? Was it the Cardinals that destroyed nearly everything in its path among the Class A ranks for much of the last two seasons, or was it the beaten-up squad that admittedly laid an egg in the state championship game? This club could go either way, as it pursues a second state title in three seasons and a fourth consecutive trip to Bowling Green. Jonathan Jackson, a 6-0, 215-pound senior, is far western Kentucky's top two-way player and one of the state's top linebackers. He anchors a defense that could be among Class A's best, despite the fact that DE LaBront Scott, another potential all-stater, flew the coop and transferred to Murray, while the other stellar bookend, Kyle Downing (6-6, 220), will primarily be used on the offensive line. Linebacker Dondre Jackson is another run-stopper up the middle and Stuart Mills, who missed much of last season with a knee injury, is back at full speed. Chase Sevic returns at strong safety, but the rest of the secondary is somewhat untested. Offensively, Jackson is the workhorse running back. Jackson was noticeably slowed in last year's title game by a balky knee injury he suffered in their semifinal win over Beechwood. That put a little too much pressure on then-sophomore quarterback, Jake Guhy, who is back his year with a stronger arm and a firm grasp of the offense. Mills will see some time in the backfield and Jordan Brown leads a solid but unspectacular group of receivers. Luke Wynstra gives Mayfield its usually solid kicking game – handling both punter and placekicker duties. The biggest question mark is the offensive line, which was riddled with injuries by the end of the season. Center Jay McAlpin (6-1, 250) went down with a knee injury at midseason, just as he was developing into one of the area's better young linemen. Downing will start at a tackle spot, and since coach Joe Morris likes to keep his offensive line together as a unit, he will see less time on defense this fall. 2. Hazard - Six-class football has been "very, very good" to the Bulldogs. They have been to three Class A state championship games in five years, establishing themselves as arguably the best program in the mountains. Their run culminated in a state title last year, with Hazard beating Mayfield 24-6 and avenging a crushing loss to the Cardinals in the 2010 finals. The seven starters back on defense are a promising sign, but only four starters return on the offensive side – and none of those in the trenches. Quarterback Evan Whitaker returns, along with proven receivers Jordan Olinger and Austin Johnson, both of whom are also defensive playmakers. Johnson led the team in tackles, while Olinger is a big-play guy in the secondary. It's the defense that will have to carry Hazard early in the season, giving a brand new offensive line the time it needs to mature and develop. Coach Mark Dixon has built a program that has proven it can reload, and it won't come as a surprise if the Bulldogs make a return trip to Bowling Green. 3. Beechwood – In 2011, the Tigers lost a very close (19-14) decision to Mayfield, after being embarrassed by the Cardinals in the two prior playoffs by a combined score of 76-14. The Mike Yeagle led Beechwood dynasty is officially over. The 2012 season should once again come down to Beechwood and Mayfield in the western semi-finals and, thankfully for the Tigers, the game will be played in Fort Mitchell this year. It has been quite a while since a Beechwood team came into a season with this many new starters. And last season's large and talented senior class left little room for the underclassmen to get first team minutes. In fact, there are just two returning starters from last season's opening game. But the program marches on and the cupboard is never bare in Ft. Mitchell. Last season's JV team was undefeated against a tough schedule that included big schools Simon Kenton, Covington Catholic and Dixie Heights. Now those players get to step into the Friday night lights and show their stuff. The defense will be fast and will need to carry the team n the early season while the offense gets on track. There is a deep core of running backs who have breakaway speed. Beechwood may struggle early against its always high-quality schedule, but by playoff time, this team will be ready. There are a lot of questions to be answered, but don't be surprised if Coach Rash and this unproven Tigers team equals, or even surpasses, the playoff run of last year's talented group and goes on to win the Class 1A State Championship at Western Kentucky University. 4. Pikeville - The Pikeville Panthers are entering the 2012 season on the heels of an 11-3 season that saw them win their first regional championship since 2004. Ironically, Coach Chris McNamee was the head coach in each of their last two regional championships, with a 6 year hiatus between them. They finished up in exciting fashion in 2011. They defeated Fairview, on the road, in a remarkable comeback, then played Hazard closer than any other 1A opponent had, before losing 57-35 in the semifinals. This season, they hope to build on that, and take it at least one step further – playing in Bowling Green the first weekend of December. In order to do that, they will have some very big shoes to fill. The loss of Randy Maynard at QB will be felt tremendously – especially early on. Maynard was arguably the best player in eastern Kentucky, and you cannot just replace a talent like that. The panthers return a young team, but have some experience and a lot of speed at key positions. Look for Chase Hall and Cody Estep to lead this Pikeville squad. Pikeville’s schedule is tough, especially the non-district portion. Playing teams like Powell Co, Belfry, Sheldon Clark, Harlan, Raceland and Swain County (NC) will prepare the Panthers very well for a long run at the 1A title. 