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1. Central – Sure; record-setting tailback, Anthony "Ace" Wales is gone, but this is Central. With this team, it's just a matter of reloading with the best collection of speed and athletes to be found in any of the smaller classes. The Yellowjackets won last year's state title, even though Wales missed much of the final with a shoulder injury. As usual, they'll be tested by a rugged schedule that includes 6A powers St. Xavier, Ballard, Manual and Pleasure Ridge Park. Deris Cox will assume Wales' role as the primary ball carrier. But the real strength of the Yellowjackets is their swarming defense, led by linebackers Donald Styles and Phillip Francis (both juniors), defensive back JaJuan Hailey and lineman Demontre Boyd. A potentially tough road trip to Bell County awaits them in the regional finals, but Central's success has created a mystique that's tough to overcome. The Yellowjackets have won four out of five 3A state titles since the expansion to six-classes. Their only loss came in 2009, when a banged-up Central squad lost in the waning minutes to Paducah Tilghman.

2. Bell County – The Bobcats' first foray below the line that divides bigger and smaller schools ended with a loss in the regional finals to eventual state champion Central. But this time (assuming both teams are still alive), the Yellowjackets will have to make the long road-trip to Log Mountain. Second-year coach Wayne Mills will return the goods to make another long postseason march. The Bobcats will be led by quarterback Corey Osolonian, receiver Tyler Green and a defensive front headed up by ends Jonathan Polly and Dylan Cox, and tackle William Elliott. If defense wins championships…Bell is worthy of consideration.

3. Breathitt County – Talk about the rich getting richer. It wasn't enough that ultra-productive quarterback Richard Trent (2,086 passing / 1,221 rushing yards, 25 TDs, 4 INTs) is back to run a Bobcat offense that averaged 44 points per game and fell to Belfty in the regional finals. Then, a couple of capable transfers showed up: running back Cory Shouse (Pike Central) and Justin Cox, who was a multi-threat at quarterback for Powell County, but is slated to be used as a receiver. Some may question whether the Bobcats' schedule adequately prepares them for the postseason – they were rarely pressed after a midseason win over (eventual Class A state champion) Hazard – but Breathitt figures to stick around for a deep run in the playoffs.

4. Belfry - The Pirates lost a heartbreaker to Central (15-14) in the 2011 3A state championship game. That marked three consecutive losses to Central in the title game (2007, 2010, 2011). The Pirates haven’t yet removed the stinger that the Yellow Jackets left in their backside in December, but they are hungry for another shot at a state championship. Belfry returns 14 full time starters and several solid contributors for 2012. Junior quarterback Sani Warren will lead them offensively, along with a stable of running backs, led by returning starters Josh Robinson and Justin Johnson. Warren is a double threat QB who is perfectly molded to run the triple option. Look for Junior Trenity Carr to make a name for himself – likely as the starting fullback. Senior TE/DE Tony Messer is a D1 prospect and top 50 player in Kentucky. On defense, the Pirates will be led by Senior linebackers Madison Ghormley and Peyton Mullins, who are both multi-year starters. A veteran secondary will back up the front seven, for a unit that looks to improve upon the (higher than normal) number of points they gave up in 2011.

5. Paducah Tilghman – The Tornado feels like the 3A semifinals are practically their birthright. So last year's third-round ouster at the hands of district rival Fort Campbell still stings – especially since The Tornado had beaten that squad badly in the regular season. For the second consecutive year, Tilghman will adjust to life without a UK signee. Josh Forrest departed after the 2010 season and J.D. Harmon took his big-play act to Lexington this fall. Still, few teams this side of their nemesis, Central will match the Tornado's speed – especially on the defensive side. Linebacker Tre Coleman was a standout last year, and rangy defensive tackle Derek Overstreet is moving to outside linebacker with Darrius Spivey-Nunn leading the secondary. If Tilghman's offensive line develops and the running back corps can hold on to the ball, (a problem at times last season), the Tornado should be playing again on Thanksgiving weekend.

6. Garrard County – It's hard not to be excited in Lancaster, where the home team has 15 starters returning from a club that went 12-2 last season and led Belfry for much of the tate semi-final game, before falling 34-27. The entire offensive line is back, which should make life good for quarterback Billy Abney (2,005 yards, 22 touchdowns with just seven picks). But the backfield behind Abney must be rebuilt after losing a pair of 1,700-yard rushers and a pair of quality receivers. Garrett Caudill (FB/LB), could be a bigger factor in the ground game this season. Coach Mark Scenters admits he is searching for some "bona fide playmakers," but the Lions could make another visit to the final four.

7. Bourbon County – Tailback Kentayvios Hopkins was within a whisker of 3,000 yards and ran for 38 touchdowns last year. He and receiver Jaxson Hilander highlight the returnees from an explosive team that reached the second round of the playoffs before losing to district rival Powell County. The Colonels have a young pair of up-and-coming stars on defense in sophomore linebacker Brent Holman and junior linebacker Dakota Mitchell. Bourbon went 8-4 last season and could cut the loss total in half.

8. Pike County Central - The Pike County Central Hawks enter 2012 on the heels of an 8-3 record and an appearance in the 2nd round of the playoffs, where they lost to Breathitt County 53-20. The Hawks will need to make a lot of adjustment offensively in 2012, losing “all-everything” QB Alan Boggs and RB Justin Smith to graduation – along with nine other seniors. Perhaps the biggest loss was the transfer of Jr. Cory Shouse, who returned to his Breathitt County home and will play for the Bobcats in 2012. Shouse is an all-state caliber player and one of the hardest hitters in Kentucky. The Hawks return playmaker Wes Pugh for his senior season, who looks to have a stellar year on the hill. The biggest hurdle for Pike County Central has always been the fact that their greatest nemesis, the Belfry Pirates, share their district. They have never beaten Belfry – a feat they must accomplish to advance their program to the next level, both figuratively and literally. Coach John Chapman has an overall record of 23-11 with the Hawks in three years as the head man.

9. Corbin – The Redhounds were a bit underrated last year. A few losses against a tough non-district schedule had people discounting them by the end of the season. Corbin isn't likely to challenge for the state title, but, given 3A's soft underbelly, they're still a solid team. The offense suffered some heavy losses, but the return of receiver Josh Jewell (68 catches), will soften the blow of losing the quarterback and leading rusher. Most of the experience and strength is on the defense, with end Grant Grigsby. tackle Brandon Howington and sophomore linebacker Tanner Powers back in prominent roles.

10. Fort Campbell – Whispers from outside the U.S. Army base suggest that the Falcons are a bit down this year, but you can never count them out. Last season, Fort Campbell hit their stride after a midseason loss to Paducah Tilghman and avenged that loss (on the road) in the playoffs. Defensive end Martenez Smith was an all-WKC selection last year and joins some younger guys who are ready to step into key roles: RB-DB Chris Schlangen and a pair of sophomores, RB Jonathan Jethro and QB Jaylen Williams, as well as an offensive line that was riddled with injuries last year. They'll take some early losses against the likes of crosstown rival, Clarksville (TN), Warren Central and Christian County, and perhaps Tilghman, but the Falcons will be a factor in November