Favorite: Without a doubt, it's defending state champion Mayfield, also the #1 team in the final BGP rankings. The Cardinals rolled through the regular season unscathed for the second consecutive year, albeit in slightly different fashion than last year's team, which had one of the state's most explosive small-school offenses in recent memory.
This year, it's been on the strength of a stingy defense. Led by linebacker Jonathan Jackson, end LaBront Scott and cornerback William Higginson, all returning starters, the first-team unit allowed only 40 points even while enduring some key midseason injuries.
Mayfield has lost two starters to season-ending injuries, one an offensive lineman and another an outside linebacker, but was able to fill those gaps with transfers that ended up playing bigger-than-expected roles. Jackson is the workhorse running back in the Cardinals' spread offense and sophomore quarterback Jake Guhy has been a little better than expected, completing better than 70 percent of his passes for nearly 1,500 yards. Higginson, Louis Love and Jordon Brown have been his primary targets.
Top challenger: Third-ranked Louisville Holy Cross has some familiarity with Mayfield. The two teams met in the regional finals a year ago, with Holy Cross bolting to an early 14-0 lead before the Cardinals scored 59 points in a span of 27 minutes in nearly every way imaginable — offense, defense and special teams — to force a running cg clock.
The Cougars had trouble corralling Mayfield's speed last year, but a ball-control running attack led by tailback Jessie Keen and quarterback Cameron Scott will do it best to keep the Cardinals' defense busy. Chad Conway, a returning starter at tight end and linebacker, is an impressive physical presence. He and Keen led a defense that has held six opponents to a touchdown or less. Holy Cross' only blemish is a 7-6 loss to west side Catholic-school rival DeSales, which has spent much of the season in the Class 2A rankings.
Holy Cross could get pressed in the second round by a Russellville squad that has improved since the start of the season but isn't as dangerous as the clubs that reached the Class 3A elite eight in the last two seasons. The Panthers have the speed, however, to present Holy Cross some problems.
Favorite: Beechwood has been the subject of Class A's great debate over the course of the season. The Tigers were BGP's preseason #1 team but were eclipse by Mayfield early in the season. A case can be made that Class A's two most impressive performances this year were by the Tigers — a 40-28 loss to a Covington Catholic club that is ranked second iin Class 5A and the regular-season finale, a 29-20 win over defending Class 2A champion Newport Catholic.
One of the toughest BGP rankings decisions at the end of the year was whether to keep Mayfield at #1 or go with the Tigers. In the end, the Cardinals prevailed by the weight of a wing feather.
Beechwood brings to the table a punishing ground game led by Cameron Vocke, who has 1,600-plus yards and 22 touchdowns, and versatile playmaker Max Nussbaum. The pressing issue is at quarterback, where starter Taylor Davis was felled by a late-season injury that is reportedly a hairline fracture of the collarbone.
Nussbaum took over as the Tigers' quarterback for the NewCath game, and the danger he presents with the ball in his hands makes him a very suitable second option.
If Davis' returns, and even if he doesn't, one question remains about a potential Mayfield-Beechwood game, which would be at Mayfield — do the Tigers have a passing attack that could loosen up a strong unit against the run? A cursory look at Beechwood's games reveal that they have had some modest success in the air against some of its better competition, although the emphasis is still on running the ball.
Top challenger: It's probably Frankfort, but this year's Panthers aren't as talented as some of the speed-laden teams that they fielded in recent years. Frankfort is 5-5, with four of the losses coming to teams that have been ranked at one time or another, but the Panthers haven't been competitive with the likes of Danville and Lexington Christian in recent weeks, due in part to some injuries.
Favorite: Hazard reached the state championship game a year ago, but three early turnovers derailed any chance the Bulldogs had to stay with Mayfield. They could make it back to the carpet this season behind a retooled offense led by quarterback Evan Whitaker, who stepped into Jon Combs' shoes well, throwing for 1,685 yards and 18 touchdowns in nine games. Receivers Jordan Olinger, B.J. Combs and Austin Johnson have combined for 75 catches, 1,614 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The Bulldogs have shown their mettle this season, easily handling the likes of Lexington Christian, Prestonsburg and Harlan, all teams that have been ranked at one time or another. Even their losses were impressive showings against Somerset and Breathitt County, both top-five teams in Class 2A and Class 3A, respectively.
Top challenger: Take your pick. Harlan, Williamsburg and Campbellsville could get shots at Harlan in the second or third rounds, Campbellsville, a district runner-up because of a 28-27 loss to Williamsburg, is likely to visit Hazard in the second round, Harlan beat Williamsburg 41-22 during the regular season, but the rematch would be on the Yellow Jackets' home turf and their explosive passing game makes them a dangerous out.
Projected regional final: Hazard 35, Harlan 15
Favorite: Fairview is one of only two unbeaten teams left in Class A, but remains a bit of a mystery team. Much of it is due to the soft schedule — Fairview's first seven wins came against teams with a combined record of 18-52, but they did establish a bit of a resume with late-season wins over Raceland, Nicholas County and Powell County, the latter two of them laughers.
The Eagles do it on the ground with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Chris Brewer and Chris Littlejohn, who have combined for 2,200 yards and 30 touchdowns. Quarterback Ty Lowe has only thrown 52 passes this season, but the passing game tends to produce the big play — Lowe'ss 29 completions have averaged over 30 yards a pop.
Top challenger: Pikeville is the old standby in the Class A mountain football, dominating its district with regularity, although it's been a while since the Panthers have been a real factor statewide. The Panthers, led by dual-threat quarterback Randy Maynard (over 1,500 yards rushing and passing), own wins over ranked foes Harlan and Raceland but haven't posted a quality win since big midseason losses to rival Belfry (Class 3A's #4 team) and a 10-1 team from North Carolina.
Raceland could give the Panthers all they want in the second round. Earlier this season, the Rams visited Pikeville and fell 21-20, and their balanced attack could turn the tide in a potential rematch. In either case, the winner is likely to pay a visit to Fairview in the regional finals.
One other note: neither Raceland nor Fairview have ever reached the state semifinals. This could be the year for one of them.