5. Frankfort - Frankfort is always a player in Class A, with more than enough speed to be dangerous; however, they usually lack the depth and line play to challenge the heavyweights. Once again, the Panthers are in that netherworld between the elite level and the also-rans. Nine starters return from a team that went 7-6 last season, falling to Beechwood in the state quarterfinals. Five of the losses were to teams that were ranked at one time or another; four of those were from higher classifications. Aaron Jackson (6-2, 190) starts at receiver and defensive back. Jackson has offers from Navy, Liberty and Eastern Kentucky. But depth is an issue, and coach Craig Foley was dismayed when his team lost two seniors expected to start on the offensive line. 6. Raceland - Will players with another year's experience get the Rams deeper ino the playoffs? Will the biggest line in Raceland history provide the power necessary to represent the East in the State Championship game? If Raceland doesn't get there this year, it may never happen. After a year of starting sophomores and juniors, the Rams are poised to start battle-tested juniors and seniors that should be able to demolish most 1A teams in the state. Words that should be used to describe the Rams of 2012 include: “big,” “fast” and “deep.” Raceland should be competing with only Fairview, for their 19th District Championship, and Pikeville for the Regional Championship. Then the competition will get tougher – facing Hazard for a trip to the State Championship game. Will Raceland be good? Raceland will normally be a Top 10 team in 1A, but to get to the next level, Raceland has to win the elusive Regional Championship and compete for the State Championship. Will the Rams be able to do that? With the talent they posses this season, they should. If they don't, maybe they never will. They will have to believe in their ability, and prove to the state that they deserve the same respect they receive from the East. Raceland has to prove they have what it takes to be part of the top tier programs, or they will always be seen as second rate. 7. Fairview - Fairview has a knack for finding players. Well, they have a knack for “getting” players. After losing their leading receiver and some defensive backs from the 2011 team, they have received several transfers to fill the voids. The coaching staff at Fairview has the players believing they can win. After playing a weak schedule the past couple of years, the schedule is a little tougher this year. Some of the offensive fire power has graduated, but the Eagles will still be competing for a district championship against Raceland. Fairview didn't lose everything to graduation though. They return a talented backfield that can control the ball and put points on the board fast. Fairview is well motivated and well coached, and will provide great competition to the 1A schools in the East. Look for the Eagles to be in the Top 10, or move into the Top 10, as the season progresses. Fairview will be one of four teams that can make the state championship from the East. 8. Russellville - Russellville's sophomore-dominated squad had plenty of speed, but was manhandled at the line of scrimmage by Mayfield and Louisville Holy Cross – losing to the two western-quadrant powerhouses by a combined margin of 107-7. The Panthers should be more competitive this year, with 13 returning starters and some big-play capability from the likes of running backs Demarcus Hampton and D.J. Hoosier along with quarterback Barrett Croslin. Hampton and 230 lb. linebacker A.K. Tisdale head a defense that should be considerably improved, given that seven underclassmen were starters last fall. Russellville might be a year away from seriously challenging Mayfield for the district title, but a return game with the Cardinals in the regional finals is a distinct possibility. 9. Louisville Holy Cross - Louisville Holy Cross lost much of the huge offensive line that dominated its district. While the Cougars will face some serious competition close to home from upstart Kentucky Country Day, the program's tradition will be tough to overcome. Holy Cross lost tailback Jessie Keen, their quarterback and a big offensive line, but will retool behind running backs Aaron Drury and Jordan Willenborg, who combined for nearly 1,500 yards on the ground. That number should go up this year as the pair gets more chances. 10. Kentucky Country Day - For two years, Kentucky Country Day's high-powered offense has been putting up points in bunches. Quarterback Robert Scholtz threw for nearly 2.400 yards last season with 32 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Scholtz doesn't go it alone though. Tailback Isaiah Brents is a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver Jordan Duff could also go over the 1,000-yard mark this year. But the defense has to improve if the Bearcats are to make a move in Class A. They gave up 54 points to district rival Louisville Holy Cross and 53 to Mayfield, which steamrolled them in a second-round playoff visit to Western Kentucky.